Songwriter Makeba Riddick-Woods Looks Back On Her Biggest Hits for Beyoncé, Rihanna, J. Lo and More

Courtesy of Makeba Riddick-Woods
Makeba Riddick-Woods

If you've ever turned up to a catchy R&B song at the club or family BBQ, there's a good chance that Makeba Riddick-Woods was behind it. The Grammy-winning songwriter and vocal producer has been crafting hits for A-list stars like Beyoncé and Rihanna since her big break 16 years ago.

The Baltimore native grew up listening to Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Tears For Fears and Richard Marx. As she got older, her love for R&B blossomed as she became a massive Jodeci fan. "I’ve been trying to meet DeVante Swing literally since I was 13 years old, and I finally ran into him after running into someone who knew him at my Los Angeles hair salon," she tells Billboard. "It was surreal, because I was trying to meet him for so long -- like, my mom would write letters to the Jodeci fan club for me. I was so enamored by his musical ability."

Riddick-Woods' career kicked off after she signed her first publishing deal to Diddy's Bad Boy/EMI Music Publishing at the age of 20. She was later managed by JAY-Z's Roc Nation for 10 years and has since penned tunes for artists such as Toni Braxton, Kelis, Mariah Carey, the Sugababes and, most recently, gospel singer Koryn Hawthorne. Riddick-Woods has also written music for TV shows -- including Fox's Star and Empire -- and wants to do the same for film.

"Writing for scenes and particular characters is a process that I’ve always wanted to challenge myself to get into," she explains. "I look at someone like Pharrell, and what he did with the Despicable Me soundtrack was genius. So film is the next step for me. I’d love to do animation. I have two little girls who are six and three. That’s definitely been a big influence on me, because cartoons are always playing in the background​."

Below, Riddick-Woods walks Billboard through her career and shares -- in her own words -- the stories behind some of her most successful hits. 

2002: Jennifer Lopez, "All I Have” 

Her A&R at the time first reached out to me. I was playing all these demos for the label, and I guess as a joke the then-president [at Epic] said, "Well, if she’s really that dope, then she can write me a hit record for Jennifer Lopez. That should be easy for her!" So I came with "All I Have," which I wrote with my friend Curtis Richardson. [Another co-writer] Dave McPherson loved it and sent it to Cory Rooney, who was the executive producer of [Lopez’s This Is Me...Then album]. Cory called me and said, "We want you to come to the Hit Factory because J. Lo heard it and wants to use it as her single."

I was really young and fresh out of college and had just moved to New York. So this was surreal. I got to the Hit Factory and was like, "Wow, this is the biggest studio I’ve ever seen!" Jennifer was so sweet and down to earth -- it wasn’t even like you were in the studio with this big superstar. Everyone made it feel so comfortable. When the song hit No. 1, honestly I didn’t even know what that meant at that time! I was just so excited that I had a record with Jennifer Lopez that was on the radio. But I didn’t understand the ramifications of being at the top of [the Billboard Hot 100]. 

2005: Rihanna, "If It’s Lovin’ That You Want"

At the time I was managed by her A&R, [current Roc Nation CEO] Jay Brown. He called me and said, “We just signed this girl from Barbados, and we’re bringing her to New York. I want you to meet her and see if you guys can vibe.” She was young -- about 15 or 16 years old -- and we were just two girls having fun in the studio. Brown then brought in [production duo] The Trackmasters, and they had this Jamaican-sounding record. So I just wrote to it, and they loved it! I didn’t know she already had “Pon De Replay” out -- that was already doing crazy numbers. As a songwriter, I never know what’s gonna be a hit. I just have to go in, write the song and give it to the universe.

We didn’t know that Rihanna was going to be the biggest artist and become a rock star -- we were just having a really good time. I never go into the studio thinking an artist is [going to be the next big thing], because that stifles me. If I knew what she was gonna become, “If It’s Lovin’ That You Want” may have never happened -- I’d get nervous. I need to be level-headed about what I’m doing.

2006: Rihanna, “Unfaithful” 

“Unfaithful” really established me as a vocal producer. Ne-Yo had written “Unfaithful,” and [her team] took me out to Las Vegas so I could cut the vocals with her. Most artists have an awareness that they can sing, but they don’t know how to go into the studio and deliver the vocals and the emotion that grabs people out in radio land. There are a lot of people who can tear a stage down, but recording? Not everyone has a grasp on that. With Rihanna, she didn’t even know she had such an incredible tone. I helped her find her confidence with that. Lyrically, it’s a pretty heavy song, and it was a big transition for her. Because it was written so brilliantly, I think we all knew it was going to be massive. 

2007: Beyoncé’s B’Day album

We worked on "Deja Vu" in a writing camp about eight months before Max Gousse [who oversaw A&R for B'Day with Mathew Knowles] called me and said, “Beyoncé loves it and wants to cut it.” My whole world just went silent for a second! I was like, “No way. You are not serious!” I don’t think moments like those will ever stop being surreal to me.

Beyoncé is a perfectionist and had a clear vision, but no one was taking anybody too seriously. We were just having fun: myself, Sean Garrett, Rich Harrison, Solange and Beyoncé’s cousin Angie. Every night felt like a party. I remember when we were writing “Get Me Bodied” and started making up dances. We used to always order so much Chipotle in the studio, to the point that Beyoncé was like, “What is this food y’all eating?” She wasn’t eating like that at the time [after working on Dreamgirls], but she finally gave in and said, “Get me one of them Chipotle bowls!”

With “Upgrade U,” the process actually went smoothly. It doesn’t always work like that when you have so many writers working on one song. Me, Beyoncé, Sean, Solange, Angie and Swizz Beatz were all in a room together. Beyoncé and Sean started joking around and talking about first-class flights and diamonds. And those became the lyrics for “Upgrade U.” Solange and I wrote the bridge, Sean and Beyoncé wrote the hook and Angie wrote some verses. We were in such a team head space, and I think that’s why the B’Day album is so cohesive. Before you knew it, three weeks had gone by and we had made an entire album, with international cuts included. We came out with a classic body of work that went on to sell millions copies around the world.

2007: Rihanna, “Disturbia” 

We’ve done so many songs together, and I would see the growth in every song, every performance, every time we went into the studio. We went to Toronto to cut this record -- I think she was having a concert there. Chris Brown was also there, and he co-wrote the song with Andre Merritt. I think Brown introduced Rihanna to a more intricate sound. And “Disturbia” was a record that Rihanna found; there wasn’t an A&R that brought it to her. So even that showed she was learning how to pick a hit herself. It’s always fun to see an artist evolve; she was able to jump from one genre to another and still be successful. During this point [with the release of Good Girl Gone Bad], she had found herself. That became one of the biggest albums she’s ever done. Jay Brown told me this album was going to be monumental for her career and was going to sell millions -- and he was right!

2009: Rihanna, “Rude Boy”

So this is an interesting story. We were recording the Rated R album everywhere: Paris, Hawaii, Los Angeles. We also had a writing camp in London and [people like] Pharrell, will.i.am and Drake came through to see Rihanna play her records and see what the vibe was. We were in London for about a month, and by the end of it, everyone was exhausted and creatively stumped. We asked Jay Brown if we could go home and recharge our batteries. He told me individually, “We have just one more record from [producers] Stargate that [songwriter] Ester Dean started!” She had the idea but we needed to revisit the hook and rewrite a verse, so there was still a lot of stuff to be done. Brown said, “Just one more day. We believe this record could be really big.” So I sat with Rihanna to figure out how to make the record better and finally finish it.

I was so tired, but I’m glad that I stayed, because “Rude Boy” became the biggest song off that album and stayed at No. 1 [on the Billboard Hot 100] for five weeks straight. I’d love to work on her next dancehall album, so I’m ready whenever they call me! We’ve worked together for so many years and have shared so much success. I’m always open to working with her because we became genuine friends, and that magic oozes into the records.

2013: Tamar Braxton, “Love and War” 

I knew Vincent Herbert [Streamline Records executive and Tamar Braxton’s ex-husband] long before working with Tamar. I worked with him on a number of projects prior to her album, including writing for his then artist, JoJo and then later working with Toni Braxton when he was managing her. I worked on her Libra album [in 2005], writing her top ten hit “Breathe” and then we worked again on her Pulse album [in 2010]. I went into the studio with [fellow songwriter] LaShawn Daniels, who also worked on Beyoncé’s B’Day. We’re always clowning whenever we get into the studio. So we first wrote this record for Tamar called “Hot Sugar” that we thought was gonna be the single. It has a hard, bouncy beat that we knew was gonna make the clubs go crazy. We wrote “Love and War” that same day, but Vincent brought in some radio people to test the records on air. And they were going crazy for “Love and War” across the country, so that became the record that established Tamar as a true artist. We were nominated for two Grammys for it [Best R&B Song and Best R&B Performance]. And after many years of trying [to be successful], that really helped define her career.

2017: Koryn Hawthorne, “Won’t He Do It”

I submitted some songs to her label [RCA Inspiration, a gospel label] because they had a few different artists they were working on. The label’s head, Phil Thornton, is a good friend of mine, but he turned everything down. [Laughs] I was a little disappointed, but this is the nature of the business -- people are not going to like everything you do all the time. But Phil played “Won’t He Do It” for a show on the OWN Network called Greenleaf. They wanted to use the record for a scene with a girl named Koryn Hawthorne [a finalist on season 8 of The Voice] that had just been signed. 

So I was down to cut it in the studio. I’ve been trying to break into the gospel realm for a long time, and after Greenleaf, the label wanted to use “Won’t He Do It” as a single. It felt young, and it’s a fresh sound for gospel, and I told Phil that was a big thing for me. I wanted to help usher in a new sound to involve a different demographic. We could pull in some of the young people and let them know that God is cool, if you’re a believer. And Koryn was the perfect conduit to do that with, because she is young and has swag.

So right around Christmas time last year, the song’s producer, Rich Shelton, called me and said, “Have you seen the Billboard charts lately?” I really hadn’t, because I was spending time with my family. He said, “'Won’t He Do It' is top five on gospel radio!” I was surprised, because the record hadn't been out for that long, but it took off on its own. So at this point, I’m calling her label like, “We need to do a video!” Then, the record went to No. 1 on the Billboard Gospel Songs chart without Koryn doing any press. It just goes to show that you don’t need all that hype when a song is good, and I was really excited about establishing a new artist in the game. It wasn’t a challenge for me [to write a gospel song] because I consider myself versatile enough to write anything. But songs like “Won’t He Do It” are what I would listen to if I were buying a gospel album. I want to be in the car turning it up and my bopping my head the same way I would to a Drake song.