Alex Da Kid On Discovering Imagine Dragons And Crafting Tracks For Rihanna, Eminem, U2
Chris Rock once said that the music business is “fickle, fickle, fickle. You’re here today… then gone today!” Navigating the rough waters of the present-day, ever-changing industry can be exceedingly difficult, but Alex da Kid has apparently managed to break through unscathed. Born and raised in England, Alex has improbably dominated multiple genres of music, crafting a variety of hit albums and singles, including Rihanna and Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie,” B.O.B. and Hayley William’s “Airplanes,” and the smash Imagine Dragons album “Night Visions.” Here, Alex talks about his wild ride to the top, discovering Imagine Dragons, and working with the likes of U2 and Eminem.
Thanks so much for chatting with me. Let’s start off with what you think your first breakthrough in music was? The thing that made you say to yourself, “I think I made it.”
It was the first week my friend gave me (music editing software) Fruity Loops. I just locked myself in my bedroom and, like, created music. I always loved music, but I didn’t know how it was created and I didn’t understand any of that… It’s not like I came from a family that made music, we only just liked it. So once I figured out how songs were put together, it just opened up another part of my brain. It became everything to me and a complete obsession. Everything else in my life faded away.
So how did you make the move from the UK to New York?
I was getting work experience and meeting people in the music industry in England, and decided to come out to America around 2006; I had initially met people on MySpace, and kept on making connections. A publishing deal was offered to me from Universal Records, so I immediately moved out to New York, where I was for a year and a half. From day one, the goal was to come to America and make it here.
I feel like your big break-out year was 2010, I mean you have “Massive Attack” with Nicki Minaj, then “Airplanes” with B.O.B. and Hayley Williams from Paramore, then “Love the Way You Lie,” with Rihanna and Eminem. What was that year like for you?
The funny thing is that a lot of those tracks were older tracks. I think “Love the Way You Lie” was from 2007, but it takes time to shop them and get them to people. That’s one thing a young producer should know, not to make songs that sound too current because it could take a couple of years for you to get your songs in the right places. So that’s why it’s always good to be different, not to follow the hot trends now. It seems like it all happened at once for me, but I was slowly having better writing sessions with better writers, and then started working with artists in the studio as opposed to just hearing from an A&R guy and trying to make a song for them. People started to believe in me more and more; it was a slow build. In 2010 when everything happened, it was totally a coincidence. And that’s a good thing in the music industry, because it makes it seem like you’re in demand!
Tell me about “Love The Way You Lie,” because that was one of the biggest songs of that year.
I made the track, how you hear it on Eminem’s album, in 2007. I shopped it to a million people who shall remain nameless and they didn’t like it. I then sent it to Skylar Grey, who wrote the chorus to the song. Then, I sent it to Marshall (Mathers). I flew to Detriot to meet him, and the way that came about was pretty crazy- the last day we were mixing his album, Rihanna hadn’t even recorded her part yet because she was on tour in Dublin, Ireland at the time. At first she couldn’t get to the studio, it was a whole thing, but then finally managed to get it done. Once that happened, Rihanna wanted a version for her album that was coming out afterwards. So me and Skylar got together, and I remade the beat.
When that song blew up, what was going through your mind? You have the biggest rap star in the world, and the biggest pop star in the world, and the biggest song in the country.
My life was kind of similar; I didn’t even know at the time what that song really meant, and how big it was. I was just kind of doing what I normally do. I remember one time I was doing an interview for the LA Times, and I was in the studio and the guy interviewing me was like, “Why are you here right now? Rihanna is doing a concert at the Staples Center and Eminem came out to perform your song.” And I didn’t even know about the show… I was just in the studio everyday. Plus, I’m not really the type of guy who’s all of the sudden going to be driving Ferraris. My life kind of stayed the same.
“Airplanes” was another massive success. Tell me about the genesis of that song.
There would be no “Love The Way You Lie” without “Airplanes.” Marshall really loved “Airplanes” and I think he was more open to taking my beats after that. That track came about by me in New York where I met a guy named Andrew Luftman who worked at Atlantic Records. He was a young A&R up-and-comer, and I would send him 10, 20, 30 beats every couple of weeks. He gave me an acapella version of “Airplanes,” and wanted me to make a beat for it. I worked on it and he played it for the all the higher ups at Atlantic. In the process of that happening, Hayley recorded it, so then we had this hook sitting around. It was going to go to another artist at Atlantic, but they wound up getting B.O.B.
After your string of successes, you start up your own label (KIDinaKORNER). What was the impetus behind that?
In late 2010 I met Jimmy Iovine, and we started hanging out because we have the same philosophies about music and business. He offered me a label deal at the start of 2011 which I ended up taking. My whole mission was to do what I had been doing, but with my own artists. As a creative person, you can spend your whole entire life in the studio making the best song you possibly can, but if you’re not on your game in the business side of things it can all just fall apart. It’s happened to me before… I feel like some of my best songs haven’t seen the light of day due to various circumstances, and I just hate that. I wanted to be in control as much as possible, and give everything I do at least a chance to get to the public and let them decide if they like it. Sometimes things don’t get that far thanks to politics, and it was important to me to have that system in place.
Imagine Dragons are burning up the charts right now, and I don’t think a lot of people realize that you’re the guy who really discovered and fostered them as a band. They were one of the first artists you signed, and so musically different than what you were known for… Were people around you puzzled by that at first?
I think most people were kind of a bit puzzled, but I give a lot of credit to Jimmy and the guys at Interscope Records. They always give me complete autonomy and let me do whatever I want. No one really questioned it on a serious level, but even people today ask me, “Why haven’t you signed a rapper yet?” And I always say, “Well, I don’t know. I’d love to sign a rapper, but I guess I haven’t found one that’s made sense to me.” People were a little shocked, but I always want to do something a little different. For me, signing Imagine Dragons made perfect sense.
Some of the tracks on “Night Visions” are so strong. Were they songs that they were working on previous to hooking up with you? For example, is “Radioactive,” a song that you worked on from the ground-up, or did they have that and you spruced it up?
The album process was a bit of both, really. So they had songs already that I liked… the reason I got together with them in the first place was because I was working with Bono and the Edge from U2 on the “Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark” musical, and I wanted people to bounce ideas off of. We had such great chemistry, that we were in the studio just writing and writing. After five or six months we had all these great songs. “Radioactive” was just a beat I made, and once we decided it was for Imagine Dragons, we had the band play over it. Their other single, “Demons,” was pretty much me putting down a track, and the band just writing over it. It was originally going to be for somebody else. Dan Reynolds (lead singer of Imagine Dragons) was just writing hooks, we weren’t even writing full songs and when we decided to keep “Demons” for Imagine Dragons, he wrote the full song. “On Top of the World” was a song that they started which I completely did my own version of it, and it was just okay… wasn’t great. Dan had another version, and that one was just okay as well. What happened was, I took some of Dan’s original demo and had the band play it live in the studio. Then I added stuff to it and they added stuff to it; it went back and forth. So “On Top Of The World” wound up being a hybrid of the both of us.
That’s amazing. I think the reason why that album is so successful is that none of those songs are “filler” songs; every track from that album could be single. But I think that speaks to your trust in them and their talent.
They’re tremendous and obviously I would give pointers and stuff, but they really are talented when it comes to writing and producing. It’s definitely a testament to them.
Earlier you mentioned U2 and working with them on the Spiderman musical. At the time, that was such a hot project and the most high-profile show on Broadway in years, so I’m sure a lot of people wanted to get involved. How did you?
Jimmy made that whole thing happen for me. I went to New York to watch the show with Jimmy, and then went to dinner with Bono and him. Jimmy thought I’d be good for the because I’m a bit more modern than what they do, while I still understand rock music and guitars. We hit it off, and it turns out (Bono and the Edge) are really, really cool guys. They’re just normal, which is weird to say, but I’ve found that the bigger the star and the longer the career, the more normal they are. That goes for the one’s I’ve met, anyway. Bono and the Edge are just really nice, down to earth people.
I know on your Wikipedia, and Wikipedia is never wrong, the most recent notch on your discography list is a 50 Cent song.
Over a year ago I was in Detriot with Marshall (Mathers AKA Eminem), working on stuff, and 50 was there, and we started messing around with stuff, and that track just kind of leaked. I don’t know if it’s going to come out for sure or not. That’s one of those scenarios were I was working with a lot of different people before I started my label, and there are old songs that people want to use.
So are you involved with the new Eminem album?
Time will tell! I can’t really talk about that. Me and Marshall are very close, but you never know what they’re going to use or not going to use. We’ll see on November 5th, so stay tuned! He’s such a great person, so talented, and one of the icons of our generation. Just to know him is crazy.
So besides possibly Eminem, what else do you have coming up that people could look forward to?
I never have a break, there are always things coming out. We’re going to start a new Imagine Dragons album soon, and I have a lot of other things going on in my label.
What’s your set-up?
I’m sitting in my studio right now, so let’s see. I’m using Logic- the new Logic, not the old Logic. I hate the old Logic. I have a couple of keyboards and synths and stuff- and that’s pretty much it. I work mostly from my laptop, and a lot of my sounds come from plug-ins from there.
So do you work on projects outside of KIDinaKORNER, or do you specifically focus on your own artists now.
Definitely more of a focus on my artists, because it’s so hard to break new ones. I’m very involved in the business side and every element of all the artists I sign. There’s not much time in the day to do other things, but I definitely do make exceptions. Plus there are songs that will be coming out that I did awhile ago (before Kidd in a Korner) that people want to use.
So if there was one song in the Alex Da Kidd cannon that you’re most proud of, what song would it be?
Ehh. (Long Silence). That’s a hard question. There’s a lot of great songs that even haven’t been released.
Well, is there one song where you thought it was going to be a smash before it was released?
Well, the thing is you’re sure every song is good but there are so many different parts that go into making a hit song. They’re beyond your control. You never really know what’s going to be a smash. But I guess, “Coming Home” (with Diddy- Dirty Money & Skylar Grey) was very strong when we did it. “Radioactive” I really believed in because no one had that kind of sound. We did that song a long time ago. Fusing hip hop and dark dancey synths- no one had really done that. I love that feeling where you’re on the verge of something being different.
When you first decided to move to the States from the UK, what did you parents think? Were they like, “Alex, what are you doing man? Music? Are you kidding me?”
My parents have always been supportive. They were a little nervous like any parent would be, like if I was ever going to have a career doing this. I always say this to young people trying to get into the music industry: if you’re trying to get on someone’s radar and move up in the world, and you’re determined and it takes up your whole entire life, people can see that in you. It’s just a different level of obsession or determination, and once people see that in you, there’s nothing anybody can say that’s ever going to persuade me from not doing this. At the core of it, it has to happen. Starting out you don’t know if you’re ever going to be successful, so that wasn’t even a part of the equation. For me, it just meant I had to be totally focused on music and do it every day. Whether that was me getting a day job and doing music in the evenings, or as a hobby, I had to do it. I think my parents saw that in me, and they witnessed a complete transformation… there was no middle ground for me, it was extreme.