Kicking back in SoHo’s hip café, Aroma, you might suspect that the man who just breezed through the coffee shop with a messy-yet-styled blonde coif and noticeably toned physique just stepped straight out of a Nike photo shoot. However, he’s not just another brainless male model. In fact, this is the man who produced, arguably one of the most influential dance records of the last decade. But Steven Lee is sort of over it.
“I’m trying to get out of [that] Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing [phase] and get off the one hit thing,” Lee tells VIBE pointedly. “I’ve put out 50+ records, but when you have a record that everybody knows and people keep doing remixes of it, it’s hard to get to the “next chapter” although a High Class problem I guess” The Portland-bred, New York-based producer, best known for co-producing #1 single “Shake It” under his former duo moniker, Lee Cabrera, made of Steven Lee and Albert Cabrera, is ready to move into the spotlight as he gears up to release his first solo album. Lee now has a team of A-list producing superstars he’s working with, which includes major names such as Scott Storch (Beyonce, 50 Cent, Dr Dre, Pink),Vincent di Pasquale (Nelly Furtado, Missy Elliot, Madonna), ILL Factor (Skylar Grey, Kelly Rowland, Kevin Rudolf & Lil Wayne), and four- time Grammy-winning producer- engineer, Jimmy Douglass (John Legend, Pharrell, Justin Timberlake) amongst many others.
After introducing himself and sitting down, Lee opened up about the success of “Shake It,” his brand-spanking new team and influences on the next record, as well as collaborations with The Voice UK finalist & super talent Bo Bruce, Axwell, David Guetta & Armand Van Helden featured artist, Tara McDonald and Red One protégé Zander Bleck. And these are just a few of the names Lee can mention on the record.
Check out our exclusive head-to-head with Steven Lee after listening to his fresh new track, “Love Crazy Love,” featuring Carol C and fall in love with Lee—revitalized.
VIBE: How did you get involved with music?
Steven Lee: I was born in a music family with my mom, aunt & uncle all being self taught pedigree musicians. My mother was signed, she & my aunt were in a band for years & mom lead the worship in church since I can remember. Having an older brother and growing up to his music had a huge influence too. I was just an athlete but loved music just never had the time to learn early how to play until later. I moved to New York and was engulfed into the music scene. Prior to that, I went to a couple of raves in Portland, Oregon but only because I was a break-dancer. I learned how to break to house music and Mark Farina, Doc Martin, Donald Glaude and these names little did I know, five to six years later, I’d be playing on bills with. Started listening to Danny Tenaglia and Erick Morillo, got a job with Strictly Rhythm and that was that! At 21, I wrote a record as Lee Cabrera “Shake It” and it went #1. Kind of a very fast track, lucky, fortunate & blessed way [to do things.]
Do you ever get sick of hearing “Shake It?”
No I’ll play it for life but this whole project is about going solo, about letting go of the Lee Cabrera tag but with a big smile for all the amazing accomplishments we achieved. Lee Cabrera was two people—Albert Cabrera and myself. There was no breakup. He was in the business a long time, as long as I was old, and maybe he didn’t realize things were going to blow up the way they did. We all made a lot of money with “Shake It” and with all the shows, the remixes and the album deal with MOS so as short as the partnership was, it was certainly lucrative.
Would you say there’s an image or sound change with you going solo?
The image has always been who I am. I’ve been a hardcore athlete since I was a kid and it was the best segue for this business because if you don’t have a little bit of confidence and if you don’t know how to take any criticism, then the music business is not for you but nor is athletics. The two are separate beasts, but they are very similar in what it takes to get to the top. So, is there a change? I mean we have to evolve musically. I don’t want to sound like everybody else. Electronic dance music [or EDM], which is a terrible abbreviation that just stuck, really all sounds the same to me from a studio perspective. Sure, the synths are different. Sure, the vocals are different, but these breakdowns and these arrangements are very cookie cutter. For me, it’s just about doing the best I can in staying creative like we did with Lee Cabrera. There are so many millions of records that you have to stand out. You got to find the unique sound but yet that will still appeal to the billions of dance music fans out there and that’s the fight, which is great. It’s a good position to be in.
How did you get involved with people like Vincent di Pasquale, ILL Factor and Jimmy Douglass?
I handpicked a dream team. Obviously, their accolades are amazing. They have more Grammys and trophies than probably the entire EDM artists out there put together and you got to salute guys like that. We all became friends and I propositioned the team and said, ‘Look, I want to do a project that stands out. I want great pop music, great dance music, but stuff that’s going to work on the dance floor as well.’ Six weeks later, here we are with 25 records deep so it’s now picking and choosing which ones are going to work.
Who are some influences on the new record?
I’m definitely going backwards in sound to get the future sound. “The best records in the world were influenced by the ones that were the best records in the world!” I’m pulling out records from eight years ago that have a similar sound, but they’re totally different as well and It’s really making a lot of noise for me. so I guess that’s the statement. I’m going backwards to go forwards when I’m in the studio and when touring. We all have reference tracks but do I reference Hardwell or Avicii? Do I pull up their records on my Ableton and stare at them and say ‘I want to make the alter ego to this?’ No, as I think they own that sound, they got there first or they broke it first and kudos to them. The real challenge is giving the masses what they want but with a curve ball! I throw a mean curve!
Who is killing the game in the music industry right now?
I love the indie stuff. I love Kidnap Kid, Foamo from Gorgon City is on fire as is GC but I am really loving RAC another Portland badass. Every record RAC makes is that much better and he always has those key ingredients that make the record relevant enough to work for the masses. Every time I hear GRUM, it scares me, he’s the Prydz of his genre and takes your face off with every tune and you can always tell he has plenty more. The EDM guys are doing it too. I love what Kaskade does. I will give him the props. If I can follow a career in this industry, Kaskade’s a good one. He’s just a good guy as well. He’s got just enough swagger and just enough modesty and I love that about him. He puts on a great show. It’s all about the music. You can’t count out guys like Steve Angello and Axwell. These guys are extremely talented and will be around for a long time and they’ve earned it.
Who would be a dream collaborator for you?
I’m doing it right now. The team I built and the collabs I’m doing are all dream collabs, but I hope after they done with me, the feelings are mutual. I mean Scott Storch really? He’s just the best of the best period! He’s remained hungry and you just can’t mess with his talent. He’s doing a ton of EDM stuff right now and it’s scary, trust me, I’ve heard it. He’s recently done a record with [Steve] Aoki, another with Dash Berlin, [and] he just played me a record he did with Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike and it’s LARGE. Vince (Di Pasquale, ILL (Factor), Bo Bruce, Sam O (Obernik), Jimmy (Douglass), Lazarus…legends of talent so yeah, my dream collabs are dream realities, fortunately.
What about vocalist-wise?
Stevie Nicks would be a dream, just because I grew up with my mom singing “Dreams” to me. But on the new school tip theres Skylar Grey, Yukimi from Little Dragon, ASTR, Sky Ferreira, Jessie Ware, MO and Banks that are all all stars for me. Bo Bruce has a God given gift in her voice. Zander Bleck has range like Kobe (Bryant). My homegirl KLP the Ozzie is a rising talent and my boy Eric Lumiere is also a super standout. I got a great team. Instead of having dreams, they’re just making it happen, it’s all about execution with this album.
Do you think working with all these A-list production people has changed your view on the music industry at all?
The cream rises to the top. I’m certainly not the biggest entity in the room and that’s humbling. As artists, we do everything we can to provoke people to have an impression on us, so we’re always talking about ourselves. It’s nice being able to build this team and to have guys that I salute, because at the end of the day, I’m on tour 80 to 100 times a year and they’re not and they’re the best at what they do, so I can go an best the best at what I do. There’s a certain thing that I bring into the room that can never ever be replaced and that is, I know what works in front of 10,000 people, and I know what works in front of 700 people. When it comes to Jimmy Douglass, there is nobody better when it comes to making a record sound the way it should sound. He’s a legend and his craft just continues to evolve and get better. When I sit down with ILL Factor, I’ve never seen a guy put together a record so quickly. He’s got a record laid out in seconds so we can get right to the moneymaking melody. Vincent di Pasquale is one of my best friends and the sprocket to this entire project. Nothing comes or go’s without touching his talented hands. So yeah, it’s nice and my views are in HD and I got a front row seat to the worlds best. I just take notes!