Alex Da Kid is best-known for a pair of epic hip-hop/rock hybrids, but in real life, the 26-year-old U.K. producer/songwriter is the furthest thing from hyperbolic.
"I don't really get excited about things," he says with classic English stoicism, when asked what it felt like to meet Swizz Beatz, one of his idols, for the first time. "I'm always thinking about the next thing, so as soon as I knew that he liked my beats, I was thinking, 'How can I make this into a bigger situation than it is now -- what's the next step?' "
Strategizing has paid off for Alex Da Kid so far. As a 19-year-old growing up in London, Alexander Grant went from tooling with Fruity Loops software in his mother's house to enrolling in college for music and convincing the future head of Polydor Records to give him a major-label internship. Hustling to make his name on U.S. shores followed, as he eventually won the support of Swizz Beatz, got his future hit -- B.o.B's "Airplanes" featuring Hayley Williams -- into the hands of Atlantic Records executives and signed with Universal Music Publishing Group in February 2009.
A virtual unknown at the top of 2010, Alex Da Kid has since made a serious impact on the charts. "Airplanes" reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, and Eminem's "Love the Way You Lie" (featuring Rihanna), which he conceived with his own artist Skylar Grey, has spent four consecutive weeks atop the chart. Both songs were essentially selected as B.o.B and Eminem's second singles by fans, who propelled each track to high sales when the artists' albums ("B.o.B Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray" and "Recovery," respectively) were released and never stopped downloading them.
In an interview with Billboard, the former soccer pro-turned-hitmaker talks about how he got his start, reveals how "Love the Way You Lie" just made the cut on "Recovery" and dreams up a potentially mind-blowing collaboration.
How serious of a soccer player were you before you started producing?
Alex Da Kid: I went into it professionally when I was 17. I played the midfield and upfront, but then I got injured. Because I'm tall and I grew really quickly, I had this condition where my knee joints don't grow as quickly. I also started getting a bit distracted with girls and started having arguments with my manager. I just slowly lost interest.
When did you shift your focus to music?
I was about 19 and still playing [soccer] semiprofessionally, but I knew I wasn't going be doing that for the rest of my life. A friend gave me a CD of [music software] Fruity Loops. I started using it and just fell in love.
Do you remember what your first beat sounded like?
I thought it was amazing, but it was horrible. It was just weird electro music . . . I don't know what it was. I'm sure I have some old MiniDiscs of my old first beats in my mum's house in London. I didn't have any sort of concept of the music industry back then. I'd played drums in school and loved listening to music, but I wasn't into the making of it.
What was your next step?
I decided to go to college for music and did a sort of apprentice program with MTV. Then a guy called Ferdy [Unger-Hamilton], who's now the president of Polydor, did a talk at the university, and I begged him for work experience. He gave me an internship at Island Records. I met a lot of people through that and got internships at the biggest studios in Europe.
In my second year at university, I probably came to America three or four times. I knew, like, two people from MySpace in America [laughs]. The first time I slept on hotel room floors, and then I had a second cousin that lived in Harlem, so I was staying there sometimes.
What was your first big break?
I did a song on Kardinal Offishall's album that was my first placement in America. I got that through one of my good friends in England who manages Estelle, and Kardinal would hang out with Estelle a lot.
Swizz Beatz was one of the first top producers to take you under his wing. What was your initial meeting like?
I went to the studio for eight hours and played him every beat I've ever made. He just kept being like, "Play me another one, play me another one." I remember leaving the studio at 9 o'clock in the morning and thinking, "I've never done that before. I've got a million tracks on my laptop, and I just played him every single one."
How did you get signed to Universal Music Publishing Group?
I had already made "Airplanes" and it was just kind of floating around in the Atlantic building -- they didn't know who it would be for, because this was before B.o.B or Hayley [Williams] or anybody got on it. I had a few offers from people who wanted to sign me because they knew that song would be pretty big, but [UMPG senior director of creative affairs] Jessica Rivera and I had the same lawyer, Scott Felcher. A big part of me coming to America was to have a good team -- that was more important to me than getting placements because I knew once that was in place, everything else would happen. They're like another part of my management, involved in everything I do.
How did "Love the Way You Lie" come about?
I met Riggs [Shady Records senior director of A&R Rigo Morales] in Jessica's office. We went back and forth for a while, and then "Airplanes" happened and Em heard it and loved it, and he wanted to get on it. Then he asked me if I had anything else with a hook for him, and I sent him "Love the Way You Lie." We didn't know if it was going to make the album or not, because he had half the album already mastered and the other half was getting mastered. I went in to mix it with him, and Rihanna was in Dublin, recording her part and sending it to us. We did it in two days, and then two days after that the album had to go to the pressing plant.
What's your reaction to the song's success?
I'm not surprised at all by how people reacted to it. I think it's like classic Eminem mixed with a different sound, and with Rihanna on it, it just has all the elements.
My artist Skylar Grey worked on the song with me -- she's signed to my production company, Wonderland Entertainment. Everyone wants to sign her now, so we're working out a deal toward the start of next year.
Now you're working with Rihanna on her next album. How is it coming?
It's good. I'd say it's like a mixture of her two sides. It's commercial, but at the same time it's got an edge to it -- it has substance. We worked together about a year before "Love the Way You Lie" in London, and obviously that song has helped the people around her and her label say, "Oh, that's a big hit, we want another one." You know how the music industry is.
Another high-profile single you worked on with Sean Garrett -- Nicki Minaj's "Massive Attack" -- stalled at No. 65 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and never made it onto the Billboard Hot 100. What do you think went wrong there?
They just pretty much took the track and did their own thing, and I felt like it could've been a lot different if I was there. Now, obviously, that never happens again. I'm producing and I'm there at every stage, and that definitely helps. Everything is a learning experience. I did another song for her, but I'm not sure if it's on the album or not. I haven't really spoken to her for a while.
Rob started working with me before I had any real success, after [UMPG executive of creative for the East Coast] Evan Lamberg sent him my tracks. We've got great chemistry and he writes for other people too, so we've been putting down ideas. The Fray are looking to do something a little bit more beat-driven on their new album after they were on the Timbaland album. I haven't been in the studio with them yet, but I think in September I'm going to make it happen.
Do you think about how you'll repeat or top your early success?
I don't have any preconceived ideas like, " 'Love the Way You Lie' had a kick and a snare here, so I'm going to use the same kick and snare here." But the good thing is that I can get my music to pretty much most people now. If I think a song is perfect for Cher, I can get it to her. That's a great situation to be in.
Did you send a song to Cher?
No, I haven't, but that's a good idea. I should make a song for Cher, right? A Cher/Lil Wayne collaboration would be cool.
I would be interested in anybody that has the same ambition and drive as me -- people who have a fan base and a movement, who can sell not just singles but can sell albums. I have no affinity to England. I'm not sitting here thinking about how I can make the next guy from England the biggest thing in the world. I just care about the best music possible.
Is it true that you start every demo with the line, "Shhh, Alex Da Kid is coming"?
Yeah, I say that so everyone will quiet down. If you're playing my track in a loud room, people will sit down and really take in my brilliance and magnificence [laughs]. I started doing it three years ago. Nicki [Minaj] kept it on "Massive Attack," but most people try and take it off. But the bigger I get, the more I'm going to make people leave it on there.