Photo: Zone 4 Inc./Mosley Group/Interscope
When the late legendary Ray Charles sat at his Steinway and soulfully belted out “Georgia on My Mind,” even he probably didn't know how true of a statement that would turn out to be for music fans. While most people mistakenly credit Charles with writing the tune that would later go on to become the official song of the Peach State, the lyrics were actually written by a man named Stuart Gorrell in 1930 as an ode to a woman of the same name (with the music composed by Hoagy Carmichael). Though Keri Hilson has never met Gorrell and wasn't even born when either version of the song was recorded, she bears a striking musical resemblance to the songwriter. She too has written some of the biggest hits for artists who will undoubtedly go on to become legends. And many people, as in the case of Gorrell, don't even know it. But no longer relegated to the shadows of the studio, Hilson — a Decatur, Ga., native, along with her own updated version of Carmichael in the form of superproducer Polow Da Don (who reps the A-T-L) — is keeping the state of Georgia on fans' minds, as well as on the airwaves. The duo has collaborated on numerous songs, including a nice portion of Hilson's debut album, In a Perfect World…, which hit shelves this month as a joint release through Mosley Music/Zone 4 Records (an imprint of Interscope). With just the right formula of creativity, trust, talent and patience, the two are poised to become music's new Bonnie and Clyde.
“It's probably the only thing that I'm this passionate about,” says the 26-year-old statuesque Hilson on her relationship with music. “Being an artist was always a part of my plan. I was an artist before I was writing songs. Songwriting was always kind of like my plan B, and low and behold, my plan B brought me to my plan A.” Some contingency plan, to say the least. Since 2001, Hilson has been putting her pen to use and racking up writing credits for a laundry list of artists' hits, including Ludacris' “Runaway Love,” Mary J Blige's “Take Me as I Am” and Omarion's “Ice Box,” as well as hits for Ciara, Chris Brown, Britney Spears and Usher, among others. Her writing prowess has earned her quite a reputation within the industry and has made her the go-to girl. But more than being the hit-maker behind the scenes, Hilson is hoping that people know her in the now for her own material and, In a Perfect World…, they will.
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“My sound is the culmination of everything that I am. I'm a black girl born and raised in Decatur, but in the '80s, when there were no distinct lines in music,” she explains. “You listened to Phil Collins and George Michael and Madonna or Blondie, and you appreciated and respected these artists for the artists that they were. It wasn't about color. My music definitely reflects that. There's '80s influence, there's rap influence, there's a pop and alternative feel. It's a great mix of everything that's dope about every genre.”
To achieve that quality mix of ingredients, you have to have a master chef in the kitchen. And there's not many cooking up better beats than the 29-year-old superproducer known as Polow Da Don. Like Hilson, his track record is as solid as they come. Laying claim to providing both the booming backdrops and the melodic masterpieces behind some of hip-hop, R&B and pop's biggest records — including Fergie's “London Bridge,” the Pussycat Dolls' “Buttons” and Rich Boy's “Throw Some D's,” as well as music for Ludacris, Jamie Foxx, Young Buck, Kelly Rowland and Nas — the man is certified. Not bad for a guy who admits to have just begun producing in 2002. Recognizing the need for sous chefs, Polow enlisted the help of highly respected boardsmen Timbaland and Danja to add their own unique spices to Hilson's recipe, but the unlikely and sometimes genius, sometimes dysfunctional chemistry between Polow and Hilson is where the project seems to really come to life.
THE ODD COUPLE
“Our tag team when it comes to making music…our process is compromise both ways,” Hilson says. “I don't really know how to explain it. We definitely don't agree on everything, but we don't disagree on everything either. We just kind of talk and find things, and that's how songs are created with us.” But maybe she's too close, too internally tangled within the esoteric language that she and her producer share. Too involved in the very process itself to lend any real hope at deciphering their musical code. Perhaps it's those on the outside who can best describe the methods to their madness.
“It's like two siblings, not like a rivalry, but they're both the best at what they do. They're gonna collide and bump heads; it happens,” says veteran engineer Marcella “Ms. Lago” Araica, who Polow calls “the future of engineers” and the woman responsible for mixing Hilson's album sans four tracks. Being privy to many a session with the two and observing their collective energy and ideation process, she tells of a bond that many on the outside may not be able to understand, but one that definitely works for them.
“The sound of Keri's album is pretty much Polow's understanding of urban music and Keri's urban and pop influence. When you put the two together, it's a dynamic combo. Polow doesn't give up until the product is amazing. Like the record “Turnin' Me On” [feat . Lil Wayne], she did it because he asked her to,” Araica continues. “She didn't like it at first, but she gave in and it became a hit. She believed in him. That's their process. It might take weeks before she does something he asks because she strongly believes in her vision, too, but she trusts him. I've never seen a process like theirs before. They're very unique.” The trust that Araica speaks of was definitely not earned overnight.
“Sometimes [Polow] will play you a skeleton of a track, and be like, ‘This record's huge.'' He'll just give you a one-liner and mumble something under his breath to the beat, and you'll be like, ‘Ummm…,''” Hilson says of her apprehension to some of the beatsmith's ideas. Admitting that he originally crafted the tracks for what would become Fergie's “London Bridge” and Jamie Foxx's “DJ Play a Love Song” for Hilson, he says that he had to prove to her that he was able to make hits before he could convince her to see his vision.
PLAYING WELL WITH OTHERS
Although they can be headstrong with each other, both Hilson and Polow are chameleons in adapting their creative energies to mesh well with others'. Never ones to be boxed in by expectations or stifling rules, the two find equal enjoyment in throwing convention and caution to the wind and going against the grain.
“Working with Justin [Timberlake] was great; he's very quick. He's kind of an off-the-cuff kind of guy, sort of like the Jay-Z of lyric and melody writing,” Hilson says of her collaboration with the former boy-band frontman on the track “Slow Dance.” “He doesn't write anything down, he just kind of goes off. So I didn't either, I just kind of sung. Some days I'll come in with just a melody; other days I'll ad-lib it down; other times it'll take me a few hours just to come up with the concept. There's no blueprint for my creativity, and that's the fun of it.”
A prime example of that off-the-cuff attitude reveals itself in the music writing as well, such as in the making of “Ready to Fall,” where Polow takes off the traditional urban digs for a rock guitar-laden track that may catch some of the Polow faithful off-guard.
“Originally, when I made the track, I was messing around with some samples, and I had to replay some of the samples,” Polow says. “I was with Mike [Hartnett] from the rock group Rehab; he's been working with me since before I even knew how to produce. We speak the same language musically. I got him to play guitar on there. I wanted to come from more of a rock background, and he just makes what I do a little bit different. It gave it that odd but special sound. I try to use musicians that don't do what I do, and that's the reason that I get the sound that I get.”
But fear not fans of the heavy thump; you will still find plenty of Polow's deep bass lines and hard drums on the project. “I came up on the MPC, so that's gonna stay,” he says. “I learned on the MPC2000, but I just love the sound of the 4000. For the past couple of years, I've really been using Cubase 4, and the NeKo TSE is the keyboard that I really can't live without. When I first started to use the NeKo, it's like I transformed into a new producer. There are so many options at your finger-tips. That's where I feel like music [production] has come to, and that's also where I feel it's going.”
Like any great relationship, both of these budding superstars recognize that they have room for improvement. Hilson believes in this notion so much that she based her album on the concept, weaving what she calls a collection of “deliberately imperfect” songs together to form her debut offering. While no rookie to the industry and not naïve to the world, she maturely recognizes that she still has a lot to realize about herself both as an artist and as a woman.
“The picture I wanted to paint was imperfect because we as human beings are,” she admits. “It could be your financial status, your body image, your love life or whatever it is you'd go back and fix. I'm vulnerable on this album. I'm not dealing with untruths as an artist. No matter who it is, I don't know anybody who's not dealing with real-life issues. They can look like they've got it all together, but nobody's exempt from dealing with realities.”
Polow also acknowledges that there is definitely opportunity for improvement within himself and his craft. “I just picked up a beat machine six years ago, so as time goes on I'm learning more about the music, how to make it a little more perfect,” he says. “I'm still gonna go with the hard drums, but I'm figuring out low ends…not the 808, but the real bass lines. I'm still learning because I have people like Dr. Dre to catch up to. As far as instruments, I'm always changing up. I just did a track with an accordion on it, but it's dope. I only feel like I'm competing with greatness. Even though I have millions of dollars, I say I'm broke because Jimmy Iovine got a billion. I got six No. 1 songs, but that's nothing because Babyface got 30.”
Hilson and Polow are building together. With each session, each song, the pair take one step closer to that sacred artist/producer space that generates classic material and further pushes the envelope of the music as a whole. And as with every legendary duo (even the forgotten ones like Gorrell and Carmichael) that has carved out its own place in music history, the two definitely complement each other, playing yin to the other's yang. Now if they can just work out the kinks.
“[Hilson's] a female, so I have to deal with her differently,” Polow admits. “You have to treat them differently to get them to do what you want and get out of them what you're trying to get. You can't do it like how you'd do guys. Will.i.am told me the same thing about Fergie, and Tim said the exact same thing about Missy [Elliott].” Lucky for us, this power struggle/battle of the sexes plays out as some of the best music that we've heard in a long time. And with both of their first loves being music, it's only right that a couple — musically, that is — have a lovers' quarrel every now and then.
“I don't think they've quite mastered their own sound yet, but it is developing,” says Araica of the duo's less-than-patented sonic signature. “If Timbaland and Aaliyah were like the perfect marriage, this is like a marriage in counseling.”
DA DON'S DEN
Computer, DAW, recording hardware
Apple Mac Pro quad-core computer running a Digidesign Pro Tools|HD 3 Accel system with Magma expansion chassis and Apogee converters
Steinberg Cubase 4
SSL 4000G+ with Ultimation
Akai MPC2000XL, MPC4000
Dave Smith Prophet '08
Open Labs NeKo Timbaland Special Edition running Steinberg Nuendo and 200-plus plug-ins and soft synths
Roland Fantom-X6, V-Synth
1951 Gibson small-body acoustic
1991 Fender Stratocaster Ultra guitar, Twin Reverb amp
Mesa Boogie Triple Rectifier amp, 4×12 cabinets
Mics, mic preamps, compressor/limiters
Mercury Grand Pre mic preamp and M66 limiting amplifier
Neve 1064, 1073 preamps
Neumann U 47, U 67, U 87 mics
Sennheiser MD421 mic
SPL Transient Designer