DC Area Producers Keep the Gospel Train Moving
There is a big difference between a music “fan” and a music “head.” Music “fans” can tell you their favorite songs and in most cases, who is singing them. Music fans have favorites whom they’ve followed for years and can even tell you some of their life stories. And if you ask what type of music they like best, they’ll say, “Oh, I like all kinds….I’m just a fan of good music.”
But music “heads” dig deeper. They like to know the various aspects of music, and who’s making an impact on the industry. Music heads have their favorites, too, but they also keep up with the movers and shakers behind the scenes...some of whom the average listener has never heard of in mainstream. Music heads will find out who wrote a song, who composed it, who did the producing and arranging, and who sang background. They can also tell you who else that artist, writer, background vocalist, or producer has worked with in the past, as well as their planned collaborations for the future. They can even tell you about some artists’ label history.
With only a surface interest in music, a fan may not care who the hottest producers are or who is being considered “the one to watch” because of upcoming projects, but a music head does. A fan may not even know what a producer is, for that matter. But in all fairness to music fans, even some music heads may not know what a producer is, or all that is involved with being a producer. So whether you are a music head or just a fan, I’ve written this piece just for you. I wanted to educate both groups on what a producer is – from the perspectives of some of the most gifted producers in the DC area.
So what exactly IS a producer? According to James Davis (a.k.a. Kelly Fox!), who is the Minister of Music and choir director at Kettering Baptist Church in Mitchellville, MD, and has produced for various artists such as Agape, Tonya Blount, and Faith Evans, a producer has to have some form of musicianship. “Anybody can take a keyboard or drum machine, put together a baseline and strings, and make beats. That’s not a producer,” said Fox. “A producer is someone who knows and plays music well, or at least some kind of instrument. They can determine a singer’s range, style, and comfort level, and find the sound to fit that voice. A producer also understands that the voice itself is an instrument,” he said.
Allyn Johnson, producer and Director of Jazz Studies at the University of the District of Columbia, agrees. “Some people believe that because they bought an *MPC and a Triton keyboard and came up with a beat, they are now a producer,” said Johnson. “Know your equipment but also learn music…learn to play an instrument. If you’re going to be working with musicians, learn their language…music,” said Johnson. “And study different styles of music, even if you don’t like it. Be familiar with various genres, such as classical, jazz, gospel, country, hip-hop, reggae, R&B…You never know what direction a song or artist may need to go stylistically,” he said.
PJ Morgan, Assistant Minister of Music and choir director at Reid Temple AME Church, also agrees that having a keyboard and a computer doesn’t make one a producer. But he doesn’t feel that one needs to be a great musician to produce. “School is a good idea. If you can, learn composition as well as technology. But producing is having a vision, having an ear and a feel for what the music is supposed to be like and sound like,” said Morgan. “If you have a vision for an artist, you don’t necessarily have to have all the skills it takes to bring out the best in that artist. You can pull people in who have those skills. A producer is like a manager/coach/musician,” said Morgan. “It’s not about your own talent, it’s about the music. It’s about where that artist is. It’s about their needs, their audience, their personality,” he said. “And be versatile. Give artists their own sound, don’t pigeonhole yourself as a producer.”
Now for the aspiring artists out there, let’s flip the script for a minute. If I’m an artist, how would I recognize a good producer? Allyn Johnson says a good producer should be able to help you accomplish your musical goal, whatever it may be. “An artist may have a vision for a song but doesn’t know how to get it there, or the song or artist may need guidance in the vision for a song. That’s where a good producer is essential,” said Johnson. He says an artist should also seek out the source of a sound they like. “Maybe another artist has a certain flavor, or there’s a particular song with a certain vibe you like. I would seek out the producer that put that song together,” he said.
Kelly Fox! says in finding a good producer, there’s a big difference between an artist and a singer. “A true artist would know a good producer because an artist knows what they want and what they want to hear,” said Fox! “Even if they can’t play an instrument, an artist knows how the music should go, or feel, or sound. They understand music in general,” he said. “A singer is someone who just sings. They wouldn’t know if a track is good or not…they wouldn’t know whether it was done by me or my child,” said Fox!
So if having an ear and being a student of music deems one worthy of the title ‘producer,’ then Fox! certainly qualifies. “I don’t buy music just to listen to it anymore, I STUDY it,” he said. “When I started producing, I would buy all of Baby Face and Teddy Riley’s stuff just to STUDY what they did. Anything Kirk Franklin puts out, I’m on top of it, whether it’s his project or someone else’s he has worked on. Anything John P. Kee or Hezekiah (Walker) puts out, I’m buying it to find out what they’re playing and how they’re playing it,” said Fox! “I study to keep up with the changes of today’s sound, find a way to incorporate it into my sound, and make it ‘Kelly Fox!’” he said.
But Fox! also says that as a producer, knowing music and understanding your artist is just half the battle. “The most important thing a producer can do is READ A BOOK,” said Fox! He highly recommends Everything You Need to Know About the Music Business by Kashif, a popular R&B artist from the ‘80s. “If you’re going to be dealing with contracts and making money, you need to know the business,” he said.
Fox! and his production partner, Allyn Percival (a.k.a. “A-Sharp”), have songs being played on several shows produced by Warner Brothers, such as The Tyra Banks Show and Extra! “There are so many other things we do, like writing jingles for commercials or theme songs for TV shows,” said Fox! “It’s not always about getting a national artist to record one of your songs. People don’t realize, even news segments need music,” he said. Fox! and his business partner, George Adusei, also have contracts with various churches for different types of production. “We do voiceover work for different churches and their outreach ministries, such as their DVDs or inspirational CDs. We even do background music for weekly church announcements,” said Fox! “National artists aren’t singing on any of those, but we’re getting royalty checks from ASCAP and BMI just like they do,” he said.
PJ Morgan says there are also other tasks to consider when contemplating the field of producing. “People think that all we do is play music,” said Morgan. “A lot of times, you have to coordinate schedules, personalities, egos… And you have to learn how to master a budget – especially if you’re local – because you have to be able to compete with what’s on the market with maybe an eighth of the resources,” he said. And Morgan certainly identifies with Johnson and Fox! when it comes to variety, growth, and learning the business. “If you’re going to make a living at this, you want to surround yourself with different styles of people. It’s good to be versatile, don’t limit yourself,” he said. “Study everything you can and learn the business. Every producer should diversify himself…Be able to do more than one thing. If you can play, pick up a new instrument. Learn how to read music, how to score, how to direct. Have several avenues,” said Morgan.
I also asked the guys to recall the most successful and/or the most memorable moments in their producing careers, as well as some of the problems they have encountered. Johnson says just being considered by a national artist is a beautiful thing. “One of my clients pushed their project to the point where it received rave reviews, and one of the songs was considered for a national artist’s CD project…That was a good feeling,” said Johnson. But he says that one of his biggest problems is not being fully trusted. “One problem I face is when an artist doesn’t let the producer do his or her job, such as selecting the musicians and background singers needed for a particular song,” he said. “Some artists try the ‘friends and family’ approach when it comes to selecting singers and musicians. This doesn’t always work. They should trust the producer’s decisions in these cases,” said Johnson.
Morgan says he sometimes finds himself in a tug-of-war. “One of the biggest problems for producers is trying to satisfy the label and the artist at the same time because most times, they have two different goals,” said Morgan. “The label’s goal is to make money and the artist’s goal is to express – and the producer is caught right in the middle of that. You have to satisfy both parties or you might not be working with either of them later,” he said. If you do a record that doesn’t sell anything, then the record company’s not happy with you. The artist might be happy with you and request you again, but the record company will say, ‘Oh, no…we’re going to use so-and-so to get us some record sales,’” said Morgan. “Then you may do something where the artist hates you but it sells great, the record company’s happy with you, they’ll call you again. But the artist says, ‘I don’t want to work with this person.’ So it’s trying to satisfy both entities, that’s one of the hardest things,” he said. But some of Morgan’s most favorable moments occurred while producing for TV. “I did a 3-year run with BET, from ‘97-’99. I did the background music for Video Soul, the Bobby Jones show, Video Gospel, Lead Story, Teen Summit…I did the title music for a lot of those shows,” said Morgan. “They hired me because I was fast. It was a lot of quick-turnaround stuff and they liked what I delivered,” he said. “That’s been my most successful run. Some of those songs I still hear…I’m still getting paid for that today,” said Morgan.
Fox! said one of his biggest problems is when he gets writer’s or producer’s block. But one of his most memorable experiences turned out to be his best AND his worst. “I was the executive producer for this all-female group. I produced 11 of 13 tracks, recorded the CD, got it to the manufacturers to be pressed up, designed the CD cover…I did everything. That was my biggest accomplishment, but it never made it to the public,” said Fox! “I spent money from my own pocket to get the project completed, only to never have it released,” he said. “We were friends and we came so close to releasing it, but the singers were swayed by negativity from outside sources. Industry folks were telling them they should be getting signing bonuses and the like, so our disagreements halted distribution,” he said. But Fox! was able to recall at least one happier memory. “I was in studio with a group called Agape. The founder of the group was a big producer, the late Freddie Jackson,” said Fox! “Agape had won a record deal at a DC competition for best gospel group and Freddie recorded them at a studio in Fairfax, VA. I was at their recording and was just blown away. Freddie could play the mess out of a piano,” he said.
How They Began:
Kelly Fox! began singing in children’s, youth, and young adult choirs before picking up the piano and sax in high school. At 21, he began producing. “When I was 20, I was in a group called X-cellence and we gave each other nicknames. Everyone kept saying I sounded like R. Kelly or Jamie Foxx, that’s how I got the nickname ‘Kelly Fox!’ But when the band broke up a year later, I still needed songs for other people I would be working with, so I started producing on my own,” he said. (With a grin, he adds that the exclamation point is to make people want to know who he is and why they should work with him. He wanted to associate his work with excitement.)
PJ Morgan began playing the flute at age 8 and the organ at age 11. “I was going to Tried Stone Fire Baptized Holiness Church. I learned to play the bass guitar, sax, oboe, bassoon, and organ. By 15, I was directing the choir, and producing followed soon after that,” he said. Morgan learned some music theory at the University of Maryland in College Park and plans to further his music studies at Bowie State.
Allyn Johnson began playing the piano at age 5 and was directing the youth choir at his uncle’s church by age 7. He continued to pursue music, studying jazz at the University of the District of Columbia. “I started producing when a good friend of mine, Eric Valentine (a UDC classmate, drummer, and fellow producer), asked me to help him with his project. We worked together on a couple of local CDs. After that, people started asking me to produce their projects, and that’s how it began,” said Johnson.
Allyn Johnson says to be an accomplished producer, you’ve got to take a look back. “We need to look at some of the earlier gospel musicians, such as Thomas Whitfield, Mattie Moss Clark, Milton Brunson, and Richard Smallwood,” said Johnson. “We need to study what they have laid down for us, then see how we can take that even further,” he said.
PJ Morgan also attributes his success to learning from the pioneers of gospel. “Paul Morton, Tramaine Hawkins, Mattie Moss Clarke, Pastor Daily Barnes, Jr., Mike and Marvin McCoy, Frank Frazier…these are the folks who influenced me,” said Morgan. “And I still like playing and producing the old school way – with live instruments and in every key,” he said. As a result, Morgan shares his gift freely with the Body of Christ. He has worked on several of the most recent gospel releases, including Paul Morton, Tramaine Hawkins, Maurette Brown Clarke, and Michael White & True Praise. He is also the music director for Stephen Hurd, national recording artist and Minister of Music at First Baptist Church of Glenarden; a member of national recording artist Kurt Carr’s production team; and resident teacher for the summer gospel program at the Berkeley College of Music in Boston, MA.
Kelly Fox! is not overlooking the future of producing. He is training an intern, Glenn Walker, but he is teaching him more than music. “One thing I can’t stand is when people call themselves producers and they don’t even know the history of it,” said Fox! “They should know who paved the way, like Duke Ellington, Andrae Crouch, and Richard Smallwood,” he said. Walker can attest to the verbal pop quizzes. “Kelly will randomly test my knowledge on music history,” said Walker. “He’ll ask me who produced this song or that song,” he said.
What They Really Want:
Finally, I asked the guys about their goals as producers and musicians. Allyn Johnson wants to bring different styles of music to gospel production. “How can we expect to reach different peoples, different cultures if our music only catches the ears of our own (African-Americans)? We need to broaden our musical horizons as producers in the gospel industry,” said Johnson, who did post-production work for Myrna Summers’ most recent project. He has also worked with other local artists, such as Carmen Calhoun, Kendall King, Robert Person, Quest, Jaqi Wright, Negleatha Johnson, Dr. Bonnie Hunter and Worshipful Praise, and R&B artist Stoney Ellis.
Fox! says he just wants to use his gift. “Everyone has a God-given gift and this is mine,” said Fox! “If one of my songs hits it big, so be it if it’s God’s will. I hate the limelight and the spotlight. I try to keep a low profile, I’m not looking to be the next biggest producer,” he said. “If the opportunity presents itself…If I happen to run into a Byron Cage or a Richard Smallwood, then of course, the business side of me is going to kick in. It may be an opportunity for me to write a nice song for them,” he said. But Fox!’s ultimate goal? “I want to be known in gospel music, right along with other names – such as Fred Hammond, Kirk Franklin, Donnie McClurkin, and Richard Smallwood – for writing inspirational music that touches the world,” he said. “I’m already blessed. I just want to be known among gospel music’s elite as being a very good, inspiring gospel producer. I would love to have Yolanda Adams or Karen Clarke Sheard WANT to do a Kelly Fox! track because they know it’s good, because my sound is unique,” said Fox! “I do want the name ‘Kelly Fox!’ to be known for having an impact in gospel music,” he said.
Like Fox!, PJ Morgan wants his music, not necessarily his name, to be remembered. “I love music, I love what I do. I enjoy taking bare ideas and turning them into a finished product…That excites me,” said Morgan. “But ultimately, I want to create music that marks history – music that is considered defining work. People may not remember me but I want them to remember my songs. Yes, I’d like a Grammy on the wall, but I want it for being a part of something that’s timeless,” he said.
So to all you music heads and fans, artists, and producers – there you have it! Stay tuned for Part II of The Producer’s Series.
*MPC is an acronym for ‘music production center,’ an industry standard sampler/sequencer/midi controller made by AKAI. It is used to create beats and samples.
In addition to production, Kelly Fox! offers piano and vocal lessons, artist consultation, and writing and recording services. PJ Morgan offers music lessons and workshops from a biblical perspective, including gospel instructional tapes and videos. Illustrations can be seen on the web site, www.showmethat.com. Morgan is also a music consultant for several churches. Allyn Johnson uses his studio mainly for production services. For more information, email PJ Morgan at email@example.com or visit www.pianojunkie.com. Email Kelly Fox! at firstname.lastname@example.org. Email Allyn Johnson at email@example.com.
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