How Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’ Changed Her Career Forever, By John Seabrook
An exclusive from the 'New Yorker' staffer's new book, 'The Song Machine'
Rihanna needs no introduction, but here’s a quick one anyway: Bursting onto the scene as a teenager more than ten years ago with “Pon de Replay,” the Barbadian pop star has become one of the biggest names in the game, trouncing the charts, captivating audiences, and parlaying her musical success into a career in fashion along the way. She’s also a major source of attention in a new book by New Yorker staff writer John Seabrook called The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, which offers astunning behind-the-scenes look at how, exactly, Top 40 hitmakers craft, manufacture, and promote hopeful hits and artists.
Out today via W. W. Norton & Company, The Song Machine devotes a good portion of its 352 pages to Robyn “Rihanna” Fenty and her success over the past decade. In an exclusive excerpt from the book for SPIN, Seabrook dives into the exact moment that Rihanna’s career changed forever, and it all starts with “Umbrella.”
[Her 2006] album, A Girl Like Me did not do that well — album sales would never be Rihanna’s strength. But as album sales declined across the board, thanks mainly to the singles-based pricing model of iTunes, they came to matter less to an artist’s success. Rihanna would emerge as the consummate singles artist, always ready with a new product for the market regardless of whether it was attached to an album. Lacking an overriding artistic vision for her music, she is well supplied with a diverse and expanding clutch of vocal personalities, which adds variety and allows her to make a strong impression in the three minutes or so a song lasts.
But that eclecticism also worked against her. Two albums into her career, it still wasn’t clear who Rihanna was. To her detractors, and there were many, she was just another wannabe-yoncé who sang through her nose and couldn’t really dance. To prove them wrong, she needed a song that would define her as an artist.
Like many an artist’s signature song, Rihanna’s breakout, “Umbrella”, was actually written for someone else.
The song was the work of three men: Tricky Stewart, a producer; Terius Nash, a singer-songwriter who called himself “The-Dream”; and Kuk Harrell, a vocal producer. Together they make up the songwriting team at RedZone Entertainment, a music production company and publishing firm based in Atlanta.
Tricky Stewart comes from a musical family. His uncle Butch was a successful commercial jingle writer in Chicago, and owned an advertising company with his father, Phillip. His mother, Mary Ann, and her sisters, Vivian and Kitty Haywood, put out two records as “Kitty and the Haywoods,” and also sang on the jingles as needed. The Stewarts created jingles for Coke, McDonald’s, and Anheuser-Busch, among many other top brands. Their children Laney and Mark, joined by cousin Kuk Harrell, and Kuk’s sister Cynthia, sang on the jingles too. “They were always looking for kids to sing on a spot,” Mark remembers. “So that was our exposure to the process and to paying attention [to] making records. We were studio rats.” Tricky, born Christopher Alan, the baby of the family, was a musical prodigy. As a drummer he had started playing on records when he was thirteen, and planned to be a session musician. But Mary Ann convinced her son to learn music production, because the horizons were higher. (Good call, Mom—producers would soon put session drummers out of business.)
In the 1980s, the younger generation started their own jingle house, but their real ambition was to make records. First Laney got a publishing deal at Sony. “And because Laney got in the door,” says Mark, “he got a joint venture that pulled the rest of us in the door too.” In the mid-’90s, with an investment from L.A. Reid’s LaFace Records, the Stewarts established RedZone in Atlanta. Tricky, later joined by Kuk and Dream, handled the songwriting and production work; brother Mark managed them; Laney ran the publishing, and Mark’s wife, Judi, handled administration.
According to Kuk Harrell, the secret of their success was that they approached songs like they were jingles. “We all learned from an early age to approach music as a business,” he explains. “As opposed to some other guys who may do it for fun or whatever. We were trained to do exactly what the client wants you to do, and do it when they want it. So if they have to have it by Monday, then you give it to them on Monday. It has to be precise.” He adds, “See, with a lot of guys, you’re getting someone who is a track guy, but he’s not an experienced producer — he just makes beats. And when you put him in a pressure situation where Rihanna is sitting there and the label is sitting there, and they want the song and you got to perform right then, they can’t do it. That’s what we learned in writing jingles; you don’t feel the pressure. You’re like an athlete — like, what pressure? You are there to perform.”
RedZone was set up as a mini-Motown, but the hits were slow to come. Tricky had a minor hit, his first, with “Who Dat” for JT Money, a rapper from Miami. In 2000 the song reached number one on Billboard’s rap chart. When Tricky did “Me Against the Music” for Britney Spears, he seemed poised to enjoy the mainstream chart success that Timbaland and the Neptunes were then enjoying. But for the next five years, until “Umbrella” came along, RedZone had only minor hits.
Harrell describes how the song came to be. “I was fooling around with Logic,” he says, “trying to learn it, and I had gone into the samples and found this high-hat loop, which I put on a beat. Cha chick cha bun tha smoth,” he mouths, making the percussion sounds with his breath and lips.
“Then Tricky comes in and says, ‘What’s that?’” Stewart sat down at a keyboard and started playing chords into the box, over the looped high hat and snare sound. Then he programmed a bass line. At that point Dream came into the studio, listened to the track, and the word “umbrella” popped into his head. He went into the vocal booth and got on the mike, singing “Under my umbrella.” And then, inspired, added the all-important echoes — “ella ella ella eh eh eh” — that became the song’s signature hook.
Seabrook then — as he does often throughout the book — gets into the mechanics of what makes “Umbrella” such an unimpeachably rock-solid pop smash.
“Umbrella” is basically a four-chord vamp built around that central riff played on the high hat and snare, and underpinned by a heavy, hip-hop bass line. A fifth chord, the B, comes in on the bridge. The wonderful title hook is deployed with almost classical restraint, not coming until the refrain at the end of the first chorus. In the studio, the songwriters worked out a bridge for the song — most urban songs of that period did not have one. In about two hours, the song was finished. The inspired trace vocal that The-Dream recorded on the demo has all the song’s signature elements, from the Caribbean “flava” in the “ellas,” to the lovely concluding hook, “Come into me.”
“We knew it was special,” Harrell says, once it was finished. “We didn’t know it was a hit. Nobody knows that.”
Tricky Stewart had known hits. He had not known smashes. What’s the difference? “A hit is just a hit,” as he puts it: “a smash is a life changer.” How? Brother Mark says, “Nothing has been the same since we created that record. We had experience in record making but not hit making. All of a sudden you have major artists blowing up your phone. And we knew exactly how to service them; we reverted back to that jingle mentality — we were prepared for that pressure. So whether it was Beyoncé calling or Bieber calling, we knew how to operate.”
But in order for “Umbrella” to be a smash, the Stewarts first needed to get it into the hands of a top artist. The biggest artist they knew personally was Britney Spears. Tricky had co-written and produced a hit for Spears, featuring Madonna, in 2003, “Me Against the Music,” the lead single from her fourth album, In the Zone. The song announced a stark break with the sweet Swedish pop sound that brought Brit to the ball. The production was closer to club-based dance music, and it had a darker sound, mainly due to the use of the Roland TR-808 drum machine, an essential part of the Southern hip-hop sound known as “crunk.”
By the time “Umbrella” came along, Spears was working on her fifth album, the aptly titled Blackout. Mike Stewart sent a copy of the demo to Larry Rudolph, her manager, who passed it along to Jive, her label. But Jive rejected the song, saying Blackout had enough material already. It is unclear whether Britney ever even heard the demo. Just as her career was launched by “. . . Baby (One More Time),” a song meant for TLC, so now, at a point when she could have desperately used a comeback hit, a song meant for her slipped through her fingers. “Gimme More,” the highest-charting single from the Blackout album, was a hit but hardly a smash, although it did introduce the line “It’s Britney, bitch,” which became a trademark.
In trying to fathom how Britney could have rejected “Umbrella,” Tricky notes drily that “her personal life was . . . a little out of control” at the time. Britney, the first of the modern teen pop divas, who rose the highest and fell the furthest, was hitting her nadir when “Umbrella” was offered to Jive. She was monumentally innocent, and when that innocence was taken, she broke. In December 2006, paparazzi were on hand to capture an unflattering view as she got out of a low-slung sports car without any underwear on. The following February, Spears checked herself out of Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Centre, a drug rehab clinic in Antigua (after staying for one day), flew back to L.A., and walked into Esther’s Hair Salon in Tarzana complaining that her hair extensions were too tight, demanding that Esther Tognozzi, the owner, shave her head. When Tognozzi refused, Britney took the electric shaver and did the job herself as a pap snapped pictures through a window. The strands of hair Spears left on the salon floor were later auctioned for exorbitant sums on eBay. (It was rumored, but not confirmed, that she had cut her hair to remove traces of methamphetamines, which would have undermined her struggle to keep custody of her children.) Now bald, Spears drove to Body & Soul, a body-art parlor in Sherman Oaks, where she got a tattoo of a cross on her hip, and another of red lips on her wrist. She told the artist who did them, “I don’t want anyone touching me. I’m tired of everybody touching me.”
In early 2008, after a drugged-seeming performance of “Gimme More” at the MTV Video Music Awards, Spears barricaded herself inside her home, refusing to comply with a court order to surrender custody of her two children to her estranged husband, Kevin Federline. The police broke down the door and took her away. Not long after that, Spears was committed to the psychiatric ward at the UCLA Medical Center.
After Jive passed on “Umbrella” for Britney, Stewart sent L.A. Reid the demo, and Reid gave it to Rihanna. She recalled, “When the demo first started playing, I was like, ‘This is interesting, this is weird.’ But the song kept getting better. I listened to it over and over.” She told Reid, “I need this record. I want to record it tomorrow.”
But the Stewarts were reluctant to give the song to Rihanna, because she wasn’t an established star. “They had to talk us into it,” Mike says. “I remember Grammy weekend I was being hounded by every label executive to get that record. At parties people were running up on us everywhere. But L.A. Reid and everyone associated with Rihanna — they were the most passionate. Jay Brown put me on the phone with Rihanna, and I said no at the time, and to this day when she sees me she says, ‘Oh you’re the one who tried to take my record away.’ And she’s so wrong — I didn’t try to take her record away! I was just evaluating what was the best situation.” After all, it was still their song.
Finally, after weeks of daily calls from both L.A. and Jay-Z, the Stewarts agreed to give “Umbrella” to Rihanna. She recorded the vocals, with production by Kuk Harrell, in Westlake Recording Studios in Los Angeles. Now it was her song. Eleven rhythmic syllables, “umbrella-ella-ella-eh-eh-eh,” did what the two previous albums together had not done: they defined Rihanna as an artist. She was chilly and warm at the same time, caring and not caring. She had swag, with a dash of island flava, but she also had a heart; the song is remarkably tender, considering that men wrote it for a woman. And, as a commenter on the website Rap Genius wrote of the hook, “These syllables made more money than you will ever dream of.”
“When she recorded the ‘ellas,’” Tricky says, “you knew your life was about to change.”
Just before the single was released, a remix came in from Jay-Z, which shook up the song’s middle-of-the-road vibe. His rapped intro has prescient allusive verses to the coming financial crisis, finished off with the thrilling envoi:
Little Miss Sunshine / Rihanna where you at?
Jay’s verse injected a little bit of the extremes into an otherwise pure pop song, which made it seem edgier than it actually was: the perfect blend for hits radio.
“Umbrella” was released to 133 CHR stations on March 24, 2007 — basically all the Top 40 stations in large and mid-sized markets across the United States. Twenty two percent of them put it into rotation on the first day. What was the reason for this remarkable uniformity? There were three possible explanations. It could be that the song itself was just that good. It could be the result of radio consolidation — some Clear Channel chief programmer e-mailed a single playlist to all its programming directors. Or, it could be the label.
In his book, Climbing the Charts, UCLA sociology professor Gabriel Rossman examines this question. He concludes that while Clear Channel provides the corporate structure that makes concentration possible, individual PDs and DJs don’t act in lockstep. He explains, “If stations were playing songs because they are taking orders from corporate headquarters, we would expect to see stations within a company behave the same as each other, but differently from stations owned by other companies. In fact, stations in a given format all act the same, regardless of ownership, and there is no special tendency for stations in the same company to behave similarly.” Therefore the forces behind the ubiquity of “Umbrella” on the radio, he suggests — and by extension, other radio hits — must be coming from the label.
Big Radio is still the best way — some would argue, the only way — to create hits. If the song seems to be playing everywhere at the same time, all at once, so that Zapoleon’s Rule of Three is fulfilled in a day or so, it is perceived to be a hit, and becomes one. To make that happen, a radio promotion team—either on staff at the label, or working for an independent promoter—needs to visit every PD in every important market in the country and make sure they know about that song, and follow up with a steady stream of phone calls and e-mails. Only a major label has the resources for that kind of campaign. According to an NPR investigation, it can easily cost more than a million dollars to promote a single song.
One former program director at a commercial radio station explains how it works. “If you look at a typical record on FM radio,” he says, “the major labels say, ‘We want to add this single on such and such a date. Don’t play this till September thirtieth, because we can get forty other stations to add it on that date.’ And then the label can say to other stations, ‘Look forty other stations just added it, maybe you should too.’ And then the chart game starts from there.” The label works the record, orchestrating enthusiasm, employing a specialized language of “spins,” “power ups” and “heavies” that you see in the ads labels take out for records in radio trade publications. “The label says, ‘Hey, I think we’re seeing something, can you give us medium rotation?’ And then: ‘We’re shooting for heavies now, can you give us heavy rotation?’ ‘Yeah, we can give you heavies now!’ Then the label says, ‘We’re going for number one now. Can we power up to number one?’ And this is how it works at FM radio. And it’s not necessarily illegal, per se. They just all kind of work together on it.”
Radio is integral to the survival of the old hit-making mentality. Clive Davis would spend a fortune to promote songs to radio. In the ’70s, Davis was fired from Columbia for allegedly engaging in payola — a charge he always denied. These days song promotion is mostly above board. The label doesn’t pay for individual songs; it pays the radio station for access to its program directors, so a promotions person can personally pitch the music. Labels also send stars to Clear Channel’s big Jingle Ball Christmas concerts on both coasts and cities in between from which the radio conglomerate profits handsomely in ticket sales (a practice sometimes called “showola”).
Although the labels have lost much since the appearance of Napster, they still have one thing no one else has: their control of radio. The record and radio industries have been engaged in a mutually profitable, though at times adversarial, marriage for more than eighty years, and the old folks still love each other. Radio needs music that’s compelling enough to keep people listening through the ads, and the record companies need radio to sell records. Both need hits.
“Umbrella” was number one for seven weeks, and helped make Rihanna’s third album, Good Girl Gone Bad, her most successful to date, although once again her fans seemed to prefer to cherry-pick the singles. The video of “Umbrella” received four nominations for MTV’s 2007 Video Music Awards, and won for Video of the Year. Rihanna performed “Umbrella” at the 2008 Grammys, and later that night she and Jay-Z later took the stage together to claim the award for best sung collaboration — a moment of triumph for them both.
“Umbrella” marked the arrival of something new in pop: a digital icon. In the rock era, when the album was the standard unit of recorded music, listeners had ten or twelve songs to get to know the artist, but in the singles-oriented world of today, the artist has only three or four minutes to put their personality across, and at that Rihanna would prove to be without peer. She seems to release a new single each month, often recording the latest while she is on an eighty-city world tour promoting the previous ones. To keep her supplied with songs, her label and her manager periodically convene “writer camps” — weeklong conclaves, generally held in Los Angeles, where dozens of top producers and writers from around the world are brought in and shuffled and reshuffled in pairs over multiple-day writing sessions, in the hope of striking gold.
Last but not least, “Umbrella” was the song that earned Rihanna a prime spot at Clive Davis’s Grammy party the following year, on February 8, 2009 — the night her life would change again.
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