There’s a lot that’s been said and written about the singers and rappers who have hit records, but behind those hits are hardworking songwriters and producers who are instrumental in building the songs you play on your iPods. Neon Limelight had the pleasure of speaking with hit-making music architect and veteran, Jim Jonsin, and boy did we learn a lot.
The super-producer, who is responsible for mega-hits including TI’s “Whatever You Like”, Lil’ Wayne’s “Lollipop”, and Nelly’s comeback hit, “Just A Dream”, has worked with a number of superstars including Beyonce, Britney Spears, Eminem, J. Lo, and Kelly Rowland, just to name a few.
Jonsin, whose early musical activities included DJing and rapping long before becoming a multiple BMI Award winner and Billboard’s #3 Hot Producer of 2009, talked with us about his process in collaboration as a producer, the genre-crossing turn many of your favorite artists are taking in their music and why, the evolution of his RebelRock Entertainment artist and protégé B.o.B, how a lawsuit over the biggest hit of 2009 may have affected his professional relationship with Lil’ Wayne, and what’s in store for J. Lo, Britney Spears, Kelly Rowland, and many others.
For an informative and insightful look behind the scenes from one of music’s top creative minds (responsible for a number of your favorite songs in the past or currently at the top of the charts) check out our interview with Jim Jonsin below:
Neon Limelight: So you’ve been in a lot of different areas from being a DJ, to being an engineer, being a writer, being a rapper and doing your own thing to transitioning into your role as a producer?
Jim Jonsin: Yeah, I did a rap thing. I had a label deal. I signed out in Santa Barbara, CA as a rapper back in the early 90s. So I did rap. I’m not the best rapper at all, but I did that and produced all my own music and I learned how to engineer back then. I did a lot of mixes and engineering for Slip-N-Slide. For Trick Daddy, Trina, Rick Ross…
NL: So you kind of just jumped into music on your own? Just out of an interest on your own? Not really necessarily for work purposes, and it just kind of spun into its own—
JJ: Right. I loved it at the beginning, just to do it. It wasn’t about business. It was more like, “yeah man, let’s make some music.” Save our money, go in the studio, whatever it took.
NL: You being a producer of multiple hits, especially throughout 2008 and 2009, I’m sure people come up to you wanting specific sounds that are very similar to the hits that you’ve made for other people, other artists. How are you able to pull together a sound for a specific artist that is unique to them, fits that particular artist, but still resonates the strengths and sounds you’re known for?
JJ: Well, I think the sound that I’m known for changes. Because, if you listen to “Whatever You Like”, “Lollipop”, and “Kiss Me Through The Phone”, they have that similarity, right? If you listen to Beyonce’s “Sweet Dreams”, it has nothing to do with any of those. Eminem’s record, and Kid Cudi’s record, it sounds nothing like anything. I’m a producer who kind of gets into the artist and their sound, and tries to just enhance it in my way. Just kind of, my own way of making their sound merge with whatever I would do. It’s a marriage, and I really like to take what they bring and make it better. I like to try to make it radio friendly, and I like to not compromise what they have in their sound. I don’t like changing people’s sound. If you listen to T.I.’s song, (DJ) Toomp has, for a long time, been doing that type of music. A lot of that influence came from him. So I just kind of did something that felt like T.I. and Toomp, but with my own touch to it.
NL: When it comes to writing and collaborating with certain artists, do you find that you cater your pen to them (their personalities/experiences) more, or pull from your own to provide them with a theme, story in the song that will resonate more with a broader audience?
JJ: I definitely like to get into their zone. To hear what they’re living, what they’re going through, that type of stuff. And also for music, I like to just get more in tune to whatever their album is about. For example, Cypress Hill had recorded the majority of their album before we worked. And I had the pleasure to sit down and listen to it. They played me some of the songs, and I got to feed off of that, and then compliment it the way I felt best.
NL: (Working with Eminem on Recovery, I read ) You talked about it being great working with him because he’s a producer, too, and knows what he wants. Is it easier for you to work with an artist that allows you to take the lead in terms of writing and production, or do you like it when the entire process is more collaborative in terms of the artist knowing what they want on both fronts? In terms of how the music is going to sound and what they’re trying to say?
JJ: Well, I like both, but I’ll tell you what , I like to take the lead more than to have to share it because sometimes it takes one person to make that choice. And a lot of the times, the artist gets, you know, loving whatever they’re doing, and sometimes it doesn’t work. So, I like to try to take the lead, but when you have somebody as talented as someone like Eminem, you know, you’re in a room with somebody who knows how to make hit records. So, I don’t try to argue, I try to kinda hear him out. What he wants to do, and I just try to give him my input also. It’s kind of hard working with people like that, it’s not that easy to collaborate.
NL: Yeah, because, you know how to make hit records too, clearly!
JJ: Yeah, I think my gift, to be honest with you, is the gift of communicating and being able to make people comfortable. You know, I’m a chameleon. You can be a hip-hop artist, crazy, into something I’m not even into, and I can find a way to get you interested in whatever it is that I’m doing. And then also kind of complementing with it whatever it is you want to do. I don’t like to just force anyone to do what I want to do. I like it to be a collaborative effort, but when the artist isn’t listening and doesn’t want to do what I feel can be a hit record, it’s very frustrating.
NL: So in times like that, you know, you obviously signed up for a creative relationship with somebody. Have you ever had experiences where it’s just not working and then you just kind of move on? Like “Okay, I’m not going to be able to work with you.”
JJ: Yes. I don’t think that I won’t be able to work with them, but I think it takes time sometimes and the realization that, “Hey, if I’m not really figuring it out, maybe I should listen to this person.” And sometimes artists are stubborn, and we’ll get them to come around. We have good relationships. I don’t want to say any names, but there’s some that I felt we’ve had amazing songs that they weren’t interested in cutting, that sometimes labels have to force them to do, you know? It’ll come around.
NL: Listening to old-school B.o.B with tracks like Haterz, etc. and just to see his evolution to his national debut so well received and so reflective of such a great variety of genres of music in hip-hop, how does it make you feel as someone involved from the start to foster the development of the artist and see it come to light?
JJ: It feels amazing. B.o.B is a good friend of mine. When we signed this deal I knew where it was gonna turn, because he was such a talented guy. And I’d hope to say that a lot of the influence in his career, musically, came from collaborative work and introducing him to different people and music and songs, and I think that he’s learned a lot working around different people, including myself. When we first started working to where we are now, I gotta be honest with you, as far as his talent goes, it isn’t that far away from where it was when we signed him. But his sound has definitely graduated, and I think it’s so great to see it. To see him prosper and do well, because he’s such a good person, such a good kid. It feels like your son. Like your son graduated from college and is off and running.