Ever since the newest generation of pop music critics elevated top 40 producers to the level of auteurs, a cabal of name-brand songsmiths — Max Martin, Dr. Luke, Stargate — have become almost as well known for their styles and eccentricities as the stars for whom they produce.
Yet even within this motley group of A-list hitmakers, few seem to be following a less predictable path than Nadir “RedOne” Khayat.
With a bevy of projects due to hit in the new year, the Moroccan-born producer has largely resisted coasting on his early success with Lady Gaga — with whom he produced and co-wrote six top 10 singles and won two Grammys in a matter of just two years — and seems set on a course further and further away from the safety of the U.S. pop charts.
Kickstarting his personal 2101 label, which he runs in partnership with Universal Music Group, Khayat is busy prepping material for a roster including Congolese-Swedish singer Mohombi, Aussie DJ-popper Havana Brown and Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra — none of whom can yet get arrested Stateside, but all of whom have wracked up hits abroad with Khayat’s help.
Closer to home, he’s also launched an unexpectedly successful foray into Latin pop music, with new projects with Enrique Iglesias, Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez all scheduled to hit in 2013.
And even when it comes to domestic stars, Khayat’s most head-turning new venture involves not a fresh-faced pop starlet, but rather Cher, whose first album in over a decade is set to feature RedOne compositions and production.
According to Khayat, the key throughline common to all these projects is his “passion” for the respective artists, a word that appears in roughly a quarter of the sentences he speaks.
Interviewed during a break in recording with Jason Derulo, Khayat was an enthusiastic presence, bouncing around on the couch with palpable excitement when a favorite topic was broached.
“My personal school is the old-school: Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder…real music,” Khayat said, with a hint of irony. “That’s what I have in my personal suitcase when I travel around. But hearing what people are listening to in different countries always gives me new licks, new drum patterns, new ingredients.… The melody is a universal language, while the styles are changing everywhere you go.”
In addition to his internationalism, Khayat credits his versatility to his extremely simple songwriting methods: he typically writes on an acoustic guitar, without a mind to the elaborate studio cookery that will come later, and often demos with old-school garage band-style recordings. (A rough song demo he played on his phone — featuring himself on guitar and vocals — was endearing in its sloppiness, yet the roots of a polished radio hit were clearly present somewhere beneath.)
“I think (my style) has everything to do with my rock background,” he conceded. “Every instrument — whether it’s a kick drum or a snare of a guitar or a synth — has to have an identity. It can’t just be a low sound in the (bass frequency), you have to hear a bass… I’m not a dance music producer. I’m a musician.”
Though he turns down lucrative offers to DJ or make personal appearances — “I have no passion for DJing,” he explained — Khayat nonetheless lives large portions of his life on the road, both to keep tabs on local styles and simply to get into the same room with his ever-mobile artists. To that end, he owns multiple studio spaces in Madrid, Morocco, the Netherlands, Paris, and no less than five in L.A. (“But none in London,” he noted sadly, “I have to rent there.”)
Frantic though his schedule may get, Khayat said he rarely commits to anything more than two weeks ahead of time, allowing him the flexibility to jump on unexpected openings.
“Nicki Minaj called us on Christmas Eve last year, needing one last single for her album,” recalled Khayat’s manager Alan Melina. “By Boxing Day, we had a demo of ‘Starships’ ready.” The song went triple-platinum within months of its release.
While that strategy may be working for the moment, there is one project that will require some serious advance planning.
“I’ve been sending Gaga ideas,” Khayat said. “But she’s super busy, I’m super busy … The thing is, when we did the first album, we could just sit down for two weeks in a studio and do nothing but write songs, but the idea of doing that now becomes almost impossible.
“I don’t know when we can make this happen, but we plan to get together in the studio, just me and her and an acoustic guitar. That’s it. We’re not even going to think about production, we’re just going to write. We’re gonna forget about everything but pure melody. Real music.”