Ambition and talent can take you a long way, as Alex Da Kid has discovered on his journey from the football pitch to the recording studio.
My whole aim has always been, even when I was still in the UK and hadn't come to America yet, to make it in the world. I never thought that making it in the UK would amount to a success. I want to make music that dominates popular culture in the world, not just in one country. Being in America definitely helps with that, because everyone looks to America. It's all about doing things on a big scale.”
Not long ago, Alexander Grant, originally from Wood Green in London, was a semi-professional soccer player for Championship League team Bristol City. Yet he is now talking on the phone from Los Angeles, where he has 15 or so people helping him run his production company and record label, a permanent lock-out at a top-flight studio to cater for his numerous music writing and production projects, and hangs out with the likes of Eminem and U2. All this reflects the fact that Grant, better known as Alex da Kid, was the (co-) writer and (co-) producer of four tracks that topped the international charts during 2010: BoB's 'Airplanes', Diddy-Dirty Money's 'Coming Home', Dr Dre's 'I Need A Doctor' and Eminem and Rihanna's 'Love The Way You Lie'. The last went to number one in more than 30 countries, and was the biggest UK hit of last year.
The path from professional football player to million-selling record producer is not exactly a well-trodden one. So what, exactly, happened? The now 27-year-old takes it from the top. Amazingly, but quite appropriately for the periodical you are reading, he blames everything on a piece of software: "The football thing didn't quite happen, and when a friend gave me [Image Line's] Fruity Loops when I was 19, I fell in love with making music there and then. My father's from Jamaica and my mother is English, and I grew up listening to all kinds of music, but I never understood anything about the making of it. But Fruity Loops taught me about the different parts that make up a song, and I realised that I just wanted to make music.”
Having discovered some of the basics about making music, early visions of world domination formed in Da Kid's head. Every teenager who has picked up a musical instrument will have occasionally dreamed about mega stardom, but few get serious about it. Even fewer will pursue their dream with Da Kid's persistence, single-mindedness and strategic nous. The former Londoner first made sure that he got both the skills and the contacts he needed, and he then worked both relentlessly. He recalls, "I did an Audio Technology degree at Thames Valley University, and I got some work experience at MTV and as an intern at Island Records, where I met someone from Metropolis Studios, who I hassled for a job. I worked at Metropolis throughout my degree and a year afterwards as well, from 2003-7. I loved it. I was a gofer the whole time. I didn't have the ambition to become an engineer, I just wanted to be in the studio environment and do my own thing, focusing on the creative, music-making side. I never sat behind a console officially, but at night time, when nobody was there, I'd use the studios and learn stuff. I was in Metropolis 18 hours a day, and I read Sound On Sound non-stop!”
For all these years that Da Kid was cutting his teeth in London, he was also biding his time, fully aware that his future lay in the US. While still at university, he made several trips to New York, planning his next step. He says that he didn't know anyone over there, but "would just go over and network”. In 2008, he moved to New York, and his big break came almost immediately, when one of his British friends, who manages Estelle, arranged for one of his tracks to appear on Kardinal Offishal's Not 4 Sale album, which meant that Da Kid was suddenly rubbing shoulders with big-name co-producers like Akon, Boi-1da and Supa Dups. Soon afterwards, Da Kid signed a publishing deal with Universal Records and enlisted his manager Marc Jordan, who introduced him to Swizz Beatz. The top producer apparently was so impressed with Da Kid's roughs that he spent a whole day listening to them. "He kind of took me under his wing and helped me out and things slowly started coming into place. Eight months after I had moved to New York, I moved to Los Angeles.”
Last year proved to be his big year. He recalls: "I had done Nicki Minaj's first single, 'Massive Attack', and then 'Airplanes' was a big commercial success, which brought me into touch with Eminem, and Dr Dre and so on. My whole career has been about steady progression, but last year everything definitely came to fruition. I now have a publishing company [Wonderland Entertainment] and a joint label venture with Jimmy Iovine [KIDinaKorner], and, well, I love it. This is what I do all the time. I don't socialise, I don't do anything else. I love doing this, and I'm really grateful. Now I have the record label there's a lot more business, and there are always several things going on at the same time. I also have one or two writing sessions a day, making tracks with other people. It's crazy, and it'll usually be three o'clock in the morning when I start winding down.”
Clearly, Da Kid's single-mindedness, hard work and strategic thinking have handsomely paid off. But what about that other ingredient, talent? Even the cynics who claim that the pop side of the music industry is all about bluff and bluster will admit that some people, somewhere, need to have musical talent to put these tracks together. It's certainly clear from Alex Da Kid's work that in his case, talent and musical ability aren't in short supply. Outspoken Los Angeles super-mixer Dave Pensado is a fan, and in his on-line talk-show, Pensado's Place, explains that Da Kid's tracks contain a much wider variety of influences and musical colours than is normal in the American hip-hop/R&B genre, and that his tracks are extremely well made and require very little, if any, polishing in the final mix stage.
Pensado's guess that Da Kid's eclectic approach originates from his English background, where there's much more crossover between different musical genres and cultures than in the US, is confirmed by the man himself. "Definitely. Although I was strongly inspired by American music when I grew up, I also listened to grime and to a lot of European dance music, and my Dad would play a lot of reggae and dub music and my mother listened to soul, and so on. So I definitely have a very eclectic musical background. I always wanted to combine different things. I don't want to do just one thing. When I first arrived in the US, some people got that and some people did not, but gradually they also realised that it was something that made sense and that would sell. America is changing now. Even couple of years ago it was still very segregated, and there was very little real mixing of genres, but because of the Internet, people are not just into one thing any more. In the past you had to rely on the radio to hear new music, but now people are able to find out about new music and explore it in ways that they never were able to, and they are becoming way more educated. Especially the kids here now listen to lots of different genres.”
"I do most of my writing work on my laptop,” explains Alex Da Kid. "I like the fact that I can work anywhere. If I'm wandering around, or being driven around LA, I'll have my laptop and a 25-note MIDI keyboard with me — at the moment it's an Akai controller. I take my laptop everywhere with me, it's my baby! At my house I have a small setup with KRK V8 and NS10 monitors, my laptop, a controller, a [Mackie] Big Knob, and some hard drives. I do everything in the box, which means that everything I need is just a click away. If I was to use a larger rig to write on, any good ideas that I would want to record quickly might get lost. So I don't want that. I try to work on it every day, because if you don't, you risk losing your rhythm. When you work every day, the ideas come quicker and easier. I like the restriction of only working on a laptop. It means that you maximise your skills. I love restrictions, because they force you to find unique solutions to problems. Every track is a combination of inspiration and trying to solve problems, working out how to get from A to B. The way you solve these kind of problems determines your sound, and when you restrict yourself, you solve problems in different ways and get more unique sounds than other people.
"When I begin a new track, I will usually spend a couple of hours making my own loops. Or I'll program a drum pattern. It's something that comes very natural to me. I'll come up with a decent drum pattern in 10 minutes most of the time. I'll use my own drum sounds, which I've collected from live recordings I've done over the years, at Metropolis, at home, and so on. I have terabytes and terabytes of stuff, so I never spend much time looking for sounds. I use EXS24 and [Native Instruments'] Kontakt. I used to use [NI's] Battery, but I've gone off that a little bit. A lot of the time I will take raw audio files and simply place them in the track. I'm so used to it that I can just visually do it. Sometimes I don't even play them! After dragging the stuff in, I'll process the hell out of these sounds to make them sound different. I'll put a lot of effects on the snare, and I'll put the snare through another set of processing, and I may go on and on and on. Some things may have five or six rounds of processing and I'll have something unique that no one has ever heard before. Often I'll go back to an old song I did and take the snare or hi-hat, which has already been processed a bunch of times, and I'll stick it in a new session and will process it again. After a couple of hours or so, I'll bounce everything down to a stereo file, and I'll chop the loop up in Logic, as if it was a pre-existing loop. I now also have extensive libraries of my own loops. I don't use regular loops and I also try to stay away from presets, whether with drums or synth sounds.
"I also definitely spend a lot of time mixing, and it means a lot that Dave [Pensado] says that my rough mixes are great. I don't like to just create an idea and then just leave it to the mixer to decide what goes where and stuff. I put my ideas in the demo so they understand where they can be creative and where they should stick to the rough. Dave has mixed a lot of my stuff, but recently I've used Spike [Stent]. I've used him for the Skylar [Grey] stuff.”
At some stage, Alex Da Kid needs to take his tracks out of their virtual world and get them to interact with the real world, by adding 'real' instruments, and singers and rappers. These days this happens mostly in his studio in Los Angeles. "I have taken over one side of a commercial studio complex, and it's like a smaller version of Metropolis — I don't want to say which studio, because I'll have people coming knocking on the door! I take what I do at home to this studio, where we have everything. I have an office, where I also have a laptop, monitors and a controller, the Oxygen 61PE, and I'll have songwriting sessions with artists there. The artist may then record vocals in the room below, with my engineer, into Pro Tools. There are sessions all the time, and I'm getting a lot of songwriting done.
"My songs often have real bass, but I don't replace it, I use real bass from the beginning. I have the Symphobia library and Hollywood Strings and so on, and if you spend time on articulation you can get really good-sounding string parts. I rarely have strings out in the open in my tracks, usually they're embedded in the track, and you're not going to hear the difference between that and spending 100 grand on a real orchestra. But if a track needs it, I'll do it. Live guitar is definitely an element that I try to bring in and that I wanted to bring back to hip-hop. Simple parts I'll play myself — like the acoustic guitar in the verse in 'Love The Way You Lie', that was played by me on a £75 Argos guitar, which was the first guitar I ever bought! I recorded that when I was still in London. I recorded it with a [Neumann] U87 and an [Avid] M Box, which is what I had at the time. If I play guitar it takes me forever to edit it afterwards, and it's a lot quicker if I use my guitar player. I still use several musicians in London, and if I need real guitar or a string player or whatever, we will go over the parts with them using Skype, and they will then record their parts in London, where I have an engineer, and he'll send me the final files.”
These days, individual songs have increasingly long lists of writers and producers. One person may write part of the backing track, another the verse, a third the chorus, while those that wrote the original sample need to be credited, as does Joe from across the road who happened to drop by and hummed a bridge pattern, and so on, and on. The track 'Airplanes', for example, lists five writers: Jeremy Dussoliet and Tim Sommers of hip-hop duo Kinetics & One Love, who wrote the chorus, Bobby Simmons aka BoB, who wrote the rap, DJ Frank E, and Alex Da Kid. The final two also produced. Many of Da Kid's recent songs, meanwhile, are written together with singer-songwriter Skylar Grey, his first signing to KIDinaKorner records.
Da Kid: "The 'Airplanes' track was unusual because I created the backing track around the hook. There were a bunch of people involved, but I don't normally take an existing song and then redo it. I generally don't have that many writers credited on my songs. I had the track for 'Love The Way You Lie' for a while, and then Skylar wrote the vocal hook — it was the first time we worked together. I managed to get the track to Eminem and he loved it and recorded it with Rihanna. Diddy-Dirty Money's 'Coming Home' and Dr Dre's 'I Need A Doctor' came into being in a similar fashion. I have the basic track and then Skylar will write the hook, and then I'll give it to whomever, whether Eminem or Dr Dre, and we make it work. I wanted to replace my acoustic guitar playing on 'Love The Way You Lie', but Em liked my demo version and didn't want me to change it.”
While 2010 signified an amazing peak in Da Kid's career, 2011 has seen him branching out into other genres. Skylar Grey lists Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Sarah McLachlan as her favourite artists, while Alex co-produced 'Rise Above', the lead single from Bono and The Edge's rock musical, Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark.
"U2 had an eight-minute version of the song, and Bono called me and asked me whether I could make a version for radio. So I went to New York and sat down with the guys and had some ideas for the verses that padded the song and we also recorded a bunch more guitars. Coming from hip-hop and then working with U2 was just a great experience. And I love working with different people, and in different styles. When I first met Skylar she knew nothing about hip-hop, she didn't even know who Dr Dre was, so I'm taking what she does and bringing it in a different world. That's what I like to do. I like to take people from different backgrounds and bring them together to create something new.
"One of my goals is definitely to break down the segregation in music and to create music that's influenced by everything. Like everyone can relate to 'Love The Way You Lie', because it has rapping, and acoustic guitars and strings and an electric guitar in the chorus. I try to combine elements from everywhere. It's the way things are going. Information is so readily available that I think everything is going to become one thing. It's not like you're going to have English music and American music and African music any more. People everywhere will be into everything. The way that technology is moving, by the time I'm 50 or 60, the world will be a completely different place.
"I produced Skylar's forthcoming album [Invincible], and it has hip-hop influences and alternative rock influences and so on. She wrote almost everything herself and I think she's an amazing artist and writer. Potentially she could be iconic. I'm looking for people who can write and who can be different and who can become big. Doing a whole album was definitely new challenge — and I like new challenges! It's definitely another step in my career. But a large part of this year was taken up with doing Skylar's album, as well as doing the label deal and taking care of all sorts of business. Hopefully, I'll have a really successful album with Skylar, and now that it's finished I'm back in writing singles mode again, with other people. Towards the end of this or the beginning of next year, I'll hopefully be having hit songs out again. It takes a while for things to happen...” Looking at Alex Da Kid's success story, it appears that he understands this better than most.
Fruity Loops and its descendant FL Studio have introduced many would-be musicians to production, among them Alex da Kid. "When I first used Fruity Loops I didn't play any instrument, but today I can play a little bit of keyboards, guitars, and other stuff. I had a really good tutor at university who was signed to EMI Music Publishing, and he showed me how to use Logic, which I continue to use today. For me Logic is a more comprehensive version of Fruity Loops. Once I saw how my tutor used Logic, I bought a G5 and spent two years getting into it and learning the fundamentals. When I came to America I initially didn't meet anyone who used Logic, but I know now that a lot of people use it for programming and they use Pro Tools for recording vocals and stuff. A lot of people even use Fruity Loops again today, because it's become more comprehensive! But there's no pressure for me to switch to Pro Tools; people understand better these days that producers and beat makers often use Logic.
"Every month or every two months I'll take another soft synth, and I'll read the manuals and I'll watch the YouTube videos on it, and I'll go really deep into it. I may create a whole track just using that one synth. I'm really into Rob Papen's Blue synth at the moment; you start with a sine wave and then you create your own sounds and do crazy stuff to it. I also use the Tone2 Gladiator, and the Antares Moog stuff, and Logic synths like the ES2. For the piano I use the EXS24. Many of the things I use are used by everyone, but I try to make it sound different. Technology is a huge part of my life. I love it. I'm really hooked on inventors that invent new stuff. I'm a fan of technology in general, and try to keep up to date, which is hard sometimes, because I'm so busy with everything else, and technology moves so quickly.
"As for the processing, I frequently use the Logic plug-ins, as well as plug-ins by Waves, PSP and Korg. But in general I also like using stuff by small, independent software developers. Often it'll only cost 100 bucks or something. They're not expensive, but are different. Like Sugar Bytes make the Thesys, which allows you to trigger in super-weird ways. I use tons of different things, and am always on the lookout for new things.”