Tommy Brown shares his success behind the boards in the latest installment of our semi-monthly series on songwriters and producers called “Views From The Studio”
Tommy Brown’s resume is as insanely long as the police chase scene in the comedy-action flick Blues Brothers 2000. The producer-extraordinaire has constructed soundscapes for artists from Ariana Grande (My Everything) to G.O.O.D. Music (“Sin City”), showcasing his versatility as a beatsmith.
Before dipping his toe into the industry, working with Gorilla Zoe and 2 Chainz, the Pittsburgh native packed his bags and moved to Atlanta, Ga., where he sold beats for $100 a pop. Mix in a heavy amount of persistence and dedication and the “Trippin’ On Me” artist worked his way into booths alongside big names. “I don’t know who the biggest artist [I’ve worked with] is because I like to look at all artists as equals,” he tells VIBE. “If it’s Big Sean, Ariana or Eminem calling me, I just want to give them the best record possible.”
In the second installment of VIBE’s Views From The Studio series, Brown details his rise to fame as a producer, his most intense moment in the studio and his plans for rolling out his forthcoming album To Be Honest.
VIBE: How’d you get your start in production?
Tommy Brown: I got my start by actually lying about making beats when I was 15 years old. Then I had to go to a class where I actually had to make beats when somebody was like, ‘Yo, let me hear you make a beat.’ I kind of had to teach myself how to do it.
Do you remember the first beat you made?
I had to be 15 or 16. I used this scary movie theme, I think it was the music for Jason I used to make my first beat. I thought it was pretty jamming back then.
Did you grow up playing any instruments?
No, I would say my instrument is the MPC. I know it’s not considered an instrument, but I started playing around at 16.
When did you know producing would be your career?
One day, I moved to Atlanta. I just woke up, had a couple of dollars saved up and I was like, ‘I’m packing up and I’m going to Atlanta.’ I went there, stayed with a friend for a while and got my own place but I was like, ‘All I’m going to do is music.’ I just started off selling $100 beats and then I moved up to actually working with artists and I’m still in shock that [I’m still doing this].
Who was the first artist to give you your big break?
I got my first placement with Gorilla Zoe and 2 Chainz. It was around the same time. Gorilla Zoe and 2 Chainz both were showing me a lot of love. When Gorilla Zoe was dropping his single, I would be in the promo van. I [also] remember when 2 Chainz introduced me to Rick Ross. Those were the two guys that were pretty influential in the beginning of everything.
Where does the inspiration for a beat come from?
It all starts from chords or a cool sound and a melody, and bringing it all together. A lot of people put too many sounds in the beat and don’t leave room for melody. To me, melody is one of the most important parts.
There’s writer’s block, but have you ever experienced producer’s block?
Sometimes, but I have so many dope people around me that I produce and I work with because I have a big house where everybody stays and we all build off of each other creatively. If one person is not into it, maybe he comes up with the chords and I come up with the melody, or vice versa.
Can you describe the most intense moment you had in the studio with an artist?
When I first went to work with Machine Gun Kelly. They gave me a call to come down and work with him, and I didn’t know what his plans were but I get to the studio and he’s flipping out like, ‘I got all these people here. I got songs to do and who is this? There’s too many people in here.’ Two days later, he came to the studio and we all talked about it. It was kind of a long day. I sat down on the piano and we did his single that drops in the next two weeks. It’s a huge song.
What makes your sound different?
I always want to do stuff differently. It doesn’t necessarily have to be better, just different. I’m not in a battle to challenge who could have the best sound, but I think what you do is build with your team and everybody has something specific that they do, and we mesh all that stuff together to make something great. It doesn’t always just have to be a solo deal.
What are your thoughts on production today?
I think there are successful people in all genres of music. Sometimes, I wish people would challenge what they were doing more to make it great, but music is just different now. It’s so quick. I think it’s in a good place for me to come in and take over.
How do you plan to stand out?
I think more producers are going to be here and less beatmakers. It’s definitely a difference. Back in the day, you would have one or two producers producing an album. It’s not like, ‘Let’s go open this email from 60 people who made a beat and pick the best 10.’ I think it’s going to go back [to that] because if you look now, those are the albums that do the biggest. The albums that have producers producing and not just, ‘Let’s go and do something for the club.’
You’ve went platinum a number of times from working with artists like Ariana Grande and Chris Brown, but has there ever been a song you produced that you felt should’ve been biffer?
A song that I feel didn’t get the biggest recognition would probably be T.I.’s “New National Anthem.” I feel like there’s huge hooks, Skylar Gray is on there and the song was so great, but I don’t feel like it got put to the place that it needed to be to be the great record it should’ve been.
You’ve dabbled in all types of genres. Is there one where creating sounds comes easiest?
What comes easiest to me is actually doing real songs. I don’t want to necessarily give it a genre, but I feel like it takes me longer to do a gimmicky record than it would to sit down on a piano and do something for Ariana. “My Everything” was a record that took maybe an hour, which was her album title and used for the Stand Up To Cancer charity. It was a huge moment for her.
Now that you’re putting your vocals out there, how do you approach the tracks you create? Are you more meticulous on how a certain beat sounds when paired with your voice versus creating something for another artist?
I’ve always been a songwriter but I feel like I’ve developed a particular sound for myself, building with the people who I have in-house. I have one guy who does sounds like a sample, whether it’s ’60s, ’70s, Beatles or Take 6. There’s another guy whose tracks are so crazy and when you put it all together, it’s just a sound that nobody has. “Trippin’ On Me” was the first [song] to get the attention everywhere. I feel like what’s coming is going to be really fresh.
Which do you find most challenging: songwriting or producing?
I think it’s where you’re pulling the vibe from at the time because there are songs like “Trippin’ On Me” that I produced and wrote in an hour. Then there are other songs that may take a month to write. There’s a song that I did that took a month and half to write. The next song I’m putting out is called “Killers.” I was writing this song and then went to New York during the time the Eric Garner case and all the protests were going on. I went down to the protests to actually see what it was like to build up what I needed to say on this record.
Do you have a new project coming out that fans can look forward to?
The album that I’m doing is called To Be Honest because I feel like that’s what we lack a lot of times. It’s a lot of relationship-based stuff. I’m shooting videos now and we’re getting the whole layout together. Within the month, we’re probably going to put these videos and songs out. It’s some really cool people that I’m working with, even artists that are already involved. I think it’s going to be really cool and unexpected.
Where do you see yourself in the next 10 years?
Hopefully on a boat somewhere. (Laughs) I would love to actually be one of the fresh new CEOs of one of these labels because I feel I have a lot of ideas, a lot of visions for artists and new artists, and just a great ear.
What’s next for Tommy Brown?
I’m just focused on putting this album out. There were a couple of situations that were offered, but I wanted to wait and see what I want to do before I jump out the window.
Photo Credit: Emmai Alaquiva