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Jonathan Rotem: A Piano Man Finds His Beat

  Jonathan "J.R." Rotem

It was 2005 when Jonathan "J.R." Rotem broke out as a producer and songwriter in a very big way. That year alone he had 60 tracks on records by some of the top names in hip-hop and r&b. Rotem's résumé includes credits with 50 Cent, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Fabolous, Young Buck, Obie Trice, Jojo, Mya, Foxxy Brown, Busta Rhymes, Rhianna, Trick Daddy, Tre Songz, Talib Kweli, Lil' Kim, and many others. All indications are that this year, Rotem's visibility will soar higher.

At the time of my conversation with Rotem in May, he was in the studio writing and producing music with Britney Spears for her upcoming album and had just completed projects for other movers and shakers in the pop and pop-rock field.

Rotem's path to the Los Angeles studios was unpredictable, with a few major changes of direction along the way. Rotem was born in South Africa to Israeli parents. His family moved to Toronto and then to the San Francisco Bay Area. From a young age, Rotem was very serious about playing classical piano. His musical palette was always varied, though, and his tastes ran from the classics to the Beatles, Sting, and Queen. Later, hip-hop music deeply affected him, but his musical pursuits remained centered on piano.

"I studied classical piano until I went to Berklee," Rotem says. "Then I switched and got into jazz. "McCoy Tyner is my favorite pianist, but I also really like Red Garland and Herbie Hancock."

Rotem explored other areas at Berklee. "I took piano very seriously and was practicing many hours a day, but I was never a performance major," Rotem says. "I tried a few different majors and then settled on jazz composition."

After Rotem completed his studies, he returned to the Bay Area. He hadn't mapped out any long-range career plans, he just wanted to be a jazz pianist. He moved to New York for a few months, but it wasn't for him. Returning to San Francisco, Rotem began playing a lot of gigs, but something was missing. He began considering a transition from performer to composer/producer.

"I'd always liked hip-hop," says Rotem. "I'd heard Run DMC's Raising Hell album in the 1980s, and Dr. Dre's The Chronic and Snoop Doggy Style in the mid-1990s, and was influenced by them. I got serious about hip-hop when Dr. Dre's The Chronic 2001 album came out. I wanted to do it for real after that." Rotem put together a home studio and began creating his own beats. An indicator that he was on to something came when local rappers Suga-T and D-Shot started buying Rotem's tracks.

"They liked my melodic approach; the beats were very musical, says Rotem. "I wasn't just putting drums on top of samples; I played a lot of parts. I think my understanding of funk made my beats appealing as well." Rotem assembled a CD of his beats that ultimately ended up in the hands of Dwayne Wiggins of Tony! Toni! Toné! With Wiggins's help, a couple of Rotem's tracks ended up on the Survivor album by Beyoncé and Destiny's Child.

"After I got the break with Destiny's Child, I thought I'd just move down to L.A. and everything would just happen," says Rotem. "But it wasn't that easy. It took a few years to meet people and refine my sound. I started producing small projects and teaching piano to pay my bills."

Rotem credits his manager Zach Katz for helping shape his style. "Zach, he was very heavily into hip-hop and gave me feedback on my beats. My sound wasn't as gritty as a lot of rappers like, so Zach helped me dirty up the sound. He also hooked me up with other producers. I saw how they produced and manipulated sounds with keyboards, and I learned techniques for loosening up the feel."

The fact that Rotem isn't from Compton, California, never affected his credibility with hip-hop artists. "I didn't grow up in the culture or have a connection to the urban world initially. But musically, that's never stopped me. At the end of the day, I think the artists just want good music that they can feel. Every time I produce a track, my classical and jazz training come out. I'm a pianist first; that's what's unique about me."

While Rotem has enjoyed great success in the hip-hop arena, he is not limited to one style. "I've gotten a lot of placements on hip-hop albums by Game, 50 Cent, Fabolous, Mobb Deep, Snoop Dogg, and others, but I'm actually doing more pop and r&b production now," he says. "I've been in the studio working one-on-one with Britney Spears on her new album. I am doing the tracks and producing her vocals. Britney is one of biggest stars, so this is a great opportunity. Britney and I got a good vibe in the studio. We are being very creative together."

For Rotem, there is much to explore. He may set his sights on TV or film music in the future, and he is upbeat about the possibilities the music industry offers. "I moved to L.A. without knowing anybody," he says. "I met one entertainment lawyer, and that led to other things. If you have positive energy, are a good person, work hard, and have faith, I think you can achieve what you want. I've worked really hard at this, but I can't deny that I've been really lucky too."