He can make a hit record for you—but he’d like a conversation first

By Dan Daley

For Bryan-Michael Cox, it’s all about the conversation. That’s the first point of contact between the 32-year-old producer and the artists with whom he works. The conversation builds a groundwork of trust and mutual understanding. Then he’ll write a song about something meaningful that comes out of that conversation—like Usher’s 2004 chart-topping “Burn,” inspired by the R&B superstar’s pain at his fading relationship with TLC’s Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas. Then Cox will turn that song into a great track, and more than likely it’ll be a hit. “All my really, really big records came from conversations,” he says. “Whether it’s about me or about the artist, through that is where the songs come from.”

Cox has been honing his method since high school, where the Miami native made his first demos at Houston’s Performing Arts High School for classmates and future Destiny’s Child stars Beyoncé Knowles and LeToya Luckett. In the late 1990s, he moved to Atlanta, the burgeoning hip-hop capital, where he majored in music at Clark Atlanta University. But his real education took place simultaneously at rap impresario Jermaine Dupri’s production company. Cox hit the ground running with Dupri, turning out hits as co-producer for artists including Usher, Mariah Carey, Monica, Da Brat and Bow Wow.

The release of “Be Without You,” from Mary J. Blige’s 2006 The Breakthrough LP, marked Cox’s debut as a producer in his own right. The single peaked at No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B singles chart for a record-setting 15 consecutive weeks and remained on the chart for more than 16 months. Cox and his production company, Blackbaby, Inc., have since become a force on the R&B landscape. The four-time Grammy winner has helped to shape popular tracks for acts like Alicia Keys, Jessica Simpson, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston and Fantasia. He has lately expanded his cross-genre reach by co-writing and co-producing teen phenomenon Justin Bieber’s hit “Never Let You Go.” More recently, the Atlanta-based Cox headed to Nashville to help write songs for Faith Hill’s next album. “That’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” he says of his unexpected foray into country music territory. “Stranger things have happened.”

What was Atlanta like when you arrived?

When I got here in ’97 it was in full gear. Everything was so new for me, coming out here from Houston and just experiencing the energy, the synergy. Everything about the city was booming, and everybody was so positive because everything was on the move. It felt like you could make your dreams come true here if you were an urban songwriter, producer and musician. It felt like this was the city to be in. Everything came together and just blew up at one time. Suddenly I woke up one day and had 14 songs on the chart. I produced or co-produced all of them, and co-wrote some of them. It exploded like a volcano.

Do you consider yourself lucky to have been there at that time?

I like to call it blessed. You can’t really dictate what your destiny is going to be. You have to just live life and hope that you’re following the right path. Music is my ultimate destiny, and has been as far back as I can remember.

You don’t typically produce full albums for one artist. Why?

For whatever reason, the labels don’t like people to sit with one producer anymore. I don’t know why that’s the case. It’s crazily insane, because [the label] is going to spend way too much money. The process of recording is absolutely ridiculous when there are that many people. But in some cases it has worked. We’re not all in the same room making a record at the same time, so it’s the A&R person’s job to maintain the balance. It’s a big job for them—I wouldn’t want it for nothing. Egos are flying. It means you may be in your own little world. I’ve been doing it so long, it’s like second nature to me now.

Where is the line between songwriting and production?

It all depends. There are so many different definitions of the word “producer.” For me, I’m a composer who happens to produce. I think that most people who are beat-makers are actually composers. You have to look at it from that perspective. A lot of people don’t even know what composing means, so they use the word “producing” instead of the word “composing.”

Then what makes a producer for you?

A producer is a person who, from start to finish, brings the record all the way to the end, 100 percent. Somebody might give me a beat that’s hot and has potential. Then I may get a writer to write to the beat, or I may write it. I cut the record with the artist, then mix the record with an engineer. Now everything from cutting the record to mixing, that’s where the producing part kicks in. A lot of people say they’re producers, but they make beats and hand it off to people who are really writers or producers. There are so many other steps that go along with producing.

What are your feelings about the growth of home studios?

The home studio is getting better and better and better. Back in the day you went to a commercial studio and they were using the real deal, 24-track, the big SSL boards. If you had a home studio, you had a four-track or eight-track. Now home studios and commercial studios are almost one and the same. People use Logic and Pro Tools at home, and they use Logic and Pro Tools in commercial studios. It’s all about your preference as to where you’re most comfortable being creative. I know for a fact that the home studio has put a dent in the commercial studio business.

What’s your setup like?

I use Logic as my sequencer and do a lot of editing in Pro Tools. I’ll create in Logic and then convert my audio files and drag them into Pro Tools. But Pro Tools 8 is actually really dope with the programming, so I’ve been getting into that lately and I like it. I’m still a Logic-head, but I do like Pro Tools 8.

How about for writing?

I still use my [Akai] MPC [4000]. I was an MPC fanatic, I have like 10 MPCs. I have a 60, a 62, seven 3000s and a 4000. I’ve been organizing how I’m working between MPC and Logic. I’m using Logic heavy, but I brought my MPC back into the fold about a month ago and I’m loving what I’m coming up with.

Is there a danger of getting lost in all the technology?

Absolutely. Sometimes it’s hard. I look at my computer and I’m like, “Man, I’ve just got so much stuff in here. Where am I going to start?” I try to spend time building that, so that when I come in I’ll be inspired and know what to do.

What’s your philosophy about processing, especially on vocals?

I try to let the song speak. We can get in here and put a lot of effects on a lot of different things and try to make it bigger than life, but nothing’s bigger than the song. I learned that with Jermaine. So my primary objective is the song. I don’t have a lot going on in my tracks, although my tracks are actually very layered. I don’t program against myself, you know what I’m saying?

Please explain.

I may use a lot of sounds, but I don’t use them against each other. I have to leave it open for the writer—whether it’s myself or someone else—to be able to fill in the space. I’ve turned tracks that I think are incredible sounding, but I can’t get the right song to it because there’s too much going on. So I have to scale it back to make sense of the kind of record we’re trying to make. To me, there’s nothing more important than the song.

How do you tell a big-name artist that something isn’t working?

It’s the producer’s job to explain to the artist why it doesn’t work. I take my job very seriously, just like the artist should take their job seriously. You hired me, you obviously trust my ear and my track record probably proves to you that I can do the job. If you sit down and have a conversation with me about music, you must be very, very impressed with my knowledge. This thing is about trust. You wouldn’t be in the studio with me if you didn’t trust me—so trust me.

Does having a pre-existing relationship with the artist help?

When you absolutely know people, it makes the creative process easy. With people like Mary and Mariah and Usher, it’s easy. It’s harder when you don’t know the artist, because you’re trying to figure them out—figure out what they like, what they don’t like. That’s the challenge. I’m executive producing [new act] Day26’s album, and that’s been a challenge because we need to make an impact. It’s been about getting in and understanding where they are emotionally, and trying to draw from that and hit on that.

Recording budgets are getting tight. Is that affecting what you do?

I have my own [studio] space, so it hasn’t really affected me as much. The only way it’s affecting me is that the labels are reluctant to work with me because they say, “Oh, if we work with Cox, this record’s going to cost this much money.” So I went to all the labels and I restructured my [production] deals from a larger number to a smaller number, so it’s affordable for new artists to be able to work with me. The only way I stay relevant is to be able to be on all these projects. If I priced myself out of that range, then that’s a problem. It’s about the work for me, because that’s what’s going to bring the money, the publishing money, the money I count. The front-end money, that money don’t really count to me. You’re making money on publishing, you’re making money on these royalties, that’s what counts. I’ve been in this game for a long time and I want to be in for a little while longer, so I have to think like that.

What has been your most challenging production situation?

Chris Brown is a person who inspired me initially. I went in the studio to make his second album and we ended up doing 10 songs in a week. I was probably at my best creatively during that period. He came to the studio and was so full of life. I’ve known Chris since he was 15 years old, and I wanted to be his Quincy Jones. I was going to produce the whole album, but I think there were some politics going on with the label and with management that didn’t allow that to happen. I think when they realized I was going to make a lot of money, they just winged off. I ended up having two songs on the album.

How did the Faith Hill project happen?

I went out to Nashville because I was going to produce Anita Baker’s album. We went to go look at some studios, and I fell in love with the city. I knew I wanted to come back. The Anita Baker deal fell through, but this thing with Faith Hill came up.

What’s next for you?

I’m finishing up a little solo project that I’m working on myself called The Love: Exposed. I’ve been passively-aggressively finishing that. It’s been a mysterious project of my life, but I think that I’m ready to bring it to the forefront. I think it’s ready to go out there.

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