Whitney Recording With Kevin "She'kspere" Briggs hide
Antonio "LA" Reid is a kingmaker in the modern music world. With 33 No. 1 singles in the US, his Midas touch in spotting talent has had a huge influence on the careers of artists suc
CRITICS can say what they like.
"It has always been, and it will be about the songs," Arista Records CEO Antonio "LA" Reid says. "Good songs," Reid says, correcting himself, then, a final adjustment: "Hit songs."
Reid - one of the most influential figures on the black pop and nu-rhythm 'n' blues landscape - knows a thing or two about making hits.
He, with former songwriting partner Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, has had 33 No. 1 singles in the US, including tracks penned for Whitney Houston, Bobby Brown, Boyz II Men, TLC and Toni Braxton.
Then there are the songs that didn't go all the way: 120 US Top 10 R&B and pop hits ... and still counting.
In Australia, Reid's work with a revolving door of superstar acts has clocked up five million album sales.
On any given week, LA Reid dominates the US pop charts and, without exaggeration, the musical diet of millions worldwide.
The force behind Usher's recent smash singles: Reid.
The guidance for Braxton's jittery acoustic-spiced jam about the male who wasn't man enough: Reid.
The talent scout who gave Sean "P. Diddy" Combs his first shot at the big time: Reid.
The calming influence on Pink's volatile girl-pop: Reid.
"I just do what I do," Reid tells Weekend magazine during a visit to Sydney. "I don't really over-analyse it. I never have.
"I never really thought of myself as a trend-spotter. I have been fortunate in that people I thought were really talented people just happened to be trendsetters also.
"So I still approach my business and my work the same way. I look for artists that get me excited and music that will translate to consumers.
"And that's the key: listen like a consumer, listen for the next great song, listen for the next great artist.
"Basically," Reid says, a grin breaking across his face, "that's the way I handle my business."
Ed St John, managing director of BMG Australia, which distributes repertoire on Arista and LaFace - the latter, a Reid-Edmonds label formed in 1989, says: "It is commonly noted that that music business has been taken over by accountants and lawyers, but this is one person who does not conform to that stereotype."
"He is someone who lives and breathes music 24 hours a day and operates with incredible instincts.
"More than anyone else in the business, he's been responsible for steering black American music from its roots in rhythm 'n' blues to what we know today: a thriving industry for urban and hip-hop.
"These days, he's not even limited by those definitions," St John says. "His influence is everywhere."
Reid started in music as a drummer. As a child, he'd tap on the floor with a pair of drumsticks to James Brown tracks.
By his teens, Reid was playing in local funk and rock groups. One day, he wore an LA Dodgers T-shirt to rehearsal, and the nickname stuck.
Reid and his band moved to Indianapolis, where he met Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds.
In Edmonds, who was invited to join Reid's band, The Deele, LA saw a musician who, like him, was gunning for the big picture rather than fleeting bouts of fame. The Deele scored a few minor hits, but Reid and Edmonds really came into their own as a songwriting and production team.
Reid, who sat in on classic funk recording sessions for acts Shalamar, Klymaxx and Midnight Star, was largely influenced by producers Reggie Calloway and Leon Sylvers. In fact, Sylvers sat in the studio while Reid produced his first pop hit, an early 1980s Whispers funk jam called Rock Steady.
By 1986, that direction led to a young singer from Boston named Bobby Brown.
Brown, cut loose from pubescent boy band New Edition, sought a cutting-edge sound to distinguish his debut solo effort.
That same year, Reid, Edmonds and Teddy Riley, a songwriter and producer on the rise, started work on Don't Be Cruel, a record that would shoot Brown to superstardom and, musically, change the soundscape of modern R&B forever.
Riley's concoction for Brown's project was new jack swing, a beat that had roots in funk and hip-hop, but gave a track a sexy new swagger.
"When I first heard new jack swing, I thought it was funky and the best thing out there," Reid says. "I wanted to make that sound so bad, let me tell you.
"A lot of my records," he laughs, "are actually new jack swing copies."
To make matters worse - or, better for Brown's record - the artist and repertoire manager for the project set up a rivalry between Riley and the Edmonds-Reid camps.
"He would bring us Teddy's tracks and say: 'You have to beat this ...' then he'd take our tracks over to Teddy and say: 'These guys think they're hotter than you'," Reid says.
"He had us competing!"
In two months they churned out My Prerogative, Don't Be Cruel, Roni, Every Little Step and Rock Witcha, stamping their authority as knowing hitmakers cool enough for the R&B crowd without alienating a pop audience.
That blueprint served Reid well for crossover success stories TLC, Braxton, Usher and Houston.
"I didn't have an agenda," Reid says. "My partner and I just clicked and we worked well together. It didn't happen by design.
"As a producer, I always felt like we made black pop. That's what we always called it.
"We didn't make hip-hop, we didn't make dance, we didn't make rock. We were never the coolest, we were never the hippest, we were always the black pop guys."
Today, two years after being named Arista Records CEO and a consequent split in the Edmonds-Reid songwriting and production team, LA Reid is, according to chart evidence, cool and hip with a profound influence across all musical styles.
REID succeeded Arista Records founder Clive Davis in a juicy boardroom power struggle that made headlines after many believed the label's superstar acts, including Houston and Carlos Santana, would desert their record-company home.
That has not happened. Davis formed J Records and established an immediate star in multiple Grammy-winner Alicia Keys, while Reid has retained Houston, Santana, TLC, Braxton, Usher, Pink, Sarah McLachlan, hip-hop crew Outkast and UK chanteuse Dido.
"It was a tough transition coming into Arista," he says. "And the timing couldn't have been worse: sales are in a slump and we seem to be between trends. There are no current phenomena like Britney Spears or Eminem."
Reid hand-picked two projects he wanted to see fly and establish his presence as record-company mogul.
Dido, powered by Eminem sampling her track, Thank You, was worked into a worldwide hit.
And the flamboyant Outkast, whose rootsy, technicolour hip-hop stood at odds with gangsta rap and thug ballads, also went global.
However, many believe a truer test of Reid's ability to navigate a difficult path will be his handling of Whitney Houston.
In August last year, Reid signed Houston to a multi-album commitment. Significantly, Houston still owes Arista six albums under the terms of her current contract.
Houston is in the studio recording with Kevin "She'kspere" Briggs, who has worked with TLC, Destiny's Child and N'Sync and is signed to an exclusive deal with Arista.
"Whitney is in recording mode," Reid tells Weekend. "I've put songs away for Whitney over the past few years. I break 'em out one at a time," he laughs, "hoping she'll like this one or that one."
Beyond that, alleged real-life dramas dog Houston, including a near-arrest with 14g of marijuana at a Hawaii airport and persistent rumours of drug addiction.
"I don't have any answers for any of the dramas surrounding any of our acts," Reid says. "I've seen lots of drama and I try to keep a level head.
"If I can help, I try to help. I've had some tough times, some very tough times with many artists in different situations. But you have to maintain a level head through it all."
When Reid assumed his role at Arista, he reportedly asked Houston: "Are you OK? Is there anything I can do to help you?"
"Yes, I'm OK," Houston told Reid. "Just make sure my record is a hit."
"I see what people write and what people say about Whitney," Reid told the New York Times last year. "But then I look in her eyes and I don't see it. She's the same girl I've always known."
LA REID - record-company boss, producer, problem solver, sounding board and hand holder - says he is expected to be everything to everybody.
He can be notoriously tough, either in his fight to acquire an artist, or confronting artists with something they rarely hear: the truth.
"From a creative perspective, and I'll say this to the very end, it is songs, songs, songs. More than anything.
"So, when my artists get into a fight with me, and there are many, they at least know they're going to get the truth.
"For example, many come to me and say their record is finished. I'll try so hard to agree, try so hard to like it, try so hard to accommodate them, but I know in my heart it's not done.
"I've had artists go back many times and do entire albums all over again, not because I want to crack the whip or be a difficult guy, but because I want them to make the best possible record they can make.
"Some of the best music I've been involved with has come from people going back and giving it another try.
"Ultimately, they appreciate it. Others try to prove themselves to me as grown-up and not needing my help any more. I take it all in my stride."
Is it hard to balance the music fan with the business man?
"Not really," Reid says. "As a businessman, I have to have hits. As a music fan, for me, it's always been about James Brown.
"I was in the car this morning and this old James Brown track came on and I said to myself: 'This is why I'm in the record business.
"It sounds so good, it gets me excited. And, in that way, I'm still the consumer."