Barely seven years ago, Jonathan “J.R.” Rotem was a struggling Bay Area producer and recent Berklee College of Music student with a major in jazz composition for piano — that is, until he heard Dr. Dre's The Chronic 2001. “I was very influenced by Dre's music and hip-hop in general,” Rotem says. “Around that time, I really started listening to the beats and thinking to myself, ‘I can do this, and I really want to do this.’ So I just started buying equipment and making tracks.”
Rotem had already been composing and sequencing with a Korg M1 while still in school; by the time he'd relocated back to California, he had a Korg Triton, an Akai MPC2000XL and a PC-based Cakewalk system. “I was coming at it more from a compositional angle and less as a producer,” he recalls. “Basically, most of the sounds were coming out of the Triton. I would just put my beats on CDs and send them out, and I'd go to music conventions and just do anything possible. That's how I got my first placement.”
That client was none other than Destiny's Child (for the song “Fancy” on the album Survivor [Sony/Columbia, 2001]), and from there, it wasn't long before other top names in hip-hop and R&B came knocking — including Lil' Flip, D12, Talib Kweli, Rihanna, Mobb Deep, Britney Spears, 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre, himself. Rotem became known almost immediately for his clean, meticulously orchestrated arrangements, which he credits not only to his jazz and classical background, but also to his ear for stripping a song down to its catchiest and most basic elements.
“I feel like developing a sound is a never-ending thing,” he insists, “and I'm already kind of known for being so versatile that I don't even have one sound. I'm the type of producer who's all over the place. I can do a pop ballad that's just piano and voice, or I can do club drums with samples. It always has a little bit more of a musical side and a little bit of a classical side. But as far as a very distinguishable sound, I don't know if you could even say that at this point. To me, the bigger bridge is to becoming a producer as opposed to just a beatmaker.”
Rotem has put that transition to the ultimate test with the recent founding of his Beluga Heights label (distributed through Epic) and the debut release of flagship artist Sean Kingston, whose single “Beautiful Girls” topped the Hot 100 for four weeks in August. Operating out of his own room in Hollywood's Chalice Recording Studios, Rotem produced the album in its entirety on Digidesign Pro Tools|HD backed by an array of synths that includes a Yamaha Motif XS, three Roland units (the Juno-60, Juno-106 and Fantom-X module) and the trusty Korg Triton Extreme.
“We don't even use a console,” he explains. “I have all the keyboards plugged directly into a [Digidesign] 96 I/O, and they're just recorded directly into the computer, so it's completely digital.” On “Beautiful Girls” and other tracks, Rotem sometimes relied on the Antares Tube plug-in to “dirty up” the sound, as well as IK Multimedia's Miroslav Philharmonic soft synth for his strings. “The song is based on ‘Stand By Me,’” he continues, “but I used Miroslav to replay the string lines, then I filtered them in a way to make them sonically believable with the sample.” A combination of Waves Renaissance EQs and Focusrite Red preamps gave Rotem the vintage sound he wanted.
For all his attention to sonic detail, though, Rotem reiterates that the secret to maintaining his revolving door of pop superstars is his dedication to staying musical and, above all, accessible. “The more you do, the more you realize who you are,” he says, “even musically, as far as your forte and what you're good at and what you need to work on. I try to bring out things that are clear and concise, mainstream and pop, no matter what the genre. If I'm producing hip-hop, I still want it to be clear and concise, maybe because I just don't like chaos in my life. I think having those sensibilities — as well as being a composer — is what allows me to produce in different formats.”