Words by Martin Connor
Pop quiz: which of the following producers was most recently nominated for the Grammy Award for Producer Of The Year?
A.) Kanye West. B.) Pete Rock. C.) Just Blaze.
Well, you’re wrong. Because it was Salaam Remi, in 2013.
Remi, unlike some other producers, likes to play the background more than is normal for most artists who have been a part of multiple Grammy-award winning projects. But if you think that musical time stopped for him back in 1996 with The Fugees’ The Score, or 2002 with Nas’ God’s Son, you’d be off the mark. You’ll have to dig deep into this self-effacing producer’s rather private persona to dig up proof of his contributions, but they number no less than Nas’ “I Can,” the Fugees’ “Fu-Gee-La,” and numerous other legendary classics. Neither is Remi an overzealous Hip Hop disciple: he was behind the soundboard for the Top 40 hit “Girl On Fire” as well, although his name might be drowned out by Alicia Keys’ in your recollection of it.
In fact, it’s in the footsteps of producers B and C from that pop quiz that Remi will follow when he takes the stage as a judge this weekend at the Rémy Martin Presents the “Producers Series” in New York. At this event, a select group of aspiring producers will get the hugely exciting chance to play their music for Remi. He won’t be showing up there just because his name is pronounced slightly similarly to the cognac’s: he’ll be judging and giving hallowed advice. Don’t have that Salaam sound though? Don’t worry, because he has no overly specific recipe for a good beat: “I’m hoping to be wowed by someone that now creates this new possibility that doesn’t exist today.”
WatchLoud also recently caught up with him to hear about his random LA encounter with Nas that led to their collaborations on Stillmatic, what he’s
WatchLoud: The news release for this weekend’s event explains, “Music producers are a driving force behind pop-culture and music, and love to be the arbiters of the latest trends. They push for innovation, new expressions and styles that transform culture, set trends, and transcend all. Their natural creativity appeals to a sophisticated and discerning audience: that same spirit of sophistication and discerning connections Rémy Martin to its loyal customers.” How have you seen those forces — innovation, new expressions, transcendent trends — play out in your own career?
Salaam Remi: For me, I’ve been not only a record producer but also an artist and mentor by producing certain records with artists. So for my career, whether it was with the Fugees and then what they developed into and what their influence continues to bring, or my work with Nas, my work with Amy Winehouse, or even with Miguel or Jazmine Sullivan, or different people, it was always about working with people who not only made their records, but they also influenced everyone’s records that came after it. So I think that, in general, with this being a community and a melting pot, I think it’s always great to come up with records but not only have your records be great, but to also see the whole culture be pushed forward. And for me, it’s always not only about the guy who made the record today, but also about the guy who might have only made one record ever, but he made everybody re-think what they were doing, and kept it stepping forward.
WatchLoud: Can you say, specifically, what kind of expressions or styles you’ve helped bring about in your own career?
Salaam Remi: I’m not “boasty” enough to say that I did A, B, C and D. For me, for some of the artists I just named — I’m an artist-maker. I don’t really have one style or beat that does it, it’s all about whatever that artist wants to get across and about helping them make their points. So for me, I would give the credit back to continuing to just, like I said, push the envelope. If it’s a Hip Hop record, then I think Nas’ “Made You Look” stood out for what it was. If it’s an R&B record, then I think the difference of a Jazmine Sullivan, a “Lions, Tigers, & Bears”, helped at that moment, for what it was, to push things forward. Or Miguel’s “All I Want Is You” helped him get into a position so that now he is able to produce himself and keep it moving. So, like I said, my own position is to help the artist become their own voices.
WatchLoud: What are you looking for from the winning beat at this weekend’s competition?
Salaam Remi: I think, for me, I can’t even call it, because I haven’t heard it yet. I think that’s the magic. I always say that the person who’s about to change the world is walking around somewhere with the magic in their backpack, they just need the opportunity for somebody to see it. So, being what it is now, and the world being where it is now, or even having this type of competition, I’m hoping to be wowed by someone that now creates this new possibility that doesn’t exist today.
WatchLoud: Why did you decide to help out with this kind of competition?
Salaam Remi: I’m always open to doing things like that in general. I’m always a mentor-type person. When my friend asked me about it a mere week ago, I’d already seen online when Pete Rock and Just Blaze were doing theirs. I was like, “Oh wow, that’s interesting. That’d be interesting if I got to do such a thing.” So it was already in the stars that I was able to help be a part of it. But once again, I’m just a small part of it. It’s really about what everyone is bringing to the table, and where they take it.
WatchLoud: How will you be able to separate your own taste for beats from the winner, who might not have your own particular sound?
Salaam Remi: I don’t even know what my own beats sound like, to be honest. That changes by the minute. So I’m just looking to be inspired, and that’s really what I think it is. Just somebody plays something, and I’ll be able to take it from there. I have no preconceived notion on what it is, what genre it is. I see beauty in all different forms of art.
WatchLoud: Did you ever think, way back in the day, that a hugely popular brand like Rémy Martin would eventually come calling for your services?
Salaam Remi: I think it’s just part of what the world is now. The world at this point is the Internet. Back then, I had to have a beat on a cassette and I was lucky enough to run into some people with influence, but I had to have the cassette in my hand and hope that they would pop it in their deck and give me 30 seconds worth a listen. So I think the fact that Rémy is also seeing this as a viable way to continue their expansion in many different ways means that this is all just a part of what the future is. The future is that many brands will see the creative community as actually still being an influence, and by supporting them they’re also supporting themselves.
WatchLoud: Unfortunately, not everyone can turn out to be a winner in this competition, so they won’t get the hook-up of being able to get some publicity and advice through playing their music for super-producers like Salaam Remi or Just Blaze. For everyone who didn’t make it further in the tournament, what advice can you give to those producers on still trying to make it in music, business-wise?
Salaam Remi: Just be great, and use the Internet. It’s your friend. Use the Internet. Be everywhere you possibly can be. There are so many producers in the last ten years who got their careers by using the Net to do what they needed to do. Use it to your advantage.
WatchLoud: Was that still your thinking, even back in the early 90s, when the Internet wasn’t even a thing? Just, “Be everywhere”?
Salaam Remi: My thinking at that point was, “Have your heat in your hand.” So if I saw somebody, don’t be like, “Oh yeah, I got something, wait around, I gotta come back.” I had to have something on me at that moment. My first record that I ended up producing for Nas, I ran into him in LA. He was far away from home, I was too. But I had a CD in my hand, and I was like “Yo, here, take this.” And there was something there that he heard that allowed us to collaborate, that ended up with me actually having a record on Stillmatic. I knew him before that, but it was all about what I had in my hand that day. “Have your heat in your hand”, that’s what I would always say back then. And now, if you’re on the Net, just do it. You got it? Don’t tell me you have something but you’re hiding it. There’s no point in that.
WatchLoud: It’s kind of funny: you’re out here for Rémy Martin, but your headlining single from Mack Wilds was called “Henny,” and your man Nas has an awesome Henny commercial rolling on TV nowadays. Which is it, Rémy or Hennessy?
Salaam Remi: Well, I don’t drink, so everybody that’s doing their thing, I guess you can pick your own poison. But today we’re picking Rémy, because Rémy’s making sure that these producers get their look.
WatchLoud: You’ve worked with a lot of musical superstars, from Nas to Amy Winehouse. Mack Wilds, while he’s super talented, doesn’t quite have that kind of reach yet. What did you see in him that made you want to work with him on albums like New York: A Love Story, even though he’s not super-huge yet?
Salaam Remi: He’s signed to my label, so I think his project, overall, was still a passion project of mine. Even some of the initial records were things that I had done with other artists that were there. But we have a passion for making something that feels like smooth R&B that bumps, with a New York twist to it. That’s what his first record was, and that’s what the new one is: a passion project that I have, that he and I worked with. And it’s not so much about Nas, or Amy Winehouse. I think everybody has their special thing, because there was some point where everybody looked at them and was like, “You’re alright, but I don’t know.” And then eventually you go, “Oh, now I get it.” Everybody gets their popcorn, and then you get to sit back and watch the show.
WatchLoud: So Mack doesn’t exactly remind you of any of the past R&B super stars you’ve worked with, like Usher or Amy? All 3 of them are unique?
Salaam Remi: He’s his own superstar, that’s my point. It’s like, who am I? And what producer do I sound like? There’s no producer that follows exactly what my path has been, or all of my genres. He has his own thing. He’s becoming the best person that he is, and he has something special. So it’s not like he needed to be Usher — he doesn’t dance on his toes. Everybody has their own thing. And I think he has his own special moment, and he’s developing and nurturing his own.
WatchLoud: Are you currently working with him on any new projects?
Salaam Remi: Yeah. I have a big label through Sony with 15 different acts. He’s one of them, and his new album is coming out pretty soon.
WatchLoud: Can you give us any sneak-preview info on it? Are you producing all of the tracks again, just like you did on Mack’s last album?
Salaam Remi: We have another whole cast of characters like the last album, but that’s a surprise. We’ll blast that off in the coming months.
WatchLoud: You have a strong reggae influence in your production. Do you have any plans in the future to do a more specifically reggae, full-length project? You recently did a remix of “Cheerleader” with OMI, but that was limited to a single.
Salaam Remi: Probably. OMI is signed to my label, so that’s why I did that. We have his full album, Me For You, coming out in the fall. I have some more, other reggae stuff that will be coming, but I’m not necessarily sure which ones yet. But it’s part of my repertoire, it’s part of what I live, and what I live eventually makes it onto the airwaves.
WatchLoud: What is it about Nas that allows him to keep putting out good albums so consistently? We see a different system at work in someone like Dr. Dre, who just put out his first album in 16 years . Meanwhile, Nas has put out 10 albums in just 18 years.
Salaam Remi: I think his last album actually told it, it’s that he just keeps living and writing about his life. So his last album, Life Is Good, reflects a little bit of a snapshot of what he had been living in the years prior. And I think with him, he’s found a great way to do that, taking real life scenarios and whatever he’s seeing in the world and just directly reflecting that back into the music. That’s what it’s been.
WatchLoud: Do you ever feel like your past work in the 90s overshadows the great numbers you’re still doing today? Judging from your past interviews, it seems like you’ve answered pretty much every question possible about your days with The Fugees. But it was only recently, in 2013, that you got a solo nomination for a Grammy.
Salaam Remi: I don’t, because I live in the future, so I don’t even pay attention to what I did. And the reality is you wouldn’t really be talking to me today if everything was about what I did 20 years ago. I forget what I did 3 or 4 years ago. I’m actually so into next year already that I focus forward all the time, and try not to get lost in that. That’s what Nas said at the end of one of the songs from his last album. These certain songs are for people stuck in the 90s, and I’m a New York B-Boy at heart who grew up in the 80s listening to the radio in New York, taping off the radio, so that’s what I always create. But, nah. Whatever I did then is great. I think in ’96 it was The Score, and in 2006 it was Back To Black, and 2016 is…dot dot dot. We’re gonna figure it out.