Producer Harmony Samuels Is Bringing Back the '90s With Ariana Grande, Fifth Harmony & More
When Ciara released "I Bet" a few weeks ago, it received a lot of attention for personal reasons: It's the first track since the singer's breakup with Future. But the song stands out aside from the biographical details; it also represents a new direction for Ciara.
While her last three singles -- "Body Party," "I'm Out" and "Overdose" -- were pitched straight at current radio trends, "I Bet" impeccably updates '90s R&B. This style has become one of the hallmarks of the track's producer, Harmony Samuels.
Producers get on hot streaks, and Samuels is on fire: the Samuels effect can be heard on recent records in R&B (Ciara, Tamar Braxton), pop (Fifth Harmony, Ariana Grande) and gospel (Michelle Williams). To get the desired sound requires a clever balancing act. "I Bet," for example, revolves around a fluid guitar figure of the kind that played a central role in so much late-'90s R&B. (See R. Kelly's "Don't Put Me Out" or Usher's "You Make Me Wanna".) But the finger snaps and up-to-date trap percussion in Ciara's tune modernize this throwback sound for contemporary radio. The bass line even approaches -- then backs away from -- a dubstep drop during the hook, adding a pleasing jolt of suspense.
Ciara's message and her vocal -- carefully harmonized at the right moments -- also draw on the past, evoking Destiny's Child's "So Good," from 1999. But a rapidly volleyed pre-hook carefully updates the homage to a classic. "Is that your bitch over there?" Ciara asks. "Giving me the ugly stare? The one with the silicon ass, and the Brazilian hair?" The way she delivers these lines is exactly of-the-moment, halfway between rapping and singing at a time when the line between the two forms has never been more fluid.
Billboard caught up with Samuels to talk about his production work, the difference between music in the U.K. and the U.S., and shifting the culture.
How did you get your start in producing and songwriting?
I've been making music ever since I was a kid. My first instrument was the drums at 4 years old, my second instrument at 6 was the piano... I love helping people and seeing things go from 0 to an amazing piece of art. My first break was with a young man in the U.K., a very respected and well-known rapper called Chipmunk. We had done a record with Chris Brown called "Champion." It was kind of like the first time we'd ever seen a British rapper and an American superstar like that come together, so it was a big event for us in the U.K.
Was it an adjustment moving from writings song for English artists to writing songs for American artists?
At first when I moved to America, the biggest problem for me was I was influenced by so much music because I have a multi-cultural background: half-Caribbean, half-African. So I would be in England and they would be like, "You should go to America," and I would be in America and it's like, "You sound like you're from London." I was always stuck in the middle.
How did you connect with Ciara?
I worked with L.A. Reid a few times, especially with Fifth Harmony [Samuels co-wrote and produced "Body Rock" on Fifth Harmony's forthcoming Reflection]. We had done a great record and [Reid] was pretty much like, "Get him in [the studio] with Ciara right now." The single "I Bet" was the second song we did. We were in the studio six or seven times, and each time was a humongous record. But "I Bet" was definitely the record that stood out and she was like, "This is going to be the single." She was able to be vulnerable, still herself, explain her story -- I don't think anybody had ever seen that side of her until now. She came in with pieces of paper and ideas. She just had this energy that was amazing.
Were the Ciara sessions emotional because of her breakup with Future?
It's the weirdest thing, because even though "I Bet" is an emotional song, she's on cloud nine. She's got her son, and she's really happy. I don't think I've ever been to a session where I've seen her unhappy. I've definitely gone to a session feeling that way and she'll be like, "Come on, smile! Let's have a party." She's so focused.
With "I Bet" and with your work on Grande's Yours Truly, it seems like you're really pushing a '90s R&B sound?
I moved to L.A. in 2010. When I got here, music had changed so much -- everything was dance music. And I was frustrated. What happened to all the '90s and early '00s music, what happened to Mariah, what happened to Usher? I said, "You know what I'm going to do? I'm just going to re-create the '90s." At the time I was working with Jordin Sparks. And most of the songs for Ariana were [originally] for Jordin. Unfortunately, Jordin's label and I didn't really agree that was the direction they wanted to go for her. So I had these songs just sitting for 18 months, thinking one day this is going to go somewhere. And Ari comes in the room and she sings, and I'm blown away by her voice. And I say, "Would you like to sing this song?" And I play her "The Way." That was the biggest song we did on the album, and it was the first song I played her.
I just want people to feel like the '90s again -- I want people to be excited, to feel like they can party and be in love and just enjoy it. And I wanted to feel it! It was fun, and I think it helped shift culture because a lot of records are being created that way now.
You also worked on Michelle Williams' Journey to Freedom, which is more gospel-oriented.
I've always said I never wanted to be limited to a genre of music. I listen to everything. I will literally transform into a heavy-metal bass player if I have to -- to get the record right. With the gospel thing, that was close to my heart because I grew up in church. I still go to church now; I play keys in church. So working with Michelle was great. Beyonce and Kelly [Rowland] jumped in too [on "Say Yes"], so it was like my second Destiny's Child record. [The first being "You Changed," a tough hip-hop soul track from Rowland's 2013 album Talk a Good Game that also featured Beyonce and Williams.]
A lot of songwriters and producers have also stepped out on their own as solo acts. Does that career path interest you?
When I first started making music, it was a vision and a dream of mine to be an artist. But right now, where I am, I just like creating. One of my biggest passions is to have my own artists and break my own artists in the near future. Me stepping out as an artist? That's too much work. [Laughs] I don't think I have the energy for it. I like the peace and quiet. I can go to the store and buy a beverage without being bothered. I love working with new artists, and there's a bunch of new artists coming this year that I'm excited about. But me stepping out? Never. [Laughs]