You come from a family of musicians. Did you ever imagine doing anything else with your life?
Other than music? That’s the problem! I can’t do anything else, ’cause I’m not really good at anything else! And I’m not saying that I’m good at what I do. I’m just saying that the way my upbringing was, music was my focus. I was doing shows five days a week at 5 years old. That was my whole gig all the way up until high school.
Was your dad your music teacher?
I think what really taught me was watching videos. I would watch Jimi Hendrix, and I would say, “I gotta learn how to do that!” I gotta know how he makes the audience freak out! I learned my instruments watching Stevie play piano and seeing how he captivates everybody just singing a song on the piano. I said I wanna learn how to sing a song on the piano with no band. Just stuff like that.
You’re big on Elvis. Now, a lot of people of our generation don’t understand Elvis. So explain the genius of Elvis as you see it.
The reason why I like Elvis is the same reason why I like Michael. And the same reason I like James Brown. And Little Richard.
Showmen. The show was first. No tricks. You know: no smoke, no mirrors. No background tracks. Just a band and the artist… I’m a fan of the young Elvis. And I’m a fan of the story, how he freaked out white America by doing this Black rock’n’roll. He would go onstage shaking his hips, and people were freaking out. They said, “You can’t film him from the waist down.” To me, that’s fucking awesome.
But I mean, he had songs. He wasn’t just charisma.
Yeah, but the thing about Elvis was he never wrote his songs. He would do Little Richard songs. He would do blues songs that Black artists wrote. He would cover ’em basically. But he would show them to an audience that would never listen to ’em. And you know, the dude was a star.
Just the charisma, the presence?
Everything. Yeah. He would dress different. He would dance. There was nothing like that at the time.
’Cause everybody else you named—Michael, James Brown—all our peoples would be, “Oh yeah, no doubt.” And Elvis, they would be like, “Huh?” So should we be, like, re-evaluating Elvis?
You can go deep. I mean, a lot of people say he stole music, and you know what I mean. But I’m looking at it as like Eminem’s a great lyricist, a great artist doing hip-hop. That’s not a color thing for me. And if there were no hip-hop, there’d be no Eminem. You know what I mean. If there was no rhythm and blues, there’d be no Elvis.
No doubt. I mean, Eminem in particular takes hip-hop very seriously. He is like a monk. He studies the technique like few people around today. I’m like, how can you fault the dude just ’cause he’s white? He’s amazing.
That’s the thing. No one knows what the fuck I am as far as… Like, I’m not Hawaiian. I’m Puerto Rican. My dad’s originally from Brooklyn, my mom is Filipino, and they met in Hawaii. So I’m just like—you know—all mixed up.
How proud is your father of you for having gotten this far with your music when you started doing music at his side?
Super proud. I was just with him a couple weeks ago and—you know, he’s a little shocked with all these things coming my way. Like, I’m a songwriter now, and they know that I didn’t go to California for that. I didn’t go to California to be a producer.
So you moved to Cali at 18 to do what?
To drop my album and tour the world. But after I moved out, nothing was going on. My family was expecting me to knock ’em dead, but it didn’t happen for a long time. And that’s when it got weird, like, “What the hell’s going on?” Then I got signed at Motown, and that didn’t work. But that’s when I figured out that the producing thing could keep me afloat. And then I felt like I could still do music in California if I just stuck to this producing stuff. And then hopefully one day somebody’s gonna take a chance on the guy demo-ing the song and writing the song. But my family didn’t know what was going on. I was like, “I’m working with Brandy today!” They’re like, “What does that mean?” “I’m writing a song and producing Brandy.” And they just couldn’t figure it out.
You’ve shown an extraordinary ability to make hit records. How do you do it?
I wish I knew! I’d be writing one right now as we speak!
You gotta have some idea by now.
You know what it is? It took me a long time to figure out. It took me a long time to write a hit song. But after you write one, let’s take, “Nothin’ on You,” for instance. You know that feeling you get when you hear it.
You say, “Oh I got something here.”
It just was like, “Man, this feels so damn good.” You got this rapper with this great tone in his voice, and he’s saying something real cool. He’s riding the beat perfectly, then I come in with the lullaby hook. And it’s cohesive, and it flows. It feels right. It feels natural. It doesn’t feel contrived. It just feels natural. And I try to remember that feeling. You never know if it’s going to be a hit, but there’s that feeling of it being a special song. You know, “This feels good to us, or to me.” And I think the main thing is to never forget that feeling. I got that same feeling when I wrote ‘Grenade,’ and when we were in the studio with Cee-Lo and we did ‘Fuck You.’
I think “Fuck You” is the best song you’ve written. The story is told very economically, and it’s made so visible. I can really see this hot, red convertible pulling off, and the smoke blowing in this guy’s face as he goes, “Fuck you, dude! And fuck you, too! Arrhhh!”
I’m a huge fan of Cee-Lo. And “Crazy” was such a special song to me ’cause it was everything that I was trying to explain at a young age. Just trying to tell producers that I want to do a song that kinda has a little bit of this and it kinda has a little bit of that, and they were looking at me like I was crazy… I got signed to Elektra, and he was on Elektra. And I was praying, like, “I gotta work with him!” Then we sat down and did some records together, and we became friends. We’d be just cracking up at the studio, jokes and jokes and jokes; and we finally got extremely comfortable and figured out each other’s sense of humor. But after we [the Smeezingtons] came up with it, I was a little nervous to sing it for him. All I had was: “I see you driving round town with the one I love, and I’m like, Fuck you-oo-oo!” And he goes, “I love that! That’s beautiful!” I love working with a guy like that, because he’s so open and there’s no boundaries, you know?
So you’re nominated for seven Grammys, which is a gigantic number, especially for a newer guy.
Isn’t it amazing? A little Hawaiian dude? [Laughs]
Grammy nominations mean recognition from your peers.
Like, good job this year, buddy.
That’s gotta feel good.
It’s weird ’cause we do these songs in a shabby studio in L.A. It’s like, really bad. And we’ve been fortunate enough that the songs did what they did on radio and iTunes. And being recognized by the Super Bowl of music. It’s just awesome.
Take me into your studio. What’s the songwriting process? What’s the studio process? You’ve said that you produce “like a band.” Explain what that means.
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