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Dallas Austin has been a staple in the music industry for three decades and counting, and he continues to defy all boundaries and make history. Deeply rooted in Atlanta culture, the songwriter and record producer got his start working with the likes of Another Bad Creation, Boyz II Men, and TLC, eventually collaborating with more greats in music from Madonna to Michael Jackson to Chris Brown.
In fact, Austin discovered Monica at the young age of 12 and signed her to his own imprint Rowdy Records. To date, 50 of his all-star catalog of hit records have charted on the Billboard Hot 100 including Rihanna’s “FourFiveSeconds,” TLC’s “Creep,” Brandy and Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine,” and many more. In 2019, Austin was even inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, which inspired him to create his own Walk of Fame in Atlanta similar to the one you see in Hollywood.
Beyond his talents as a musician, Austin is an entrepreneur heading his own distribution company titled Dallas Austin Distribution, described as the “Future of Music and NFT Distribution.” And let’s not forget his venture into the film world, as he’s produced classics in our culture like Drumline and ATL, the former being based on his own life.
What did you see in Monica at age 12?
She was amazing. Her voice was so much more mature than what she was. She was super grown (laughs). She had that attitude — that same attitude we translated through the music. I saw that when I first saw her.
Her managers would make her sing “The Greatest Love Of All” everywhere she went. I said, “Okay it’s cool, but we can’t make her Whitney Houston yet. She’s too young. Let her be Monica.” She’d love 808s rattling in the trunk. It had to be filled enough for her to sing on it. She’s an amazing artist, I’m really proud of her.
What about TLC’s “Creep”? Bring us back to that studio session.
Speaking of, my autobiography is called The Voyage to Dallas Austin. You’re the first to know about this, it’s a digital autobiography with NFTs embedded in the book. When it gets to TLC and my plaques, you hear the horn sound of the record. When I first made the song, I had it up for a couple of days and it kept playing. I have the floppy disk, the lyric sheets, I have all the stuff from when I first wrote “Creep.” It’s all in my vault, man, I kept all the stuff.
I kept the song up for a couple of days, I thought it sounded too country back then...I recorded it, then I put a horn sound in it last because I couldn’t find a cymbal crash. It became the signature of the song. It was our crossover record to be taken a little more serious. By the time we did “What About Your Friends” and “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” on the Ooooooohhh... On the TLC Tip album, I knew a lot of people thought they weren’t going to make it to a sophomore project or continue the success. “Creep” was a really important record for us because it crossed the girls over.
Three decades in, what inspires you to continue making music today?
I love music the same because it’s always changing. I always look forward to the future of music. I started my distribution company, DAD, and I’m excited. I always wanted a distribution company, but it was something missing from all the other ones as far as how you related to the artist. Most of them started from a tech company standpoint instead of a music standpoint. For me, I’m music. I’m getting records from Korea, from London, from LA, from Asia, everywhere. I see these records loading up from everywhere.
I like the fact that my staff actually can communicate with people as needed. A lot of times, if you’re making records at home, that’s fine. You don’t need all that. Some artists have managers, they got their own money. They own their masters, they just don’t know properly what to do with it. We help navigate that, that’s really exciting. New music in Atlanta is really exciting. Johnny Apollo and E Chapo are artists I have on Rowdy Records, they’re excited about having some fun. The last year for everybody was really hard. Fun is what’s making me excited now because it’s been such a rough time.
How do you view Black music in regards to Atlanta culture?
It’s pretty much defined it for the last 20 years. I remember when Atlanta wasn’t accepted at all. Me and Jermaine were trying to get the stations to play our records on the radio here. It wasn’t a system, it was more Atlanta. It got to the point where it was almost overkill. Every record, whether it’s a hip hop or R&B record, came out of here. It means a lot because the South is where Blacks couldn’t go to the same bathroom as a white 60 years ago. That’s not a long time.
You look at the progress that’s been made for myself, Jermaine, Organized Noize, even Scooter and everyone for that matter, it’s been amazing what’s been done with Black music during that time. We have the first ever Black music and entertainment Walk of Fame, it’s exciting. It’s crazy because out of all the times we’ve been in LA and seen the Hollywood Walk of Fame, we have a real one in Atlanta that starts in October. Right by the stadium, it’s incredible. It’s becoming a part of history. Growing up here wishing we had stuff like that to now being on that caucus is crazy.
Talk about being on the entertainment caucus with Jermaine Dupri and Chaka Zulu. What does that role entail?
All of us are from Atlanta and we’ve brought so much money into the city. We felt like, “Hey, the city doesn’t understand what we’re doing and who we are. We have to be able to go over here and get things done that we couldn’t get done in other places.” So myself, head of BMI Catherine Brewton, Chaka, then it’s a whole load of political people. Erica Thomas, everybody’s on this board. We all say, “Hey, what’s a good idea? We know what’s a good idea, we need to make a Walk of Fame. We need to start honoring people.” You look up and less than a year later, we’re making it happen.
What’s the criteria to make it in the Walk of Fame?
Twenty years plus in the game... You’re surprised when you start looking at the people, we made announcements with Usher, Stevie Wonder, Kirk Franklin. There’s OutKast, there’s Missy Elliott, there’s Michael Jackson. There’s all different walks of it, but it’s open up to entertainment. You move along to be able to accomplish everybody who has some accolades in the city. On the same street it’s going on, people were getting sprayed down. Doing the whole civil rights and all that, it’s big. It’s monumental. It’s crazy.
How does it feel to be inducted into the Songwriter Hall of Fame?
It’s crazy because the Songwriters Hall of Fame has always been for people like Burt Bacharach, Diane Warren, people from Disney (laughs). Jermaine went in the year before I did. Me and Jermaine been friends since 17 years old, it was real wild because he wouldn’t believe the story. It all tops off with him inducting me, he was inducted the year before. It was really the first time we started honoring urban, pop, hip hop writers. They didn’t really know what to call it.
No, we’re writers just like you guys are. It was magic he was able to induct me, now both of us are in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. It does feel very different being in it compared to not. I still feel the same high. The people in the room, it’s even beyond the Grammys. That clique is a really hard clique to get into — they’ve been holding onto that one for years. Missy went in with us, too. We saw Michelle Obama come on the screen to congratulate Missy, Queen Latifah. It really shows the power of the music we made.
Who are your favorite Black musicians – past or present – and why?
Oh my God, Prince would be my all-time favorite. Prince taught me so much in music because I didn’t know I was a writer. I thought a writer, producer and everybody were different people. Through his records, oh man one person does everything. Bruno Mars is amazing. I like Bruno Mars because if that voice wasn’t there, you’d think, “Damn, that’s needed.” He’s so talented, I’m a real big fan.
What makes Black music so special to society?
Because it usually comes from a cultural base, what’s happening in the environment at the time. Blues is like that, country’s like that. Pop tends to be a little different than the epitome of what’s going on right now. They always say the best song just happened to you. A lot of Black music, you can tell it has the feeling of I needed to connect with that. I needed to hear that. It started to get away from the song like everything else will, but it’s always going to be entertainment records. The root of it is coming from some place that’s embedded in everyday culture. If somebody says no cap, it’s because they’re saying no cap in the hood. If somebody says creep, it’s usually because somebody is already saying that in lingo. That’s why the song become so popular, they come out of the environment.
Do you think Black artists, nationally and internationally, are getting the credit they deserve?
I think now more than ever. When you look at Davido, African music has become so prominent now in our culture. Latin music has been so prominent in our culture now. I remember when it wasn’t like that. Now, it’s way more diverse. People are really getting the accolades that they wouldn’t have got before because of the transparency. You can tell that artist is an amazing artist. It’s giving people a chance to shine more than ever.
The music’s appreciated more than ever. At a point where it used to be frowned upon, even in the days of James Brown, Tina Turner, Ray Charles, people integrating theaters so Blacks and whites can be in the same theaters. We knew the music would be the answer to it. Same thing as Motown. If you look at Quality Control, you look at Durk and some of their shows, it’s the same thing. Everybody’s integrated. The music is so powerful to the generation that it’s giving people a chance to not be considered just Black artists.
Do you feel you’re getting the credit you deserve?
I’m getting there (laughs). In my era of producing, we’re more so how do you really get the work done? I used to look at it and say, “How do I turn myself into Quincy Jones so that I don’t get to be trendy?” He had one song of five records, then he’s out. I always wanted to be the factory, the person who’s making it and not really putting myself on the line as much. Now, it’s letting everything speak for itself.
What Black music history are you making?
Having my own distribution company is the first thing. That speaks volumes. We’re the same as a distributor when it comes to putting you on all platforms. We’re not the same at all when it comes down to the way we think. We’re thinking forward in the first place, taking artists’ NFT pages and running them through their music. Doing smart contracts already, being on blockchain with the music that’s coming through DAD. Giving artists really a chance to get their stuff valued more. We have to turn the value back up; collectibles. The artist having something more interesting than me having a record and trying to get on a playlist. You have to have more stories to make more of those stars. Most distribution companies won’t assist with that, but we do. I like the work that’s put in to help someone realize their dream. I’m really excited about this, being a Black-owned company but still being able to think forward.
You have over 50 songs in the Billboard Hot 100. What songs are you most proud of to date?
“Unpretty” is always one of my favorite ones from TLC. “FourFiveSeconds” with Paul McCartney. Of course, “Creep.” Gwen Stefani’s “Cool.” A lot of times, I forget how many songs I’ve done. I was so embedded in music, so embedded in songwriting that when I woke up one day, I had done so much music I didn’t even realize. My favorite ones are usually the ones that impacted the world in a meaningful way — just from letters I’d get from people.
Highlight from the “FourFiveSeconds” session with Rihanna?
Larry Jackson at Apple called me one day and said, “Hey man, Kanye and Paul McCartney are living in a hotel and been humming this record, they want to turn it into a song. Can you help them out?” I said, “Of course.” “Good, the only problem is we got to fly you out to Florence” (laughs). I ended up going to Italy and working with Ye for two months. During that time, he’s doing the wedding. We’d keep hammering at it.
In my phone right now, I got 35 different versions of “FourFiveSeconds.” I’d like to take a walk, I need a day off. Go to that magic hour, climb the Eiffel Tower, start all over again. I kept rewriting until Kanye was said, “Okay, that’s it.” He would come in one day and say, “Yo man, this shit needs to be harder. We need to be talking about punching people in the mouth.” I said, “Maybe we can do that on another song, keep this one nicer.” He’ll come in another day and say, “Alright, you right.” We had to ride the wave. When we did the record, Rihanna wasn’t on it. I found out about it after, the day it came out.
How was it producing classic films like Drumline and ATL?
It’s funny because Drumline — me and DC Fly started this thing back and forth on Instagram where he posted a picture of himself in the Drumline outfit. When I went to do Drumline, Fox was looking for musicals. I said, “What about a marching band?” They said, “What’s interesting about a marching band?” I came home and I filmed Battle of the Bands, and I took it back. I threw my story in because I couldn’t read music, but I went into the marching band my brother was in. I was able to play the snare drum. Nick plays my character where I couldn’t read music, but I played better than him.
The people thought it was going to be a joke. I wanted to make sure that everybody was in the marching band, it was true to their story. If I get it right, it’s everybody’s story. At the same time, I was going to do a roller skating movie called Jellybeans, the skating rink all of us came out of that ended up in ATL. Myself and T-Boz, Organized Noize, all of us used to go to this skating rink. I had these stories, it took me 10 years to make them. By the time I got to Drumline and got it made, they saw the success of it. They started looking around like “Oh shit, he’s got another movie.” And they made Roll Bounce.
They weren’t going to make ATL, I took it to Warner Bros. and said, “Look man, this is still going on right now in Atlanta at Cascade. Let’s update it. Instead of Jellybeans, let’s make it Cascade. Let’s make it everything that’s happened on Sunday. Let’s tie my story to it. I used to skate, let’s take that story and make it into a skating story. It became ATL, ended up getting T.I. to play me in that story.