Gaga, J.Lo and Enrique may throw him props, but this musicmaker likes being the force behind the fame
by LORRAINE ALI
Ever wonder how Lady Gaga morphed from a coffeehouse artist to, well, the little-monster wrangler she is now? Or why Enrique Iglesias has renewed cachet? Or why the world is once again listening to New Kids on the Block?
The answer—at least part of it—is producer-songwriter RedOne, aka Nadir Khayat, who seems to churn out hits more often than Rihanna changes hair color. Essentially, the unassuming Morocco native can make just about anybody sound like the human embodiment of a nonstop party. Just ask Jennifer Lopez, whose current RedOne-produced single, “On the Floor,” is one of her most successful songs ever.
While he always knew he had it in him, others weren’t so sure. It wasn’t all that long ago that he had no work, slept on a leaky air mattress and owed rent. And then his song “Bamboo” beat out more than a thousand contenders to become the official tune for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, not to mention a superhot mashup by Shakira. With those struggles now behind him, 39-year-old RedOne talks about his former life as a Swedish rocker, his beef with Lionel Richie and how he helped create the force that is Gaga...
What projects are you working on right now?
Wow, lots! I’m finishing the Enrique Iglesias/Usher single featuring Lil Wayne...and Pitbull’s single. There’s New Kids with Backstreet Boys—I did a song for them. And then there’s the artists from my own label.
Sure, you help make records, but how exactly would you describe your job as producer?
I represent the artists through sound and emotion. I am there to amplify, on a big scale, who they are. I never want to have the artist adjust to my sound—I need to adjust to who they are and get things out of them they don’t even know are there.
You’ve worked with so many big names—from U2 to Akon to Michael Jackson. Is it hard moving from genre to genre?
No. Growing up in Morocco, I was exposed to every type of music there is. You’d hear flamenco, rock, even different Moroccan styles. We’d get it from Africa, Europe, America. That helped me have an ear for different sounds.
Is there one component that makes for a good song?
Melody is the key. Growing up, I didn’t speak English. The only thing I could feel was the melody and the rhythm of the lyrics, and that was enough.
Wow, you were even paying attention to song structure back in grade school.
Ha, yes! I used to analyze every song and get mad when they didn’t do what I thought they should have. Like Lionel Richie—he sings, “Say you, say me,” and it sounds beautiful, but then this up-tempo thing comes marching in, and it’s like, Why?! Later on, in my band [SubCulture], I was always telling everyone what to do—in a nice way, of course.
What was the catalyst for starting a band?
My brother brought me a cassette of the band Europe—“The Final Countdown.” I started playing guitar nonstop and practiced like crazy for two years. When my family realized what I wanted to do, they helped me move to Sweden.
A lot of good music comes from there—ABBA, Roxette. But I also struggled a lot there. I washed dishes for a living, then sold vegetables outdoors in the winter for $40 a week. I slept on people’s floors. But I couldn’t go back to Morocco without “making it,” so I changed my name—my best friend’s name was Redouan, so RedOne is sort of a play on that—and looked forward to my one “happy moment” a week: performing with my band on Saturday night. I had long, curly hair back then. [Strokes his bald head.]
How did you make the jump from playing big-hair rock to producing Euro-pop?
My band broke up after a record deal gone bad, and I felt destroyed. Then in 1996, I met a pop-music producer at a party and gave him my demo. We started working together, and I learned more about how you make music on a computer. I had so much music in my head I thought, I don’t want to be a musician anymore—I want to be a producer and work with different artists. So that’s what I did.
You wound up becoming a successful producer in Sweden with bands like the A-Teens. What compelled you to start anew in America?
Because when I’d go back to Morocco every summer, nobody had heard anything I’d done. I was like, “Really? I’m making hits in Sweden.” They were like, “Sure you are.” I realized I had to make it in America to make it everywhere else.
The official World Cup melody “Bamboo” was your global hit. Did that help give you more of a name outside Sweden?
Well, in Morocco but not in the U.S. [Laughs.] Soccer doesn’t carry much weight here. My wife and I lived in New York for two years—in an apartment with an air mattress, TV and nothing else. By the beginning of 2007, we were two months behind on rent. I broke down and cried and thought, I can’t take it anymore. But my wife borrowed $3,800 from her sister and said to give it three more months.
As fate would have it, you then had your first U.S. hit—Kat DeLuna’s “Whine Up” in 2007.
Yes. I was like, Thank you, God. Now I can eat and pay rent.
How did you wind up working with Gaga?
She was then a developing artist who had been dropped by her label. I really didn’t want to work with any more unsigned artists, but my manager convinced me to meet her. We hit it off immediately. The first day we went in the studio, we made “Boys Boys Boys.” That’s when her sound was born. I felt like this was a special thing—and she got signed to Interscope.
What does the name of your label, 2101, mean?
It’s the apartment number of the place where we lived with the air mattress. It makes me laugh, because now, all these people are like, “Hey, 2101—I want in!”
Who’s on your roster?
This Congolese/Swedish dance artist Mohombi, and there’s a singer from Detroit named Porcelain Black. If Marilyn Manson mated with Britney Spears, she’d be the baby. I also have a British rock band, Dive Bella Dive.
You also do some nonprofit work through your new 2101 Foundation?
Yes, there are a lot of disadvantaged kids who need help realizing their dreams, so that’s part of the aim. I’m also involved with A Place Called Home, a safe haven for kids in South L.A. They offer sports, food and even classes on how to make music.
What makes for your happy moments now?
When a song is done and sounds amazing. Like J.Lo’s “On the Floor”—it was a hit to us before anyone else knew it existed. We went crazy when we heard it.
Do you like the current idea of producer as celebrity?
In some cases, they get more recognition than the artists they work with. Our job is to make the artist shine. If the artist becomes successful with our music, that’s the recognition right there. Being recognized is cool, but it’s not like, “Yes—I’m a star!” At a younger age, I wanted that, but I like my life the way it is now.
RedOne on Lopez’s “On the Floor”: “It was a hit to us before anyone else knew it existed.”
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