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Finding a Voice

Songwriter Makeba Riddick '99 has written many number-one tracks for top artists from Jennifer Lopez to Rihanna and found her own voice in the process.

 
  Photography by Tatijana Shoan

It's early February, and Makeba Riddick is anticipating the upcoming Grammy Awards telecast. Seated in her home in Los Angeles, she discusses her various achievements, including producing Rihanna's vocals via Skype on "Love the Way You Lie," a runaway hit on Eminem's Grammy-nominated Recovery album.

A few days after our interview, Eminem's disc won in the Best Rap Album category at the Grammy ceremony, earning Riddick her second Grammy (her first was for Beyoncé's song "Déjà Vu."). Grammy number two is just one more high-water mark for Riddick, known in some circles as "Girl Wonder" for her prodigious songwriting and vocal production talents as well as a tireless work ethic.

From her hardscrabble beginnings in West Baltimore to the Grammy Awards, it's been an amazing journey for Riddick. Raised by her grandparents, she was singing by age two and, just a few years later, began making up songs at the piano. While she received classical training during her high-school years at Baltimore School for the Arts, Riddick has always loved r&b music. Riddick entered Berklee at 17 and, three years later, completed her degree in music business/management and songwriting.

Since launching her career nearly a dozen years ago, Riddick has worked with the top names in urban and r&b music, including Mariah Carey, Toni Braxton, Beyoncé, Rihanna, and T.I., to name a few. Her introduction to the limelight came in 2002 when Jennifer Lopez and Jay-Z took "All I Have," a song Riddick cowrote, to number one. In 2003, Sean "Puffy" Combs signed Riddick to a joint publishing deal with EMI when she was just 22. Since then, she has cowritten a string of hits with artists and seasoned songwriters alike. While voice was her principal instrument at Berklee, she has resisted prods from record execs to become a performer herself. Riddick is quite content working outside the glare of the spotlight.

Riddick's current extra-musical activities include shopping for publishers for The Mean Girls Handbook of Etiquette, a book about love and relationships that she cowrote with childhood friend Kira Martin. She's also seeking a TV home for a music-based animation show she developed. These days, opportunities abound for Riddick. Through it all, Riddick never ceases to be amazed by her own journey and never runs low on creative energy.

Was becoming a songwriter a long-held dream for you?

After I finished Berklee, I didn't know whether I wanted to be an artist, get into A&R, or do something else. Songwriting was just a hobby for me then. I didn't imagine myself becoming a professional songwriter. I came to Berklee just hoping to get a great education and be surrounded by great musicians.

Have you stayed in touch with any of the friends you met at Berklee?

Yes. Keith Harris [of the Black Eyed Peas] and I had the same circle of friends. He was an MP&E major and lived down the hall from me in the Mass. Ave. building. I remember being in the Berklee practice rooms writing songs with him. We wrote one song, and he took me into the studio, and we recorded it. To see the success he is having now is crazy to me. And I'm sure he feels the same about what I've done. When you think of what I'm doing and how the Black Eyed Peas have become [mainstream] pop, we've crossed over from urban music into a whole other genre of music that we didn't know we'd be doing back then.

What was the most important aspect of your time at Berklee?

Being surrounded by so many good musicians, you find more ways to grow and get better at your craft. It was great to be around a drummer from South Africa or a songwriter from China or a pianist from Brazil. It was the best thing to be around people from so many different cultures all doing the same thing.

What was your first post-Berklee career move?

I was a music business/management major, and there were a few things we could do: intern at a music studio or at a record label. Two years before I finished, I wanted to do an internship at Bad Boy Records. I went to New York that summer. I remember waiting in the lobby of Bad Boy for hours to talk to someone. Finally, the receptionist told me that they had enough interns and didn't need me.

That was disheartening because I had taken the summer off from school hoping to do an internship there. I ended up doing an internship for Funkmaster Flex, who was a really popular DJ in New York. He had a record pool, and we did street promotions and radio promotions. So the summer wasn't lost. My next internship was at Columbia Records in New York. I was working for Mitchy Benjamin, Cynthia Harris Johnson, and Chaka [Zulu] in the radio promotion department. I learned about how vinyl is distributed to DJs and program directors and about radio promotions. I made a lot of contacts there, too.

What do you point to as your first break?

There have been many people who helped me along the way. One was senior VP of A&R at Epic Records Max Gousse. He's based in L.A and had heard some of my demo songs. He called me while I was living in Brooklyn and told me he thought the music was phenomenal and he wanted to meet me and hear more. At that time, I was interning, temping at Def Jam [Recordings], and making demos at night. That's when I was really starting to pursue songwriting. Max was probably one of the first executives who was interested in my music and me as a singer and songwriter. He came to New York, and we met at Battery [Park] Studio. I had a CD with 18 songs. I didn't think he'd listen to whole songs, so I went through snippets, but he told me to not to rush. He listened to all 18 songs and played some again. He told me he thought I was a good writer and wanted me to meet his boss, Dave McPherson.

When I met Dave, he and Max told me I should become a singer. I was only about 20 at the time, living in New York by myself, and I felt I didn't know how to pursue [a singing career]. But Max put me in the studio to work with 3LW and B2K, who at the time were urban pop artists signed to Epic. Max said Dave would give me a record deal if I could write him a hit song for Jennifer Lopez. I wondered how I would ever do that. I was just going to the studio, writing my songs, and shuffling back and forth between Manhattan and Brooklyn, barely getting by. But, as fate would have it, one night I went into the studio with a friend, Curtis Richardson, and we wrote a song. I gave it to Max, and he called a few weeks later to say Jennifer loved it and wanted to cut it.

We went to the Hit Factory to record it with Cory Rooney, Jennifer's main vocal producer at the time. That was my first time in a big studio with platinum plaques all over the wall. Cory asked me to sing backgrounds on the song, and I couldn't believe it was all really happening.

After that, I didn't hear anything. A few months went by, and I was in L.A. working with B2K. I got into a car to go back to my hotel and heard Jennifer and LL Cool J singing "All I Have" on the radio. I was dumbfounded. I was only 21 and was hearing a song I wrote on the radio for the first time. It was crazy, because that was the first single I ever worked on, and it went to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed there for five weeks.

Did things start to open up after you had that first hit?

Well, I was pretty young then, and I didn't know too much about samples and the lawsuits that could come from using them. There was a huge sample in "All I Have" and the label failed to clear the sample before the song was on the radio. The original writers and producers sued the label, Jennifer, her publishing company, and my publisher for 90 percent of the publishing. Because of the lawsuit, I got a very small percentage for that song.

But I continued. After the hit, EMI, my publisher, was flying me all over the world to work with producers in Sweden, Germany, London. I decided to move to L.A. I had been working a lot but would get only a cut here and there. I really didn't have any money. I was sitting on my bed one day wondering where my career was going when Max Gousse called me out of the blue. He had left Epic and was working for Matthew Knowles, Beyoncé's father, at Music World Entertainment. He told me . . . Beyoncé wanted to cut a song I had written with Rodney Jerkins about a year and a half earlier ["Déjà Vu"]. Max said that Beyoncé wanted to meet me and write with me. She flew me to New York, and even as I was walking up to the door of the studio, I was thinking, "This isn't really happening, I'm going to wake up any minute."

I walked into the studio and met Beyoncé and her family. She was working on her B'Day album, had handpicked the producers and writers, and I was one of the writers. I cowrote seven songs with her and the other writers. We finished the album in three weeks and had so much fun doing it.

"Déjà Vu" was the song that got me in the door. It became the first single and was a number-one hit all around the world. The B'Day album also went to number one, and two other singles I had cowritten made it to the top five. It was amazing to finally see some A-list material coming out and to start making some money.

How did you come to work with Rihanna?

My manager Jay Brown was a senior VP of A&R at Island Def Jam Universal. He was working with Jay-Z and Tyron Smith and they signed Rihanna when she was just 16. They asked me to write with her and do some vocal production. A song I cowrote for her first album, "If It's Lovin' That You Want" went to the top 10 on the Hot 100 chart.

So now I had two number ones and three top 10 records. I started producing Rihanna's vocals-even for songs I didn't write-and they would go to number one. I wrote three songs for her Good Girl Gone Bad album. I worked with Timbaland and Stargate [Norwegian songwriting, production team] on that album, which sold about 7 million copies worldwide. Then I wrote and did vocal production on a hook she sang with T.I. on the song "Live Your Life." That went to number one for about nine weeks. By then I was red hot, and everyone wanted to work with me.

Next, I worked Rihanna's her Rated R album in 2009 doing vocal production, and I spent nine months on the road with her. From that album came "Rude Boy," a song I cowrote with Ester Dean, and that went to number one for five weeks.

  "The life of a song is endless."

What's your approach when you produce vocals?

I've been doing vocal production from the beginning starting with 3LW. It's mainly about getting the best vocal performance, and not everybody can do that. You have to be a great singer to get a great performance out of another singer. I watched Jennifer Lopez's producer Cory Rooney when he produced vocals for artists. I have to thank Berklee for the ear training and counterpoint classes that have helped me to know when a note is sharp or flat, when a rhythm isn't right, and when we need to add a note into the scale for Auto-Tune. It's also about thinking the singer sounds a little hoarse on this part but that it almost sounds like she's crying, and working with the engineer to bring that out. It's [also about] knowing when a singer's voice is at its best. Vocal production is a lot more tedious than writing a song.

You sang a lot of backgrounds on Beyoncé's B'Day album. Do you usually sing all the parts?

Yes. To hear a good example of me singing all the background parts, listen to "Mad House" on Rihanna's Rated R CD. I was able to capture the feeling of darkness in the track with the background vocals. For the J. Lo record "All I Have," I did all the backgrounds. Vocal arranging is a whole other skill. To me, lyric and melody are connected to the backgrounds and harmonies. As I get on the mic to start recording, I start hearing all the harmonies and can start building. Certain words and phrases become the building blocks for completing the song.

You receive publishing royalties for the songs you cowrite, but when you produce vocals for an artist, do you get points on the record?

When I started out, I would just get a flat fee for producing vocals. If I sang on the song, I would get the hourly AFTRA [American Federation of Television and Radio Artists] rate. Now I am considered a producer, so I get points. We negotiate a separate contract for that. There is a fee per song, but there are also royalties. These songs get released over and over for greatest hits albums, and they are licensed for commercials and movies. The life of a song is endless.

When did you move from New York to Los Angeles?

I got here in 2009. Before that, the labels had lots of money to spend on writers and producers, and I was coming out here about once a month and staying in hotels in Beverly Hills. In 2008 when [Beyoncé's song] "Déja Vu" was nominated for a Grammy, I came out here for the Grammys and decided I wanted to stay another week. My management paid for all this, and they told me I should think about getting an apartment out here since so many of the people I was working with wanted to record here. I moved, and I've been here ever since.

The circle of artists and producers you've worked with has really expanded over the past decade.

My interests have always been very broad. I never worked only with urban or pop producers. Seven years ago, I was going to Sweden to work with Maratone, Max Martin's team, and they do über-pop. Then I would come back to New York to work with hip-hop producers like Swizz Beatz and pop producers like Stargate. I've always had a broad spectrum of producers I've worked with. That's why I'm able to get on an album by T.I. or Sugababes. I went to Nashville a few months ago to work with people there because I'm getting into country music. Things are ever-evolving, and it's so much fun.

Under the terms of your publishing contract, do you have a quota of songs you need to write in a year's time?

I do. Deals can be structured differently, but generally, you have a song commitment. I have a five-song commitment or 500 percent, which means 100 percent of five songs. When I cowrite with two other people, the percentage is split. Sometimes I'll write with one other person, but I also do a lot by myself.

If you look at song credits and see five names, there may be two producers, and if there is a sample in it, they also credit the original producers, so there may be five producers. It there's a writer, an artist, and a rapper and the rapper had somebody write their rap, it will be those four people and the producer dividing the credit.

  "Vocal production is an art and can make the difference between a hit songs and an ok record."

You must have a large catalog by now. Does your publishing company, EMI, promote your back catalog?

Yes, they will pitch songs for TV, commercials, and movies-even movies made overseas. It's part of their job to pitch and license the music.

I have boxes and boxes of demos: thousands of songs that will never see the light of day. You may write a thousand songs in a year, and only 10 will come out. When I was younger, I'd go into the studio and come out with three songs in a day. But I've found that to be counterproductive. Now it's more about quality. I'd rather write one hit song than 10 mediocre songs. A hit is going to last a lifetime. I used to get tracks that A&R people picked out for an album. And if I heard a track I really loved, I'd commit to writing to it and then demo it up. These days they want me to work with a producer and an artist. So I don't usually get tracks anymore. The artist may have a vision of what they want to say, and I'll help with the lyric, the melody, and the arrangement.

Have you ever wanted to record versions of your tunes?

I don't want to do my renditions of songs I wrote for other people, but maybe I would for the songs I wrote for myself. If I am writing for Rihanna, I'm thinking about what she would say and how she would say it. But if and when I do put out some songs, it will be as Makeba.

When you produced Rihanna's vocals on "Love the Way You Lie" for Eminem's Recovery album, did you start with Skyler Grey's original version of the song as a reference?

I got a full demo. Eminem's voice was on the track with Skyler's voice on the chorus. I had to dissect Skyler's vocal and harmonies because they produced the demo to sound like they wanted it to sound on the radio. I worked with Rihanna on her vocals and with [recording engineer] Marcos Tovar to get the sound right. We did it all through Skype because Rihanna was in Dublin, and I was in L.A. It didn't take us long-maybe an hour-to get Rihanna's vocals sounding like a million bucks. She sings the chorus four times, and each one builds. Vocal production is an art and can make the difference between a hit song and an OK record.

Is it daunting when an artist wants to write with you and expects that you'll create a song with hit potential?

It used to be, but not now because I've done it a lot. But I remember when I still lived in New York and my publisher called saying Janet Jackson heard one of my songs and wanted to cut it. She wanted to fly me out [to Los Angeles] and hang out with me for a weekend before we cut the song. This was before I worked with Beyoncé. It was another time when I had a hard time believing I was going to work with someone as big as Janet.

We spent a day together, had lunch, and drove around Malibu. She did cut the song, but it was never used. That taught me not to get excited until a song is out on the shelves. But I was grateful to work with a legend like Janet in the studio and soak up some of her knowledge.

Do you keep a notebook of melodies or lyric concepts that come to you on the fly?

I have a folder in my BlackBerry where I keep concepts and titles as they jump out at me. Several years ago, I wrote a song for Jessica Simpson. The concept came as I was sitting in the studio reading a tabloid about the breakup of Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt. In the interview, Jennifer said something like, "This is one of those things where you don't want to care." I thought about what she was going through and wrote "I Don't Wanna Care." Jessica Simpson was also going through a breakup around then, and she recorded the song.

When you go to a cowriting session, do you go through your folder to see if there's something you and your fellow writer can work with?

Yeah. We bounce ideas off each other. I have maybe only two songwriters that I can collaborate with. I write very fast, and sometimes it's hard to accommodate another writer unless they move as fast as I do. Collaborating is kind of like working on a coloring book. You may want to use blue in the picture, but the other person thinks yellow should go there. Sometimes there are totally different ideas of what the picture should look like.

When you write with an artist, is there a different dynamic?

There is a lot more leeway in that situation, because the artist is the one who will have to sing the song every night. So I'll ask them what they are thinking about, what they are going through. In Beyoncé's case, we're both girls and not too far apart in age. Sometimes we've been going through the same things and share a lot in common. Beyoncé and I would spend hours talking, and some of those thoughts would turn into songs.

I've heard that you do charitable work in your hometown. Can you talk about that?

Baltimore city, where I'm from, is a tough place to grow up. I started the Adorable Foundation, and I go back to Baltimore each Christmas and do a toy drive for the underprivileged kids living in foster homes, battered women's shelters, and group homes. We don't have any sponsors yet, so I go out and get thousands of dollars' worth of toys and provide a Christmas for kids who otherwise wouldn't have one.

I always think that but for God's grace, it could have been me in a home like that. It's important for those kids to see someone who came from the same kind of background and overcame. My grandparents raised me, and we didn't have anything but prayer. We didn't have the money for me to go to Berklee, so my grandmother applied for any and every scholarship and grant she could find. I ended up with 13 scholarships and a free ride my first year. I was 17 when my grandparents dropped me off at Berklee, and I can remember seeing them drive off down Mass. Ave. I felt like a small fish in this big ocean.

So I want to encourage young girls out there that don't have their parents and, like me, don't have anything but their dreams and their gifts. I've worked long and hard to get where I am. I remember having to catch two trains and a bus to get from Brooklyn to Manhattan to temp in the morning, do my internship in the afternoon, and then go to the studio at night to work on music. Then I'd take a two-and-a half-hour train ride back to Brooklyn. After a few hours' sleep, I'd do it all over again. I didn't know if I'd ever have a hit record or a Grammy nomination. But now all these years later, it was really worth it.