The name Christopher “Tricky” Stewart may not mean much to the average music listener, but in a certain sector of the music industry it carries with it a King Midas-like reputation.
Stewart—an Illinois native who moved to Atlanta in the mid-1990s at the urging of L.A. Reid—just turned 36 in January, yet he’s already responsible for more than 25 million albums sold. He’s written and produced hit singles for some of the biggest divas in the worlds of pop and R&B, from Rihanna (“Umbrella”) and Mary J. Blige (“Just Fine”) to Mariah Carey (“Touch My Body” and “Obsessed”) and Britney Spears (“Me Against the Music”). He’s also helped to nurture new talents, such as Mya, Blu Cantrell and budding pop star Justin Bieber.
But Stewart (along with frequent collaborator The-Dream) is coming off his biggest success to date with Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It),” which earned comparisons to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” as an enduring message of female empowerment. The song went platinum more than four times over on its way to becoming a pop culture phenomenon, winning Grammys in January for Song of the Year, Best R&B Song and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance.
Now, with forthcoming albums from Christina Aguilera and Katy Perry, new artists Lonnie Breaux and Bryan J, and even his first solo album, Stewart truly seems to be at the top of his game. We recently caught up with the magic-touch producer to discuss his influences, artist evolution and opinion on the key ingredients that go into making a hit song.
What’s your earliest memory of feeling your spirit moved by music?
The first music I remember being special to me was Kiss and Bootsy Collins. I used to sit in my mom’s room listening to those two albums on 8-track with headphones on over and over again. I think I liked them because they were both really noisy and aggressive, and I had a lot of energy in my youth. [Laughs]
I know you come from a very musical family. What were their respective contributions to your growth as an artist?
Music was always important to my mom because she taught music and had her own gospel choir. At the same time, my brother [producer Laney Stewart] was moving into the record-making side of the music business after having a successful jingle-writing career. Thanks to them I liked a lot of different kinds of music: gospel, Chicago house music, Culture Club and even pop music like DeBarge. I think my style is a mixture of all that stuff I grew up listening to.
As a high school student you’d already worked with artists such as Aaron Hall and Chanté Moore through your mentor, Louil Silas Jr. What did you learn from him?
Everything that got me to where I am now in my career came from Louil Silas. He was the first person who gave me an opportunity, and not a lot of people were giving [prodction] budgets to people who were still in high school! [Laughs] The biggest thing I learned from him is that the record is always king: If people don’t react to it or show some sort of emotion, you probably don’t have a hit record. Even if it sounds perfect from a technical standpoint, if it doesn’t strike a chord in people then it’s not gonna connect.
How did meeting L.A. Reid and moving your company to Atlanta impact your career?
The biggest thing he taught me was how to go from being just a producer to being an entrepreneurial creative person. He was preaching ownership and encouraging me to build my own studio, which is the same studio I’m in today. It was about learning to hit the business from a different perspective.
Why do you think Atlanta remains such a hotbed of urban music talent?
Atlanta didn’t just pop onto the scene. L.A. and Babyface were some of the hottest guys in the business, and they came and put a flag down here. Anybody who wanted to be affiliated with LaFace Records and be involved with what these guys were doing had to be based in Atlanta. That was actually the first line in my contract! But there’s also a natural attraction for anybody in the Southeast with Atlanta because it’s the hub of where music is now. It’s more accessible than New York or Los Angeles, and people here will extend a hand to help.
You’ve had a lot of hits over the years, but “Umbrella” seemed to take your career to a different level. Did you know when you were making it that it would be so huge?
I think you know, as a creator, when a song will be huge. Whether you’re gonna get the opportunity for that song to become huge is something different. A hit record has to end up in the right place at the right time, with the right system of people that are excited about it. Everything has to fall into place, because with records of that magnitude you’re looking for a perfect storm. There are people who write great songs all the time, but it’s not the right moment for that song. You can feel great about a record all you want, but I don’t think you ever walk out of the studio knowing for sure because it takes so many factors to make a hit.
What are the key ingredients that make a song like that or “Single Ladies” into pop classics?
“Umbrella” is extremely melodic and catchy and had a new sound to it, and I think the lyrics meant something to a lot of different people. [The success of] “Single Ladies” is totally surreal, the way it developed into a cultural phenomenon that you know is gonna be around forever. The night we won the Grammys and were a part of Beyoncé’s moment in history, it was just an amazing feeling.
You and Dream have had quite a fruitful partnership over the past few years. What makes you such a good songwriting/production team?
I think it’s the chemistry we have as writers and producers. We listen to each other really well and we both have the mindset that we’ll work on a song for as long as it takes to get it just right, until every little nuance is coming across the way we want it to. The common denominator at this point is our level of dedication to trying to be great.
You guys have worked with practically every major artist in the pop and R&B worlds. Are there any dream collaborations still on your list?
I would say Alicia Keys. That came close to happening with her latest album, but we got called in a little too late in the project and couldn’t move quickly enough. Also, I worked with Pink early on in her career and I’d love to get back in the studio with her. Her performance at the Grammys was absolutely amazing.to give them some value-added content.
You’ve got records with Christina Aguilera and Katy Perry scheduled for forthcoming releases. What can we expect from those albums that we haven’t heard before?
With Christina I basically try to develop a totally different sound, because she never wants to hear a record that sounds like anything she’s heard before. She encourages me to stretch out and try new things or find new sounds, so that one was really fun, electro-infused hip-hop stuff. It’s really cool. I’m right on the middle of developing Katy Perry’s record right now, and hers is more a fusion of rock, techno and hip-hop.
Who are the artists you’re listening to these days who inspire you?
I love Lady Gaga. I think she’s amazing, bringing artistry back into the business. I really admire what the Black Eyed Peas do, and I love Kanye West. He does it so well, making the transition from being one of the best rappers in the business to making an album like 808s & Heartbreak. I thought it was amazing.
Any up-and-coming artists you’re working with that we should keep our eyes out for?
One of my favorite new talents is this guy Lonnie Breaux. He’s really great, with a style somewhere between Maxwell, Robin Thicke and Kanye West. He’s this fresh, young, 21-year-old hip-hop poet with an amazing singing voice, and he blends all these different styles seamlessly. There’s also Bryan J, a charming 22-year-old kid with this great swagger about him. He’s like The-Dream’s little cousin, dancing and singing like Tevin Campbell, with fun music and a young look that the girls love. Both of these guys write their own music too, which is a plus.
The-Dream released a solo album. Any plans for one of your own?
I am producing a solo album that will be based in R&B/dance music, and it’ll feature me working with all my favorite female artists that I’ve produced. It’ll have a little Christina, Ciara, Katy Perry, Mariah, Mary J, hopefully a little Celine Dion doing something she’s never done before. It should be a lot of fun!