Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and onetime production partner Antonio “L.A.” Reid had no intention of becoming producers while they were touring and recording as members of 1980s R&B outfit the Deele. Yet in 1985, on the eve of recording second full-length, “Material Thangz,” the group’s producer became involved in a legal dispute with their manager and abruptly left the project, leaving Edmonds and Reid in the lurch.
“So we started producing pretty much by default,” Edmonds recalls. “Eventually we realized it wasn’t really that hard, at least as far as learning what to do, because in the end it’s just all about your ears. No one can tell you whether you’re a good producer or a bad producer, you just go with what you hear, and how you want things played. It’s all subjective in terms of if it’s good or bad.
“But it was still a trial-and-error process the whole way through. I listen to some things that we did on that album, where now I can tell that they’re not sonically right, but they felt right.”
Beware of expert opinions
“You have to be careful with engineers,” Edmonds says with a laugh. “They’ll always tell you how it’s supposed to be — ‘Oh, this is hitting too hard, and this is distorting.’ Many times engineers will try to become producers, and sometimes you almost don’t want to go to very top engineers, because they won’t let you do what you want to, because that’s not the way ‘things are done.’
“And some engineers were just scary. (Legendary sound engineer) Barney Perkins, he was scary. When you first meet him, he’s just this big, mean guy you wouldn’t want to mess with, and he would have us pretty shook. The first time we went in to him, he was just like, ‘ugh, what are you guys doing? That’s not how it goes. …’ When we started having some hits, then he was cool with us. But at first he was always telling us we didn’t know what we were doing. And so thus we felt like we didn’t know what we were doing. And maybe we didn’t. But once again, we knew what felt good and what sounded cool.”
“When I think about the great producers, I think about Quincy Jones and David Foster. But I put Quincy first because what he’s done in his life as a producer is something we’ll never, ever achieve. I don’t care who it is we get to work with, we can’t do what he did. Because you’ll never get to work with Miles Davis. And then Michael Jackson, and Frank Sinatra, and Ray Charles, and Ella Fitzgerald, and then Barbra Streisand. … And all of this on top of his own albums. That’s just not ever gonna happen again. I’m not hating on artists today, but none of us can compare to the kinds of people he was working with, so we’ll never be as good.”
“There’s hardly any strain of music that I don’t love. I love country. I went through a period where I was listening to a lot of bluegrass. I can listen to a number of different things and at least get the essence of it, and learn how it feels, and try to mimic it. I like to be around musicians of any style who really know how to play, and try to soak up as much as I can.
“The genius of a producer like Kanye West is that he does know and love so many kinds of music. He really knows all sorts of music, very deeply. And that it allows him to do so many things, and to work with so many different artists, because he can come from so many different places. It’s about being musical, not just operating in one particular lane.”
Look for the magic
“When we were working on that first album, there was a song called ‘Sweet November’ we did together that I sang,” Edmonds says. “And it was the first song with the Deele that we really orchestrated with strings, and L.A. was playing live drums on the demo, and we were just kind of really going for it. It was very hard to get the demo right, and it took a long time. But when it all came together, it was like a moment where we looked at each other and said, ‘Yeah, we’re making music. This is magic.’
“There’s something that goes on totally separate from what you’ve planned that makes the magic. You can have hits, but magic doesn’t happen solely on hits, and in fact a lot of times it doesn’t even happen that often on hits. But certain things just hit a chord and touch you. It’s always luck.”