From Beyoncé’s Single Ladies to Justin Bieber’s Baby and Britney Spears’ Me Against The Music, some of the most iconic pop songs of the past 20 years bear the name Tricky Stewart in their credits. Here, the superstar producer recalls how some studio tinkering turned into Rihanna’s Umbrella...
Umbrella begins in that little cluster of time between Christmas and New Year’s. I was reorganising my studio, checking out the equipment and getting a new vibe set for 2007. Me and my cousin [Thaddis “Kuk” Harrell] got there first thing in the morning and we were messing around with Logic and just checking out what it could do. We had been wiring for a while when The-Dream [Terius Nash] came by like, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing?’
Essentially, what ended up happening was a magical moment: Kuk looped the [opening] drum pattern while I was on the keys and Dream went into the booth to do a mic test. I started hitting the keys and Dream was like, ‘You have my heart and we’ll never be worlds apart’. So what you hear on the record is damn near a freestyle! Literally, it’s almost a one-take-Jake: lyrics, melody, all the way to the ‘it’s pouring rain’ bit. We were all making eye contact as we heard the song developing, and there was even a part in the second chorus where we got our signals mixed and I started playing the wrong melody against the chorus one. And that’s where that really girthy moment with all that feeling comes from. It was actually a mistake and we kept it in and built upon it.
You can be as talented as you want, you can put the work in, and you can prepare for the moments that can come as a musician and songwriter, but when they drop on you it’s truly magical. You can work and work and work, but when you’re talking about songs like that? They are truly heaven sent. There’s no moment that I have that speaks to a greater example of being in the right place in the right time and being the conduit of something that, ultimately, became a really special song to a lot of people.
The truth of the matter is we didn’t know who the song was written for. At that moment, it was all about Britney – she was the big superstar that I had worked with. I had just done In The Zone in 2003, so who else was I going to call? But at the time, nobody was hearing me. It wasn’t like it was a matter of me just calling her; she had been through a lot of trials and tribulations. I played the song for anybody that could possibly hear it, whether it was the CEO or the A&R, like, ‘Britney has to hear the song!’ And then they came back with an overwhelming, ‘Hey, listen, we have a new A&R person in place for it and if she doesn’t like it, then it’s a no.’
This was all on Grammy weekend, so at that time I had also sent the song to [Island Def Jam A&R executive] Karen Kwak and we had also sent the song to Mary J. Blige – who had just done Be Without You. So she’s coming literally off the song of the decade with the hottest group of producers and writers at the time. My thought process ended up becoming, ‘If we give the song to Mary J. Blige, I don’t know if it works vocally and, secondly, she has already had so many hits – if this song is what we think it is, what is it going to do for us besides just being another hit?’ You have to [think like that] when you have these moments. As a producer or writer, I don’t think there’s anything better than creating a new revenue stream. Joining a revenue stream is something else: that’s just you coming in and doing your job. But with Rihanna? We came in and changed the way the wind was blowing.
Umbrella was a cultural moment. Rihanna was having pop success as an international artist with Pon De Replay and SOS but she wasn’t a complete thought all the way through, like when we talk about people like Adele. Everyone likes Adele. I liken that to pizza: everyone likes pizza. You’ve got people that eat sushi, vegans, people that like soul food, but there’s not too many people walking around that don’t like melted cheese over a piece of bread, right? Rihanna was having that moment where the song is for everyone. And that was the big difference.
As great a song as it is, it doesn’t become what it is without Rihanna’s tone. I think she’s the greatest in the world at doing this: she doesn’t do songs that she doesn’t feel. She embodied that song, captured the vibe and took it up notches. And, ultimately, she is just as responsible for making it what it is today. Jay-Z helped take the record to another level, too. I think he helped the cultural moment that Rihanna needed. This song gave him the opportunity to really give her his stamp.
Was I inundated with people asking me to make Umbrella 2? Yes, of course. But I don’t repeat myself. I don’t know how to do that. I believe that every artist has a rhythm and it’s up to you to figure out what that is. I really like the fact that I’ve never had an artist – and I’ve worked with almost every major female artist with the exception of probably Adele at this point – and no one’s ever picked up the phone and said, ‘How could you give that person my sound!?’ I really take a lot of pride in that because it means that I’m making custom suits, right? There’s only one Single Ladies, there’s only one Me Against The Music and there’s only one Umbrella.
PeerMusic, Sony Music Publishing, Warner Chappell
Christopher Stewart, Terius Nash, Thaddis Laphonia Harrell, Shawn Carter
Total UK sales (OCC)
Leading executives salute their star songwriters...
Nancy Matalon (VP, A&R, Spirit Music Group)
“Tricky places art before commerce. He connects with an artist’s, or often writer’s, potential and is gratified by assisting them to level up. Justin Bieber is a great example, since he worked on One Time for his initial EP and Baby, which launched his career. His instincts and vision are what make it a privilege to partner with him at Spirit Music. I’m also excited about RZ3, his new record label, and look forward to people hearing the project which he and Keke Palmer have been working on.”