Hip hop has gone through plenty of changes in its journey from underground art form to pop-culture juggernaut, but one constant has been Salaam Remi.
From Marley Marl and the Fugees in the '80s and '90s all the way to and Mack Wilds, whose debut album, New York: A Love Story, was the first album to come out under Remi's new label (Louder Than Life), Salaam has demonstrated a unique ability to cultivate a sound that both the mainstream and underground heads can vibe to.
In an exclusive interview with BET.com, Salaam spoke about what helped him become the producer he is today, the difference between being an MC and a songwriter, and why Cash Money has been so successful over the years.
You started producing at a very young age. Who would you say was, and maybe still is, your mentor?
My dad was a producer, so I say genre-wise I'd always do stuff and look at what he did and that was my direct influence just because he worked with Harry Belafonte, but then he produced Kurtis Blow — hip hop. He did the disco era with Tommy Gardner, but then he did Broadway and jazz, so everything I'm into musically still comes out of a lot of what he worked on during my lifetime. On the flip side, he was also friends with Marley Marl so I got a chance to actually be in the studio with Marley Marl. He let me co-produce some records on Craig G's first album. I sat in the studio and watched Marley take the beat that I made in my bedroom, and I actually watched him finish my record, and when I watched him finish my record, it just told me to crystalize my process and showed me how much I had to work on to be able to make a joint as good as Marley Marl. So I still think down to the Mack Wilds single "Own It" that's out now, [Marley Marl] is calling me like, "Yo, keep it 53rd Street like when I met you producing out of that bedroom," 'cause at the end of the day that was my time when I had to get on point.
You've had success with so many genres. Is there any limit to the risks you'll take sonically?
I've always [branched out] over the years. When hip hop was 'hip-house' in the late '80s or '90s, I worked with Bobby Collins when he did all types of music back in the day, orchestras and such. Really it's about imagination. I think most people are afraid to use their imaginations to try to do anything, but I feel like there's no boundaries for me sonically. I can go from orchestra to whistle and the finger snap, so for me I'm just enjoying the fact that you can't stop me.
And with regards to hip hop, what's been your favorite era?
I'm a child of the '80s, so I would say whatever happened in your teenage years will always be your golden years. My teenage years, around 1986-1989 is just where I usually live, so most of the music that I make comes out of my teenage years, whatever was aggressive and really on point and making people excited at that time was usually the underbelly to whatever I'm doing. That's my urgency, that's an element that I can play with my eyes closed.
You've worked with legends from every generation. Is there anyone that you never got a chance to connect with that you wish you had?
I have this [philosophy] of never meet your heroes 'cause it'll never be the same. I'm not sure exactly who that is at this point. I think the people that I really wanted to work with I really just wanted to watch 'em. I would've loved to sit in a room with Marvin Gaye, just watch him. I don't think I could've ever said anything. But just to watch him.
New York has some hot new artists coming up. What do you think of guys like Joey Bada$$ and Troy Ave?
I think they're cool. I think they're still developing their songwriting. When I came up, you got a name off of one hot song. And these days, you make five hot mixtapes, but I still can't find the one hot song that actually tells the adult they should respect you. Nas had to do it. One song, made the adults respect him and made them look for him and I think that's what it's about: Make the music so tough that an adult has to go, "You're better than me and I'm a grown-a** man." I think it's like that with most of the generation. I ask a lot of people, even people that work on the label, "You know who Aesop Rock is?" (And they're like) "Oh, yeah. I know him." But then I'm like, "OK, what song does he sing?" and they can't tell me. I just think in general it's about helping these artists identify and crystalize their song-making process, 'cause at the end of the day, even though it's hip hop, it's still great songs. Whatever happens at Cash Money is great songs. You listen to the Juvenile record, you listen to "Project Chick," you listen to what Lil Wayne and Drake do now, they have a song structure — something about the way they make their songs even if it's a jam, it's put together right. The best songwriters will be the best artists in the hip hop genre where you're usually saying your own lyrics.
If you had to name your top five songs, what would they be?
I will start with Nas's "Made You Look" and then I would go to Amy Winehouse, "Tears Dry on Their Own," then I would go to the Fugees' "Fu-Gee-La," then I would go to SuperCat, "Ghetto Red Hot," and the fifth one would be one that I need to make.
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(Photo: Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Malibu Red)