I read an article that called you “An overnight success, 20 years in the making.” Do you think that’s an accurate description?
Yes, that’s an accurate description. I feel like everyone gets a shot. Everybody gets a shot at something as long as you work hard at it. You get a shot. It’s just about being prepared for when that shot comes.
You produced Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way” and “Art Pop” album. Take me back to the night you were approached by Gaga’s creative director for the first time at a club you were DJing at in L.A.
I didn’t have any idea that he was anybody. It was just a dude in a Sox hat. He’s from Chicago too. I was DJing and he was like, “Yo, what is this?” I was playing old techno, like old house. People were dancing. The particular night I had was a Sunday night. It was for [the entertainment company] sbe. Back then they were promoting clubs and owning clubs. I had worked at a bunch of their venues, but I was pretty much playing the same thing that everybody was playing. I was not cool and off the mainstream. I always said, “I want to do something fucking weird somewhere.” And finally they said, “Sunday night at Hyde. We’ll let you do something weird and see what you come up with.” I played old hip-hop, old techno, old house, some new stuff, whatever, but for the most part, people loved it. Famous people started showing up and then it became a thing to go to. People would always approach me saying things like, “I work for HBO,” or, “We want you to DJ a party at Seth MacFarlane’s house.” So, this kid came up, he was just a nice guy and we ended up talking. Long story short I ended up showing him some stuff and we just got to be friends. Three months down the road he said, “I’m doing creative for Lady Gaga and if something comes up I’ll hit you up.” Two months later he called.
Would you consider that your big break?
You get a series of big breaks. The break, the break, the break, you know. It’s not like one thing just happens.
Was that one of them?
Yeah. Before that I had the opportunity to work for some pretty cool people. I was building up towards that. I feel like if that moment happened when I was 18 I wouldn’t know what the fuck to do, but because other things were happening before that it was [the right time].
Do you ever think about where you’d be if that encounter didn’t happen?
As far as that goes, I have no idea. You kind of just play the game and see what you roll and then figure it out. I think about that sometimes. That was at the time when DJs weren’t really producing. I started off as a producing DJ. I started off making techno, playing techno and then went to playing pop and Top 40. The electronic DJing stuff came along, so then everybody was DJing. People started producing again to be big DJs. Instead of producing for myself I just ended up producing for someone else on a bigger scale. I kind of cut out some of the work by not having to become famous which is a big thing for me. I’m not the kind of person who wants to be the guy that’s in the crowd all the time.
Would you say everything happens for a reason?
I don’t know. I’m not a particularly religious person per se, but I think that I am a weird spiritual person. My mom and dad told me early on that you just have to be nice to people and treat people fairly. Follow the Golden Rule. I think if you follow the Golden Rule and you work hard there are no other rules you have to live by in life. Treat people the way you want to be treated and work hard.
What’s the best drink you’ve had that happened because of your career?
I already know what it is. I was in London when Chris Martin and Jay Z performed for the closing ceremony at the Paralympics in London. Afterwards they had a party at The Arts Club, so I went with Gaga. First of all, I love Jay Z as an artist and as a human being. He’s a fantastic individual. I was so excited to go, I very rarely get excited about stuff, and I was super excited to go to this particular thing. Gaga is an incredible accommodator for when I get excited about things. She was like, “I’m going to sit here, you sit there, and Jay you sit there.” So I’m sitting right next to Jay Z and he’s pouring drinks for people. I’m sitting there and it’s me, Gaga, Chris Martin, Gwyneth Paltrow, Rihanna, Rick Ross maybe and then Jay. I’m sitting there at the table with 80 people and I’m thinking, “This is the best day!” They’re all drinking and I’m just trying to talk to Jay Z the whole time. We’re talking about cool stuff, super cool, and we’re just having drinks.
Were you nervous at all?
No, but this is the best part about it. The music was stale. It was terrible. Gaga says to me, like a dick, “Give them your phone, let them play a mixtape.” I said, “I don’t have any mixtapes.” And then Jay said, “You’re a DJ dude, you don’t have any mixtapes?” So I went to my SoundCloud and I had some trap mix on my phone and I gave it to the security guard who plugged it in. It was like Chief Keef, dirty, Soulja Boy and gutter ass hip-hop. It changed the whole vibe of the party. Everybody put up trap hands and was turning up. I was like, “This is the best day of my whole entire life. Jay Z’s getting turnt up to my mixtape; I’m fucking drinking whiskey and hanging out with Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow,” and Gaga turns and says, “We gotta go.” We ended up leaving because she was on tour, but that was the best 45 minutes of my life.
What would you say is the hardest part about your career as a producer?
It’s completely subjective. I can make the best song in the world, or the best song in history, and everybody else could say, “It’s shit. This is not gonna work.” The worst thing is, two years later, down the road, it works for somebody else and you’re thinking, “I did that two years ago.” It’s a very fickle, weird business … I have no idea if what I’m doing that day is going to turn out to be something. There’s no logical, pre-set thing to do. That gets a little frustrating sometimes. Mood management is a tough business to be in.
What is mood management?
Dealing with artists and creatives. Everybody has their own mood. A big part of work for me is thinking about how I get a particular person in a good mood. How do we keep everyone in a good mood and as creative and awesome as possible? Sometimes that stuff just falls out of your control and out of your realm.
Doesn’t good material sometimes come out of a bad mood?
Sure. Again, it’s like harnessing a bull. Even if it’s a bad mood, everybody’s in a bad mood.
That’s not good energy.
Right. You have to turn that mood into something that’s positive as far as creation goes. I’ll give you a perfect example. I wasn’t even there for this. It’s an example outside of my realm of understanding. My friend Mozella, who’s also from Detroit, wrote “Wrecking Ball” for Miley Cyrus. She had a personal incident leading up to that writing session that basically had her in tears the whole time she was writing it. You can hear her crying on the original demo. It turned out to be the best song she’s ever written. A phenomenal song. So that particular instance, although nobody wishes that on somebody, turned out to be a very positive thing. She was able to channel her energy and the people she surrounded herself with that day created something from her negative experience that turned out to be very positive. Things happen that are unfortunate in life. Songs are written about unfortunate instances. You can capture those particular moments and turn it into something, squeeze the coal hard enough to become a diamond.
What would you say you’re most proud of?
I’ve made more friends than enemies. In a business where you can shit on everybody and get a fucking huge paycheck. When somebody gives you the keys to their castle you can really use them for negative things. It’s nice to have more friends than enemies.
Do you think that your Midwest roots have something to do with that?
One hundred percent. That’s why I still live here. The Midwest is full of hard-working, kind-to-each-other people. It’s the birthplace of Motown and techno. It’s such an amazing musical place to be in. I don’t know why anybody wouldn’t want to live here. I love being here. I love Chicago as a city. I love Detroit as a place to live. Everybody that I meet here is awesome.
It seems like you have a special relationship with Gaga. Why do you think the two of you clicked?
I think the reason why it went well at first was because I was prepared for it to go terribly. I expected it to go terribly and it didn’t. When we met I really genuinely liked her as a person.
Why were you expecting it to go terribly?
The last couple experiences I had with female artists weren’t good for me. I didn’t click with the person necessarily. I’m usually not a negative thinker like that. I think I had a couple of punches right before I got there and then it turned out great. I loved her work ethic and I didn’t know she was talented when I met her … I was super shocked in a great way and as things continued it wasn’t so much about making money or making a product it was just about hanging out, having fun and being creative. It was a really real environment for me. We didn’t force a friendship. A lot of Hollywood shit is forced friendships. You might have a TV show together and say you’re buddies, but you don’t care about that person. I genuinely care about her, she’s like my sister. I love her very much. She’s an awesome person, we’ve known each other for a long time. Getting a call to work with her now, I feel the exact same thing I felt the first time working with her. She’s a great, super talented and awesome human being.
What is something about the making of one of your songs with Gaga that no one knows about?
I’m trying to think of something that won’t get me in trouble! There are so many stories. Some of those records, I have 100 different versions. I have things that were ideas for singles that turned out to be stuff that we didn’t use. I think that every song has an interesting history to it. Every song we’ve ever made together we’ve been on the road together. She’s at her best writing when she’s doing shows, interacting with people every day, writing backstage, writing in the hotel and writing on the bus. Some of the stuff comes from literal conversations. We’ll be drinking and somebody says something and she’ll be like, “Oh, shit!” and write it down and then it becomes part of a great song.
How does asking R. Kelly to be on your song go down?
“Do What U Want” is the weirdest song creation of all history. It’s my very favorite song that I’ve ever done. Gaga did the whole thing by herself and then it was right before we were closing the record up– we literally had to turn it in in two weeks– and I heard the song and I heard something that R. Kelly had recently done. I thought I should call him and see if he would do a feature on it, just see what it would sound like. I asked her and said, “If I called Rob [R. Kelly] and asked him if he would do this, would you be interested in that happening?” She said, “Yeah.” I called him, he didn’t answer. I called his manager, his manager answered and I was like, “Can you get Rob on the phone?” He said, “He’s asleep.” I said, “I got something good, wake his ass up.” Literally 10 minutes later he called me back and I told him we had Gaga in the studio and had a song I really wanted to send him. I said he could do whatever he wanted. He said “Okay,” and I sent it to him. We finished a bunch of work in the studio. I went back to my hotel, woke up in the morning and I had it in my email. He had sent it in the morning with all the ad-libs. They were on a tour bus so I have no idea how they did it. I listened to that motherfucker like 25 times in the morning. I didn’t even call her in the morning. I listened to it by myself at the Andaz in L.A. and you could see all of Hollywood through that thing.
What a moment!
I was sitting there, playing this on the speaker system, it’s blasting and I’m crying. I got super excited. I took it down to her, played it for her in the studio. She gets super excited, we call Rob back and say, “We’re keeping it. Don’t change anything, we’re going to keep it the way it is.” … That’s how R. Kelly works. Very few people work that way. Pitbull, if Pitbull sends you something it’s perfect the way that he does it.
What other numbers do you have in that phone of yours?
I have Giorgio Moroder’s number … Evan Ross, who’s Diana Ross’ son. Jessy Terrero, the director of “Soul Plane.” will.i.am.
You graduated from Michigan State University and spent many years in Detroit. Would you want to work with Eminem?
I love Eminem. I actually DJed his EP release party at The Heidelberg in Ann Arbor. I was about 17 and he had put out an EP with the Bass Brothers. It’s called Slim Shady EP which got him signed to Dr. Dre. I used to be friends with Proof, Bizarre and those guys back in the day. I used to go to Saint Andrews Hall with DJ House Shoes and the guys from Slum Village back in the day when I was a kid. He’s incredible. I’m not the best hip-hop producer of all time.
Are you interested in doing more hip-hop?
I think everybody’s got their thing… jockeys aren’t good at baseball. They’re both sporting individuals, but they’re not always good at each other’s things. I just try and stick to my lane. Every once in a while I make something hip-hop. I think Eminem is one of the most talented writers in all of hip-hop history and by all accounts an amazing individual as well.
Did you make it to his recent concert?
I saw him and Jay Z in Detroit. I did tequila shots with him, Jay Z and Gaga backstage. It was pretty solid. Actually, he didn’t do the tequila shot. Jay Z, Gaga and I did the tequila shots. I think he was sober at that point.
Can you share a story behind one of your tatoos?
I have “Fortune Favors the Brave” tattooed really big across my chest. I got it when I was just starting to travel as a DJ back in 2005, 2004. I had opened a couple bars, I sold those bars and decided that I was going to start producing and DJing again. At the time I had two tattoos. I was in a hotel in Phoenix, Arizona and I saw a girl that had Gaelic written on her. I asked her what it was and she said, “Fortune Favors the Bold.” It was a crest from some Irish thing. I sat on it for a while. I decided I wanted to get it tattooed because I wanted to be tough, make decisions and be brave about what I decide to do in my life. If I want to do this now, I’m not going to quit again. I’m going to do it until something turns out. So, I took it to my buddy, my best friend, who’s a tattoo artist. He said, “If you’re going to get that tattooed on you, you can’t get it that small.” He drew it and it goes from this shoulder to this shoulder. That’s one of my favorites.
Do your parents like Trap music?
My parents aren’t very musical people. My dad used to listen to a lot of Motown soul stuff when I was a kid. My mom, she kind of just likes whatever the kids like, I guess. I’m the weird kid of the family for sure, but she’s a weirdo too. She embraces my weirdness and wishes she was as weird as me. She’s a great mom. The same thing with my dad. He’s a totally different dude than I am.
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
Drink with anybody dead or alive? This is something that would change on a regular basis for me. I think I’d rather have a drink with somebody who I disliked than somebody that I liked. Somebody like the CEO of Enron or Bernie Madoff. You have to be a special kind of asshole to do that to people. I would love to sit down and be like, “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
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