In part two of this interview, Edwin Tony Nicholas expounds on his professional relationship withthe late, great Gerald LeVert and its inauspicious beginnings. He also discusses the effects that technology has on modern music, his ability to take more time to produce a great record than a major label and the importance of recognizing new generations of music-even if it isn’t your cup of tea. Part 2. Enjoy.
Planet Ill: How do you define the role of a producer?
Edwin Tony Nicholas: It varies based on the needs of the artist. A lot of times artists bring nothing to the table and you have to almost create them. Others come in with a very well defined sense of who they are, and they just need you to show them how to get from there to where they want to be. My role is to help the artist make the record they envision, with whatever amount of help is required. In Black music, being a producer and songwriter are often synonymous by default.
Paul McCartney can sit at a piano and play “Yesterday,” and you would get it. He can hire a producer to figure out which musicians to bring in. In country music, the producers look for songs. But in Black music … George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog,” for example — the person who came up with it is by default the producer. I try to be a songwriter, look for the best songs — I don’t care if Tiny Tim writes it as long as it’s good — and I often play on the recordings myself, although I like to include other musicians as often as possible, both for their influences and because people interested in that player may become interested in my project.
Planet Ill: How do you develop a successful partnership with the artist you are producing?
Edwin Tony Nicholas: Gerald LeVert was a young, spoiled brat when I met him. I began a writing career as a partner with his father, Eddie, and as Gerald embarked on his solo career he didn’t want to sound like a LeVert album. His dad told him to check me out. Gerald did not like me, and it took a long time for him to give me a shot. When he did, it took off and became a long working relationship and friendship. Our relationship was based on respect, not on me being a “yes” man.
A couple of times at rehearsals I would respectfully challenge him and people would look at me like, “Dude, shut up. Let it go.” There was an instance where we were recording a song that Marc Gordon wrote and I insisted that a part was in the song. Gerald said, “No, it’s not.” I said, “Yes, it is.” Marc, who wrote and produced it, never said a word to him. Eventually I said, “You’re right, Gerald, it’s not in the song.” Afterward, I played him Marc’s recording and the part was in the song.
Our relationship worked in reverse because at first he wanted me to do whatever he asked, like a worker, and he didn’t respect me musically. As time went on, he wanted me to do more and he was interested in what I wanted to hear in the music. It was easier to challenge him after a time, as opposed to initially. With other artists it would probably be harder because you fall into a safety zone, develop a sound and comfortably go for that sound again. Many times, when you have success in music, people want you to do it again and not tinker with the formula too much. They’ll help you to not reach for the next level, and if you listen to them you will make the same record over and over again.
Planet Ill: Technology: the good and the bad.
Edwin Tony Nicholas: In music, all things go into overdrive when they are first introduced. Every generation has their new technology that makes the previous generation say, “We were the real musicians.” You can go back to when the electric guitar and bass were introduced. Technology does lower the bar for entry across the board in terms of the amount of ability that people have to bring to the table to get in, and it happens consistently across time. Drum machines, synthesizers — it happens to everything.
Now Auto-Tune is the latest thing. I love iPods. What I don’t care for is that the MP3, in general, lowered expectations of what a good mix sounds like. We’ve got a generation that’s used to listening to MP3s, and it almost doesn’t make sense to go for the SSL 9000 J series and multimillion-dollar studio and reduce it to MP3s. That’s why I don’t buy music online. For my $10, I want the CD.
Planet Ill: Do D.A.W.’s and plug-ins threaten the future of production?
Edwin Tony Nicholas: No, because (a) the public can only choose from what we put out there, (b) even though kids feel that way, it’s because they consume music differently from the way we did. They’re used to listening to music on their phones, they’re used to ringtones and MP3s, but there will always be folks who want higher quality, and (c) the bar of entry has lowered because equipment is cheaper, but you still have to figure out how to be more creative than the other guys who have the same stuff. Everybody has a guitar, drum machine and Garageband, so how do you set yourself apart?
Planet Ill: As a songwriter, musician and producer, is it hard to be objective toward what you hear outside of your studio?
Edwin Tony Nicholas: It used to be, but I realized one day that I sounded like my father. He would put on Count Basie and Stan Kenton and he’d say, “THIS is real music.” So when I hear Lil Wayne or T.I., maybe I don’t get it, but I understand that everybody has music they grew up on and it makes sense to them. I didn’t like classical music when I went to college, but I studied opera because I had to. Now, when I write strings into my songs, I know what I want them to sound like as a result of listening to music that wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to hear at the time. So the genres I listened to, even under protest, I learned something.
There’s something to be gained from that. Your consumer hat is different from your producer hat when you study music, even if you study why you don’t like something: What could I have done to make this into something I would like?
Edwin Tony Nicholas: Of course they are, but they’re able to get away with it in the short run because the music they produce doesn’t require that. Music is cyclical. I hear people say they’re disgruntled with what radio has to offer, and I have every bit of faith that the real thing will come back. I see it happening. Intelligence, like wealth, eventually demands to be displayed. If you have it, you can’t help but flaunt it.
Why is that relevant? I see YouTube videos with kids doing shedding sessions, maybe being fueled by gospel music, but there are kids who can really play, and they’re going to want to play that music somewhere. I believe that the level of musicality in gospel is almost over the top, and it’s bringing real music back. You can’t blame the consumers. They choose from what’s out there. Artists have gotten a bum rap for the current state of music.
Look at the guys running the record labels. If the public said that rap should be cleaner, and the labels said they’d spend half a million on someone to make it cleaner, do you think a young rapper wouldn’t clean it up in less time than we’ve been on the phone? I’ve heard A&R people tell kids that their record is not edgy enough. Record companies go for the money and exploit every movement to get those sales, so we can’t blame the artists. They’re a kind of pawn going to the man for a check, and what the man demands is what they do for the check. A&R folks are scared to take a chance on something different because they go after guaranteed sales.
Planet Ill: What are you listening for, rather than to, as the song is being written, the musicians are playing, the vocalist sings?
Edwin Tony Nicholas: A couple of things. First, the song has got to talk about something. I’m not in my 20s trying to compete with 20-year-old cats making beats. That’s not what I do. You can go to a million kids and get that. I make songs. Second, the performance has to get that point across. I don’t always necessarily concentrate on perfection, but more so on emotion. I drive the point home with what the song says. Third, the musicians need to be the support, a conversation between the parts. Everybody gets their moment in the song. So (a) it’s got to say something, (b) it has to be effectively conveyed and (c) there has to be a conversation between the instruments, and I want to hear live instruments on the record, and preferably not all me.
Planet Ill: Your discography is filled with real singers performing real R&B. Are we losing the genre as we lose the artists who recorded those classic songs?
Edwin Tony Nicholas: Yes, we are, but again, I think people still want to hear that music. It’s just that the labels decided that it’s not as economically viable a conquest to make a record on these veteran artists when they can spend less on a 17-year-old and make ten times the money. I think there are people who want those artists and who want real music.
That’s why I have started my own company. I like to produce these artists and I know that music. That’s one thing. Two, these folks are a little easier to work with. They’ve been around the block a couple of times and they want another chance to do their thing. They don’t care about green Skittles in the dressing room. Three, it’s a dream of mine to work with them. People want good music. It’s the labels that don’t want to be bothered.
They want the fancy offices in New York and the big salaries, and they’ve got to make money to stay in the business and have those things. I’m in Cleveland, with less overhead, I pay the engineer by the month, and I can afford to make a good record. I tell people, “My name is Tony, not Sony.” I’m in a better position to make great records, better than they ever could.
At this point it’s about doing what I love. There are no shareholders to answer to. I’m going out on faith that people want quality music. I would love to play a greater role for artists looking for somebody to take interest in their careers again.
Elianne Halbersberg is a freelance writer whose work has been published by Guitar Edge, Mix, Premier Guitar, Gibson.com, Electronic Musician, Audio Media, Ink 19 and numerous other magazines and websites.
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