The world of music is full of stories about people whose lives change in miraculous ways after they've hit a low point, but such tales usually involve reformed addicts, not aspiring, ambitious producers. For most producers, the path to success involves steady, calculated, and methodical steps up the ladder, working with a progression of bigger and better artists until they've finally reached the top.
But that was not exactly the case with Nadir Kahyat, better known as RedOne (the name is his dedication to his best friend and inspiration, Reduan). RedOne was born and raised in Morocco where, as the youngest of nine children, he was exposed to an incredible variety of music from traditional Moroccan sounds to Abba, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Led Zeppelin. At 19 he made the unlikely move to Sweden to pursue a career as a musician. There, it was only after a few frustrating years playing in bands and yearning for greater creative freedom that he felt his true calling and changed gears to became a producer.
"I didn't want to be an artist anymore," he says. "I had so much music going on in my head and I wanted to play a lot of different styles. Being a producer allowed me to do that." One of RedOne's first commercial production efforts was with the Swedish singer Darin on the song "Step Up," which became one of the biggest hits ever in the Scandinavian country.
RedOne quickly achieved stunning success in Europe, including a Swedish Grammy, the Scandanavian Song of the Year award in 2005, and having his song "Bamboo" selected as the official melody of the 2006 FIFA World Cup. With those major accomplishments under his belt, he moved from Sweden to New York where his promising career abruptly came to a standstill. From that low point, having run out of money and resigned himself to returning to Sweden, it must have seemed like the success he dreamed of was forever out of reach. Little did RedOne know that he was just on the verge of a fortunate series of events that would see all of his hard work pay off, starting a remix for Jennifer Lopez, which led to him producing Kat DeLuna's debut album, which in turn led to him working with an up-and-coming superstar named Lady Gaga. And the rest, as they say, is history.
"I remember I was watching the movie Selena," RedOne says, recalling that moment when he felt ready to give up. "It was New Year's Eve of 2006, and I got very emotional because I realized that her success was not going to happen for me. That was the first time I had ever hit the bottom and said I couldn't do this anymore. Luckily, my wife convinced me to keep trying. She said that there were much worse things happening in the world. People were dying and fighting wars. She convinced me to stay three more months to see what happens. If things didn't work out after that we could always return to Europe and I could still find work as a producer there."
Whether it was a coincidence or fate, a few days later RedOne got a phone call from Epic Records president Charlie Walk asking if he would like to work on a remix for Jennifer Lopez, who happened to be the actress that portrayed Selena in the film that had effected him so strongly. RedOne submitted his remix a few days later, and although Epic initially turned it down they liked some of the other music that he was working on and played for them. That led to an introduction to Kat DeLuna, who had just signed to the label and was seeking producers.
"We went to the studio and did five songs in five days," says RedOne. "Her management loved the music and believed in the vision. Whenever I work with a new artist I think about who they are and what kind of sound they can have. It's never been about making them conform to who I am and my sound. I adjusted to her with this Latin rhythmic vibe that had the feeling of the music in the Selena movie. When I played the first song for Charlie Walk he stopped the music and said, ‘You're a genius! You found the sound for this girl.' That song was ‘Whine Up.' He told me to finish the album, so I went from being flat broke to getting paid to produce 12 songs."
"Whine Up" became an instant success, reaching #1 on Billboard's Hot Dance Club Play chart, #12 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, and #14 on the Pop 100 chart. "The song became the most requested song on (New York Top 40 station) Z-100," he recalls. "When it became the station's Number One song people started calling me and my management. I told my manager to get me work with signed artists so I would have the chance to make more hits."
However, the next artist that RedOne's management sent his way was not an established star but an aspiring artist named Lady Gaga who was still struggling to find her sound. "My first question was ‘Is she signed?'" says RedOne. "They told me that she had just got dropped but that I just had to meet her. They said she was a talented writer and a beautiful artist, and I should just talk to her for five minutes to see if I wanted to work with her. So I went to the city to meet her at the Sony building. She was cool. She told me how she loved rock, and she got me very inspired."
That five-minute meeting turned into an all-day session as RedOne and Lady Gaga hopped into a cab to head to the studio immediately. On the way there they talked about rock songs they liked, and Lady Gaga mentioned how she loved Mötley Crüe's "Girls, Girls, Girls." That inspired them to write the song "Boys, Boys, Boys," which they completed in the cab before they reached the studio.
"We just connected," says RedOne. "She played me her stuff and that got me inspired. I told her about my vision and what I thought we could do, and she loved it. We wanted to do something that was unique because I thought she was different than everybody else. It was an opportunity to do something very fresh. That day I felt like a new sound that hadn't been done before was born."
RedOne ended up producing and co-writing five songs on Lady Gaga's 2008 debut album The Fame, including the hit singles "Just Dance" and "Poker Face," which both peaked at Number One on Billboard's Hot 100 chart. His collaboration with Lady Gaga has resulted in several Grammy award nominations including Producer of the Year (Non-Classical), Record of the Year ("Poker Face"), Song of the Year ("Poker Face"), and Album of the Year (The Fame and The Fame Monster), as well as a Grammy award for Best Dance Recording ("Poker Face"). His chart-topping work with Lady Gaga has also led to work with a wide variety of leading artists, including Mary J. Blige, Enrique Iglesias, and Usher.
While RedOne has helped many artists from various genres, including R&B, hip-hop, Latin pop, and electro dance rock, develop their own individual identity and sound, his projects do share a common bond—an undeniably infectious sense of melody. "What I do is combine credibility with ear candy," he states candidly. "The mass population are not musicians, so you have to give the people something they can understand. I used to make very complicated music, but the average person wants music that just makes them feel good. When you go to a Lady Gaga concert and see the whole stadium singing and crying you understand what effect music can have on people. But the music should also have some substance, so I try to combine that with the ear candy.
"The melody has to be simple but credible," he continues. "The melody is the body of the song, so you need to have a hook that everybody can sing with you. It's not just about writing a good chord progression or a beat. So many of today's aspiring producers just focus on beats, but there's more to music than that. You need to learn everything you can about music and learn what all musicians do. You need to develop strong musical skills. I believe the best producers are the ones who are also musicians, and not just somebody who can create a beat. If you know about music it's going to open a lot more doors for you."
In addition to a good understanding of music, RedOne feels that it is crucial for producers to develop acute listening skills. He says that starting out with the best monitors you can afford can be very helpful for achieving that goal. "It's all about honesty when it comes to sound," he explains. "My favorite monitors are made by JBL, who have been making speakers for so many years. I know how something needs to sound, and that sound needs to be translated to the speaker. A lot of speakers make you think your mix sounds incredible, but when you play the music someplace else over a different system it's not like what you heard before. JBL speakers don't do that—they give me an honest, accurate depiction of how the music actually sounds and that I can trust when I play the mix through other speakers."
Like most of today's producers, RedOne works often with Pro Tools. However, he prefers to do most of his work with Apple's Logic Studio software on a Macintosh computer. "A lot of the plug-ins developed for Logic are perfect," he says. "One of my favorite plug-ins is the Lexicon PCM Native Reverb bundle. All of the great legends used Lexicon reverb, and now I have those same sounds in a portable rig, which is important for me because I travel a lot."
While RedOne's success has given him access to the world's greatest recording studios and the best imaginable gear, his favorite microphone for recording vocals remains one of his old standbys—an AKG C12. "The C12 is an incredible microphone that sounds beautiful," he explains. "I always have a vision of how I want the vocalist to sound, and the C12 almost always captures that. It captures a very honest, realistic sound, but it also sounds warm. When a singer already has a beautiful voice, you want to capture that but you also want to make him or her sound even better. When I record with a C12 it always does that."
RedOne may be best known for his role behind the recording console and as a collaborative songwriter, but he insists that he is a musician first and foremost. "I'm really just a guitar player," he says. "The song ‘Just Dance' is really just a rock song, but we used synths instead of guitars. The drums are rock drums instead of the usual dance rhythms. When we mixed that together it created a new sound.
"I was lucky to be a producer who really affected radio," he concludes. "Songs like ‘Just Dance' and ‘Poker Face' got resistance from radio at first because they were so different. But once they got an opening and radio stations started playing those songs everybody wanted that sound. It's an incredible feeling. Big DJs who are now producers have thanked me for opening the door for them because that style of music isn't just for remixes anymore."