Linda Perry and Om'Mas Keith
Photo: Steve Jennings/Getty Images
Om’Mas Keith and Linda Perry: Industry Perspectives Grounded in Authenticity
In the classic Saturday Night Live sketch “More Cowbell,” über-producer Bruce Dickinson (played by Christopher Walken), in the studio with Blue Öyster Cult cutting “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” takes a time-out from his cowbell directives to reassure the band of his hitmaking superpowers: “I put my pants on just like the rest of you: one leg at a time. Except, when I put my pants on, I make Gold Records.”
In real life, successful producers are so much more than single-minded Svengalis: They’re collaborators, facilitators, and advocates, committed to taking risks and pushing boundaries in the pursuit of shepherding artists along a path to success.
On Sept. 12, the Recording Academy San Francisco Chapter explored the producer perspective in a Craft Session with Om’Mas Keith and Linda Perry at San Francisco’s Brava Theater, where they exchanged insights on the challenges of navigating the commercial landscape, overcoming barriers to creativity, engaging music fans, and most importantly, helping artists find their unique voice.
For Keith, a GRAMMY-winning producer/songwriter known for his work with Frank Ocean, Jay-Z, and John Legend, the creative calling came early. Born into a musical family—his grandfather performed with Duke Ellington and his parents were avant-garde jazz musicians who worked alongside Sun Ra—he made music and experimented with cassette machines as a young kid.
“I was born in ’76; in ’84 I was making tape loops,” Keith recounted. “It was natural for me to want to do that.”
Although technically inclined, Keith insists production has always been secondary to creation. “This is the era of the songwriter, more than anything,” he said. “As producer, I wouldn’t diminish anything that I do, but I can’t do anything without a song being written first.”
“I get inspired not by instruments, I get inspired by being in the moment with the artist,” added Perry, a GRAMMY nominee who first shot to stardom fronting San Francisco band 4 Non Blondes in the early 1990s, later writing and producing blockbuster hits with vocal heavyweights like Christina Aguilera, Alicia Keys, Celine Dion, Pink, and Adam Lambert. “The song is the number one inspiration with me.”
Yet, in today’s record business, said Perry, too many artists are put on the fast track before they have a chance to find their footing.
“So many artists right now don’t know what it is like to be in a rehearsal room,” she said. “You put your band together, you go to a rehearsal room, you write songs, you get to figure out who you are, right? Then you go play your friend’s garage and sell tickets; then you start reading the reaction of people. That’s where we start building our sound. That doesn’t really happen these days: You go from YouTube into a major studio with, like, Pharrell Williams.”
Newsflash: Producers are not immune from that internal struggle. “If we don’t discover who we are first, we are only basically giving forty percent of who we are creatively,” said Perry. “We have to be able to dive into our own experience, our own emotion, to be able to be these wonderful vessels and channels for these incredible artists who need help and direction.”
Every artist, in every discipline, faces barriers to creativity—some self-imposed, some products of his or her environment. “Here’s some real s*** about the music business,” said Keith. “A person of color is automatically put into the Urban world. At the executive level, in the office, in the studio, in the sessions. There’s this inadvertent segregation that happens, because they think that all people of color want to be in the same environment.
“It’s one thing to be known for making a certain type of music and people know you for it,” he continued. “but more often than not, you’re going to have to pull off an initiative that is contrary to what people think you should be doing…you’re perceived as alienating your own group because you just like to do something different.”
Keith has been battling preconceived notions since his days with the 1990s experimental hip-hop collective The Sa-Ra Creative Partners. “We’d make electronic music, talk about pyramids, sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but everybody just said, ‘ya’ll are just urban.’ But I always liked pop music and wanted to make pop music, and every time I would say that, people would say, ‘stay in your lane, stick with what you do.’ I think there is just a general lack of optimism in people who have been making money with a formula so long.”
For him, fighting those stereotypes was a simple matter of pushing through them: “You have to have a great deal of will and determination.” On the other hand, artists do themselves a disservice if they use bias as a crutch.
“You can’t just say because somebody isn’t viable to have a record deal, it’s just because of this, ‘because I’m a woman,’” said Perry. “You have to look at the fact that maybe it’s because you are just not good… Not everybody is supposed to be a rock star.”
Everyone defines success in different ways. But artists seeking commercial success need to strike that magic balance between channeling their personal voice and resonating with a wide audience.
“For any modern popular recording or songwriting, there are catch phrases, clichés, things that are relevant in certain times,” says Keith. “It’s just part of being a hit… You think about things like how it is going to relate to the culture, or what’s it going to look like after a video is made, or the content or the lyrics.” Here, he likened the producer’s role to an archivist. “Records that last an eternity, you know you produced that sound… If anything like that’s commercial, following an artist who is commercial, that’s smart.”