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“I don’t know if y’all understand what’s going on up here,” declares Sean Garrett as he settles on the stage. “These folks up here—this is the real deal. This is real. Pound for pound we are [some] of the biggest songwriters and producers of our generation.”
This is the exuberant remark that kicked off the “They Sung It, I Wrote It” panel at the REVOLT Summit x AT&T in Atlanta earlier in the month.
Moderated by publishing guru Catherine Brewton, the panel invited the aforementioned Garrett, Ester Dean, Bryan-Michael Cox and The-Dream to sit down in a candid moment that found some of the industry’s most storied behind-the-scenes creators offering crucial information about their start in music, and the drive that has guided them up the ranks.
Where B. Cox and Dream would cite early influences in the church as their foray into music, Dean and Garrett offered opposing entry points.
“I’m a heathen, “ Ester Dean comically announces before revealing that while her original aspirations aligned with being a front-facing singer, it was the counsel of Brewton and Tricky Stewart that helped her realize she could monetize the songs she’d been writing for herself.
As for Garrett, the road that led him to music took on a much more embattled path, as he dealt with a detachment from his own family due to growing up in the military.
“I sometimes used to cry and feel very in a place where I felt like I didn’t belong,” he revealed. “I felt like my family was growing up in a different way that I wasn’t... but, what I learned about myself was that music was the thing that I was able to [use to] find myself, and define myself, and understand myself. I became incredibly creative because I had nothing else to depend on, but the music.”
Collectively, the set of panelists share decorated catalogues penning hits for the likes of Beyonce, Rihanna, Gucci Mane, Usher, Mary J. Blige, Chris Brown, Ciara, Christina Aguilera, Nicki Minaj and so much more of music’s biggest stars. Such highlights have warranted them positions as some of the greatest to ever do it. But, in this conversation, they were sure to underscore the fact that such acclaim comes with examining the ones who preceded them.
“To be a great you have to study the greats,” said Brewton, as she followed up on Cox’s early methodology of studying liner notes on LPs when he was growing up.
“I want to make that kind of music, who makes that music?” Bryan explained of the mindset behind such a habit. “…Thriller—best album of all time. What I was most interested in was, ‘How did Quincy Jones get a logo on the back of this album?’”
As for Dean, her observations lay more upon her peers as she dished her own secret to grinding it out.
“I never left the room because they don’t leave the room,” she said gesturing to everyone else onstage. “Men don’t leave the room.”
As for Garrett’s mantra for greatness? Listen.
“All of us on this stage came in as different entry points. All of our stories are different. All of our mentors are different, but we chose to listen and pay attention,” he says. “That’s what made us great… Listening is really important. Talking to people who are [at] a different stage than you, [you] are surrounding yourself with people who are better than you, who are smarter than you.
He would soon gesture to Sean “Diddy” Combs in the front row to add: “Diddy is one of the greatest inspirations in the world... I’ll never forget when I heard “Benjamins.” The feeling of that song drove me crazy, it made me go nuts. I wanted to be able to create that feeling and that was the part that inspired me. It’s so many other things you can talk about — some of these greats — But, the key word is ‘listening’ and understand when you’re around greatness, just pay attention and learn from the greatest.”
This would serve as the marker in which Brewton would guide the conversation into the business side of music, as the panelists expounded on the importance of diversifying one’s portfolio.
Such a balance was best summarized by The Dream when he said, “There’s a very spiritual element to me writing records and a very capitalist element to me writing records.”
As for Dean, the songwriter and producer has spent the last few years transitioning into the film and television world, notably as a recurring character in the Pitch Perfect film trilogy. For her, such a transition was justified in the sometimes monotonous realm of songwriting and the grueling schedule that it can demand.
In Dream’s case, the expansion of his own empire has been continuing his education at SCAD and franchising a Popeyes restaurant. On that note, he was sure to thank Black Twitter for the frenzy that the chicken sandwich caused in weeks past.
“The best thing you can always do is invest in yourself,” he affirmed. “As a songwriter, our job has always been to watch and help someone else get theirs. Songwriters need to be protected in that way. In order for me to do that, I have to invest in myself.”
It opened the door for Cox to stress the importance of protecting your art as a producer and songwriter, and being sure to leave something behind for your legacy.
“As a culture, we do not think about when we’re not here anymore,” he stated. “You have to protect your art. Make sure it’s not lost in the sauce or lost in some attorney’s office.”
To that, Ester Dean added her strategy of straying away from educating herself solely in the realm of music, and opting to expand her horizons in finance and business as a whole.
“I never read a book about the music industry,” she admitted. “I started reading books about business... The music business is not what you need to know. You know how to do that because you’re in there. But, you don’t know what to do with the money.”
Such words illuminated the growing conversation surrounding the tendency for black creatives to miss out on lasting success when finances get involved. While plenty of perspectives see such a trend as being indicative of some perceived ignorance among the black community, it was The-Dream who offered a different look into the subject, appropriately grasping the gist of REVOLT’s presence in Atlanta that weekend.
“We have this guy,” Dream said, gesturing toward Diddy. “And we have JAY[-Z]… We know what to do, it’s just whether we feel like we need to get up and do it or not.”