March 20, 2006
More pop artists turning to rap producers
By Soren Baker
NEW YORK (Billboard) - DJ Premier was surprised when he got
the phone call last spring. It was RCA Records, saying that
Christina Aguilera wanted the producer, best known for his
gritty work with rap heavyweights Gang Starr, the Notorious
B.I.G., Jay-Z, Nas and KRS-One, to work on the pop singer's
"It was kind of a shock because I was like, 'How the hell
does she know about me?"' DJ Premier says. "I'm one of those
guys that really doesn't expect pop artists to really be up on
It turns out Aguilera wanted her forthcoming album to
re-create and pay tribute to the music that inspired her: soul,
jazz and blues from the 1920s, '30s and '40s. She was familiar
with some of Premier's jazz-influenced work with Gang Starr in
the late 1980s and early 1990s, especially the song "Jazz
"It had elements of Miles Davis and Billie Holiday and
little horn pieces," Aguilera says of the tune. "The way he
combined that, I was like, 'Hmm. I bet he would get where I'm
trying to go with this record.' It was taking a chance. God
knows if he would even do it because it was kind of his first
time, I think, even venturing into the 'pop' world. I knew that
it would be a different and new thing for him."
DJ Premier ended up producing five songs slated to appear
on "Back to Basics," Aguilera's new album, which is scheduled
for a June release. The seemingly unusual pairing between DJ
Premier and Aguilera is the latest combination of rap producers
and pop artists working together, a trend that is becoming
The Neptunes' Pharrell Williams and Gwen Stefani have
recorded several songs together, most notably "Hollaback Girl,"
after Williams became famous for his production work with
hardcore rappers Noreaga and Ol' Dirty Bastard; Jermaine Dupri
logged several hits with Usher and Mariah Carey after
establishing himself through the pop-minded rap of Kris Kross
and Da Brat. Scott Storch parlayed working with the Roots, Dr.
Dre and others into collaborations with Justin Timberlake and
But rap producers making the leap to pop can be a dicey
proposition in a world where credibility is paramount. "The
moment you stop being the underdog, when you get 'on' in
people's eyes and you're that dude because of the record you
did with Britney, that's when the sellout aspect of it comes,
when they'll say, 'Oh, he forgot where he came from,"' says Mr.
ColliPark, who scored hits for the Ying Yang Twins, David
Banner and others before testing the pop waters with Jamie Foxx
last year. "I'm a living testimony that people are genuinely
happy for you at first -- until you get out of their reach,
until you actually make it. Then all that hating and s**t comes
Dancing the fine line between making street-certified songs
and crossover smashes is what makes the work of the Neptunes,
Dupri and Storch so impressive. But they could be seen as being
on the brink of going too pop.
In Williams' case, for instance, his work as a producer
with Stefani has been much more successful and acclaimed than,
say, his beats for Houston rapper Slim Thug, or even his rap
song "Can I Have It Like That," which featured Stefani on the
hook. The single was not a big hit on radio or as a video
entry, and Williams' solo album was pushed back from its
fourth-quarter 2005 release date to a spring 2006 bow.
"What rap and hip-hop fans are really not accepting is when
you start to gear all your music toward pop radio and singers
as opposed to breaking new rappers and focusing on hip-hop,"
says Kevin Faist, director of A&R for Capitol Records. Faist
has promoted Mack 10, Westside Connection and others during his
13 years in the music industry. "Hip-hop fans get offended by
that and eventually you'll lose your hip-hop pass, so to
speak," he continues. "Eventually, people will be like, 'Oh,
that dude does that and I'm more into this.' It's a really fine
line. Hip-hop is very cold to people who turn their back on it
and they very seldom let them back in."
This reality makes "Crunk Rock," the debut solo album from
Lil Jon due on TVT Records later this year, all the more
ambitious. After establishing himself as the king of the hyper,
energized crunk music that he helped popularize through his
hits with his group the East Side Boyz, Petey Pablo, Lil
Scrappy and YoungBloodZ, and later such pop artists as Usher
and Ciara, Jon says he wants to expand his reach as a producer.
"They put us in these boxes, and they think you're not
supposed to go outside the box," Lil Jon says. "When I grew up,
you listened to the radio (and) you heard everything from
Run-D.M.C. to Led Zeppelin. It was just radio. I grew up on all
(these) different types of music. I should be able to make all
different types of music."
"Crunk Rock" is scheduled to feature Jon working with Good
Charlotte, Rick Rubin and Williams. "I'm doing some
industry-changing s**t that'll have ghetto motherf***ers in the
South listening to some rock s**t," Jon says.
OPEN TO NEW IDEAS
The irony in these established rap producers working with
pop acts is that the pop artists tend to be more open than
rappers in trying new sounds.
"What makes working with a pop act exciting is that today
you don't have too many Run-D.M.C.s, or in today's times
(artists) like Ying Yang Twins, who are rap artists but they're
not afraid to go out and make music, as opposed to being stuck
into making street records," Mr. ColliPark says.
"I think that's part of the reason I want to branch out,
because I can't experiment with these rappers because they're
scared. They're street people before they're artists. So the
streets dictate what they make, as far as their music is
concerned. I think it winds up hurting them in the long run
because they might make two or three albums and then it's time
for them to make their big breakout record, but they've
typecast themselves by not experimenting from the jump."
Aguilera says that her work with DJ Premier is new
territory for both of them and continues her legacy of taking
creative chances with her music.
"I really like to go left field, think a little bit out of
the box and go with someone, maybe a little bit more obscure,
that I really respect. Not to say that Premier is that, but
just to say that I'm not going to go to the obvious person."
As for Premier, he is proof that, sometimes, a storied
producer can be branded as not being pop enough. The producer
has a full slate of upcoming projects, including production for
such rap acts as Nas, the NYGz, Blaq Poet, Khaleel, Teflon and
Fabid. But Premier, who has voiced his displeasure with
watered-down rap in magazine interviews and on his albums
throughout the years, wonders if his work with Aguilera will
result in more steady A-list production offers.
"The industry turns their back on me now anyway, which is
why Christina is really a blessing, because she's re-emerging
me out there," he says. "It's like, 'A lot of y'all forgot
about me, but I've still got the funk.' I'm so glad that she
even gave me the opportunity to connect with her and do
something different. She even told me, 'You know, when this
record drops, your whole life is going to change.' I said,
'Well, so is yours.' She said, 'I know."'