In an era where EDM is dominating airwaves around the globe, the R&B music that once governed the 90s finds itself taking on a new turn and being upheld by a host of fresh, experimental musicians more willing to step outside the realms of conventionality and offer something different.
No longer a standalone genre, R&B is now seamlessly incorporated with different styles – electronic, hip-hop and indie, for instance – the latter responsible for the coined term PBR&B to describe an emerging, stylistic alternative to contemporary R&B music.
David Harris, otherwise known as Swagg R’Celious, has tapped into this exciting crop of R&B genre benders, working with the likes of up-and-coming singers Kehlani and Gabi Wilson, experimental electronic-R&B singer Dawn Richard, and former Love & Hip Hop Atlanta star K. Michelle. Having started out as an intern at MBK Entertainment – home to Alicia Keys and Brandy – he was soon snapped up by the entertainment firm on a more permanent basis and is now the go-to producer for many of R&B’s rising stars. He spoke to Flavourmag to discuss his journey so far, working with the likes of Elle Varner and future projects.
When did you first discover your love for music?
I have seven siblings – four brothers and three sisters – and we grew up in the church playing music, as my father is a pastor, so that’s where I discovered my love for music and fell in love with music. That’s where my musical journey began. I was the youngest of all my brothers and they all played either guitar, base, keys, sang or whatever, so I’ve always looked up to them musically and always wanted to do what they did and we ended up forming a local band.
What producers were you inspired by when you were first learning how to produce?
Quincy Jones, Pharrell, Timbaland, Dr. Dre and then later Kanye. Oh, and I can’t forget Teddy Riley. What they’ve done for black music, and other genres as well, is inspiring… What they’ve done sonically for music is undeniable, so I look up to those cats, because me, as a producer, my goal is for someone to listen to what I’m doing and say, “He stands out from everybody else.” So, those are the cats for me who make records that go against the grain.
Since you sing too, was it ever a difficult decision in choosing whether to be a singer versus being a songwriter and producer?
I prefer songwriting and producing, but recently I’ve been called to the frontline a little bit. I did a song on a Christmas compilation that I’m executive producing right now, and I just did a record with DJ Made In June and that’s featuring me as a singer, which is weird, because I always said I’m not trying to do that, but if it happens organically then I may put out a couple of songs. Right now I don’t plan on putting out an album, but I may work on a mixtape or something.
How did you get your big break in the industry?
To cut a long story short, I went to LaGrange College and got my Bachelors in Creative Music and Technology. Then I came to New York for Grad School in NYU and that’s when I met the MBK camp. I was looking for an internship, while in Graduate School studying Music Technology, and I couldn’t get an intern [position] anywhere, it was crazy. I applied to all the different internships through the school, but for some reason nothing happened, so I went on Craigslist and came across an ad for MBK in Midtown. I was invited for an interview and the guy I met was G Flowers and at the time he was an A&R. We were both left-handed, both from the south, so he really took to me and our personalities just jelled really cool, so he said he’d give me a call.
What was funny was that night when I met with him, I was introduced to Jermaine Paul – now winner of The Voice and used to sing background for Alicia Keys for years. He came down that night and my first session was with him. I was like, “Oh shoot”, as I didn’t know I was going to physically record anybody, so that was cool.
Then a few months had passed and I got a call from G and I think something had happened to one of his engineers, so he was like, “Yo, do you know how to use Logic?” And I said, “Yeah, that’s my thing.” He told me he had a session coming through and the pre-setup was Logic, so he asked if I could record something. At that particular time I was still putting change in [parking] meters and going on coffee runs and stuff, but this particular day I got to engineer a group they have called LIVRE’, which is a gospel group and that’s kind of where I started engineering. That night the CEO’s brother came down, Conrad Robinson, who manages the gospel group, so I started building a relationship there and that’s where everything started… and later on it led to a publishing situation.
You did a lot of productions for K. Michelle in her earlier days. How did that come about?
Just before the publishing situation, a friend of mine, Meek Mason from Atlanta, was telling me about K. Michelle. She was like, “You remember K. Michelle? That’s my home girl. I think you and her could make some dope stuff together.” She introduced us and we hit it off really well and started working. I brought my brother in too, Zo, who’s an amazing pianist. This was all before MBK got involved, but we ended up going to Atlanta for a week and we did like eight songs. One of those songs was “Kiss My Ass” and she had just gotten on Love & Hip Hop Atlanta so she hit Mona [Scott-Young] and was like, “Check out this song I wrote about the Mimi [Faust] situation”, and [Mona] thought it was dope, so that’s kind of where that song came from. Then MBK started working with her and we ended up doing like four joints on her album, as well as the three tracks on The Hold Over EP before the album, and then I did a lot on the Still No F**** Given mixtape, so I had a pretty good run with K. It was real fun. She’s an interesting character.
What was the creative process like in the studio?
Honestly man, it was really cool and whatever she’s going through that day, her music is her diary. Whatever situation she’s going through she’ll vent through her music, so it’s very organic and almost like narrative, if that makes sense. Everything she writes about is real. Whatever relationship, whether she’s happy, going through a heartbreak or whatever, she’ll come in and be like, “This is where I’m at today”, so it’s interesting [working with her].
She recently said on Twitter that her next album would be her last. What did you think about that?
I think every artist comes to a point where you feel like you want to do other things. I think she’s accomplished a lot and has gotten off her chest what she’s wanted to get off at this phase of her life, and I feel like now she wants to move into more of becoming a businesswoman and doing other things… and sometimes the [music] bug might bite you again and you may come back. I mean, Jay Z retired [laughs], so hopefully we’ll get another album from her, but I respect her if she feels like this is it for music. I don’t think she’s going to go away. I think she’s maybe moving into television or other business ventures and stuff, so I wish her the best in that.
Are there any plans for you to be involved creatively for her final album?
I’m down for it, if she hits me up. I know she’s expanding her sound and working with a few other really dope people who I respect as well, so if it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it’s all good. I think we had a good run building a foundation for this new era of K. Michelle, so I’m content and happy in knowing that I was a part of the new blueprint of K. Michelle.
What other learning experiences did you go through whilst interning at MBK?
During the time while I was interning/ engineering some sessions they signed Elle Varner, so I got to vibe with her since we were both coming into the game. So in the beginning while she was developing her sound and working with a lot of producers, I got to sit in on some of those sessions, like with Alex Da Kid, Syience, and a lot of producers who were on the come up. Alex Da Kid has worked with Rihanna, Imagine Dragons, but this was pre all of those hits, so I got to kick it with him and just learn a few things from watching how he worked, so it was really cool.
She had this song called “So Fly” and it was acoustic originally and they wanted to put this hip-hop twist on it, so they wanted to give me a shot. I promise you man, I probably sat in that studio like 13-14 hours. They had me do like 12 different versions of that song. Neither one of them got picked [for the album], but it was all good because it was the process of trying to make that album and being the new kid that was a good experience for me.
And you’ve worked on her new album too?
Yeah, I did two records with her and everyone is loving them, so hopefully it all comes together, but the stuff that I heard that she’s been working on is amazing, so it’s going to be dope when it comes.
Another artist you’ve worked with, who is probably my favourite up-and-coming singer, is Kehlani. How was that process?
She and Gabi Wilson are both from the Bay Area, and they were in a group together, and I was working heavily with Gabi Wilson. Kehlani was telling Gabi that she was looking for a producer to really mould her sound, so Gabi suggested she work with me. It’s funny because I met Nick Cannon [Kehlani’s manager and mentor] maybe a few months before at a charity event he was doing and he liked the stuff I was doing with Gabi, so we exchanged numbers.
After speaking with Gabi, Kehlani hit me up on Twitter I believe, and I told her we should get in [the studio] and make it happen. I reached out to Nick so we could set everything right, and I later found out he was trying to get me in with her anyway, so he flew her down to New York and we started Cloud 19 together, and the first song we did was “1st Position” and then we did “FWU”. My apprentice and intern I was mentoring, Jahaan Sweet, was in the other room working on something else, and it fitted the vibe I was trying to go with Kehlani, and that [track] became “Get Away”. That’s where Cloud 19 started and to see where she is now is pretty cool man.
You also worked on Dawn Richard’s critically acclaimed Blackheart LP. How did that come about?
I met her through sessions for Gabi Wilson. I was telling Jeff Robinson [CEO of MBK Entertainment] that we should try and get Dawn to write some stuff with Gabi. She has a different flavour so it would be interesting to see what happens. So Dawn came and everybody hit it off really well, and she and I just took to each other creatively. Over that summer she hit me and asked me to work on a track for her, so I did the track and she loved it and thought it was really dope.
Then she hit me about a month later with this a cappella and asked me to produce something around it, so I did it and that song ended up being “Castles”, which is on her Blackheart album and she was like, “This is really dope. I mess with your sound.” After that she asked me to do a lot of the production on Redemptionheart, so we’re creating that album together and it’s been fun. We’ve dropped a few songs already, “New Or Lean” and “James Dean”. I’m doing a lot of the album and it’s going to be amazing, so I’m super excited about that project… It’s going to be a co-executive thing with her. I’m doing if not every track, almost every track.
Last year we saw you post a picture of you in the studio working with Brandy. How did that music turn out? Is it for her new album?
We were working on some ideas for new music for her and the song came out great. She’s such a sweet soul, man. You wouldn’t even realise who you’re working with in the moment, because she’s such a sweet-spirited, creative person and then when you leave the studio you’re like, “Oh wow! I was just working with Brandy. That’s crazy!” Hopefully it’s for a new project. We’ve been working on some cool stuff, so just kind of waiting to see where it lands and I’m not sure exactly when anything is dropping, but I know she will be dropping something.
Brandy is considered an icon in R&B music, but what up-and-coming artists do you think are going to blow up in the next year or so?
I’m really excited about Gabi Wilson. I think she’s really dope and her EP is going to be really wicked man. Also Tiara Thomas, who’s had a hit with Wale. If you haven’t heard it yet, her new EP, Up in Smoke, is amazing. I think she’s about to come out with a vengeance. The stuff she’s been working on is crazy and I’ve had the chance to work with her a lot as well.
Also, I have an artist, Kiki Ireland, who I’m developing with my partners 28 Vinyl. We have a free song out now called “Imma Ride” and man she’s really dope. There are so many dope people on the come up. It’s just a matter of them finding the right lane, the right pocket and really committing to it. Justine Skye is another budding star, who I’ve had the honour of working with, and she’s doing a lot of dope things.
R&B singer Tyrese recently criticised mainstream top 40 radio stations in the US for not supporting R&B music by black musicians. Do you think it’s harder for black R&B musicians to get the same support as their white counterparts?
Yes, and I think it’s been somewhat of an issue since the beginning of this R&B thing. You would have Little Richard who would put out a song and then Pat Boom would cover it and it would shoot up the charts—the pop charts. Back then it was called race music. I don’t think it’s anything new, I just think now black musicians are becoming more educated or are speaking out more about it… but I do urge black musicians to not shrink creatively and dumb down their music because of it. I feel like a lot of times, because we think our music is being rejected, we result to watering down our content, but I agree with Tyrese 100%, however I don’t feel like it’s anything new… I’m not saying white musicians are less talented, I enjoy their music as well, but it’s the system of it, not necessarily individuals. I think it’s the system that makes it harder for us.
You’ve got Justin Timberlake, who obviously does R&B music – and I think he would say he’s an R&B artist – and he’s considered pop [laughs]. So, it’s now [an era] where pop is considered not black or if a black person is doing pop then it’s urban pop [laughs], so I think it’s the system, but I think we just have to continue to be aware of it and speak on it, in order for it to change, and continue to make great music.
What do you think of the UK music scene?
I am slowly getting hip to the UK scene. I have a couple of friends who are producers and stuff. I met Naughty Boy a few years back. I would love to collaborate with him and Emeli Sande. I know those are the obvious ones. I’m into SOHN’s stuff too and—ah shoot! What’s his name? Myneek? Mynik?
Yeah, MNEK! Love his stuff, would love to work with him.
Which other artists or producers would you really like to work with?
I would love to do a joint with Rihanna. That would be cool. Kanye [pauses] Jay Z. Who else? Man, there are so many dope artists. That’s a hard question [laughs].
What advice would you give to aspiring producers who perhaps have just finished school and are trying to break through in the industry?
My thing is, opportunities come a dime a dozen, but you have to be prepared. So my thing is, you work hard every day as if every day is an audition of your life, because you never know—opportunities come a dime a dozen and they’re random, so if you’re not prepared for that opportunity that day, you may have missed something that was meant for you. You have to discipline yourself to really commit to your craft, to really study your craft, work hard, study the game you’re trying to get into, whether it’s music, journalism or fashion. You have to be a student of the game, so that’s what I would tell them. Always work hard, work your butt off and work like your life really depends on it, because it does.
For me, once I decided what I wanted to do I locked in [the studio]. I heard a story about Kanye saying one summer he made so many beats a day or whatever, so I said, “You know what, I have no excuse.” I graduated from college and moved to Connecticut with my oldest brother, and I did some stuff in k-pop with a South Korean pop artist, Hyo Lee, made a little money, bought some stuff and just locked myself in and made about 10 beats every day that whole summer. Some of them were garbage, some of them were okay, but the fact is that I was really investing in myself and just trying to be prepared for whatever happened.
What other projects are you working on at the minute? What does the future hold?
I have my production company that I’m developing, Progressive Musik Group. I’ve got some really hot producers and writers I’m working with. I have some other projects I’m working on, some big things I can’t speak on exactly right now, but recently myself and Wale have kind of connected, and hopefully some cool stuff comes out of that and a few things we’ve been talking about doing. There’s a lot going on and I wish I could tell everything, but I’ve got to sit on some stuff [laughs].
Before we wrap up, it’s fair to say you’ve produced a lot of tracks in your career so far, but what would you say is your favourite and why?
Oh shoot! [Laughs] dang! It has to be just one?
Well, I would say [pauses] I would have to say—man, that’s such a hard question. I love them all, but I would say “New Or Lean” by Dawn Richard, only because the stuff I do with her I get to be a little out the box, more unconventional. A lot of stuff I do with her is very—she pushes me to be creative, so for that reason I would say probably any one of the songs I ‘ve done with her.
Interview by Nathan Miller