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.
You can't dive into the soul and not leave tattooed with residue. Producing the sort of confessional music like Amy Winehouse's Back To Black and Nas' Life Is Good required legendary producer Salaam Remi to not only listen to the pain in these artist's stories, but internalize it himself. That's because you can't make the soundtrack to someone's heartache without breaking apart of your own heart.
"To be honest, after Amy died, I felt like I needed a break. I was tired of putting chord changes to people's problems and they couldn't fix the problem," Remi told REVOLT TV.
In this installment of Studio Sessions, Remi recalls the last time he recorded a song with Amy Winehouse, Nas going against radio and how he made The Fugees' first hit song.
When did this EP with Joell Ortiz begin being produced?
We actually had it done last summer, but it had a lot of samples and was taking a second to clear. As we were getting towards the end of summer, I was like, 'I have to wait until it gets hot. We know what this feels like. There's nothing like a New York summer. I can't be out here in September, October with this. Let's wait until it gets hot again.' We waited all year. In March, it was still cold. April was weird. By the time it got to Memorial Day, it got decent. So, we decided to put it out. The whole concept of this project was things you would hear coming out of a boombox in the summer time.
It definitely has that early '90s bounce in a few records. How did y'all work in the studio to achieve that sound?
Anything that sounds loud, bumping, or like it'd come out of radio from a block away; those are the things that we kept and were vibing on. A lot of the beats were things I did in the '90s that I either had on cassette or an old SP-1200. We just pulled stuff up.
That 'Shake Dat Je'llo' song sounded like a Chubb Rock and Biz Markie. It's a fun record with Joell really playing with his voice. How'd that come about?
I'm a practical joker. So, I kept saying to him, 'If you say 'Jell-O' with an accent, it'll sound like you're saying 'J. Lo.' So, saying 'shake that Jell'o' is for both at the same time.' He was laughing and I just kept telling him to try it. It took him a long time to get to it. But, once he was finally able to bring it across, it stuck.
Nas sent the internet into a frenzy with an Instagram post recently hinting at the release of The Lost Tapes 2. Are you on it?
It's possible. But, I don't know yet for sure. If I'm not, it's only because songs I have sometimes feel like bigger songs than just the jams. Lost Tapes is kind of like the jams, those little nuggets. But, I'm sure there's some stuff on there that I was around for. During the process of a lot of his albums, I would be around the entire album.
What is Nas like in the studio?
Nas has layers. We've worked steadily from 2001 until now, almost 2020. So, almost 20 years. But, I also talk to Nas a lot. So, 90% of the time, we're not talking about work. We're talking about life. As far as his work flow, he won't have a lot of people around him. Not at this point in his life, maybe when he was younger. He'll be real quiet. He writes a whole lot and he only puts out a little bit.
The first time I really knew who you were was from your work on Nas' God's Son album in 2002. What was the making of that album like?
When I first started working with Nas, my mom had passed in 2001. He was around me at the time. I was working on the Sade remix. We ended up doing 'What Goes Around' [for Stillmatic]. He goes through the battle with JAY-Z. Then, in 2002, he's going to do [Hot 97] Summer Jam and ended up at odds with Hot 97, but specifically with Funkmaster Flex and Angie Martinez, my two best friends. I came up with Flex. I was on the air with Flex until 1997 as his overseer Salaam. I came up as best friends with Angie. I was probably the first industry person she knew. She was on the station coming up. So, we're really tight.
Nas' mom had passed [April 2002]. He just got off tour. There's all this Murda Inc and other energy that people are trying to create around him now, coming out of the battle unscathed. But, he was also at war with radio. Other people have said, 'I'm at war with radio' on songs. But, Nas really was at war with radio. I had never seen that before. 'Made You Look' was built off of the fact...
When the record comes on, it's pretty loud. It sounds like chaos. But then, he gets on like, 'Let's get it all in perspective,' the Rakim rhyme. I was like, 'Let's go crazy on this. I want that energy.' I had all these hooks. I was hearing all of this energy on it. I was like, 'We can get Kurtis Blow saying, 'I be flipping on these niggas like windmills.' I had Amy Winehouse talking and singing stuff. I had all of these ideas.
How many unreleased songs do you have with Nas?
About 40 or 50, easy. It's probably more than that. When it's time, it's time. Also, he picks his songs based upon lyrics... if he feels like that's the point he wants to make. Also, it has to fit the body of work. A lot of artists now just make a project, then another project, then another project. After a while, you're just outside being noisy. He's not that guy. He's headed towards a Sade way of, 'I show up when I got something good. Then, I go back inside the house when I'm done.'
You did Streams of Thought Vol. 2 with Black Thought late last year. What were those sessions like?
He hit me like, 'I'm going to come out to Miami and check you for a couple of days.' He was in between shows. We only did like three sessions for Streams of Thought. He would come in and he's surgical with the pen. If you know what you're doing, it doesn't take long to make a record with me. It's just if we have an idea that makes sense and you hear something that inspires you. You could give me one verse, half a verse, or two verses. If it's rocking, everyone is going to feel it. Black Thought's concept and my concept kind of crossed. He said he was going to do Streams of Thought as different volumes with different producers. I'm like, I'm doing an EP with different artists just to keep my creativity flowing.
Since then, I've put out 'Find My Love' with Nas and Amy Winehouse, Me and [James] Fauntelroy's 'Sex High,' and others. Now, I'm putting out Northside of Linden, Southside of Slauson; my EP with Terrace Martin. Then, I have another EP with Bodega Bamz coming next week. Then, I have an EP with Nitty Scott. I'm going to keep going for a while, well into summer. I have a lot of reggae stuff. Me and Brent Faiyaz have a few joints. This is Black Music Month and my black ashy knuckles really know how to make some nice dust shit. So, I'm going to stick to that.
How do you get a project like Streams of Thoughts Vol 2 with Black Thought done in only a few sessions?
I might leave him in the room for a half an hour or an hour, he'll just be passing through. But, he'll get two or three songs done in a day. Black Thought hears a bunch of music and is like, 'Let me think for a minute. OK, cool.' He'll lay it down and then, I'll listen to it. While he's thinking of something, I'm already creating something else. So, by the time he's done and is like, 'I like that verse. What else you got?' I'm already like boom, boom, boom, and he continues to pick. He didn't work on that project more than two or three days.
December 2020 will make 25 years since The Fugees' first hit, 'Fu-Gee-La,' was released. You produced that record. What do you remember about that session?
Well, we started on it around early '95. 'Fu-Gee-La' was actually the product of me doing two records before that. The remixes I did for them were also reproductions. So, I was in the studio with them and we created those. The first one was for 'Nappy Heads' in November of 1993. The second was for 'Vocab,' which was around June 1994. I was working on some songs for Spike Lee's movie Clockers. We wrote a song called 'Project Heads.' During that session, there was a beat that I made for Fat Joe. I'm sorry Joe. I made ['Fu-Gee-La'] for Fat Joe. But, Lauryn kept saying, 'Play the Fat Joe beat. It's dirty. I like it.' They heard it a few times at my house. But, when I played it again, Wyclef jumped up and spit his whole rhyme, which is on the record.
He spit the rhyme and everyone was like, 'Whoa. We have to record that.' Then, because I had my studio, we were cutting the record before they even had a budget for The Score. When we cut 'Fu-Gee-La,' Lauryn had a bunch of hook ideas she was singing in the booth. When she hit on the 'Oooh, la, la, la,' we were like, 'That's the one.' She had already sang that on someone else's record as like a bridge to a verse. Back then, she had a style where she would sing a little bit of a song going into her verse. Lauryn is like a jukebox. She knows the words and melodies to a bunch of songs. She worked on that song for a minute. She had the verse written. But, she kept going over it over and over for a week. I was really patient with it. Once we got it done, it was there and the album was really built around it.
You've been around artists like Amy Winehouse and Jazmine Sullivan while they were at vulnerable points in their lives. Some of those moments turned into career-defining songs. When an artist is telling you these personal stories, do you have to discern between what's supposed to be inspiration and what's just them venting?
It has to be what they feel they want to say. 'Bust Your Windows,' Jazmine did that. I didn't realize she did what she was saying. But, later on, I found out she actually did that. Her mother told the guy, 'We're going to pay for your windows. But, you can't sue us if she write a song about it.' She made the guy sign off on that. It's always a safe space for them to say it in the studio because it 's always confidential. Whatever we record may never come out, so express it how you want to.
Are there songs that you've produced that haven't come out because the artist feels it's too personal?
Oh yeah. There's definitely things where the artist or their team [are] like, 'We don't really need that right now.' People go through different levels of vulnerability. To be honest, after Amy died, I felt like I needed a break. I was tired of putting chord changes to people's problems and they couldn't fix the problem. At this point, you won't hear that many sad songs from me. I'm having fun with my life and trying to be in that positive space.
Rest in peace to Amy Winehouse. Do you remember the last session you had with her?
Yeah, we were in London. We didn't really record to much in the last session. Probably the last thing we recorded was 'Between The Cheats,' which was on Lioness, a few years before she passed. We started working on what her third album would've been. We went to St. Lucia in 2009. In 2010, she was back in London. Then, she passed away in the middle of 2011. Before she passed, she was like, 'I'm going to write everything. After I write it all, we'll go in the studio and record.' That's what she was doing. When she was writing her last album, she was still going through the divorce with her husband. She was like, 'I love him. But, I think he's going to die a crackhead. We're in different spaces.' She had how she felt, but she didn't have a conclusion to the lyrics. When she felt like she was getting closure, she passed before she was able to do it.
Has anyone approached you about your involvement in the proposed Amy Winehouse hologram?
I'm not really interested in that to be honest. Nobody's approached me about it. I wouldn't participate in it because that's a friend of mine and not just an artist. I don't even entertain that. I'm going to forget you asked that (laughs).
What would you say is your best collaboration with her?
At the time, when I did the slow version of 'Unholy War,' I was really proud of it. But then, she took it off Back to Black because she said it sounded like she was dying. Whenever she performed it, she would say something bad. She was at Glastonbury [in 2008] and she cursed at Kanye. It really felt like a genre-less record to me. Otherwise, our natural state is 'Cherry Wine.' Our natural state is 'Find My Love.'
What does Salaam Remi need in the studio to make great music?
It starts with the conversation. It starts with me vibing with the person. I have access to pretty much every type of technology in my studio, Instrument Zoo [in Miami]. So, if I feel like playing bongos and guitars on the track, that's what it'll be. It all depends on what the concept is and what I hear in my head. I'll make beats on the iPhone. I've done that a couple of times recently where I just did a couple of guitar strums on the iPhone and put it on a record, and people were dying laughing. I've done it for movie scores and TV shows. For [the Netflix documentary] Grass is Greener, I did some stuff like that. But then, I also scored this TV show [on ABC] called '1969' where I definitely [used my iPhone] in a couple of instances.
Three years ago, I did something called Do It For The Culture where I said I was going to put out 50 songs at one time. I put out 'No Panty,' [worked with] this artist Miraa May from London, a group I had called Champagne Flutes, [and] 'Sex All Summer' with me and CJ Hilson. But, I also put out [Miguel and J. Cole's] 'Come Through and Chill' as part of that. I'm so all over the place, genre-wise, I just decided to put it all out as a big mixtape.
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