Views From The Studio: Meet Music Director Thaddeus Dixon
Thaddeus Dixon is a living testament of the saying “don’t waste God’s gifts.” The Detroit native, who found a love for music within the church, honed his drumming skills by practicing during or after service, and absorbed a keen ear for various sounds within the holy establishment. From the sanctuary to the studio, Dixon pursued his passion which led him to become a music instructor at UC Berkeley and a music director for major artists from pop sensation Meghan Trainor, R&B songbird Teedra Moses, and Trap ‘N B crooner Bryson Tiller.
Dixon gained the near-missed opportunity (you have to read his recollection of how he landed this venture below) to serve as the music director for Tiller’s critically-acclaimed Trapsoul tour. As the conductor for the national trek, Dixon is responsible for the seamless transitions between each song, making sure the audience remains on a constant wave of elation, and of course he commands the sticks behind the drums the entire time.
Here, Dixon details the beginning stages of putting together Tiller’s sold out tour, how higher education helped shape his career, and the craziest moment he’s seen thus far on the North American trek.
VIBE: As a professional drummer, do you think being well-versed with an instrument gives you a better ear for music?
Definitely because you just don’t see music from one perspective. A lot of producers who are musicians, their records are strong in what their instrument is. For me being a drummer, the records that I produce, my drums will be really strong, but my keyboard skills or other parts would lack. I’m not saying that’s me (laughs) I’m just giving an example, but I would definitely say knowing whether it’s singing, playing drums, bass, keys, that definitely helps give you a more well and round perspective of a record.
You followed through with your music education from Detroit’s Performing Arts High School to becoming a music instructor at UC Berkeley. How’d you get that opportunity to teach at that institution?
There was a lady [Daisy Newman] who had a youth music program called Civic Orchestra and that was developmental in my process of learning and becoming a better musician. She had a youth program that I was a student of, and that was before I went to college. After I went to college, she started the same program at UC Berkeley and she needed some teachers. I guess the drum teacher had left and went on, so she called back to Detroit and said, ‘Hey, I need someone to fill this slot, can you all recommend anybody?’ I had graduated from school, so someone said, ‘Yeah, Thaddeus.’ She said, ‘I know Thaddeus, that’s one of my former students.’ I talked to her, and worked for two years in the summer at a program they had called Young Musicians Program (YMP), and that was very interesting to be 26, 27-years-old on campus as an instructor. It was a weird experience. The students accepted me because I knew what I was talking about. I have everything to back it up with, but outside of being in the classroom it was like, ‘Who is this young…?’ But it was interesting.
How has higher education played a role in guiding your career?
I think I can say because I have a Bachelors of Music, my mom always used to tell me that is something they can’t take away from you. I went and followed through with it and having a Bachelors of Music on paper looks good and makes me official. It doesn’t necessarily mean I know what I’m talking about because there’s a lot of people that have degrees and look good on paper. But for something like music, just because you have degrees doesn’t mean you can go down there and perform and kill a show. The majority of people who are doing this don’t have any degrees. It’s kind of separate, but being in school it taught me how to be a young man, be responsible, how to grow up, do certain things, and what I did learn in school I do apply to out in the field.
You’ve produced across all genres, but how do you make it a point to put your signature on genres that demand a certain type of sound?
To be honest, I haven’t really developed a sound yet. Maybe someone else looking from the outside in may be able to listen to my body of work and say, ‘Okay, this is something I can tell that exists in every one of your records.’ I try to treat each record separately and differently. I don’t want to produce a Meghan [Trainor] record and it sounds like a Bryson Tiller record and vice versa. I want to be accepted and respected for producing the true sound of this genre of music. If we’re doing a Meghan Trainor record or I’m doing a pop record for Katy Perry, I want it to sound in that lane of Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, pop that’s competing against the pop producers. If I’m doing a trap record I want it to sound in the vein of a Mike WiLL Made It or DJ Mustard. I don’t want to cheat, you know what I mean? I do feel after a while you should develop your own sound like Mustard did, but producing across all platforms I want it to be what it really is and not cheat. I feel if I don’t make it 100 percent true to what it is, they’ll say, ‘Oh, he can’t produce a pop record,’ or ‘He can’t do that.’ It’s like, ‘No, I can do that, and I can do that, and I can do that too,’ to its true form and competing with the best of gospel producers, R&B producers, you know what I mean? I think I’ll be respected more for just having more musicality.
What’s Meghan Trainor like when you’re collaborating with her in the studio?
She’s very talented, I have to respect her for her talent. She has found her niche as far as writing songs. I think she’s developed her own unique way of writing songs. Working with her is great. I have funny relationships with artists that I do records with because I’m not the producer that’s working with the writer. Although I’m a producer, I’m still this person’s music director and drummer so I’m always sensitive to the fact that I work for you. It’s like you’re the boss and I have to do what you say because if I rub you the wrong way then it’s like, ‘Let’s get rid of him.’ But working with Meghan was fun. I’m glad I got to do music with her.
How’d you feel when you found out the song you co-wrote with her, “Better When I’m Dancing” from the Peanuts movie, was considered by the Oscars?
Inside I was like, ‘This is crazy. Does it really have a chance?’ On the outside I said I didn’t want to get so hyped up and into it and then it doesn’t get nominated and I’m super upset. I said I’m going to let it do what it do. Just for it to be considered out of all the songs that came out during this year, and they picked 75, then top 15, it’s still something. I got paid the same way (laughs).
You also worked with another vocal powerhouse, Teedra Moses. Describe your studio sessions with her?
That’s my sister. I love Teedra because I started working with her as a drummer too and music director, but when I was really going hard as a producer, like no one knows me as a producer, only a drummer or music director, she was really open to creating with me. She helped give me confidence. It wasn’t like I had to impress her. Sometimes as a producer or songwriter you have to impress the artist because they can work with any producer or songwriter. She didn’t make me feel less of a producer. She made me feel like an established creator just like any other producer, songwriter or artist that she’s worked with. She helped me with my confidence of, ‘You’re dope,’ and not like she had to counsel me, but just working with me meant a lot. Working with an established artist that helped.
Now you’re focusing your energy on Bryson Tiller and serving as his music director for the Trapsoul Tour. How’d you link up with him to lead up to this point?
My homie Tunji, who is the A&R who signed Bryson over at RCA Records, hit me up. It’s crazy though because at the time I was on tour with Meghan Trainor. He said, ‘What’s your availability? I got this kid named Bryson Tiller that I want you to start working with.’ I said ‘Okay, cool.’ This was maybe summer time or spring April, May, June. He said, ‘Can you do it?’ I said, ‘Yeah I’m available,’ knowing I’m out on tour with Meghan (laughs), but you never turn down work. He said, ‘Let’s have a meeting on Monday.’ I was like, ‘Sh*t, ain’t no way I can get to L.A. on Monday,’ because I’m on tour, but I couldn’t tell him that because he’ll call somebody else to do it. You know how labels have meetings on Mondays and sometimes they get pushed back two weeks, so I said I’m going to wait it out until he gives me the time and the day. He didn’t hit me so I said, ‘I already knew.’ A couple of days pass and he said, ‘When can we meet?’ I said I need three weeks because the tour was about to end or we were going to be in L.A. He said, ‘No that’s too long. We need to meet before then because the dates are these dates.’ I can’t remember if the dates conflicted or not, but Meghan had ruptured her vocal chords and they had to cancel the tour. I hit him and said, ‘Let’s meet! I’m ready, let’s go.’ I got back and that was it. I started rolling with him. It’s crazy how it happened.
What was the brainstorming session like putting together the tour?
They brought me in to be music director and potentially produce records. They respect me musically as a music director. This is Bryson’s first tour, but luckily he’s a natural performer, very humble, a great artist, and great person to work with. He has a smart manager, Neil, and smart A&R, Tunji. He has a good team behind him, a good label and support. Musically they trust me to bring my knowledge and experience to the table to build a small foundation for him to just plant what he wants and how he feels and I just mold it, shape it and make it great. Mike Carson (creative director), who also works with Big Sean, so Bryson has a team behind him especially to be a new artist. I’ve worked with a lot of new artists who don’t have the support that he has so kudos to his manager and people at RCA for really giving him the support. Bryson has proven himself. He’s all over the place now so you have to support him and if you don’t, you’re crazy. Bringing this together has been an easy process.
With songwriters and producers they try to build songs lyrically or sonically. The tours that I’ve been to, it’s like a visual story or something that’s playing out before your eyes. How’d you seek to build that type of atmosphere for the concert attendees to take home a story?
It’s really supporting the story that he already has. I don’t think we’re doing anything that’s magical or mystical or special or crazy. One thing that I’ve learned by working with artists is that you want them to be true to who they are and what they’re doing, otherwise it’s not going to be believable and the crowd is going to see right through it. I think that’s one of the things that attracts people to Bryson. He’s open, honest, real and pure. Musically, I think we just support his story. It’s like a wave. He starts out real vibe-y and cool, his mellow songs, and in the middle of the show we turn up. Between those songs and the turn up songs he tells a story that leads from how he made this song, or how he felt with this song and go into where he was at in his mind with what people or what was around him to make the turn up songs. Then we go back to the songs the ladies want to hear. Then we go into “Don’t” which everybody wants to hear (laughs). It’s a little musical journey and we mesh the songs together so it’s not like you’re listening to the CD where it’s stop play, stop play. We have little transitions whether it’s musical or him talking.
What has been the most challenging part in making sure the wheels keep turning night after night?
It’s not really challenging, but just making sure everybody is happy. When I was a young music director wanting to be a music director it was because it was about having power. I want to be the person making decisions. I want to be the person making the calls, who you have to come to for this and that. But you learn it’s not about that. It’s about making everybody feel comfortable, making sure everybody’s job is just as important as yours. That’s what a leader does. It’s not to say, ‘Hey, I’m the leader.’ It’s to say, ‘We’re all doing this together. This is your part, and you fit in this piece of the puzzle.’ Making sure everybody is on the same page. Letting everybody know what their responsibilities are and just making sure everybody is happy. I want Bryson to be happy, the label to be happy, the management to be happy, the fans, the agent because then that books more shows. You can tell energy-wise by interacting with me, the artist, the DJ, everybody’s energy is just good and chill.
Is this a gateway to doing other artist’s tours?
Absolutely, anybody who is paying me (laughs). I enjoy bringing the best out of an artist and bringing the artist’s vision to life. Even with Bryson, my experience may have had me to do things this way in the past no matter if he’s toured enough before or not. He’s the artist so what he wants and says goes. I have to support that and make his vision be the best it can be. From doing that I can learn another way to do something that I haven’t done before. I want to be a music director for anybody who wants me so I can bring their stuff to bang. I’ve been doing this for a little bit, but I’m not in it to have my name be a part of something wack or going down in flames. You know when I’m a part of it, that sh*t is going!
What has been the craziest thing you’ve witnessed on tour thus far?
We were in D.C. There was this little boy that was like five or six years old. I said, ‘Why is this little boy in here?’ He’s sitting on a guy’s shoulders, probably his dad, an uncle or big brother, and he was singing every lyric! No lie. That’s when I was like okay this is on some other stuff. I mean the verse, the hook. I’m thinking, how does he know this music? I’m like okay, this is something special.
What do you hope concert attendees will gain from the tour?
I just hope that they’re happy and come back the next show, to expect something greater. You know how sometimes you might go see an artist, you might like it or you might not like it, but you’re not hype about seeing him again, like ‘Next time I have to go see what they’re going to do next.’ I want there to be some anticipation of, ‘I wonder what they’re going to do next?’ I think everybody has that with Bryson. There’s a little mystique, so that makes you want to be engaged, search and wonder. I think the next one… I have some things planned for the next one. I got some things in my back pocket just waiting to be pulled out for the next tour. Just intros and outro ideas, musical things and band ideas to expand the show. I didn’t want to hit them over the head because this is the first tour. Bryson is particular on how he wants the vibe of his show and in respect to that we build off of that and adapt to it. He wants to do it a certain way. It doesn’t have to be like the way I’ve done it or anyone has done it in the past and that’s cool because that sets up the stuff we do for the future.