Catching Up With J.R. Rotem: Producer Talks Success, Learning The Biz

By Redhands  |  03/22/2011

J.R. RotemBeing a success in the music industry today is harder than making it in the NBA. That's right, it is easier to be the 10th guy on the Miami Heat than it is to be super producer like J.R Rotem. Due to hard work, persistence and talent, J.R. has gone from a classically-trained jazz pianist to playing keys for Dr. Dre.

The super producer, responsible for the success of Sean Kingston, has had an awesome career producing a string of #1 hits for the likes of Rihanna ("S.O.S."), Rick Ross ("The Boss"), Leona Lewis ("Better in Time"), Nikki Minaj ("Fly") and more. When he is not making hits for big name artists, he is running his label, Beluga Heights, which boasts a roster that includes Kingston, Jason Derulo and Iyaz.

We had a chance to speak with J.R., who discussed some of the things he's gone through in his career to get to where he is today, his label Beluga Heights, and what it takes to be a super producer in today's music industry. Early on, you had some success with Destiny's Child. Then after that, you didn't get another placement for a few years or so right?

J.R. Rotem: Yea pretty much. I was lucky to get that placement. I didn't know how the industry worked, but I was real excited. I was living in the Bay area and I decided to move to Los Angeles. I figured things would move a lot smoother if I lived in L.A. instead. One of my other goals was to play keys for Dr. Dre. I think it was a good thing that I was naive to the industry. I was running on hope and faith, and I thought things would just happen for me. The faith and hope kept me strong through a period where things weren't happening. Eventually I met my manager and business partner, Zach Katz, who became a guide to me as well. What was the follow up placement to Destiny's Child?

J.R. Rotem: Once I met Zach, he helped me shape my sound. He would give suggestions and critique me while he was working with Aftermath and G-Unit. Through him, I got a lot of placements starting with Snoop Dogg, Lil Kim and D12. Finally, we got in real good with 50 and G-Unit. After that point, we did a lot of hip-hop stuff, but it wasn't all singles. I did a lot of album tracks and stuff like that. After that, I wanted to explore more and get into pop and other genres. So after that, I did Rihanna's "S.O.S.," which was her first #1 record and my first. After that, the doors really started to open up and I did stuff for Brittany Spears and other artists like that. All this success led me to start my label, Beluga Heights, and we then found Sean Kingston. Sean Kingston had a huge hit with "Beautiful Girls." Could you tell us the story behind that record? Some people may not know that it is a sample from a classic song and you put a crazy twist on it.

J.R. Rotem: Yes, it samples "Stand By Me", an old 50's song. We were in the studio and working on other songs, and I think he was in the kitchen. The radio in the kitchen played the original song and he heard it. He came into the studio and hummed the bass line and said he wanted to do something with it. I think we bought the song on iTunes and then I was trying to figure out how to make it sound new and something for him. I figured out a way to flip it and add 808 type sounds and I replayed some stuff. I gave him a rough copy and he said "Leave me alone" ... and him and another writer named Sly came up with the concept and the hook. Within a half hour, Sean had the whole song written and he blew us away. It was a rare time where I saw the process and heard the finish product and we knew we had something special. As far as producing, how do you decide when to sample something and when to make something original? Some of your hits have samples and some do not.

J.R. Rotem: I try not to plan anything out. When I first started out, I didn't appreciate sampling. I thought I am a classical and Jazz pianist. I thought people sampled because they couldn't play instruments and they aren't trained. In reality, when I tried to dedicate myself to being the best product, I knew I had to start sampling. I started flipping some of my favorite songs and I didn't want to limit myself by not sampling. Sometimes an artist will bring me a sample and sometimes I will find a sample that will fit an artist. Like for example, on Rick Ross's song, "Push It," I knew what Ross' identity was at the time and he's from Miami and the things he raps about. I felt like he was probably a fan of that movie and hearing that sample brings you back to that movie. I tried to figure out how to take an '80s Disco song and make it hip-hop. One of my favorite tracks you have done is "The Boss" by Rick Ross and T-Pain. What equipment did you use to make that song?

J.R. Rotem: The oohhs and the creepy haunting sound is a girl I had sing that. Then, I resampled it and sped it up in an MPC. I am pretty sure I was using a MPC for all the drums and I got a lot of sounds from my friend who's also a producer Jim Johnson. You and Jim Johnson are friends?

J.R. Rotem: Yea I have worked with him in the past and he is a great guy. When I worked with him, he gave me some 808 sounds that I still use to this day. I have a lot of keyboards like a Phantom, a Motif and some other stuff. To be honest, I would have to open up the session to know specifics. Do you use a lot of stocked sounds or do you make your own sounds?

J.R. Rotem: I don't really make my own sounds, I use the ones that come with the keyboards. I use a lot of soft-ins or plug-ins. In the process of making the beat, I am mixing it at the same time, that way I am adding effects and stuff like that. But as far as making my own sounds, I don't really do that. I get inspired quickly by melodies, harmonies and stuff. I don't have the patience to tweak a sound for a long time. I like to use multiple keyboard sounds on one program. Do you work with musicians or do you do most of it?

J.R. Rotem: I do most of it myself, but I have been signing new musicians lately. I signed this very talented guitar player Kevin from Sweden. The guitar is the one instrument that is really hard to duplicate. The way that it's played and strums, it's very difficult to mimic a real guitar. I am in the process of expanding and I am signing idea people and track guys. I am in a new stage now where I am ready to work with other people. I had to figure out first, how to do things myself and I wasn't ready to do collaborations. Now I am ready to work with people and be inspired by other producers and writers. Sometimes I can make a bunch of tracks and sometimes I'm in a rut, and I like to be inspired by other talented people. It seems you have both sides of the industry figured out, as far as the music and the business side. How far into your career did you start to understand it is really a business?

J.R. Rotem: It was a slow and gradual process and I credit my partner Zach Katz for a lot of it. At first all I wanted to do was play keys for Dr. Dre. Then Zach got me to expand my horizon to things I didn't even think about. He wanted to build our own empire and not just play keys. We started making our own songs and that led to making our own label. I felt like if I start a label and develop an artist, it is going to take a long time. I felt like that would take away from me working with established artist. It took a lot of patience to realize this is a business, because I just wanted to make big songs at first. It was kind of a process to get to the point I am at now. Everyday I am expanding and now I realize how I need a team and track guys and stuff like that. You do one thing and then you want to expand on it, so you realize you need more tools. It was a constant expansion and gradual process. It is interesting you mentioned how it wasn't an overnight process. Besides that, you are a classically trained pianist and you are trained in jazz as well. How much time did you spending on perfecting your craft? Was it an all day, every day thing to find your sound?

J.R. Rotem: I was very dedicated because before all of this, I was already practicing my jazz stuff every day. Then, I decided I wanted to produce I threw myself into it and it was all I did and thought about. For the most part, it is still my passion in life. I don't look at it like a job or a career. The music industry is really difficult right now and unless you are really ready to sacrifice everything and go all out, it is very tough. There are people dedicating all there time to it and barely making it. There is so much competition and it is very hard industry to not only break into, but to succeed. Even somebody like myself, I have to face a lot of rejection and difficulties. It is not smooth sailing for anyone. What are some of your influences outside of hip-hop?

J.R. Rotem: I was always influenced by a lot of different things like jazz, but then I listened to stuff like The Beatles. I listened to so much stuff from Dr. Dre to '80s Euro pop music. You mentioned playing keys for Dr. Dre a few times. Have you ever actually done that in your career?

J.R. Rotem: Yea, I did a few sessions with him, but it didn't pan out exactly how I wanted. I was trying to be consistent and a steady session player. I still got to play, but it was only a few times. It was your dream to play for Dre, but wouldn't you say you surpassed that?

J.R. Rotem: I would agree with that. I think it is good to not just remain a producer under another producer. That is how life is: you have a dream and if you put everything you have into it and try hard and put out positive energy, sometimes you get better results than you intended for. What is going on with your label Beluga Heights?

J.R. Rotem: We are wrapping up Jason Derulo's second album, coming out around summer. My other artist Mann, who has a song called "Buzzin' ", his album is pretty much done. We are working his singles right now. Right now, I am working with my new artist Livvi Frank who is from Barbados and the U.K., which I am really excited about. After Livvi, we are working with Iyaz again. We are trying to restructure his sound and get the album right. I also have one more artist named Auburn, who is from Minnesota.