'Thank U, Next' Co-Producer Tommy Brown Shares the Story Behind Ariana Grande's No. 1 Hit
The other day, producer Tommy Brown went to Home Depot to pick up a few things. "After I paid the cashier was like, 'Thank you. Next!" he laughs. Brown is referring to the fresh ubiquity of what's become his first No. 1 song; a breakup anthem for a new generation that's already lodged in the cultural consciousness, extending Ariana Grande's pop reign (it shattered the record for the most plays in a single day by a female artist on Spotify) and spawning an avalanche of memes in the process. "My mom even calls me and replaces the names in the song with her exes' names. She breaks down who taught her love and who taught her pain and gets a kick out of it. I would have never really thought it'd become a thing."
According to Brown, the song that would turn into the biggest hit in his career was concocted in just three days. "I remember bouncing ideas around with the guys in Social House," he says of the act who works under his own District 412 banner. "I went to their room and one of the guys played me a loop of these chords and I was like, 'This is dope.' So we sped it up and I took it to a session with Ariana, and (co-writers) Victoria Monet and Tayla Parx. From there, ideas were sparking and Ariana was brilliant."
Brown says what sets Ariana apart is a fresh honesty. "I love creating with her because she doesn't have a fear of not saying how she feels. She's always going to say what's on her mind." Serving as a very public comment about her much-talked about relationship and subsequent breakup with comedian Pete Davidson, the track faced the publicity storm head-on. "Two days later we sat in the room and produced it out, and then it was in the can and came out shortly after."
For Brown, the resounding success of "Thank U, Next" -- which just notched a second week at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 -- comes as a milestone for the Pittsburgh native who first caught a bug for music thanks to his late father. "He was trying to manage artists at the time and would always play me songs, asking me what tracks were my favorites. I didn't know it then, but he was training my ear," he says of his father, who passed away when Brown was just 16. The loss served as a jolt that led the grieving teen to seek solace in music. "I needed somewhere to turn to to get away from that," he remembers. "I saved up 600 dollars working at a grocery store and bought a MPC." From there, he started to learn the fine art of beatmaking on the production gadget. "It didn't come with a manual, so I had to sit there and really learn how to use it."
Enamored with his hobby and disinterested with his freshman studies in criminal justice at Pittsburgh's Community College of Allegheny County, a 19-year-old Brown still remembers the day he decided to leave his hometown behind to pursue a career in the music industry. "One day I woke up and I told my mom that I was moving to Atlanta to work in music. Her and her friend were drinking white zinfandel and she pretty much said, 'As soon as you run out of money we'll make sure we fly you back.' And I was like, 'I'm not coming back.'" With zero contacts and a determination to stay true to his word, Brown devised a plan. "Every night, I'd burn my beats onto 50 blank CDs and then go and pass them out at open mics," says Brown who noted that more often than not that his music would be thrown to the ground in front him. "They'd be Frisbee'd."
Undaunted, Brown eventually began meeting a bevy of then-fledgling Atlanta artists including B.o.B, Yung Joc and Gorilla Zoe. "I started getting calls from rappers to work on their stuff and at a certain point Rodney Jerkins reached out." Jerkins, the prolific hitmaker otherwise known as Darkchild, was then riding high as a producer of the Lady Gaga/Beyonce hit "Telephone" and famous for cuts for the likes of Michael Jackson and Destiny's Child. "He wanted to do a deal with me and one of my partners, so I moved to Los Angeles and worked with him for quite awhile." It was through Jerkins that Brown enjoyed his first mainstream smash, the 2011 Black Eyed Peas earworm "Just Can't Get Enough." "It was me, Rodney and another guy. Rodney was playing the piano and we were working on about 10 ideas. There was something about 'Just Can't Get Enough' that was special. Rodney showed it to will.i.am and we heard he liked the song. We didn't hear anything again until it was released."
With a bona fide hit to his name, Brown reinvested the profits he made from the smash into his career, including developing artists and signing writers, thus laying the building blocks of what would become his publishing and production company District 412, named after Pittsburgh's area code. It was also around this time that Brown was asked to work with a popular teen actress mostly known for starring in the zany Nickelodeon sitcom Sam and Cat. "One of my publishers was like, 'Hey we have a girl named Ariana Grande and they need a producer for her session,'" Brown remembers of his first brush with the young pop songstress. "Me and Ariana did a couple of sessions that went pretty well, but we connected outside of the studio and developed a friendship." Brown points to the fact that he and Grande had "similar mentalities" when it came to the creative process. "It was a genuine friendship. I didn't need her for anything and she didn't need me for anything. We just enjoyed the music that we did together."
From there, Grande became Brown's most frequent and closest collaborator, with the producer first landing two cuts ("Honeymoon Ave" and "Daydreamin'") on what would become her debut album Yours Truly, and later on all of her subsequent releases. "We did half of Dangerous Woman together, four songs on My Everything, three on Sweetener and the entire Christmas & Chill EP." It's a collaboration that has varied from project to project. "Sometimes I bring a beat, sometimes she comes with a concept. Sometimes she's going through something in her life and needs to vent through music or vice versa. Each record is different and every song we create has its own special place."
When it comes to "Thank U, Next," Brown surmises the resounding success of the song is going to change the way pop music at large is released. "The way it came out was less like a pop star and more like a rapper," he says of Grande's choice to comment on both her personal life and public chatter on a track in real time to spectacular results. It's also a genre Brown, who's recently been in the studio with Normani and Zara Larsson, wants to continue to morph. "I like producing pop music. A lot of my friends produce hip-hop and they're like, 'Pop's dead, pop's dead.' Yeah, until it sneaks back up on you as the No. 1 record." The coup has also reinvigorated District 412, which counts both Social House & Ayden as signed talent and boasts a partnership with Grande's manager, Scooter Braun.
It's all a long way from handing out burned CDs at clubs back in Atlanta. "Nineteen-year-old Tommy would have said, 'I can't believe it took you this long,'" he laughs. "I'm very humbled by the whole experience. I had so many huge dreams and big plans, so this is the first step to getting where I really want to go. We got a No. 1 out of the way. What's next?"