Exclusive: RedOne is launching a huge, new regional concert in the Middle East
We meet Moroccan artist RedOne, the man behind Lady Gaga’s most famous hits, and find out that a star-studded gig is coming to the region
Pop stars may have the adoring fans that follow a hit song, but perhaps it is the music producers behind them who live the good life. They have no fear of the paparazzi on their trail, nor do they have to constantly keep fans up-to-date with their comings and goings via social media.
The life of a hit-maker is about riches without the visibility, and more importantly, success with peace of mind. Take RedOne, real name Nadir Khayat, for example. The producer, 46, can casually stroll the grounds of a popular Dubai hotel without any bother, despite being behind some of the biggest pop songs of the past decade.
RedOne’s brand of Euro-pop was behind Lady Gaga’s career-defining tracks Poker Face, Just Dance and Bad Romance. He helped Enrique Iglesias move on from tired ballads to club-tastic dancefloor hits such as I Like How It Feels and Dirty Dancer. He also reminded us that Jennifer Lopez still has something to say with 2011’s On the Floor, her first US chart-topper for almost five years; while Nicky Minaj’s career was able to soar beyond the US market thanks to her global hit Starships. But when The National meets RedOne in Dubai, he’s quick to admit success didn’t come easy.
RedOne and friends are coming soon
He begins this exclusive interview by describing the blissful vibes on his latest Dubai family holiday. “I always have a great time here,” he says. “The mix of cultures in the UAE, you can’t find anywhere, not even in Miami, where I live.”
But it is the real reason behind RedOne’s Dubai visit that I am particularly interested in: the hitmaker reveals he is here to discuss his touring plans as a solo artist.
It wasn’t all nice restaurants and hobnobbing with the elite, he states.
The linchpin of his progression will be an epic tour in the region later this year. “It will be a ‘RedOne and Friends’ concert with the music focusing on reggaeton,” he says. “I will lead a band and sing the hits I wrote. I will invite many singers, all of them my friends, to come and sing some of their songs and we can also collaborate.”
He envisages future “RedOne and Friends spectacles that would focus on the different genres he has been successful in. This means future pop, hip-hop, RnB and EDM concerts could also be on the cards, and the likes of Enrique Iglesias and Pitbull could also take the stage – a suggestion he can neither confirm nor deny. It would be fitting if they did arrive, especially since they are partly behind the producer’s foray into solo music. Ironically, they encouraged RedOne in this endeavour when he was working on their own solo material over the years.
A soulful singer himself (check out the videos of him performing acoustic covers of hits he produced for others on YouTube), RedOne has often used his vocals to demonstrate to artists the “feel” the song needs. “It’s funny, because I never really viewed myself as singer,” he says.
“I was very happy in the studio and sharing these songs with artists and the world, but Enrique and Pitbull would always say, ‘Come on man, you have a great voice. You sing like so many other artists, and you’re not singing yourself.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, but I’m not at the right time to focus on this.’ I think now I am.”
It was a realisation born on the back of years of hard work, struggle and tears. Lots of tears.
They flowed on New Year’s Eve 2006, a time when his living conditions were far removed from his current plush digs in a Miami neighbourhood he shares with Iglesias (“Enrique comes to my house and watches the football sometimes”). With a few hundred dollars left in his account, and with him and his wife Laila sharing an inflatable mattress and couch, he wondered if it was all worth it.
Finding his way
RedOne was born in Tetouan, northern Morocco. It was his brother’s vinyl collection – which included albums by Stevie Wonder, Led Zeppelin and Marvin Gaye, to name a few – that influenced him to take up the guitar and start composing his own songs. With rock stardom in mind, he travelled to the Swedish capital, Stockholm, in 1991, aged 19. He worked a number of odd jobs, including as a waiter in a kebab restaurant and selling vegetables in an outdoor market, and performed at weekends as the frontman of local pub band Subculture.
But the band was fizzling out, and RedOne had met Palestinian-Swedish rocker Rami Yacoub, the future star producer who he began co-writing songs with for a range of cookie-cutter Swedish pop acts. “That Arab connection definitely helped,” he says. “There we were, two guys trying to do something [far away from our homes] with our skills. We bonded over that. We were hungry and we wanted to do something big.”
Success soon arrived as the duo penned and produced hits for the likes of local artists A*Teens, Darin Zanyar and Daniel Lindstrom. It was enough for Yacoub to leave Sweden for the US, where he went to work as the right-hand man to uber producer Max Martin – another failed Swedish rocker-turned-producer. Although it was RedOne who introduced Yacoub to Martin, he elected to stay back and hone his production craft.
RedOne likens that time to working in a sweat shop. “It was like a factory. I would wake up and go to the studio and pump out these songs with all these different Swedish artists. It was constant and never-ending,” he says. “Of course, now, I realise how important it was for me. When you are working in such an intense way, you become less judgemental. You increasingly know when a song works and when it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t, you quickly throw it away and don’t care because you are already working on the next one.”
A new opportunity in the US
While creative block was never a concern for RedOne, he recalls feeling stifled by the limited opportunities to grow in Sweden. “I wanted to share my songs with the world, that was the dream,” he says. “I couldn’t do that in Sweden. My hits, my number ones, just stayed there. They wouldn’t travel. I did all this work and people and my friends and family in Morocco could not hear them on the radio.”
With big hopes and a CV full of top Scandi-pop hits, RedOne headed to the US with his wife.
However, after nearly a year, he still couldn’t find a label in the country willing to give him a chance. Which brings us back to that fateful New Year’s Eve when it all became too much to bear.
The big hits of that year, from Britney Spears to the Backstreet Boys and Enrique Iglesias, were co-written and produced by Yacoub.
I wanted to share my songs with the world, that was the dream. I couldn’t do that in Sweden. My hits, my number ones, just stayed there.
It was not jealousy, RedOne says. It was the anguish of knowing that he too could produce tracks of chart-busting quality, if given a chance. “It was driving me crazy,” he says. “I would hear this song and I knew deep inside that I could produce them, too. It was frustrating, especially since you know your friend, who you worked with, was doing these great songs.”
Dejected and weary, he sat on the couch as the clock struck midnight and caught the rest of the 1997 film Selena, the tragic biopic of Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla-Perez. “I just cried,” he says. “I cried about everything. The film was sad. I was frustrated that after all that work nobody would give me a chance. Then my wife started crying, too, and told me that at least we had our health.”
He borrowed $3,000 (Dh11,000) from his sister-in-law and decided to stay in the US until that money ran out, not knowing that his big break would come two months later.
A lucky break
It came in the form of young Dominican-American singer Kat DeLuna. Aged just 20 at the time, DeLuna represented big hopes for her record label, Epic, which invited RedOne to showcase potential songs for the starlet. It was upon listening to the first minute of what would become DeLuna’s breakout single, Whine Up, that RedOne took the job of producing her debut album 9 Lives.
While the album was a relative success (big in Europe, a flop in the US), it did enough to get RedOne’s name out there. It led to another offer in 2007 from the talent agency behind a flamboyant young singer-songwriter named Lady Gaga. RedOne was initially not too thrilled. “She just got dropped from her label and I remember saying to them, ‘Are you kidding? I want to make hits, not junk,’” he says.
“But they told me to just meet her. And if I didn’t want to work with her as an artist, I could work with her as a writer.”
RedOne still gets chills when remembering the creativity in the Los Angeles studio where they worked on songs that would form Lady Gaga’s seminal debut album The Fame. Five songs were produced in a week, including hits Just Dance, Poker Face and Love Game.
It was an energy driven by desperation, as both artists were bent on proving their respective naysayers wrong.
“She was very open to what I wanted to do,” RedOne says. “I wanted to bring the synth sound back to pop music and at the time it was viewed as cheesy. Gaga was not scared and she liked to experiment.”
The influence The Fame still has in today’s pop music landscape cannot be underestimated. That’s down to its style being drawn from ubiquitously by modern artists. Tracks such as Poker Face and Just Dance brought disco and Euro-pop back to the mainstream and reverberations continue to be felt in the works of Ariana Grande, Katy Perry and many of the big-selling EDM artists.
The Gaga/RedOne partnership extended to 2009’s follow-up release, The Fame Monster EP. The smash-hit lead single, Bad Romance, was recorded when RedOne boarded Gaga’s tour bus as it headed from Belgium to Holland for the next stop of her world tour. During that two-hour trip, they wrote and recorded the chorus in the makeshift studio at the back of the bus. “That ra-ra-ra [refrain] at the start of the song was my idea,” RedOne proudly declares.
'My music is inclusive'
It is that blend of Euro-centric melody and a keen ear for the latest sounds coming from North America that had RedOne pegged as the producer to hire if you want your artist to shine on each side of the Atlantic – hence the reason many of his biggest hits were created with artists he now counts as close friends. When Jennifer Lopez came to see him (a moment of delicious serendipity not lost on him), their relaxed chemistry resulted in a pair of 2011 club anthems – On the Floor and Papi. When Iglesias sought him out, their immediate friendship (“Enrique is like my brother”) rebooted the singer’s stalling career. “I would say that I gave his music some great energy. He would admit that.”
Unapologetic about his desire to please the masses, RedOne says a great pop song is about more thanjust being catchy. “It has to make you feel good, too. It has to make you feel like we are all together,” he says.
“My music is inclusive and that’s why anyone from Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Morocco, and people in Europe and South America can hear it and sing along.”
It was acknowledgement he also received from U2 frontman Bono in 2011. “He told me that I was the only producer he met who listened ‘with people’s ears’. He made me realise that when I am in the studio, I always ask the artist how would the crowd feel about the song,” he recalls. “I realised I was a music fan first and a producer second.”
Unapologetic about his desire to please the masses, RedOne states a great pop song is simply more than being an ear-worm.
“It has to make you feel good too. It has to make you feel like we are all together,” he says.
“My music is inclusive and that’s why anyone from Abu Dhabi and Dubai and Morocco, to people in Europe and South America can hear it and singalong.”
It was a realisation he received from none other than U2 frontman Bono in 2011.
“He told me that I was the only producer he met that listened ‘with people’s ears.’ He made me realise that when I am in the studio, I always asked the artist how would the crowd feel about the song,” he recalls.
“I realised I was music fan first, and a producer second.”
Updated: March 4, 2019 09:04 PM