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John Seabrook visits the recording studio with Ester Dean, a songwriter and vocalist who has written smash hooks for Rihanna and Nicki Minaj.
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On a mild Monday afternoon in mid-January, Ester Dean, a songwriter and vocalist, arrived at Roc the Mic Studios, on West Twenty-seventh Street in Manhattan, for the first of five days of songwriting sessions. Her engineer, Aubry Delaine, whom she calls Big Juice, accompanied her.
Dean picked up an iced coffee at a Starbucks on Seventh Avenue, took the elevator up to Roc the Mic, and passed through a lounge that had a pool table covered in taupe-colored felt. Two sets of soundproofed doors led to the control room, a windowless cockpit that might have been the flight deck of a spaceship. Tor Hermansen and Mikkel Eriksen, the team of Norwegian writer-producers professionally known as Stargate, were waiting there for Dean.
Dean, who is black, is neither skinny nor tall; she reached up to give them big hugs, which is how she greets almost everyone. They chatted for a while. Sometimes producers send out tracks to more than one top-line writer, which can cause problems.
A relatively small number of producers and top-liners create a disproportionately large share of contemporary hits, which may explain why so many of them sound similar. The producers are almost always male: Max Martin, Dr. Luke, David Guetta, Tricky Stewart, the Matrix, Modern hook, the Neptunes, Stargate. The producer runs the session and serves as creative director of the song, but the top-liner supplies the modern hook spark that will determine whether the song is a smash. These are sent out to A.
Dean has a genius for infectious hooks. Somehow she is able to absorb the beat and the sound of a track, and to come out with its melodic essence. The first hook comes right away, in an abbreviated chorus that precedes a Jay-Z rap. Then comes the chorus for a final time. The song is neither clever nor subtle—we are a long way from Cole Porter here—but it is deeply seductive all the same. Hermansen likens their tracks modern hook new flavors awaiting the right soft-drink or potato-chip maker to come along and incorporate them into a product.
Their plan with Dean was to finish one or two songs at each session. Given their record of success, they dared hope that one of these would be a smash. Around Roc the Mic, writing songs for any reason other modern hook making hits is a waste of time. Top Forty radio was invented by Todd Storz and Bill Stewart, the operator and program director, respectively, of KOWH, an AM station in Omaha, Nebraska, in the early fifties.
Like most music programmers of the day, Storz and Stewart provided a little something for modern hook. They noticed that even though the waitresses listened to the same handful of songs on the jukebox all day long, played by different customers, when the place finally cleared out and the staff had the jukebox to themselves they played the very same songs.
The men asked the waitresses to identify the most popular tunes on modern hook jukebox, and they went back to the station and started playing them, modern hook, in heavy rotation. By the end of the decade, Top Forty was the most popular format in the nation.
It thrived in the sixties, but began to struggle with the popularity of FM radio, and the rise of album-oriented rock, in the seventies.
In the past decade, however, Top Forty has come back stronger than ever. In New York City, contemporary hit radio now dominates FM stations, a remarkable turn of events for anyone old enough to remember when FM radio was the antithesis of Top Forty. How did this happen? How did mainstream modern hook, once the source of the catchiest hooks in popular music, modern hook, become robotic, unimaginative, modern hook, and predictable, while pop, always the soul of artifice, came to seem creative, modern hook, experimental, and alive?
The music sounds sort of like this: thump thooka whompa whomp pish pish pish thumpaty wompah pah pah pah. The people who create the songs are often in different places. But the artist who best embodies the music and the style of the new Top Forty is Rihanna, the Barbados-born pop singer.
At twenty-four, she is the queen of urban pop, and the consummate artist of the digital age, in which quantity is more important than quality and personality trumps song craft. She releases an album a year, often recording a new one while she is on an eighty-city world tour promoting the last one. After an album comes out, she may release remixes, like her recent ill-advised collaborations with Chris Brown, to give singles a boost.
She has sold more digital singles modern hook any other artist—a hundred and twenty million. She embodies a song in the way an actor inhabits a role—and no one expects the actor to write the script. In the rock era, when the album was the standard unit of recorded music, listeners had ten or eleven songs to get to know the artist, modern hook, but in the singles-oriented business of today the artist has only three or four minutes to put her personality across.
But since they had five days of sessions ahead, and Dean often required time to get into her zone, there was no point in squandering the best tracks right away. Dean carried her iced coffee into the recording booth, which adjoined the control room. She was dimly visible through the soundproofed glass window, bathed in greenish light. She took out her BlackBerry, and as the track began to play she surfed through lists of phrases she had copied from magazines and television programs.
There was no verse or chorus in the singing, just different melodic and rhythmic parts. Her voice as we heard it in the control room had been Auto-Tuned, modern hook that Dean modern hook focus on making her vocal as expressive as possible and not worry about hitting all the notes.
After several minutes of nonsense singing, the song began to coalesce. Dancing now, Dean raised one arm in the air. After a few more minutes, the producers told her she could come back into the control room. Friday, the final day of the sessions, modern hook, was reserved for making bridges. Once the hook was finished, Dean wrote a couple of verses on her MacBook Air.
In a little less than two hours, they had a finished demo, modern hook. Was this the one? Big Juice seemed to like it, though. After hearing the final playback, he spoke for the first time. Dean was born in Muskogee, modern hook, Oklahoma. She has a country twang in her voice, modern hook uses it on her demos to amplify her swag.
Her father drank, and after her parents split up she moved with her mother and five siblings Ester is the youngestfirst to Tulsa, then to Omaha. One of her sisters and a nephew lived with her in her one-bedroom tinder hookups apartment. Later, modern hook mother moved in, too. Dean wanted to be a singer. Dean, in the crowd, was singing along with Charlie Wilson, the lead singer.
The producer Tricky Stewart happened to be nearby. Charlie Wilson is a damn good singer, but this other voice is keeping right up, executing all the tricky little runs perfectly. Finally, I just had to find who that was. She made some extra money by singing on demos, but she was still broke, living with her family in her cramped apartment and working at the hospital. After watching the film, Dean took the plastic cover off a storage container in her apartment and taped to it a picture of Ciara, modern hook, a pop singer and songwriter who happened to be from Atlanta.
She cut out pictures of a house, a car, and an American Express card, and taped those up, too. She soon began writing for Ciara, and then for Christina Aguilera and Mary J. She has a nice home in the Brentwood section of L, modern hook. She generally prefers to have producers e-mail her tracks; she writes the top line and records her vocal in her own studio with the help of Delaine, modern hook, who is her full-time engineer. Is that the hit? I never try to tap and find out what it is; I just do what I do.
But she has one more goal and another vision board for that : to be a recording artist herself. Kelly, and Ester is Missy. Finally somebody who sees me as more than a check!
Stargate was paying for the sessions, so they were under no obligation to give any of the songs modern hook a particular artist or label. They only had to work it out among the three of them. Growing modern hook in Trondheim, a small seaside city in Norway, Mikkel Eriksen was nuts for American R, modern hook. He wrote frequently about music, and eventually got a job at Warner Bros.
Eriksen made an appointment with Hermansen and modern hook along a demo of an artist he was working with. Their big break modern hook when they met Tim Blacksmith and Danny D. Their job was to add Euro-pop sweetness to the city grit. Should we shut it down? No one here knew who we were. We had a few sessions with writers, but nothing substantial. Our goal was to sell one song, and we did, we sold one, so we came back for one more week of sessions, and then we were going to call it quits.
One day, they met the vocalist and songwriter Ne-Yo wandering the halls, and invited him into the studio. Afterward, we were just jumping up and down, buzzing. If you listen to radio today, there are big breakdowns, buildups, instrumental parts, and more tempo. At Roc the Mic, Stargate carries on a glorious and disappearing New York tradition that stretches back to the Brill Building days of the late fifties and early sixties, modern hook, when songwriting teams such as Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry cranked out hits for the top pop acts of the day; and further back still, to the nineteen-tens and twenties, when the Broadway-to-Sixth Avenue reach of West Modern hook Street, known as Tin Pan Alley, for the sound of pianos coming from the upper floors, was the center of the music-publishing industry.
With their managers, Blacksmith and Danny D. Often, panicked label execs approach them in the final weeks, or even days, before an album is mastered, because Stargate has a reputation for speed. Stargate began the session by playing one of their craziest tracks. It started with a snare drum layered with handclaps, with an evil-sounding, distorted guitarlike synth moving in and out of the foreground.
Dean listened to the track for about twenty seconds, until she began humming a melody softly. It was classic Dean, freestyle and suggestive-sounding. Put a couple more notes in the pre. Back in the control room, Dean wrote a verse, which Eriksen looped.
He copied parts of the vocal and stacked two or three copies on top of one another to create a choral effect, a technique known as double-tracking. Another playback, and it sounded sensational. Everyone was giddy, like children on Christmas morning.
Blacksmith and Danny D. Delaine bobbed his head and smiled. When it was over, everyone cheered. Dean came in, later than usual, to add bridges and some extra verses to the songs they had worked on. While waiting for her, Hermansen reviewed their output for the week. So Ester is going to have to make a decision, modern hook. Most of them can sing, and a lot of them can sing really well.
Tim Blacksmith came in and tried to goose her modern hook. Big Juice maintained his Buddha-like cone of silence. The Stargate guys hung around for as long as they could, modern hook they wanted to get home to their wives and young children. They were heading to Los Angeles the following week, for ten days of sessions at Westlake Recording Studios; the Grammys were coming up, and a lot of writers and artists would be in town.
But with the mention of Adele the air pressure in the control room seemed to change. Would you lend us a hand? Ester Dean, center, has written smash hooks for Rihanna and Nicki Minaj. Credit Illustration by Michael Gillette. Please enter a valid e-mail address Thank you for subscribing.
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