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.
Aaron “JaćQuar 937” Smith was a student at Full Sail University in 2010 when he heard Trey Songz singing his written lyrics on “For Y’all.” Since then, the songwriter continued working with the singer, gotten placements with Teyana Taylor and more.
“I remember I was like, ‘I’m going to go hard on [Trey Songz] on the basketball court and make him respect me more in the studio.’ I was a young nigga. I was 19 when this was going on. I was trying to prove to these niggas I wasn’t a little nigga. But, he got me like two times in a row just shooting the 3,” JaćQuar said with a hearty laugh.
In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” the budding singer-songwriter discusses Songz and Eric Bellinger recording themselves, helping write a song while driving for Lyft, and how amenable Teyana Taylor is in the studio. Read below.
What was your first session with a major artist?
It was probably with Trey Songz back in 2010/2011. He was working on the Passion, Pain & Pleasure album and I was going back and forth from Florida to Atlanta because I went to Full Sails [University] in Florida. I was going back and forth because I had a connection with Troy Taylor who discovered Trey. He gave me my first opportunity, writing situation, and those opportunities with Trey. He taught me writing on a professional level, recording people, and vocal comping. Troy Taylor gave me the blueprint of how to get started and I had to learn to expand from there. With Trey, I would be at the studio house out in Mableton, Georgia. I was so scared I wouldn’t say much. I’d just be a fly on the wall. I used to beat myself up because I had lines, but I was so nervous. That was in the early learning days.
What did you observe about Trey’s creative process?
I first was blown away he could record himself, which goes to Troy Taylor. Everyone he teaches has to learn the basics and how to record themselves. Troy could leave the room and Trey would keep going. Trey knew how he wanted to sound, so he would do it over and over real quick to get the vibrato just right or get that run just right. That was the first major artist I saw record himself and do all of that. He took direction well. Troy is very intricate in his background vocals, so you have to pay attention and follow where he wants you to go with the background vocals. You probably won’t understand until it’s done and he plays all the different layers together. Trey was good at trusting him and taking direction. I also learned to be more confident.
What was your first placement on a Trey song?
It was on some mixtape shit. He used to do rapping on a series called #LemmeHolDatBeat where he’d take other people’s beats and rap over them. He would throw in a couple of original records. I was at Full Sails and wrote a song called “For Y’all” in 2010. I wrote the hook and he rapped the verses. I was in my dorm losing my mind like, “What?! He did my shit.” In 2011, I went to Miami to work on the Chapter V album. I wasn’t just a fly on the wall this time, I was giving suggestions. We were hooping and shit in the backyard.
Really? Trey was busting your ass in those games in between sessions?
He got me, but nah, there was not busting my ass (laughs). Trey got a jumper. I remember I was like, “I’m going to go hard on this nigga on the basketball court and make him respect me more in the studio (laughs).” I was a young nigga. I was 19 when this was going on. I was trying to prove to these niggas I wasn’t a little nigga. But, he got me like two times in a row just shooting the 3 (laughs).
Have you ever written an entire song for Trey?
I wrote the entire “French Kiss” song and produced it. It came to me while I was working at TJ Maxx. I made the beat, worked on it, and held onto it until I got to Miami. I played a few songs and that was one where he was like, “Load that up. I need that.”
Another notable collaborator of yours is Eric Bellinger. How’d you go from Trey to Eric?
I was back in Atlanta after working on Chapter V trying to figure out how to get into bigger rooms and opportunities. I was feeling stagnant. I found out I had a baby on the way, so I was planning to move from Atlanta to Dallas to be closer to my daughter’s mother’s side of the family. Right before I leave, someone on Twitter wanted to be my manager. I thought he was capping, but he kept telling me all of these people he knew. He was like, “I know Eric Bellinger. I’m going to try to set y’all up.” I was like, “Alright. We’ll see, we’ll see.”
A week before I was about to leave, he was like, “Yo, Eric loved your shit. He wants to set up a phone call.” I still think he’s lying. Then, I’m at the airport and I get a random call from a number I didn’t know and it was Eric Bellinger. He said, “Your shit is fire. I work with a lot of people, but there aren’t many people I feel have my sound or can write like me.” He was working on Chris Brown, Usher, and Selena Gomez. So, he was all over the place while still trying to build his artistry. He was like, “I want to bring you under my wing, help me with my shit and all these projects. I’d love to bring you out to L.A.” A month after that, it ended up getting setup. It was on from there. He was about halfway through working on The Rebirth.
How does Eric’s creative process compare to others?
He’s a real writer. Off rip, I noticed his studio is ready to go. He didn’t have an engineer. He still had a booth with a computer screen and keyboard in there. Trey’s was more like a room where the mic is at the desk and it felt like you’re with your homie making dope shit. Eric’s was like you were in a big boy studio where he did everything by himself. It was mind-blowing to me. No disrespect to anyone else, but he’s faster than anyone else I’ve seen work. The quality he can come up with and how he can hear the harmonies is great. His template for his voice was ready for every single session, so he didn’t have to set it all up and get it right. Everything was built for efficiency. When you play basketball, some people have a really crazy IQ where they can see the floor and understand the game. That’s what I learned from him. He understands the game.
Songwriters bounce around from session to session helping artists get their songs right. Is that your experience working with Eric?
We definitely bounce from studio to studio. We’d start off in the afternoon at his studio finishing up something we started the night before or starting something new. He’d tell me, “Yo, we’re going to work on Teyana.” So, we go to Teyana Taylor’s sessions with J.R. Rotem. That’s when I did the song “Undercover” on her 1994 Cassette Tape mixtape. After that, it’s “OK, now we’re going to work on Usher” (laughs). He was very cognizant of his workload. It wasn’t just five studios every day. There would be days where he wouldn’t want to be burned out, so he’d just focus on The Rebirth or his show.
For that 1994 Cassette Tape session, what was Teyana’s vibe like?
She was super cool. She’s one of the coolest artists I’ve ever met. That was in 2015. She’s really in tune with her work. She didn’t want any autotune, was serious about it, and if they needed to add a little whatever, she damn sure didn’t want to be in there while they did it. She wanted to make it feel real. She was chill and didn’t come in like a diva. It was her like, “This is what I hear. What do y’all hear?” I remember being like, “I definitely want to work with her again,” which we did last year.
The “Undercover” song samples Bel Biv Devoe’s “Poison.” Did she have any instructions about writing it?
She definitely wanted to incorporate it because it was such a prominent sample. She was laid back but was like, “It would be dope if we played off it and used that melody.” Samples are something I learned to embrace from Eric. He always said to do it in a creative way. Some people are lazy with how they sample. That’s something I love about Eric. Eric was like, “If that shit hard, that shit hard. We’ll figure it out later.” “H to the Izzo” was one of Kanye’s earliest hits as a producer, but he sampled The Jackson 5. You ain’t getting shit. But, if you believe in how dope you are, you know this one song isn’t the end all be all for you. If you look at Kanye’s trajectory, he’s now a billionaire. It paid off. He did what was right for the music.
How did you reconnect with Teyana on her “69” record off her The Album project?
That wasn’t a session. That was done via email. That was actually through Eric because this quarantine stuff kept me from coming out to L.A. much until I moved. Everything was on lockdown. I got a text from him saying, “Yo, here’s a beat. Teyana did a few melodies on it. She want it to be called ‘69.’ Let me know what you think.” This wasn’t the first time we did a placement through email. When we did his song “Moist” featuring K. Camp, that was through email while I was driving for Lyft in Atlanta. I was driving for Lyft and I got the email. I pulled over in between rides to write my verses in my phone or putting voice notes until I got home. Fast forward to the “69” record, I gave that right back in 45 minutes. He didn’t really change much. He added on. I think within 24 hours he said, “She loved it. She’s cutting it.”
What’s some studio food you’ve had?
Eric used to kill some Jamaican food in the studio and I hated it. I haven’t had any good Jamaican food. I had it one time and it didn’t sit right with me. He was killing that shit on the regular (laughs).
What do you need to make your best music?
I’m very minimal. I had super humble beginnings. I’ve had laptops that broke on me while trying to stay consistent. I got the lights at home. I love to be by myself. I have to have the marijuana. I prefer wine over liquor. I’m trying to preserve my liver (laughs).
What should people look out for in 2021?
I don’t even like speaking on what I have coming out. I know how funny this industry is and how quickly things can change. We’ve been working on Chris Brown and Usher. I produce too, so I’m trying to get records over to Megan [Thee Stallion]. I’m trying to expand. I want to do what Pharrell did by working with some of the crossover artists. I can promise you you’ll see expansion and growth. I want to break the stigma of you make it and you don’t pass on the knowledge.
I remember what it was like sitting on the bus in Dayton, Ohio thinking, “How am I going to get out of here? I have all of these songs in my head. I can’t sing. I don’t know anyone. How the fuck am I going to do this?” If we pass on our lessons people can find their way out.