The-Dream On Making The Perfect Pop Song

He’s quite the expert…

Some months ago, in the later months of 2013, Clash put out a special Pop Issue, featuring Lorde, Michael Jackson, Pharrell Williams, Gary Barlow (!), John Newman and more. Details and purchase links, here. What we didn’t do is bring all of its great features online – including this conversation with Terius Nash, aka acclaimed R&B producer and songwriter The-Dream, the man behind a litany of legitimate pop smashes. But with a new EP from the man out now – read about ‘Royalty – The Prequel’ here – we figured now’s a good time to put our Pop Issue piece on this here internet thing. Enjoy.

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Sat in the boardroom of the Four Seasons hotel on Park Lane, Clash is feeling out of place. Choosing one of the empty chairs to sit in, we half-expect Alan Sugar to enter the room, ready to fire us. We are waiting for R&B singer and songwriter Terius Nash, aka The-Dream, to put his trainers on. We’ve been sat here for half an hour.

When he finally appears to greet us, a cheerful and soft-spoken man sporting a white T-shirt, trilby, Ray-Ban sunglasses and a gold Uzi earring, we can’t be annoyed. He orders an English breakfast tea before beginning, explaining that he only recently woke up despite it being almost 3pm – he hasn’t yet adjusted to the time difference.

It isn’t that I make records for the top 40, it’s that I make records for top 40 artists, which is completely different...

While you may be forgiven for missing his recently (May 2013) released fourth album ‘IV Play’, and you may not even be aware of him by the alias tattooed across his neck, it’s most likely that you’ve heard multiple records by The-Dream. With his blunt honesty and falsetto vocals, he is a pioneer for what’s become labelled alternative R&B, and his ‘Love’ album trilogy and other releases prior to ‘IV Play’ have rightfully garnered him a cult fanbase.

However, whether you know his name or not, it’s the other side of his career, as a songwriter, where his music has become most widely known. A quick scan through his discography flags up a who’s who of the biggest names in modern music, and some of the biggest pop songs of our generation: Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’, Beyoncé’s ‘Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)’, Justin Bieber’s ‘Baby’, and most the Jay Z and Justin Timberlake collaboration, ‘Holy Grail’.

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The-Dream, ‘Black’, from forthcoming 2014 album ‘Fruition’

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Despite having such an array of chart-topping songs under his belt, as an artist in his own right he doesn’t seem too concerned with the mainstream. Opening his Fabolous-featured ‘Slow It Down’, he sings: “I know they ain’t gon’ play this on Top 40 radio.” His solo output feels like something he’s compelled to do for the love of his art form.

“So that’s like blasphemy,” he laughs, of the juxtaposition that exists in his double-sided career. “It isn’t that I make records for the top 40, it’s that I make records for top 40 artists, which is completely different. Jay Z is this pop icon. It doesn’t mean that ‘Holy Grail’ is a pop, or a top 40 record. ‘Umbrella’ was a record that ended up breaking through, but it wasn’t what they were playing on the top 40 at the time. ‘Baby’ was my closest to being an [intentional] top 40 record because I had to write that for him to become who we envisioned him to be. So I can do it when called upon. But for the other guys, they’re already top 40 artists, they just need a real record from me.”

It’s more than words, it’s the feeling that you give off and the picture you paint. That’s why one song never sounds the same as the other when I make them...

Having heard reference tracks for artists in a similar vein leaking online, it becomes obvious that many work in a conveyor-belt fashion, reeling off songs that can be adapted for any artist by simply interchanging the gender. With songs of female empowerment like Beyoncé’s ‘Single Ladies’ and ‘Run The World (Girls)’, it becomes clear that one of The-Dream’s strengths is his ability to fully assume the role of the artist he is writing for.

“If I’m working on Pusha T, I have to become Pusha T,” he says. “I have to be from Virginia, and know the slang, the whole body language of unfortunately knowing that ‘shit could pop off’ at any time. Coming from that perspective and being able to sit on the porch, and be a dealer, and walk around with my Glock. All of these things that become exactly who it is, like Denzel [Washington] in Training Day. I have to become him. I can’t just have some interchangeable song that can go from him to Beyoncé. It’s more than words, it’s the feeling that you give off and the picture you paint. That’s why one song never sounds the same as the other when I make them.”

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The-Dream guides us through his greatest songwriting hits…

Rihanna – ‘Umbrella’ (2007)

“It definitely wasn't raining that day! In no form. It wasn't raining outside, it wasn't raining money. The further away I get from [this song], looking back, it's just your universe telling you to make a decision to do something all the way, instead of pussyfooting around with it. In every part of my life where there was a jump, it was just a road that asked, ‘Are you going to do it or are you going to go home?’ That day figuring it out, it was like, ‘Oh, do you want a million dollars or do you not?’ And I literally said: ‘Okay, I'll take the million dollars.’ And I wrote ‘Umbrella.’

After that I started writing, like I wanted that. It wasn't that it was about money, but when you're in a situation when you need money – it's different now, of course. I'm probably writing for legacy and legend now, versus writing for money. But then I was writing to pay my rent, so it’s a serious thing. The questions facing me about life probably had more to do with that song, than the song itself. I had been writing like that all of the time. There are records I've got from 2003 that were just as good, but they weren't all the way good. Like, 88%. And that day I just turned up, and I just never looked back from there.”

Justin Bieber – ‘Baby’ (2010)

“That was me just pretending to be this white kid, at 16 years old, and what saying the right thing would do for me at this stage. And that's what ‘Baby’ was: I'm in a cafeteria with all of these girls, and maybe they're paying me attention because I'm cute, or maybe not, but if I say the right thing they'll all love me. And that's what that song was. So if I write this song, what does that sound like? And so I wrote a song from that perspective. It’s pretty egotistical!”

Beyoncé – ‘Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)’ (2008)

“At that time Bey was in a very important and happy part of her life, but we couldn't lose that lustre of independence. I didn't want her to graduate into marriage and leave everybody else behind that she'd built that rapport of ‘We're independent!’ with. And not only that, but some women had taken that way too far: they became way too independent, like, ‘We don't need a guy!’ So I thought, ‘Hold on, this is going to look a little weird to see Bey now going over to the other side’ – which is what some women considered as the dark side. I wanted to make sure she could take them with her. And telling that story and that song like that, she didn't leave anyone behind. It was just as a matter of fact, like: ‘This is how it is and I'm choosing to do this. Take this as a symbol of strength. I'm going into another part of my life where somebody needs me to be the other half of them.’ That was that song, written specifically for her – I don't know anybody else who could do a song like that.”

Jay Z (feat. Justin Timberlake) – ‘Holy Grail’ (2013)

“Jay has done so much in his career. I had to, first of all, come up with a title to live up to. And dealing with time and ancient periods, and discovery, mystery – I wanted to take a symbol from the past that was mysterious, and paint a song that makes sense in the present. Based on what the Holy Grail was to me and to Jay, it’s like fame, and all of this is the Holy Grail. You want to get to it and raise the cup and say, ‘I made it.’ But by having that you don’t know the power of goodness you have, and also how many people want the cup and don’t want to see you with it. People who would rather see you fall every time you touch it. And he’s always been in that kind of ‘rock the boat’ place in his career.

“It only took 10 minutes to really get the feeling. The feeling is where it comes from. The music, it’s going to come out because I know music and melody and what I want to say. But it’s the feeling. It’s like, if I was a character in Mortal Kombat, it’s like getting ready to be Sub-Zero before he freezes you and he takes all the energy – before he does it, it’s that place. And once I found that place, after he gave me the green light to start on the album, it was probably like three hours later at the studio and me and my engineer just started on the record, and it was over in 15 minutes. And I remember hitting Jay back like, ‘Yo, I’ve got this record, ‘Holy Grail’,’ and I sent it to him and he went nuts.”

So what makes the perfect pop song?

“I think it’s three ingredients: timing, the artist themselves, and great melody. You can have, I guess, a great pop song just with melody, which still employs timing. Because there could be another song, and your song will just never be heard, no matter how great it is. When somebody’s in love with something, somebody’s in love with something. It’s like if pop was this girl, and she’s dating a guy at the time who’s not better than the guy she could date. She’s still dating a guy at the time, so she can’t see you. That’s what being at the top of the pop charts is. You have to wait until they break up, in order to get a shot.”

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Words: Grant Brydon

The-Dream online

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