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Alumni Shine Behind Hip-Hop Hits

A snapshot of three alumni working with some of the top artists in the hip-hop industry

Being a behind-the-scenes mover and shaker isn't for everyone. Many talented artists-some with oversized egos from birth-jump into the spotlight at an early age and never step out. But many more decide that their gifts are equally appreciated away from the trappings of conspicuous celebrity.

Berklee has produced its fair share of backstage legends, and over the past decade, alumni contributions to the world of hip-hop and r&b-infused pop music have been huge. Here is a snapshot of three alumni who work with some of the top artists in the hip-hop industry.

 
  Andrew Dawson '01

Working with Hip-Hop's Most Famous "Dropout"

"I'm a pretty busy guy, but I'm not complaining," says 29-year-old engineer, mixer, and producer Andrew Dawson '01 from the airport in Honolulu, Hawaii. He's just arrived for a multiweek recording session with his number-one client, rapper and superproducer Kanye West. Parker's been so busy lately that he still hasn't unpacked silverware or dishes in his new apartment in Los Angeles. "Until recently," he adds, "I had my Grammys in a box in my garage."

He also can't keep up with release dates on soon-to-be hit records with which he has been involved. "I don't get involved in the timing of records or the business and all the politics involved," he says, with relief in his voice. "I just make sure everything sounds right and let the suits worry about the rest."

A Minnesota native who moved to New York City in late 2001, Dawson left Berklee a few credits shy of earning his sheepskin. But over the past three years, he's has been racking up engineering and mixing credits on huge records. His projects include Kanye West's Graduation and Late Registration albums and West's 2009 smash single "Love Lockdown," Lil' Wayne's Tha Carter III, Jay-Z's "Swagga Like Us" and "Jockin' Jay-Z" (a single from the upcoming Blueprint 3 CD), Common's Finding Forever, among many others.

Now a talented engineer and mixer, six-time Grammy nominee, and two-time winner, Dawson was surprised but fully prepared when opportunity came knocking. In 2003, West tapped him to jump in as engineer halfway through the sessions for his breakout debut, The College Dropout, widely considered the best hip-hop album of the past decade. Dawson and West have worked together ever since.

Before his audition with West, Dawson cut his teeth in New York at the now-defunct Sony Music Studios working on projects as diverse as mixing work for Destiny's Child's Destiny Fulfilled album in 2004 and recording Coldplay live at Madison Square Garden during the group's 2005 Twisted Logic tour. His work hasn't always been credited in liner notes, but the artists and label execs know what he brings to a record, and he gets BMI royalties on songs he's cowritten.

"Part of my job has nothing to do with engineering and mixing; it's just about being flexible," Dawson observes in analyzing his success. "In a physical sense, I'm always on the move, and I'm always working in a new room, and that's always a challenge. I have learned that it's OK to have professional disagreements with people, and I'll fight for ideas I feel strongly about. But at the end of the day, it's their album; their face is on the cover. Some engineers think they should have as much say as the artist, but I don't agree with that."

Dawson is one of the most in-demand young engineers in the business, but these days West is about the only artist for whom he engineers (he usually mixes or co-mixes these same tracks). When given a choice, he prefers mixing to engineering. "I love mixing because it's extremely technical, but it's also really creative," he says. "You can change sounds and have a fun time and go nuts. Mixing to me is putting everything together to make one cohesive sound and creative vision. A lot of times, I get a track to mix and I don't know where I'm going with it until it's done. It can be so wide-open."

He has also done several remixes, another of his passions. His most high-profile assignment was the remix he did of West's single "Stronger" (which was released on iTunes in early 2008). "That's probably my favorite remix," Dawson says. "I did that in just one night, just for fun, after we had finished mixing the original track. Even though I had access to the multis, I only ended up using the vocal. I played it for Kanye the next week, and he loved it. He said 'I'm going to put this out!'"

Thinking about the time before his work schedule was so packed, Dawson looks back on his Berklee experiences fondly. "I always wanted to do mixing and engineering," he recalls, "But I wasn't sure if it was going to happen or not. I knew the odds and percentages. Still, I definitely went full-force. Classes I took with Terry Becker, Jeff Largent, and Carl Beatty were all fun. I still use all of that [material] in my daily work. I remember the first time I got nominated for a Grammy, the first person I e-mailed was Terry Becker. I said, 'Well, I have to brag to somebody!'"

For more information on Andrew Dawson and his ever-expanding discography, go to his website at www.soundeq.com.

 
Dawaun Parker '05 credit  
Larissa Underwood  

Doctor's Orders

Dawaun Parker '05 is a classic behind-the-scenes guy. He is quiet and confident and has skills for days. But his behind-the-scenes status isn't likely to last too much longer. "Berklee was college, and I'm now in my third year of grad school," he says. But in his current home in Los Angeles, Parker is not in a university setting. Parker's job is to sit at the right hand of one of hip-hop and pop music's legends: Dr. Dre.

Hired as a staff musician and songwriter for Dre's Aftermath Entertainment empire right after his Berklee graduation in 2005, Parker has been absorbing knowledge from Dre ever since. He has also slowly worked his way into the spotlight with keyboard performances and cowriting credits on such albums as 50 Cent's Get Rich or Die Tryin' soundtrack, Busta Rhymes's Big Bang, and Jay-Z's Kingdom Come.

"I think I got the gig with Dre and Aftermath because of my ability to play piano and keyboards more than my production skills," Parker says before another session with the legendary producer. "I was useful for what Dre needed. I think that if I wasn't a producer, I wouldn't have made it past the first audition. When I play something, it's always with the intent to fit into that style of music."

Dre's Aftermath studio atmosphere is like any classic powerhouse label-Motown, Stax, TSOP, LaFace - with staff musicians and songwriters on call for sessions whenever they are needed. Parker says, "In the Aftermath environment, it's strictly collaboration; we jam in the studio every day. We knock out ideas until we find something that's dope, and then we start building on it. We always keep it moving."

And keep it moving they do-sometimes literally. Most recently Dre and the Aftermath entourage camped out in Detroit for weeks at a time to work on Eminem's long-awaited return album, Relapse. Parker says that he cowrote and coproduced the first single from the album "Crack a Bottle" and plays or is featured on all but one of the CD's tracks. "We worked together with Eminem from the beginning of the album to the completion," he says. The team worked through the spring to knock out initial tracks for 50 Cent's next album.

But these days, Dre-related work is not Parker's only focus. His deal with Aftermath is nonexclusive, so he can explore other options as a producer. This year marked the first official releases from his group the GodBody (with MC Inner Sense) on his own label, High Renaissance (visit www.godbodymusic.com). The group has been around since his Berklee days, when Parker and Sense performed in Boston under the GodBody name with a live band chock-full of Berklee peers.

"GodBody is a whole other sound for me [compared to] what I do for Dre," Parker explains. "The sound of the group has actually gone through a couple metamorphoses since I've been in L.A. with Doc [Dre]. There are Dre, [J] Dilla, and Pharrell [Williams] influences in my production, and Sense is an old-school rhyme fan, so our references are different. We're going to put out three seven-song EPs this year, the 'Triple Seven Series.' Each one will have a theme."

At the still-young age of 26, he has advice to up-and-comers that marks him as wise beyond his years. "You need to know the business, but you can't be overzealous either," he notes. "You can't always worry that you're going to get taken advantage of. Swagger and intelligence will get you very far, and it lets you remain after you get into the circle."

And, he adds, "I tell kids that more than a good lawyer or a manager, you really need dope music and skills. It seems weird to say that, but I think people forget. Always be prepared, and the door will open for you when your stuff is good enough. Your gift will make room."

As for his own next open door, he says, "Whenever the time is right, Dre will let me move on with his blessing. He knows that I'm building my own work. I'm just going to keep progressing and carving out a lane."

Follow Dawaun Parker at www.twitter.com/dawaunparker.

 
  Makeba Riddick '99 credit
  Darien Davis

Living Her Life

Songwriter Makeba Riddick '99 is continuing her ride to the highest corridors of power in the music business. After cowriting one of last year's biggest hits, T.I.'s "Live Your Life" (with Rihanna), which held the number-one spot on Billboard's Hot 100 for nine weeks, she signed on with Jay-Z's Roc Nation management. With the new deal, Riddick is actively engaged not only as a management client but also as an A&R consultant with the company's record label wing.

"I'm working with all of the newer artists on Roc Nation, including Alexandra Burke, Sugababes, and Rita Ora," Riddick explains from her home in Los Angeles, on a rare day off. The fact that many of her new songwriting clients are from the United Kingdom is no coincidence. "London is becoming the 'new' New York. Everybody wants to record there, and there are a lot of great record labels over there. Nowadays, artists want to be bigger than just the United States." This summer, Riddick will be in London working with longtime collaborator Rihanna for the singer's next album. Riddick has plans to record in Spain and Morocco as well.

Later this year, she will reach another milestone in her career: the end of her first joint venture publishing deal with Bad Boy/EMI. Looking back, she says she has learned a great deal since signing with the company in 2002. "A publishing deal is great if you need the money, but no matter what, the ultimate goal is to own your own catalog. Any publishing deal is just a stepping stone, and that up-front money is great to have. But it does come at a price."

"To be honest, I wish I knew what a 'song commitment' really meant when I signed," she confesses. "Five songs doesn't mean that you're part of five songs and you're all set. It means you have to be involved with 100 percent of five songs. You have to put together cowriting percentages to make up one song in total. I would have signed for a way lower song commitment." Still," she says with a wry smile, "EMI and Bad Boy are very happy with me. I've been so fortunate, I don't really have a lot of records that didn't do well or didn't come out."

In addition to continuing to build new talent and rack up more hits with collaborators that include Beyoncé Knowles, Riddick is most excited about a multimedia development project that is a new cartoon property. "I created it, I developed it, and I'll be executive producer," she beams. "It's a music-based cartoon, I would describe it as X-Men meets High School Musical." Since talks are in process to sell it, that's all she can say for now.

With her incredibly busy schedule, relaxed days at home are few and far between for Riddick. But traveling is just part of a top-tier's songwriter's job description in 2009. "I travel wherever people are working," she explains. Her work on T.I.'s "Live Your Life" required a trip to Italy. "But I love to travel and see the world. And I'm not paying for any of it, so that's OK with me! A lot of times, we'll record for five days in Italy or Hawaii and the label will give me three or four days afterward to vacation."

"It might be nice to work at home in L.A. all the time," she notes, "but when people call with great opportunities, you've got to go and get it while it's hot." And as one of the hottest songwriters in pop music today, her bags are always packed.

Brian Coleman is the author of Check the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies (Random House/Villard). Visit www.checkthetech.com.