In Grammy world, it’s the year of the producer

Talent behind stars dictate style and content of today's chart toppers

The Grammy Award for producer of the year (non-classical) may not seem like the most prestigious honor of the night — after all, it isn’t even presented in the telecast, and the official program lists it well below the award for Zydeco album — but there may be no better cheat-sheet of pop music’s current brain trust than this year’s five nominees.

Dr. Luke, the Smeezingtons, Danger Mouse, RedOne and Rob Cavallo round out the nods, and except for Cavallo — chairman of WBR and decidedly old-school in his recording methods — all the above nominees represent the ascent of the producer as songwriter, svengali and tastemaker; called upon not just to fiddle with the knobs, but to dictate the entire style and content of the recording. A look at 2010’s year-end singles charts will see an amazing 11 of the top 50 songs of the year were produced by one of these five nominees, and at the time of this writing, this cohort is behind four of the current top 10.

Responsible for the most recent No. 1 (“Grenade,” by Bruno Mars), and the easy consensus pick for the year’s biggest breakout producers, is L.A.-based trio the Smeezingtons. Consisting of Mars, Philip Lawrence and Ari Levine, the group produced all of Mars’ “Doo Wops and Hooligans,” as well as Grammy-nominated tracks from Mike Posner and B.O.B., and perhaps most notably, Cee Lo Green’s cheerfully profane viral smash, “Fuck You!”

Though Mars may be the public face of the group, Lawrence credits the mix of three diverse personalities as key to the group’s emergence: “We’re all creative in different ways,” he says. “Bruno can come up with a melody, I’ll finish it, and Ari will come up with something around it. But we’re all very quick to say if something’s not working. If Bruno starts an idea and Ari and I both think it’s shit, he’s cool with that, and vice-versa.”

Though most of their bigger hits revolve around an uptempo blend of multiple layered keyboard tracks and a bedrock of synthesized vocal harmonies, Lawrence says their preferred songwriting setup consists of the three of them “just sitting around vibing with a guitar.

“Our approach comes more from a songwriting perspective than a production point of view,” he says. “We think of the song as the total package, so it’s not ‘how can we make this beat knock?’ but ‘how can we get this emotion across?’ ”

If the Smeezingtons are the year’s breakthrough, there’s no question Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald is its MVP, having landed 10 top 10 singles in 2010 alone. Gottwald started his musical career as a guitarist for the “Saturday Night Live” band, until a chance encounter with Swedish super-producer Max Martin led to a partnership that gave him the chance to sharpen his hitmaking sensibilities.

Gottwald’s aesthetic is the most obvious of the five, yet also possibly the hardest to get right. Combining the shiniest of trance-influenced Europop with the loud-quiet-loud dynamic of ’90s alt-rock and Frampton-esque levels of vocal processing, his songs have clear formulas, and tend to work best when paired with young female stars of brazen sexual appeal and headline-grabbing fashion choices (Katy Perry, Ke$ha, Britney Spears). But no one working today seems to have Gottwald’s knack for the earworm.

Nadir “RedOne” Khayat’s background can also be traced to Sweden’s prolific pop scene, though he arrived there by way of North Africa, growing up as a rock-loving kid in Morocco. Khayat first played guitar in a band of his own, until a bad record deal soured him on a career as a performer. After learning to use computer production software, he left Morocco for Sweden, where he scored a few European hits and learned the biz before embarking for the States.

“Sweden has a great sense for professionalism, and melody,” he says of the transition. “When I came to America, the first thing I noticed was that the drums have to hit hard. In Sweden you can be a little bit cleaner, but you have to give them the drums here.

“But that’s an African thing. In clubs in Morocco, a lot of the times you just hear nothing but the drums. So I understood it.”

For American listeners, Khayat has been all but synonymous with Lady Gaga, having produced all but one of her singles. (Tellingly, the first line Gaga utters on her breakthrough single, “Just Dance,” is the producer’s name.) But he’s recently been just as busy helming sessions with Nicole Scherzinger, Usher and Enrique Iglesias, as well as masterminding the “We Are the World” remake and pushing his fellow countryman Mohombi.

“A lot of the time I’ll just sit down on the guitar and come up with melodies,” he says of his methods. “When I go into a session, I usually already have a melody in my head. But then a lot of times I just create on the spot.”

And though he adds that he’s open to all recording techniques, Khayat does betray a few ex-rocker values: “I would never just loop a sample over and over for a song,” he says. “That feels like cheating.”

Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton first came to prominence as an entirely sample-based artist (recording the infamous “Grey Album” mash-up), though he owes much of his success to his ability to locate the sweet spot between live instrumentation and vintage loops. (His best-selling production, Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” makes heavy use of a sample from the score to obscure spaghetti-Western “Preparati la bara,” but adds entirely original vocal melodies and additional instruments.)

Nominated here for his production work on the Black Keys’ “Tighten Up” and his own projects Broken Bells and the Sparklehorse collaboration “Dark Night of the Soul,” Burton is the enigma of the group — and along with Cavallo, the most album-oriented.

Despite his striking old-school Afro and multi-instrumental proficiency, Burton seems content to remain in the shadows, almost always hidden behind the drums or keyboards in live performances. That’s something these five nominees share, an ease with behind-the-scenes work that stands in stark contrast to past uber-producers like Timbaland, the Neptunes and Kanye West, who at times seemed bursting at the seams to take center stage, even on other artists’ productions.

“It’s easy for us because a lot of the people we work with are such talented artists,” says Levine on keeping the spotlight trained on the singer. “It’s easy to make songs for people who can sell them well. Cee Lo’s an incredible singer; no one else could sing that song.”

“To be a good producer means to be a mirror, or a chameleon,” says Khayat, who claims to hold no desire to go solo, despite label offers to do so. “I don’t want to be an artist on my own. I get to hear my songs on the radio, and that’s good enough for me.”

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