When he was just seven, Dallas Austin sent a demo tape to Warner Bros. Records via an address he found on the back of a Prince album. Although he got a letter back saying the label wasn’t accepting unsolicited material, his future was calling.
In a career that helped define the musical landscape of the late ’80s, ’90s and early ’00s, the prolific writer and producer has penned more than 50 Billboard Hot 100-charting singles for artists including Brandy, Monica, TLC and Boyz II Men, for whom he co-wrote and produced breakout new jack swing hit “Motownphilly” and co-produced their debut album Cooleyhighharmony.
Ahead of being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame on Thursday (June 13), Austin shared the stories behind some of his hits with Billboard — and the Irish rocker still on his collaboration bucket list.
Do you approach your music as a songwriter or a producer first?
I’ve tried to do it both ways, but the way I came up for some strange reason I got into making tracks first because I was playing keyboards in bands coming up in junior high school and high school. I would write the tracks first and then I would write songs to the tracks. I still do that sometimes.
When did you make the transition away from being a performer, and realized songwriting and producing was where you wanted to be?
When I was 7 years old I had a Prince album cover that had the Warner Bros. Records address on it. I copied the address and I shipped a demo out. But it was right around high school that I started to [make the change]. I was in bands and I was performing, and I started looking at Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and Quincy Jones and George Clinton, and I would look them and I would think, “These people aren’t really in the band, they are songwriting and producing for people.” And I thought I may want to do that more and see what it was like.
Wait, how old were you when you sent a demo to Warner Bros.?
Between 7 and 8. My mom got a letterhead from Warner Bros. back that said, “We do not accept unsolicited material” and she was like, “What are you doing?” I was just excited.
Was there a moment when you knew you’d developed your own writing and/or producing style, that it was all coming together?
It started with Another Bad Creation. When I was doing “Iesha,” I thought I’d make a little song like “Playground” and that would be for the kids. So I thought I’d switch it up and make a more of a kids-friendly version. I was talking to Jheryl Busby, who was the head of Motown at the time, and he said, “How did you do that? That’s incredible.” I said I just kind of tapped into what I thought kids their age would want to hear and try to blend the demographic of where that person came from. Another Bad Creation was from the projects and so I asked them, “Do you guys hang out on playgrounds where the drug dealers are? And this, that and the other.” And then it was about how do I compress what they’re doing and seeing into the record. So that became my [signature], project-wise, where the songs were visually connected to the people.
Have you carried that way of working as you’ve collaborated with different artists through the years?
I always say, with songs you’ve got to cram a great song into three minutes and for a movie you’ve got two hours—but it’s the same story you’ve got to tell. You’ve got to be clued into what’s going on, who are the characters, what’s the situation. The beginning. The conclusion. And that’s what I’ve tried to do. Even when I found Monica [on “Don’t Take It Personal”], I had people saying, the song says “One of dem days,” and I said, “Well that’s what she’d say. They don’t say, “It’s one of those days; they say one of dem days.” And they said, “It’s not proper English,” and I debated with them back and forth but that’s where the name comes from. She was 13, and she wouldn’t say “One of those days.” We go back and forth on those kinds of things.
I guess you won that debate.
Yeah. Sometimes it’s just the way a person says something. It’s very important to me when I’m thinking through the lyrics.
We want to share the stories behind some of your hits. There’s so much to choose from.
All of them have their background stories in some sense. One of my favorites is “Creep.” The girl I was dating at the time… I had a lot of stuff going on and I wasn’t really at the house like that. And when I came home one day, I found out she had somebody else. When I asked her about it she said, “Man, what do you want me to do? I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I have to get attention too.” And I was like, “That’s true.” I just went and wrote the song off the top of my head. A lot of times I’ll turn situations around. I’ve written so many songs for girls because I feel like girls have a lot more to expand on than guys a lot of the time, and they are more emotionally connected. A lot of times I’d take a situation I was responsible for and look at it from the girl’s standpoint. It’s the ability to put yourself in the position of being able to see both sides.
So “Creep” is really about you?
Yeah. It’s the ability to put yourself in the position of being able to see both sides of it. A lot of my friends growing up were girls and I got to hear their take on what was happening, and as a guy, it was helpful to really understand.
Another hit you wrote for a woman is Gwen Stefani’s “Cool.”
I actually wrote that song for TLC, when me and Chilli broke up. Because at that point she’d moved on and I’d moved on, she was dating someone and I was dating someone. But the problem was, when it came time to record it, I didn’t want to record it with them. I was so aggravated being in the sessions. It was very obvious who it was about and what it was, and it was hard. I finally just took it off. I said, “I’m not going to do this with you guys, let’s find another song.”
So actually you weren’t all that cool with it after all.
It wasn’t that cool to record it with them. And they got mad at first. I had written a song called “Damaged,” and they said, “This is about how you feel, too.” And I said, “No, no. This is about how a girl feels in a relationship with a guy and now she’s damaged to the other guy.” But “Cool”… I kept that song for another year, maybe more, and then I ran into Gwen Stefani. It was actually inspired at first by her because she did something kind of like that with “Don’t Speak” and I remember thinking, “How is she doing that song with Tony [Kanal] in the group?” I always looked at that and thought, that’s a unique situation. So with “Cool” I’d kept that in mind. And when I met her, I played it for her and she said, “Oh my God I love this song, this is just like me and Tony’s situation.” So it ended up being cool for her. That was really great, because she’d totally inspired me in the first place.
Of course “Motownphilly” was a huge moment for you and Boyz II Men.
With “Motownphilly,” the guys came up with the title and I didn’t get it at first because I was in Atlanta. But then when I went to work with them in Philly, I got it, and it was really fun writing the song from there. From that point on I was like, “I was supposed to be doing one or two songs with you guys. Is it possible I could do the whole album?” And they were like, “We don’t know. We want Babyface, this person or that person…” And I had just started getting recognition as a producer. I went back to the hotel and started listening to Babyface albums and I listened Jimmy and Terry, and I went back into the studio with them and I said, “Look I can make these songs.” I started with “Under Pressure,” “This Is My Heart” and “Please Don’t Go.” And then by that point they were like, “Dude you got this.” And I ended up doing their whole record. I wasn’t even going to go to Philly at first I was just going to send up a track, and then when I went to work on the “Motownphilly” song, we just connected.
It sounds like, per your writing and producing M.O., you needed to be there.
Yeah, I had to be there to understand it. I went to 9th Street to get Philly cheese steaks and hang out and walk around a lot of places, and I said, “OK, now I know what you’re talking about.”
Another interesting song I get a kick out of is “Hit ‘Em Up Style” for Blu Cantrell.
I needed actually to make another soul record, and I just couldn’t figure it out. And I was just sitting there watching Merrie Melodies, this little cartoon, and it was like… [makes the opening credit sound] and I said, “Wow that would be cool if I can make a song kind of like that sound, just updated.” So I went and wrote “Hit ‘Em Up Style” and I didn’t think anybody was going to like it. But when I played it for Blu Cantrell she said, “This is the most creative song I’ve heard in a long time.” And I said, “I’ll take that.”
What’s exciting you, music-wise these days?
I’ve gotten to work with all the artists I really wanted to work with, except for Prince, who I really wanted to work with. Now I’m really looking forward to working with new artists, and new sounds. You still have your writing sessions, like for Rihanna, and you have people saying, “I want you to write for this person or that person.” But I don’t think I can be as responsible for those projects.
So you don’t necessarily want to do a one-off song for a big artist these days?
Yeah, that’s not really my thing. Even though we did “FourFiveSeconds” [for Rihanna], it was mostly based off Kanye’s record at the time. But, not to say I don’t like writing songs for Rihanna or Beyonce, but it’s different compared to having new artist, like when I first started working with TLC or Monica and we were [doing] something totally new. The only one other [established artist I’d like to work with] is Bono. That’s my dream, working with him at this point. Because everyone else I already worked with or they passed, like Prince. But Bono’s on my bucket list.
Does Bono know this?
No. I’ve only had two bands in last 10 years that’s really been with it for me. Bono and U2, and Gorillaz are the other band I really like. The music they write is so amazing. Their music gets better and better to me. They’re just in their own world and I love it.