Ricky Reed

Growing up surrounded by the Bay Area’s rich mix of hip-hop, pop punk, funk, and soul, a door opened for producer Ricky Reed when one of his productions found its way to Jason Derulo and became the mega-hit “Talk Dirty.” What followed were hits by Twenty One Pilots, Halsey, The Weeknd, and the inimitable Lizzo. He recently released The Room, an album recorded remotely in quarantine with a great collection of friends and artists.

We caught up with Ricky to chat about that first hit, his process, and the value of the hang.

You’ve been involved with all these huge records over the past few years, but that’s not how you started out. What got you interested in recording?

I started playing in bands in high school and was seeing bands play live, but I was raised on music videos and albums. [I’ve always loved] the experience of listening to big, blown-out rock productions from the ‘90s, plus hip-hop productions. I think that when I started making music in a band, it was making recordings that was all a one-to-one link. It wasn’t like I started writing songs in my room and then performing them at coffee shops. It was like, “No, I’m going to write a song and then I’m going to record it immediately, because that’s what my heroes do.” I would go into these local studios in the Bay Area. One was in Marin with a guy named Scott. I would watch him work in Pro Tools; watch him do his thing. I always knew what I wanted it to sound like, but I had to learn. Eventually he would have me come in on the weekends, to make $100 or $200 here and there, recording local punk bands and editing drums. This was before grid mode in Pro Tools, so editing drums to a click was one of the skills that I learned from doing that as my first job. It ended up being the basis for me to start to co-produce, and then eventually produce, my own bands’ records.

What style were you doing back then?

Oh, boy; we were all over the place. Largely pop punk, but with a real eclectic set of influences. I grew up in the Bay Area, in East Bay, and I was one of the only kids in my high school who listened to rock music. Our high school predominantly listened to hip-hop, so I was hugely influenced by hip-hop and by what my mom raised me on, which was a lot of Bay Area funk groups, like Tower of Power and Sly Stone. Even though my band at the time was largely rooted in a punk thing, there was hip-hop, funk, and soul around me. I was eager to incorporate as much as I could with my limited skill set.

You’re also working on a whole variety of styles of records now. You’re doing a Twenty One Pilots record, Halsey, The Weeknd, and Lizzo; all these different genres, although they have a common core.

Right. The fact that I am from the Bay Area is the bedrock foundation of what I do in the studio as a songwriter and a record producer to this day. If you look at the great San Francisco, Oakland, etcetera artists from as far back as Jefferson Airplane, Sly Stone, Digital Underground, and hip-hop, it’s all there. But a big influence, to me, was E-40 [founding member of The Click] and Too $hort. There is a thread that runs through all that music. I think those of us from the Bay Area, we have always felt, “We’re not L.A.; we’re not New York. We’re going to do things our own way.” We’re happy to lead with our different perspectives, and I think the Bay Area music scene, as far back as the mid-’60s, has led the national conversation because we’re different. We’re eclectic in all the ways, and I’m proud to be from where I’m from.

What do you think the record was where the switch flipped and you felt, “I’m a full-time record producer”?

Wow, I know exactly when it was. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it was “Talk Dirty” by Jason Derulo. It was my first hit. I had been pursuing a career as an artist and starting to dabble in producing for others, because I needed to have more irons in the fire. I was by no means financially set up, and I was starting get concerned about where it was all heading. All the records I had produced, up until that point – a lot of songs for pitch – I was trying to do what I thought people wanted. I was that person who looks at the pop music industry from the outside and thinks, “Oh, I could do this in my sleep.” The truth was I wasn’t putting my real taste and my real spin on what I was doing. I was trying to create a cookie cutter thing, because I thought that that’s what this industry runs on. I didn’t get it. “Talk Dirty” was a sample that an A&R [person] had played for me from this group called Balkan Beat Box. He said, “We’re working on this for Missy Elliott.” I thought “Wow, I love Missy Elliott.” I wasn’t thinking about what anyone else wanted. I thought, “I’m going to do my thing.” I didn’t overthink it. I flipped the sample, probably worked on it for three or four hours, sent it off, and about six weeks later I heard that Jason Derulo had cut it. About six months after that it came out in Australia and it starting taking off! Then, a few months after that, it took off in Germany, and then we released it in the States in January. Watching that song come all the way up, there was a moment where my manager pulled me aside, “You think maybe we ought to try this for a minute, this producing? Let’s chase this down for a year and see what happens.” I was still in the middle of fully pursuing my artist project, touring relentlessly, doing promo, and all that. My manager said, “There’s a door opening. Let’s walk through it for a minute and see where it goes.” That is a pretty clear turning point for when I started pursuing this.

I think many people don’t understand what you said, in terms of you producing a record, and it sounds like you were never even in the room with Jason.

Yes; oh, boy. Happy to. When you’re starting out, it’s common to create a beat that goes into an A&R’s computer with a whole big list of beats. Maybe that A&R is sending the beats to songwriters, maybe they’re sending the beats to artists themselves (if they’re songwriters). I had finished the demo of that beat and about six weeks later, a friend of mine, Evan Bogart, was privy to the situation. He said, “Hey, I heard that track you worked on, and I heard Jason Derulo singing on it.” I was like, “Oh, crazy. Wow. I can’t wait to hear it.” But I was not a part of writing the vocal, or writing the song. They got the song to a point where they liked it, then they sent me all his vocal stems and I integrated it into the track. I obviously made adjustments to the track to make the vocal fit. Then I believe we worked on one session for some additional ad-libs, or harmony, or something where I would have finally met him to bring it home. I was hundreds of miles away when they were sitting there thinking, “‘Talk Dirty to Me’ is a cool hook.” I didn’t even know he was working on it. In this industry, that’s something that you do have to become comfortable with in this process. Making great work, trying to stay around people you trust, and then letting some slack out on the leash and trusting that by maintaining good relationships with good people, you’ll find yourself coming out ahead and not getting burned or cheated.

What’s the balance of work for you, in terms of that versus being in the room and being more hands-on?

Pre-COVID I was in the room with the artist about 90 percent of the time. That situation was the result of hard work and perseverance, but also a decent amount of right place, right time, as well as my skill set being developed enough to make that opportunity work. I’ve learned, in the time since, that I can bring more value to a song and more value to the artist if I’m in the room. I can help push the ideas further, challenge the ideas, and not just make beats and fire them off. If I’m being honest, I like meeting people, hearing their stories, and helping them turn those into songs. I think that’s the way the best songs are made.

What’s a typical process like for you when you are in the room with somebody? How are you working together?

The most common thing is having artists come to my studio in Echo Park. I’ll get in and probably be there an hour before them pulling together a couple of instrumental ideas. Maybe there are a couple of little keyboard progressions or drum tracks. I also have a publishing company. I have a bunch of amazing producers and songwriters signed to me, so maybe I’ll go through some of their folders and think, “This preproduction might be interesting for this artist.” I’ll try to get anywhere between two and four pieces ready and on-hand that I think would be cool. When they come in, the goal is to talk for an hour or two. Whether it’s someone I’ve just met, or someone I’ve known for years, my philosophy is that you can only write the song of the day. The song of the day is the feeling that the artist has in their heart that day. If the artist is going through a terrible time, we’re not going to try to force a party song or something up tempo. If the artist is feeling light and bubbly, and they want to pound a cold brew and get silly, maybe a pop tune will come out. But the truth is, I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of anything good that wasn’t made in complete honesty and transparency, so it always starts with a couple hours of hanging. I like to listen to artists talk; listen to their language and word choices. A lot of times I’ll remember – or discretely write down – three or four sentences that an artist says while we’re hanging out. Then later I’ll say, “That thing you said about that person we’ve been talking about, that’s interesting to me, and you said it in this way that was so poetic.” Most artists speak in lyric and don’t realize it. We’ll try to get the DNA for a concept or a track from hanging out. Then making it tends to be the easier part. But it’s those first few hours where we learn what we’re going to do for the rest of the day.

Production is more than just the hands-on craft of actually doing music. Much of it is the human interaction, being a good listener, and being able to take that and channel it into something that becomes music.

Yeah, I totally agree. My philosophy has changed a little bit in the last five years or so, because I do pride myself on trying to challenge the artist, challenge the writers, and make something that’s better than it would have been. There were some sessions early on where we would talk and then I would push and push because I was like, “We need to get an A-plus song today. We need it.” I’ve gotten to the point now where I realize that, in a lot of cases, there is no scenario that exists in which you’re going to get an A-plus song that day. There are some artists where that person is going to need three, or four, or five days to open up, feel good, and get to that place we want to get to. I’ve started to realize that it’s more important for the artist to leave a session feeling good about themselves, and feeling good about the energy and the environment, than it is to grind on them to try to make something good on that first day. It’s so much better for them to leave being like, “Man, we didn’t get anything, but I am so pumped to come back here and work with all these people tomorrow, because I had so much fun!” Again, there you are in the position of not just being a people person and a little bit of a therapist, but you’re hosting a small party. You’re hosting a small gathering. Try to set the energy up so that people feel that!

I guess that’s a little bit of a luxury if you have some resources to take that kind of time. I’m imagining people sweating the clock and worrying about the money.

Right.

But you’re not making demos with whomever off the street...

You do have a good point. It’s admittedly much, much harder to keep your nerves about you as a producer. Man, when I was on the come-up, to realize I had a big opportunity in front of me, it took nerves of steel not to squeeze the situation to the point where it became unproductive, or to decide not to challenge people because I was also afraid of losing a great opportunity. It’s really hard for the developing producer without a lot of resources and finite amounts of time to create that energy that says, “Hey man, it’s all good. If we make something today, or don’t make something, it’s all good. I won’t even charge you if we don’t make something today. Don’t worry about it.” That is so hard to do. I remember how challenging it was when I was coming up in this. That challenge is even reflected today for me. There will still be situations I’m in with artists who I’ve always wanted to work with, A&R is breathing down my neck, and I still have to go in there with the artist and say, “Man, that A&R doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Let’s relax. It’s fine.” But, deep down, I’m thinking, “Fuck, how do we make this happen today?” It’s a tightrope. You have to both apply pressure and also let people feel like they’re at cocktail hour.

You recently did a record in quarantine collaboratively and remotely. Could you talk about that process and on the quality control of having different sources coming to you didn’t record.

Yeah. Are you familiar with the Pitch Shift Legacy in Pro Tools’ Audiosuite? It’s the most basic pitch shift plug-in. A friend of mine – Zac Carper, from the band Fidlar – for my birthday a couple years ago, he printed out a poster of the Pitch Shift Legacy and put it in a frame for me. The running joke that we’d always have was when something didn’t fit or isn’t right – or you have a vision for it, but it shouldn’t work – his words would always be, “You just jelly it in there.” You reshape it and mold the clay until you get the thing that you were trying to get out of it. This is something that I’ve done for years, because I’ve been trying to make professional-sounding recordings since I was 16 using early Fruity Loops in 2005 and GarageBand. I’m going to start with your second question and go back. I would take all these different parts I would get from people and, rather than focus on the need to have some cohesion – like from the mix engineer’s standpoint – I’d try to look at it as the unique situation of quarantine. These aren’t artists going into a local studio with this engineer or that engineer. These are artists who, I’d say 95 percent of them, are recording in their bedroom with their mic on whatever rig they have. There is a genuine beauty and almost an energy of love around how these are engineered. You’ve got a couple of these artist superstars singing into their laptops using GarageBand. I try to take that as a stylistic imperative to let the sonics glue to the song and fit the productions, even around the way these varying vocal sounds would be and everything. It was a great challenge, but really fun. The way the songs actually came together was honestly me texting my friends. I would have a livestream at night and say, “Hey, I’m going to work on something live tonight. Do you want to throw a vocal on this keyboard loop? Here’s a folder. If any of these speak to you, send me something back.” Even discovering a few artists on Spotify and DM’ing them on Instagram. “Here’re ten pieces. If you like any of these, maybe we could work on it together.” It was one of the most unique ways I’ve ever recorded before. To go full circle on our interview here, this was my first album as an artist in seven years since I’ve pivoted to becoming a producer full time.

How is creating your own record different from producing for others?

It was honestly not that different, because when I produce for others, I can’t take my own heart out of it. I let my instincts guide [the process]. There is a massive difference when I’m working with an artist and we’re combining our tastes. I want to make sure that the production is true to the emotion they’re expressing. But I have never considered myself or what I do as the end-all. Rather I think, “I’m in the service industry. I’m providing a thing for you, and as long as you’re happy I’m going to take myself out of it.” People don’t come to me because they want me to take myself out of it. They want me to try to lock arms and make something collaboratively. In making this album I let my taste and my instincts guide me. I think that one big thing is that, in finishing these songs, I didn’t have to do anything that felt compromising in any way. If you’re finishing an album for a superstar, there are going to be a couple cooks at the end. It was fun to say, “Is this speaking to me? Is this honest?” Yes. “Does it sound a little raw?” Yes, but it’s achieving the emotion. I want to leave it like that. That was a core difference and it made it so fun.

How do you reconcile working with multiple cooks when you and the artist think that the music is already done?

I believe it’s my job to protect the artist and the record from everyone. I think on paper my job is to work with the label and with the artist to make something that is great. But the artist knows what they want. They know what their fans like. I do find myself having to sometimes be a bit of a wall between the artist and the cooks. But I also don’t take on projects anymore that I know have a contentious relationship between the artist and the label. Life’s too short, and I try to suss that out in advance as much as I can.

Do you have any examples of times when artists stuck to their guns and ended up having a massive success, despite what the label wanted?

Wow, that’s a great question. Not exactly that, because I think for most of the songs that I’ve had great success with everybody’s felt the energy from that first demo bounce and said, “Go, go, go.” But I do think that you have a good example in my artist on Nice Life/Atlantic, Lizzo. When Lizzo made “Truth Hurts” in 2016, we were like, “This is the biggest song we’ve made.” The label was supportive. The fans loved it. But it didn’t do what we expected it to do. I’ll say it was so heartbreaking in the moment for her and me, because it was like, “What else can we do if this isn’t clicking?” We were blessed to have the song come back around the way it did and validate the fact that we were right. We knew it was a hit, and we were lucky enough that eventually it clicked and became what we always thought it was.

Do you have any other examples where you felt like it was a great piece of work but people weren’t ready?

Oh, dude, there’re so many. I definitely had songs come out where I didn’t think it was going to be big, and it wasn’t big, and that was fine. But, oh boy, I have had so many songs where I was like, “This is gonna change the game!” Three or four weeks later everyone’s pointing fingers at each other. “Well, radio didn’t try hard enough, or Spotify, or Apple Music.” It’s like, “Guys, the song was never meant to be, and it’s fine.” I’ve probably had that experience 20 times. It’s something you’ve gotta get used to, but it’s a good problem to have.

When you’re in the moment and you love a song, sometimes it’s hard to step back and see it from another perspective of why it wouldn’t be as successful as you thought it would be.

Yeah, completely. It’s something I try to do often; zoom out and get some opinions from other people around me. But if there’s a song that my friends are latching onto, that’s the best indicator. When we were finishing up “Truth Hurts” in 2016, my hairdresser, who never says anything about any of my songs that he hears, he said, “This is cool. What’s this one?” I’m like, “This is Lizzo. You met her the other night at the Mexican restaurant.” He said, “Oh, yeah. I like this one.” When I have those kinds of experiences, that’s the only time I would bet money on one of my songs, when the people around me say that.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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