“Peace up. A-Town down.” The shout out to Atlanta is fiery and fierce, setting the tone for one of the hottest dance tracks of the last decade. Accompanied by Lil Jon and Ludacris, Usher’s “Yeah!” successfully mixed R&B, hip hop, and crunk into an addictive tale of seduction on the dance floor. The song topped the US Billboard Hot 100 chart for twelve consecutive weeks, sold over 4 million copies, and helped launch the career of Sean Garrett, one of the most successful producers of all time.
“I’m a very passionate person and I love the balance of passionate vocals on top of an aggressive track. No matter if it’s a slow song, an up tempo song, a club song, or whatever. So, when Usher began singing with that kind of passion on “Yeah!,” I knew it was going to be one of the greatest moments of my life.”
And it was only the beginning.
Not since George Martin produced 20 #1 hits for The Beatles from 1964 to 1970 has a producer achieved anything remotely close. Over the last seven years, Sean Garrett has delivered 18 number one singles along with dozens of chart toppers like Beyonce’s “Ring the Alarm,” Nicki Minaj’s “Massive Attack,” Pussycat Dolls’ “Buttons,” Fergie’s “London Bridge,” Ciara’s “Goodies,” and Britney Spears’ “Toy Soldier.”
With such a successful career, it’s hard to argue against his motto: “Smash on the radio, bet I penned it.”
Even more, when not producing hit records for mega superstars, Garrett continues to push hard on his own career as a singer, songwriter, and performer. In 2008, he released his debut album, Turbo 919, along with the single, “Grippin’,” featuring Ludacris. Then, in 2010, he released a mixtape entitled The Inkwell with contributions from Soulja Boy, Drake, Lil Wayne, and many more. And most recently, a series of singles like “6 In the Morning” and “In da Box,” featuring Rick Ross, and “Anytime,” featuring Migos.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Garrett and his family moved around quite a bit in Europe as his father was a military man. But that didn’t stop the young entertainer from performing at local talent shows and pursuing a career in music.
At the age of 15, he signed his first record deal. And like the constant shifting from one locale to another, he didn’t allow music to become a distraction, continuing his education under his mother’s guidance and earning a business degree from the University of Maryland (Germany). He even took a job as a mortgage broker before landing in the studio with Usher.
Says Garrett, “My mom was always pushing me to do what I wanted. She had me focus on life and all the things I needed to fall back on if things didn’t necessarily go the way I wanted them to go. I appreciate her for that. I lost her about ten years ago, but she instilled in me so many great values. Being humble, being educated, pursuing your dreams, etc. And she also prepared me for disappointment.”
Fresh out of the studio with Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears, we caught up with the smash producer and singer/songwriter to talk about divas, disappointments, determination, and Denver.
Where did your love for music come from? What were you listening to growing up?
My love for music is so wide. I actually grew up loving Michael Jackson, loving all of his music, his production, the way it sounded, the emotion of it, etc. That was really the first thing that I could properly identify with as my favorite type of music. And then, after moving to Europe, I started to love pop music from Gloria Estefan to Boy George to New Edition to The Eurythmics to The Beatles – all types of records and music at different times.
Growing up in Europe, you might hear a song in a department store that is absolutely amazing. But you’re left hanging. “Damn! What was that? Who was that?” And unfortunately, growing up in another country, it’s not easy to find out what you’re listening to at the same time. So, being creative, you start to pick up different vibes and different sounds. And you’re being influenced without knowing you’re being influenced. All of this stuff is going right into your mind and soul and your body and you start to really appreciate music without having a reason or a format or formula to know exactly what it is you’re listening to.
After that initial recording contract at 15, you still returned to school and got your business degree?
Yeah. As a matter of fact, I was doing my school work while I was on the road. It was the only way that my mother would allow me to do my music. I sort of hated it at the beginning, but after a while, I realized it was one of the most important things that she taught me.
My mom was always pushing me to do what I wanted. She had me focus on life and all the things I needed to fall back on if things didn’t necessarily go the way I wanted them to go. I appreciate her for that. I lost her about ten years ago, but she instilled in me so many great values. Being humble, being educated, pursuing your dreams, etc. And she also prepared me for disappointment.
A lot of times when I’m disappointed, it doesn’t affect me in the same way that it affects other people because she built me to be very strong emotionally. Even though I wear my emotions on my sleeve, she taught me how to be strong and deal with people and situations as they come about and not to take things so personally that it affects my growth or slows down my progress.
What was your first producing gig?
“Yeah!” was actually the first record that I co-produced. And as I was producing it, the other producers brought to my attention that I was doing great things, i.e. they liked the way I formulated vocals, how I arranged things, how I would switch around the tracks, how I would make the song work together with the instruments, the vocals, and the emotion. It took a couple of veterans to tell me before I realized I had a knack for it. But I took it as a blessing and an appreciation and ran with it.
Afterwards, I had to prioritize my life because I started out as an artist. Losing my mom was a very traumatic time in my life. And I slightly went into panic mode because I honestly didn’t want to write and produce for other people. I only wanted to write and produce for myself. I felt I would only produce after I was really successful as an artist. But little did I know that that wasn’t the plan God had for me.
“Yeah!” was a monster success to put it mildly. What is your favorite recollection from the song and working with Usher?
My most notable memory of that record was that initially everybody didn’t get it. Even Usher was a little reluctant to do the record. But the moment I heard him in the studio and heard his voice, “Peace out. A-town down.” I knew it was over. I knew we had one of the biggest records ever because his emotion was exactly what I expected it to be.
I really spend a lot of time creating songs that fit like a glove. I’m a very passionate person and I love the balance of passionate vocals on top of an aggressive track. No matter if it’s a slow song, an up tempo song, a club song, or whatever. So, when Usher began singing with that kind of passion on “Yeah!,” I knew it was going to be one of the greatest moments of my life.
You’ve worked with Britney, Beyonce, Nicki, Mary, and Rick Ross – who’s the bigger diva?
(Laughs) And now Miley! Out of all the people that you named though, I wouldn’t say any of them were actual divas based on how they act. I would just say that they’re all professionals. Of course, any of them, at any given time when the climate is a little uncomfortable, can become a little difficult. But I would say that my relationship with all of those people was very unique and special. All of them can be divas, but I didn’t experience that at the time we were working. Whenever we were working, it was all love and smiles. They were happy to see me.
It was such an amazing time working with all of them. You have a certain respect for people who are really talented. And when you’re talented and they’re talented, it evens the playing field. It’s really about holding your own. A person can put on the whole diva role, but when you’re at the same place they’re at, doing the same shit that they’re doing and you can match their talents, it equalizes the whole situation very quickly.
How much personal experience do you call upon in your music?
It’s all personal, man. Every last second. I’d be lying to you if I sat here and told you it wasn’t personal because I take everything personally. Every artist does. It’s a well thought out process. Sometimes it’s just an emotional reaction to something I’m feeling and I need to get it out, I want to say it, and I don’t give a fuck what anybody says or thinks about it. It’s really just my response to something that I may have experienced or witnessed someone go through a year or month ahead of time.
The latest record I did, “Anytime,” featuring the Migos, is something that I really went through. I actually went through that experience a year ago and it just happened to be on my mind at the time I heard the track and it all came out that way.
So what are you listening to now?
My favorite record right now is “Royals” by Lorde. That’s something that I really like, man. That young lady has such an amazing voice. There’s just something creatively about it that is really, really dope. It’s very unique. And lyrically, it’s really profound. It’s about the struggle. It’s about the hood. It’s about a group of people who were never thought to be anything special. They weren’t thought to be anything royal. And that’s probably why I identify with it so much. It’s just an amazing record and I really like the way it was delivered.
Do you see any common threads between the hit songs or key components that go into making a hit?
The key is really the way that I think. I’m unpredictable as a person. I mean, you call me on Sunday, I may want to go rafting. You call me on Monday, I may want to play basketball. You call me on Tuesday, I may want to go skiing. I’m full of life, dreams, thoughts, and feelings. And I really don’t mind taking chances or pushing the limits.
I make music the same way. I don’t write and produce songs every day. I make records when I know what needs to be accomplished. Everything has to be thought out and has to make sense. So, my approach is very much in line with how I am as a person. I’m always on my toes and I work hard and cherish each and every moment.
Do you make a distinction between the songs that you write/produce for other people versus the songs that you write/record on your own?
It’s interesting that you ask that because I really think I did it backwards. I mean, I’m starting to give myself the kind of records that I used to give other people. And that’s because I’m a little unselfish with music. I’ve never given a person a record thinking, “Oh, this should be my record.” I’ve never done that. I’ve always thought, “I’m going to give my best every time I do this, no matter who I’m doing it for. “
There have definitely been times where I’ve thought, “Damn! I outdid myself this time! Shit! That’s better than the last record I did or that’s better than this record I did for this other person.” But that’s just what happens. I try my best and give my all every time I do it. The rest is in God’s hands.
You were in the studio with Miley Cyrus. How did that work out? What are the songs about?
I was able to do two records on her album (Bangerz). “SMS,” which features Britney Spears. And “Love, Money, Party.” I love Britney and had the opportunity to work with her on “Toy Soldier,” one of the most fun I’ve ever had on a record. I really loved that. So, getting the opportunity to work with her and Miley was phenomenal.
Miley Cyrus (featuring Britney Spears) – “SMS”
I think Britney killed the record. I love her delivery on it. I love Miley’s delivery on it. It’s pro women. It’s a woman’s anthem. And it’s something that I feel encompasses a whole lot of things. It has a slight Salt N’ Pepa vibe and is really about females coming together and strutting their stuff, i.e. being strong, not caring what the world thinks, not giving a fuck. And it’s cool. Britney is the queen of pop. And Miley is the new queen of pop.
Is there anything you’d like to add about the whole twirking phenomenon?
I can’t necessarily give my opinion about what someone else does. I like what I like about a person and I leave it at that. I like Miley. I like her spunky ass attitude. I like her perspective on certain things. But shit, she might do something tomorrow that I might not like (laughs)! But it won’t change what I like about her as a person.
Is there a favorite artist that you haven’t worked with that you’d love to collaborate with today?
I’d like to work with Lorde, Adele, and Macklemore. I think he’s cool. He’s different, strange and shit, but he’s dope.
What collaborations or songs are you most proud of and why?
I’m really proud of my work with Beyonce. I feel like those songs are gonna withstand the test of time. Some of the songs will forever be an anthem: “Upgrade U,” “Get Me Bodied,” “Ring the Alarm.” Some of those songs, like “Check On It,” are going to be the backdrop to a lot of young girls’ future plans because Beyonce is a true icon. A role model. Even after working with Fergie, Gwen Stefani, and some real fucking superstars. Those Beyonce sessions were classic shit, man.
Will you bringing your music to Denver soon?
Yes. I want to thank all my fans in Denver for supporting my career and everything I’ve penned and been a part of. I have a lot more to bring to you and I will be coming to Denver soon. We’re still young in the game and we’re gonna be around for a long time, working hard every day. We’re determined to spread love and excitement by making more great music.
Mark Sells is a nationally recognized film/entertainment journalist and Critic-at-Large for 100.3 FM The Sound (Los Angeles). In addition to his blog on 303, you can follow The Reel Deal on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook for the latest entertainment news, reviews, and interviews.
All images courtesy of: Sean Garrett and Bet I Penned It Music.
Sean Garrett (featuring Rick Ross) – “6 In the Morning”
Boa (featuring Sean Garrett) – “I Did It For Love”
Sean Garrett (featuring J. Cole) – “Feel Love”