Amid the high-gloss mix of teen-pop Cyranos, R&B blue-chippers and top 40 auteurs on Billboard's Top 10 Songwriters list (see page 14), only one name prompted sheepish shrugs and subsequent Googling in the Billboard offices. Lady Gaga's most devoted "little monsters" may know 41-year-old Rob Fusari as one of the executive producers of the 2.8 million-selling album "The Fame," or as the co-writer of three published Gaga songs, including the No. 6 Billboard Hot 100 hit "Paparazzi." Perhaps they've stumbled across the tale of how Fusari, a fan of the Queen song "Radio Gaga," helped formulate Stefani Germanotta's royal moniker.
But even the most avid Gagaphiles may not know the full extent of Fusari's sway and impact on her career. The classically trained Livingston, N.J., native broke into the business at the not-so-young age of 29, with a co-writing credit on Destiny's Child's 1998 debut, "No, No, No," and went on to enjoy intermittent success as a producer and writer for, among others, Jessica Simpson, Will Smith, Kelly Rowland, Whitney Houston and, most notably, with Destiny's Child again, on 2001's "Bootylicious."
When a friend phoned him from a New York club late one evening in January 2006 with a tip on an undiscovered, then-raven-haired rock singer/songwriter, Fusari was dubious, but his career had stalled and he was in no position for snobbery. A few days later, the two met, and Germanotta performed a couple of her songs for him on piano. "In 20 seconds," Fusari says, "I knew this girl would change my life."
During the next year, absent only Sundays and holidays, Germanotta rode the bus daily from New York to Fusari's Jersey studio, where the two worked shoulder to shoulder building the songs, sound and even persona of the artist soon to be known ubiquitously as Lady Gaga. Fusari escorted Germanotta to sushi dinners with Columbia, conference-room try-outs at Island Def Jam and to her eventual label home at Interscope.
As she struggled to pinpoint her musical identity and suffered bruising business setbacks, Germanotta's ambition, Fusari says, never wavered. "It's beyond scary," he adds admiringly. "It's actually messed me up, because now, with everyone else I work with, if I don't see that drive, I'm thrown off."
And yet, despite the acclaim and handsome royalty checks, Fusari seems genuinely conflicted about his experience as a Dr. Frankenstein to Gaga's Fame Monster. "It's made me harder," he says, his tone more sad than bitter. When Gaga took off, "I saw the vultures come out."
Naturally, Fusari has been deluged by bottle-blondes claiming to be "the next Gaga": "I get an e-mail, call or text every day. People find my phone number and sing to me on the phone." As for the original, though, Fusari says that he has not been invited to work on her next album.
How did a nice Italian boy from Jersey become so interested in R&B and dance music?
I grew up listening to my older brothers' 8-tracks-Boston, Toto, especially Journey's "Escape"-but in my teens I gravitated to soul and R&B. And when I was first trying to break into the business, in '98 and '99, I saw that R&B was taking over. I loved the music: Babyface, R. Kelly, Usher, girl groups like 702.
How many songs had you tried to get published prior to Destiny's Child's "No, No, No"?
Oh yeah. Back then, I was still living at home with my mom in Livingston, working a day job doing IT. The IT job had a future, but the music was just screaming fierce. I would leave my job at eight and travel into the depths of Newark, N.J., where my friend had a studio. Sometimes I'd head back to work the next morning wearing the same suit.
When did you decide to pursue music full time?
The decision was kind of made for me-they fired me. It seemed devastating, but it was like a weight had been lifted. I woke up the next morning and said to my mom, "I'm going to give music one year." So I worked down in my mom's basement in a studio the size of a closet. And sure enough, it didn't happen in a year. I was doing co-writes, calling people, sitting by the phone . . . Barry White's son was supposed to call for something, another guy was going to give one of my songs to Elton John. Nothing ever happened.
How did you finally break through?
A buddy of mine knew this guy, Vince Herbert. Vince is a producer and an entrepreneur. A hustler with a capital H. Back then he was producing on Destiny's Child's first album. One day he came to my mom's basement and I was working on the hook to "No, No, No." When I played it for him, he said, "You've got to give me a copy of that. I'm working with this group who might be able to do that." I gave him a cassette, and he calls me that night and says, "We're cutting the record. And I've got a guarantee it will be their first single."
How did five people end up sharing credit on that song?
You write songs, that's how it is. I didn't know that then. I felt like it was my baby. And it is. I don't care if there are 70 people on it.
Did "Bootylicious" come together in a similar fashion?
I came up with the idea to build a track using the guitar riff from Stevie Nicks' "Edge of Seventeen." I really wanted to play the riff from "Eye of the Tiger," but I was flipping through my CDs in the studio and I couldn't find it. But I saw the Stevie Nicks CD and I remembered that the riff was similar.
I figured I'd put the guitar loop on there temporarily, and later go into the studio with a guitar and replay it, because I'd learned, after sampling Stevie Wonder's "I Wish" for Will Smith's "Wild Wild West," that I didn't want to lose 50% of the publishing. I vividly remember telling Mathew Knowles, "Mathew, you got to book me into your studio and let me replay that riff." It was Guitar 101! One note!