For "Studios Sessions," we delve into the stories behind the long hours in the studio and all that goes into making an album by talking with artists, producers, engineers, photographers, and more who are intimately connected to the recording process with some of the biggest artists in the world. These are the stories that rarely leave the booth.
There are music producers who have worked with enough legendary artists to become legends themselves. Troy Taylor is one of them.
The 50-year-old producer has worked with the artists your grandmother was grooving to on her vinyl, your mother was shedding tears to with her cassette tapes, and you've been streaming for more than a decade. He started working with Boyz II Men in 1989 when they still were teenagers and years before the world knew about them. Ever heard "Your Love" from the group's nine-time platinum debut album, Cooleyhighharmony? It was originally Taylor's song long before he heard the quartet sing it so well that he gave it to them.
If you see Taylor's name in the production credits -- more likely than not -- he created tracks with the artists face-to-face.
"This generation now, people just send tracks and the track makers or producers -- whatever you want to call them -- are never there. I'm from the era when we were there. I did it myself. Vocal produce, work with them, sending in tracks wasn't even an option," Taylor told REVOLT TV
For this installment of "Studio Sessions," the Grammy award-winning producer tells stories about the most impressive thing he's ever seen Aretha Franklin do in the studio, how Pro Tools has harmed music, and how he had the courage to push Whitney Houston and Stevie Wonder in the studio.
You were working with Boyz II Men when you were 20, back in 1989, before Motown even started pushing them. You were the first one to get them in the studio?
What I was told back then was I was the first one to work with them professionally. They had just been a group that would sing acapella all the time. It was told to me, at the time, they hadn't been in the studio yet.
What were those early sessions like?
At that time, I didn't know what a real producer did. So, I thought any artist that got signed was already dope. So, when I saw the kid messing up my song, I was like, 'Whoa, wait. That's not how it goes. That's not how I sang it.' Then I realized, 'I have to tell you how to sing this? That's what you guys do.' At that point, I realized I have to mentally guide them to get them to record this right. That was for the song called 'Your Love.' There's another song we did called 'Little Things.'
What's the most star-studded studio session you've been a part of?
Back in 1994 or '95, I was working with Johnny Gill one day and on this particular song, he decided Stevie Wonder would be great on these backgrounds (The song is called 'Simply Say I Love You' from Gill's 1996 album Let's Get The Mood Right). It was my harmony. But, the way I sang them, you could hear Stevie on it. So, Johnny was like, 'I'm going to call Stevie to come down and do the background.' He called him and of course it took Stevie three hours to come. But, he came. So, he goes into the booth and I'm giving him his notes for the background. He does the harmony, does another harmony, and I asked for another harmony.
So, he does it. But, this particular time he went off key. He's like, 'What's the next one?' I was like, 'Um, you have to get that one again.' He was like, 'What happened?' I told him, 'You went flat.' He was like, 'I don't think so.' I was like, 'No, no. You did.' So, everybody in the room was looking at me. I was a very stern producer. I didn't care who I was working with. Matter of fact, the more popular you were, the more I would have expectations of you. This is Stevie Wonder. You're not going to sound bad and I'm responsible for it. Heck no. Everyone in the room was really looking at me like, 'Here he go. Troy, what are you doing?'
So, Stevie was like, 'Let me hear it.' This was before Pro Tools. So, we rewound the tape, played the tape; and Stevie was like, 'Haha, haha. OK, OK. Let me get it again.' I'm looking at everybody else like, 'Don't ever play me like that again. Don't ever doubt me. If I say it was flat, it was flat.' I'm still like that now. But, I'm a little more calm.
You seem fearless in regards to pushing legendary artists. You also worked with Whitney Houston in 2003 on her Christmas album One Wish: The Holiday Album. How did you push her in the studio?
That question is better for you to hear [with] the secret recordings of me working with her on that project (laughs). It's priceless. It's the best thing in the world and it might even make you cry, depending on how much of a fan you were. I pushed Whitney because she came in and she played some of the songs she originally did with Mervyn Warren. He's one of the original members of Take 6. He produced a lot of the songs on that project. So, when she played me some of the stuff she did with him, I was like, 'Aw hell no. You singing like that?' She was like, 'I shouldn't've played it for you, huh?' I was like, 'Nope. Now, I know you're sounding like that, so we really about to go.' She was sounding immaculate and that's what made it easy for me to go into it and be hard on her because she had played me all her other songs she did, and I wasn't expecting anything less. There's recordings where you can hear her responding to me. It's the most incredible and hilarious thing ever.
What's the most impressive thing you've ever seen done in the studio?
The most impressive thing I've seen done in the studio is watching Aretha Franklin sing 10 tracks and then; go in the kitchen, cook, and pick the tracks she liked one by one. That's the most impressive thing I've ever seen in my life. She'll literally sing 10 tracks straight down. Then say, 'OK, see what you can do with that,' and go into the kitchen. When I say I need something, she'll say, 'I can do that' and she'll give me what I needed. No one I've worked with in my entire career was better than working with Aretha Franklin. Her mess ups were dope. She aced it every time.
Wow. How else was it like recording in Aretha Franklin's house?
She recorded 10 vocal tracks in one session. There was a song I was doing on her [from the So Damn Happy album] called 'The Only Thing Missing.' It's a song I did with Gordon Chambers. She preferred to record at her house. So, in her dining room, they set up a little booth with blankets and all that stuff to get the right sound, and for her to be comfortable. I was there and it was so crazy because we're talking about freaking Aretha Franklin. Just being there and just knowing how dope she is.
On her piano, I noticed she had the lyric sheet. On the lyrics, she had little notation marks. That's when I knew this chick knew what she was going to do before I got there. She already knew what she was going to flip, twist, turn, adlib, where she was going to put it, and it made sense to me. That's why she was able to give me 10 tracks just going straight through singing. Back in the day, they didn't do punch-ins. They came in, recorded and the producer put it together. That's why it was so dope. I was able to work with an artist that can just sing the song straight down.
Are there any Aretha songs you've recorded that have yet to come out? You said on Instagram that in a session you recorded a song back in 2003 that the world still hasn't heard.
That song is a matter of whoever owns Aretha's estate. Ironically....no, I can't tell you that information (laughs). I was about to say something. That song, I have it and it's just a matter of who the powers that be [are] that wants to release it. It was supposed to come out in 2003. I actually recorded that song with a particular artist that I cannot name. So, I have two versions of that one song. There's Aretha's version and another version from an artist that I cannot name.
You can't name them. But, is that artist a megastar that would shock people?
You also got Aretha Franklin on the intro to Trey Songz's debut album. How'd you do that and how'd that session go?
I was recording with her at her house. We took a break. I told her, 'I want to play you my new artist and I want to know what you think.' The reason why I asked her is because Ahmet endorsed Trey Songz. Ahmet Ertegun is the founder of Atlantic Records and way before he passed, he met Trey. He told Trey, 'You're going to be a star. I see it in you.' Knowing that Ahmet was the one who signed Aretha, it was a great introduction to Aretha to tell her that Ahmet thought Trey is going to be a star. She said, 'OK.' I played it for her and she was like, 'He sounds pretty good.' So, I told her, 'I'm going to play the track. I want you to adlib over it and do what you feel.' She just freestyled. We did a 'Gotta Make It' remix that she's on. She gave some encouraging words for Trey [on the intro]. That's how I got that.
You're also credited with discovering Trey Songz. How did you discover him?
Basically, it was like a favor. I was asked to see what I thought of him. I kind of didn't want to do it because I was at a different stage in my life. I didn't want to mentally invest in anybody. He came over to my house, he came down to my basement and he sang a song called 'Where I Wanna Be' by Donnell Jones. Before that, I asked him what he wanted to do. He said he wanted to see if he should pursue singing because everyone told him to do it. I asked him, 'Who do you like that's out?' The first person he said was 'JAY-Z.' I'm like, 'Well, if you want to sing, JAY-Z doesn't sing.'
He was like, 'Oh, yeah. You're right. Then, R. Kelly.' I told him, 'Alright, I can tell you where R. Kelly got his M.O. from. Everything he did at that time, where it came from, how it blew up. So, I told Trey to sing for me and then, he sang a song. Within him singing, there was something in his tone that made me go, 'Hold up, wait.' It wasn't incredible. It wasn't amazing. It was just a little bit to say, 'If you really keep going, that can definitely turn into something.' I had him sit down next to me and sing the song again. I figured out the chorus to it, and I put the whole track together with him there singing for me. It was really just a test to see how he records, even though he had never recorded a day in his life.
You produced one of my favorite R&B songs this century, Trey Songz's "Gotta Go." I don't think he's sounded that pure and vintage since then. How did it come about?
It's so funny to hear you talk about that song the way you're talking about it because of how it came out (laughs). Back then, people thought I was trying to make Trey sound old when they didn't know Trey already had an old soul. He was about to leave to Virginia and drive home. But, whenever he's about to leave, I always create something that gets him stuck. He came downstairs to say goodbye. I was like, 'Hold up. Let me play you this track.'
I played the track and he went, 'Ahh, what are you doing to me? You're killing me. You're killing me.' The first thing that literally came out his mouth was, 'I don't want to leeeeeeeeeeeave. But, I gotta go right now.' I was like 'Hey, hey, hey. Put that down now before you forget it.' So, he put it down. Remember, he really was a rapper first. So, I was like, 'Go ahead and freestyle something.' The first thing, no lie, that came out of his mouth was, 'It's calling my body. It's calling my soul. It's calling my mind. Girl, I got to go.' That's the situation he was in. He was talking about going home. He was freestyling the whole thing. After that, he left and then, I played all the harmonies and chords.
Then, he came back to finish the second verse and then, I did the bridge. If you listen to the bridge, it's really just him adlibing. That's how the song came about. The majority of Trey Songz's songs were either from joking around and playing around or something silly. It was never something serious. That's what's missing today for him because he doesn't have that same spontaneous energy.
Which artists have you trained to record themselves besides Trey?
There's nobody else. For example, Carl Thomas. I was 25 and I was working on a Johnny Gill song, and sitting next to me is a young Carl Thomas. He was too hard-headed and didn't have the attention span to learn all of the recording stuff.
Do you feel like Pro Tools and similar digital audio workstations have negatively affected musicians recording?
Pro Tools, autotune, and all this stuff is a gift and a curse. On one hand, it's convenient, fast, accessible. On the other hand, it makes people lazy, it strips the emotion and the feeling out of it if you're not paying attention. That's the problem. Autotune strips your natural tone. So, there's no feeling. How can you have feeling with something that's sterile?
Who are you working with these days?
Devin Culture. He's an artist that has his own soul in the sense of the real true essence of what vocals are supposed to be like with emotion and feeling. He's a student of his craft and he studies a lot of the greats. He sings in falsetto, which is a little hard because that's not what's going on right now. With him it was, 'How am I going to craft songs and projects with him to not skew it too mature and get the young kids on to it, as well?' It can happen because [Childish Gambino's] 'Redbone' resonated with the kids and that's an old school sounding song. He has amazing songs and amazing vocals.
I know you've seen the arguments going on recently about who is the king of R&B. For someone who has been producing some of the best R&B music for more than 25 years, who do you think is the king of R&B?
There is no king. You can't have a bunch of potential kings saying they're king. You can't do that. Let's look at the word 'king.' Back in the day, people were either trying out for it or they were selected and the people unanimously voted for that one person. If there's a bunch of candidates all doing, or have done, their own thing in their own right, how can there be one king? You can't crown somebody a king of something where there's too many people with potential to be king.
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