Producer Rob Knox on Working With Justin Timberlake: 'Everything We Do Is From Scratch'
A short jaunt from the beach in Santa Monica, Calif., lies Windmark Recording, and on this Wednesday afternoon Rob Knox (real name: Robin Tadross) has taken up shop in one of Windmark’s studios. “I’m just working on some potential tracks, nothing major,” says the producer who explains he’s keen on floating from one studio to another. “I kind of like it that way because it’s all about energy. I feel different energies depending on where I am. It’s kind of fun, the gypsy way.”
Those eclectic energies must be working for Knox, as the producer has been behind a string of notable tracks since his very first cut back when he was collaborating alongside the hip-hop production collective The Underdogs, working on 2007’s “What it Do” from B5. However, Knox’s work with the veteran of another boy band has served as a common thread throughout his career. “When I was with The Underdogs, we used to have a little weight room in the studio and Justin came in and worked out with us a few times,” remembers Knox.
The Justin he’s referring to is of the Timberlake variety, whose Man of the Woods features two collaborations with the producer. “Right away we hit it off because he could tell my taste in music was similar to his.” At the time, the burgeoning pop king was working on his 2006 sophomore effort FutureSex/LoveSounds. “He then put out the album, went on tour, and afterwards we ended up linking up. The first session we ever did was his record with T.I., ‘Dead and Gone.’” The song peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100 and snagged two Grammy nominations: best rap collaboration and best rap song.
The resounding success of “Dead and Gone” kicked off a close working relationship between the Tennessee-born singer and the Egypt-born producer, whose heritage is what essentially led to an interest in the music industry. Immigrating to Los Angeles with his family when he was four years old, Knox’s upbringing was surrounded by Egyptian culture. “It was honestly like we never left Egypt,” remembers Knox who spent his formative years in Culver City and later the San Fernando Valley, raised by his Arabic-speaking family, including his mother who had a penchant for filling the house with traditional Egyptian music.
With an interest in both rock and hip-hop, Knox first learned violin (which his aunt gave him as a present from Egypt) and then guitar (which his mom bought for 40 bucks). But it was the Timbaland-produced “Big Pimpin’” that served as the catalyst for the rest of his life. “When I heard it I was like, ‘Am I crazy or is this that song ‘Khosara Khosara’”? Popularized by the Egyptian superstar Abdel Halim Hafez, his “Khosara Khosara” is the flute riff sampled throughout the smash JAY-Z hit. (The choice of sample later landed both JAY-Z and Timbaland in court.) “At the time, I didn’t even know what a producer was. I thought these songs just magically appeared on a CD. But when I realized that Timbaland took this '60s-era Egyptian song and somehow made it into this crazy hip-hop record, I started doing research and realized he was doing that a lot, from Petey Pablo to Bubba Sparxxx and Aaliyah. That’s really what sparked my interest in production.”
It was an interest that soon morphed into a passion, with Knox forgoing a scholarship to play football for West Virginia Tech and stocking up on production equipment. “My friend showed me how to work everything and taught me how to make a beat in an hour,” says Knox, remembering that he was told to make an 8 bar sequence if he wanted to make hip-hop records. “I was like ‘Okay, but what’s a bar?’ I had no idea. He said, ‘When you nod your head four times, that’s a bar.’ I was like, ‘Okay, cool.’ It became math for me.” The passion then became a career, with Knox scoring a manager based on the strength of his demos, subsequently falling in with The Underdogs, and later collaborating with Timbaland himself.
It’s been Knox’s cuts with Timberlake, however, that have served as cornerstones of his career, many of which have teamed JT up with a fellow superstar. Starting with the aforementioned “Dead and Gone” with T.I., Knox has also been behind the singer’s collaborations with Ciara (“Love Sex Magic”), Leona Lewis (“Don’t Let Me Down”), Rihanna (“Hole in My Hand”) and Jamie Foxx (“Winner”). Their most recent effort is Timberlake’s Alicia Keys-supported “Morning Light,” Man of the Woods’ eighth track. “That one happened so fast,” says Knox. “The vibe was so right and it felt so good and creativity was at an all-time high with some extremely talented people. First there was a chord progression, some drums, Elliott (Ives) started playing the guitar, and Justin and Chris Stapleton started writing the song in front of our eyes. I would say in a half hour the song was there. It was one of those things where it was like, ‘Whoa, where did that come from?’” (It was at the suggestion of Keys’ husband, the superstar producer Swizz Beatz,’ that she hopped on the track).
When it comes to Timberlake’s process, Knox notes that nothing began with a planned concept or idea. “Everything we do is from scratch. We go in and start fishing around and feeling what the vibe is. For (Timberlake’s blockbuster 2013 album) The 20/20 Experience he said, ‘I’m about to start and you’re on the album!’ All he’ll say is he wants something dope and something fresh, and I think that’s why we musically get along. We don’t want to follow any pattern, we want to do something that’s never been done before.”
It’s a process that he’s carrying with him while working with his newest collaborator, the aforementioned Keys. “After ‘Morning Light,’ she asked if I could go into the studio together. I said ‘Of course!’ I’d be an idiot not to. We have a great chemistry and are doing a lot together.” According to Knox, it’s what happens after that studio that makes it all worthwhile. “When I listen to (one of my songs) being performed in a concert, I can’t even put the feeling into words. When I meet people and they tell me how songs like ‘Dead and Gone’ helped them through the toughest times of their life, one person told me they were contemplating suicide and ‘Dead and Gone’ helped them get through it… Stuff like that puts things into perspective and is very humbling. I’m just a guy who loves making music with dope people. When I hear things like that, it’s the most fulfilling feeling.”