How To Write A Hit: Think Like A Teenager (But Keep Parents In Mind)



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Songwriter and producer Makeba Riddick sings in a recording studio in Los Angeles. (NPR)
Songwriter and producer Makeba Riddick sings in a recording studio in Los Angeles. (NPR)

Today we're starting a new series about hitmakers -- creators and sellers of chart-topping pop songs. They are people whose names you may never have heard, even though their music itself -- spilling out of car windows and earbuds and erupting from cellphones -- is inescapable. During the series we'll take you to studios and clubs in music capitals of this country -- New York, Nashville and Atlanta. First stop: Los Angeles.

When I interviewed Makeba Riddick at the Darkchild recording studio off Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, she was in a fabulous mood. She'd just sold a song to Willow Smith and she's recently engaged. The 31-year-old Riddick has helped create number one hits for such artists as Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez and Toni Braxton.

These days, Riddick is most closely associated with Rihanna, with whom she's worked since the singer was 16. Riddick produced Rihanna's emotionally wrenching vocal performance on the number-one hit from this past summer, "Love The Way You Lie," with Eminem. For her efforts on that song, she picked up two Grammy nominations Wednesday night.

Riddick is the only female producer at Jay-Z's label, Roc Nation. When I visited, she was in the studio with mentors Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins and LaShawn Daniels, R&B and hip-hop legends who have produced monstrous hits for over a decade. You like Lady Gaga's "Telephone?" That was Jerkins. His hit list also includes "Say My Name" for Destiny's Child and Michael Jackson's "You Rock My World."

I went into my interview with them expecting a degree of caginess around a certain question. I wanted to ask about the extent to which they had kids in mind while writing and producing hit singles. Teenage girls -- and younger kids -- drive today's pop music market to an extraordinary extent.

What surprised me was how much they loved the question. They could have talked about it all day.

According to Jerkins, making hits depends on understanding how kids see themselves, right down to how they talk. "How can I make the kids say this [thing] they've never said before? That's very very important," he says.

But all three songwriters are aware that the young people who drive the culture are only half of the equation.

"We, as culture makers, have a responsibility," Riddick told me. "I think I've heard myself say on more than one occasion, is a 13-year-old in Iowa's mother going to be comfortable with her singing this? And listening to this?"

That reflection might surprise those parents who'd prefer their children not sing along to the randy lyrics of "Rude Boy," the single Riddick co-wrote for Rihanna that topped the charts for weeks earlier this year. Riddick says she sees it as her job to maintain limits -- even bring a modicum of class -- amid  the contradictions of creating pop culture.

"Let's not forget, thirteen-year-olds want to be eighteen," Riddick observed. "Nine-year-olds want to be thirteen."

To be successful, Riddick and Daniels must, after all, spin fantasies for consumers. But those fantasies have to remain in the realm of tweens and young teens.

This idea is especially important when the artists themselves are younger -- take Willow Smith as an example, or the 12- and 13-year-olds in the boy band Mindless Behavior, the group Riddick and Daniels were writing for that day in Los Angeles. They tossed around ideas for a new song, bouncing from concepts like Facebook friend requests to first kisses, always trying to walk a line between risque and corny.

Ultimately, one of their goals as hitmakers in today's music economy is not only to create songs kids love, but ones that their parents will buy.

"That's the chain reaction we hope to have," Daniels said.

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GUY RAZ, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.


I'm Robert Siegel.

And today we begin a series of stories about hitmakers, people who create songs that top the charts. Their music spills out of car windows, leaks out of earbuds and gets compressed into ringtones. It's music that shapes the way young fans see themselves and how they relate to each other.

RAZ: For this series, we're going to studios and clubs in the music capitals of the country: New York, Nashville, Atlanta, and today, Los Angeles.

The hitmaker we'll meet now is very aware of her own cultural influence, and as NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, she's a music industry rarity, a top female producer.

NEDA ULABY: She is the only female producer at Jay-Z's label, Roc Nation.

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: She's behind this number one hit by Beyonce.

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: Makeba Riddick has written and produced hits for Mariah Carey, Toni Braxton and the rapper TI.

Ms. MAKEBA RIDDICK (Music Producer): It takes a lot to get somebody to believe that me, this girl from Baltimore city, graduated from Berklee College of Music, she can actually write a hit record that the whole world is going to fall in love with.

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: Riddick got this, her first number one hit on the radio, when she was 21 years old, taking two trains and a bus every day to work as an intern for Sony Music. Now, she says vocal production is the most important part of what she does in songs like this:

(Soundbite of song "Love The Way You Lie")

Ms. RIHANNA (Musician): (Singing) Just gonna stand there and watch me burn. That's all right because I like the way it hurts.

ULABY: One of last summer's biggest hits. Riddick is known in the business as Rihanna's producer. Their other monster hit this year was nearly a nonstarter until someone from the label called Makeba Riddick.

Ms. RIDDICK: And he was, like, you know, we think this could be a hit, but it's not finished. The hook needs to be reworked. We need a second verse. We need a bridge. We need some arrangements. Gave it to me and said: Give us some magic.

(Soundbite of song "Rude Boy")

RIHANNA: (Singing) Come here, rude boy, can you get it up?

ULABY: Right now, Makeeba Riddick, in a velvet-curtained studio, is leaning against the soundboard in a pair of shapely blue high heels. She commands attention without trying, like a favorite teacher.

Ms. RIDDICK: I'm back in the studio with Darkchild, and we're about to come up with another hit.

ULABY: Darkchild is Rodney Jerkins, a legend. He's produced massive hits for Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, Destiny's Child.

(Soundbite of song "Say My Name")

Ms. BEYONCE KNOWLES (Singer, Destiny's Child): (Singing) Say my name, say my name...

ULABY: And he produced Lady Gaga's "Telephone." Jerkins has been producing so long, he's got gold-plated cassettes on his studio walls. But he says making hits depends on understanding how kids see themselves, right down to how they talk.

Mr. RODNEY JERKINS (Music Producer): How can I make the kids say this that they never said before? That's very, very important. My job is: How can I create something new that no one's ever heard before?

Ms. RIDDICK: We, as culture-makers, have a responsibility.

ULABY: They both know that their songs shape the way kids talk, dress, interact. For their message to go global, they have to shape the messengers.

Ms. RIDDICK: We are a star to the stars. We help them to craft that persona and that sound that the world is going to fall in love with.

ULABY: That means channeling the specific psyches of pop music's biggest consumers: teenaged girls.

Ms. RIDDICK: I think I've heard myself say on more than one occasion: Is a 13-year-old girl in Iowa's mother going to be comfortable with her daughter saying this or listening to this?

Mr. LaSHAWN DANIELS (Music Producer): That is the marketplace.

LaShawn Daniels is working with Riddick today. He's another star R&B producer. Like Riddick, he follows cartoons and kid's TV to stay current. I am invited to sit in as Daniels and Riddick write a song, but they're just hanging out in the studio, eating grapes and tweeting. Rodney Jerkins wanders in to ask if they've heard of a new boy band called Mindless Behavior.

Ms. RIDDICK: What are they called? Minus...

Mr. JERKINS: Mindless Behavior. Four little boys between the ages of 12 and 13.

Ms. RIDDICK: So like some little Justin Biebers?

ULABY: They check them out on YouTube.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. RIDDICK: How old are they, three?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ULABY: Rodney Jerkins says he needs a song for the band. He lays down a track and walks out.

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: Makeeba Riddick goes back to tweeting. LaShawn Daniels looks at celebrity gossip sites and laughs at pictures of famous singers in their bathing suits. They're humming, talking about other boy bands, ordering out for sushi. Just when I wonder when they'll start working, it hits me: They already are.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. RIDDICK: I don't know why that feels like such a hook to me.

ULABY: Next comes figuring out this song's concept and title.

Ms. RIDDICK: Maybe it could be, like, friend request.

ULABY: They throw around Facebook ideas.

Ms. RIDDICK: You know, I'm sending you a friend request.

ULABY: Then Makeeba Riddick loses patience.

Ms. RIDDICK: Forget about Facebook. I'm at the bar. You are at the other side of the bar. I'm going to send you a bottle of champagne as a friend request.

Mr. DANIELS: Right, but how are we translating it to these kids?

ULABY: Riddick and Daniels are so conscious they are selling music to 13-year-olds who want to imagine themselves as older. So they want to cater to that but need to be careful about what's appropriate for preteen singers. Daniels suggests the title "First Kiss."

Ms. RIDDICK: Does that make it too young?

Mr. DANIELS: "Stealing Kisses."

Ms. RIDDICK: "Stealing Kisses."

Mr. DANIELS: Is that too risque? Is it too racy?

Ms. RIDDICK: I don't think it's too racy or too risque. Is it corny? That's the question.

Mr. DANIELS: "Stealing Kisses." We've got to make it fly.

ULABY: LaShawn Daniels and Makeeba Riddick finish the song in less than three hours.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. RIDDICK: (Singing) What's your name? Have we met somewhere before or are you the same girl I've been seeing in my dreams? It's a shame...

ULABY: The boy band's label, Interscope, thought the song was fly enough to buy it. Thirteen-year-old girls and their mothers in Iowa, and everywhere else, may be hearing the final version on the radio in a few months.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

SIEGEL: The success of that song we just heard Makeba Riddick write will depend on whether all those teenage girls love what they hear, girls like Mani Huntington, Aisha Jones and Carla Ottley at Luke Moore Academy in Washington, D.C.

Unidentified Woman #1: You know it's a good song. You're going to listen to it again and again and again. Me, I put it on repeat and won't stop until I get tired of it.

Unidentified Woman #2: I'll probably, like, put it on my Facebook status.

Unidentified Woman #3: And when I want to get it as a ringtone.

Unidentified Woman #4: Mary J. Blige, "Not Gon' Cry." That's my song. That song just take me there. Like, I blast it right there in the living room. And I sit there, and I sing every last word over and over and over and over and over and...

(Soundbite of song "Not Gon' Cry")

Ms. MARY J. BLIGE: (Singing) I'm not gonna cry, I'm not gonna shed no tears...

Unidentified Woman #5: It's, like, okay, you will like a boy. When he come around you, you feel like this love connection between the both of you all. And when you see him talking to other females, you'll be like: Why is he talking to her? You're supposed to be talking to me. I'm in love with you. But you're not telling.

(Soundbite of song "What's My Name")

RIHANNA: (Singing) Oh na-na, what's my name? Oh na-na, what's my name?

Unidentified Woman #6: Rihanna new song, "What's My Name," featuring Drake. I'm, like, it should be, like, what's my name. And then she'll be like oh, na-na, that part, because everybody want people to know they name.

Unidentified Woman #7: That's my song.

Unidentified Woman #8: That's my song.

Unidentified Woman #9: That's my favorite song. That's my favoritest song in the world.

RAZ: Mani Huntington, Aisha Jones and Carla Ottley at Luke Moore Academy in Washington, D.C. Next week in our series, we'll visit a hit factory that claims to be the loudest studio in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.