With Usher, Mariah and now Mary J., last names are no longer required to identify the hottest artists in R&B. Beyond multi-platinum sales and multiple Grammy nominations (and a handful of wins), these musical icons have a secret weapon in common: songwriter & producer Bryan-Michael Cox. Reflective of his growing influence in the genre, Cox is, for the third year in a row, one of the big behind-the-scenes stories at the Grammy Awards.
Driven by his work with Mary J. Blige on her album The Breakthrough and its hit song ‘Be Without You,’ Cox was nominated for a total of four Grammys at this year’s ceremony, which took place at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on February 11. With Blige, he was nominated for Record Of The Year, Song Of The Year, and Best R&B Song (for which he won). In 2006, ‘Be Without You,’ which Cox produced and co-wrote with Blige, Johnta Austin and Jason Perry, spent a record 15 consecutive weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. It also topped the Hot 100 airplay chart for nine weeks.
Cox’s Grammy roll got started in 2005, when he won Best Contemporary R&B Album for his work on Usher’s Confessions – he competed with himself in that category by also earning a nomination for Christina Milian’s It’s About Time. That year, he also picked up nominations for Album Of The Year (Confessions) and Best Song (‘Burn’ by Usher). All of this awards activity is just part of a resume that’s been growing steadily since his first hit as a producer, on 1999’s ‘Get Gone’ by the Houston based group Ideal.
Over the years, Cox, who is affiliated with performance rights organization SESAC, has written and/or produced tracks for Lil’ Bow Wow, Luther Vandross, Brandy, Monica, B2K, Danity Kane, Jagged Edge, Toni Braxton, Faith Evans, Tyrese and Aaliyah. In 2006, he worked with Chris Brown, Omarion, Marques Houston and Fergie, in addition to contributing to the success of newcomers like Erica Rivera and Nicole, the lead singer from the Pussycat Dolls.
‘I feel that I have been blessed to have the opportunity to flow creatively and consistently with so many of today’s most talented artists,’ says Cox. ‘The key to my success has been making the effort to write and produce music every single day, and having the opportunity to work directly with the artists for solid periods of time, as opposed to coming into the studio for one day, telling them how it’s going to be and leaving. Many writers and producers just try to make the record they want to make, but from the start I’ve been all about crafting songs and sounds specifically geared to what the artists I work with want to achieve.’
Born in Miami and raised in Houston – where he attended the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts – Cox learned the ropes of songwriting and production early from producer Greg Curtis, who had a studio in town. ‘As a singer, I always felt the urge to be behind the scenes,’ he says. ‘I idolized Babyface and Teddy Riley because they could do it all. Like them, I could sing but I also strived to write and produce. Greg gave me the keys to his studio, he let me touch the equipment, and it was like a playground. He also taught me the basics, like what a hook was, what a bridge was’all the mechanics of songwriting.’ Cox received his first opportunity to produce when he befriended future superstars Beyonce Knowles and LeToya Luckett, who were freshmen when he was a senior at the school. He did three early demos for their group, then known as Destiny.
Moving to Atlanta in 1997, Cox enrolled as a music major at Clark Atlanta University and obtained an unpaid internship with the Noontime production company. His association with Noontime led him to work with Jagged Edge; when hit producer and So So Def owner Jermaine Dupri heard some of Cox’s demos, Cox says, ‘he wanted to meet me, I wanted to meet him, and the rest is history.’ Dupri had enough faith in the young upstart to bring him in as a co-producer for Nivea, Monica, Da Brat and Lil’ Bow Wow. Cox’s strong creative relationship with Dupri continues to this day. In fact, despite all of his chart and Grammy success in recent years, ‘Be Without You’ marked his first Hot 100 Top 5 hit without Dupri.
‘We did the song for Ideal, which hit the Top 5, then right after that came Jagged Edge’s ‘He Can’t Love You,’ so instantly, I had two records near the top of the charts,’ says Cox. ‘There’s whole different process going on when I work with Jermaine compared to when I’m on a project without him. He’s more of a director. We’ll vibe together and keep cracking. Working with him, I have specific co-producing duties like producing the vocals and using all my editing abilities with ProTools. I also play piano and bass. When I’m not with Jermaine, everything’s on me. I have to make sure the strings are right, the arrangements sound good and that the vocals sound intact. There can’t be one note out of place.
‘With new artists like Chris Brown,’ he adds, ‘I come in and have a fairly clear direction of where we need to go. With more established artists like Mary, we just kind of go with the flow and feed off the energy that’s in the room at the time. Songs start with the chord changes or just starting with the right key. And everything I work on really begins with a piano sound. No matter what the rest of the production is like, everything for me starts organically on the piano.’
Cox recently teamed with Christopher Hicks of Noontime to create the imprint label Beatfactory, LLC; aside from LeToya, its roster includes Q. Amey, the trio Bella and the male quartet Dirty Rose. Also in the works are projects for a virtual who’s who on today’s R&B scene: Whitney Houston, Mya, Avant, Amerie, Musiq, Johnta Austin and Jessica Simpson.
‘The bottom line no matter who I am writing with or producing is that there’s nothing new under the sun,’ he says. ‘There’s only 88 keys on the piano, only 10 keys you can play in. And yet, for all those limitations, our goal with each song is to create a great melody, simple as that. That’s what people react to emotionally. I think the reason that Jermaine, Rodney Jerkins and I stand out is that we don’t just go for creating a sound but we really work on writing memorable melodies that can create new emotions in the listener. The biggest thing I’ve learned over the years is that simplicity is important. You can’t make records that are over people’s heads. Timbaland is the most innovative producer in the business but (Justin Timberlake’s) ‘My Love’ is a hit because people connect with it melodically. Even after years of having hits, it’s still thrilling for me to hear my records on the radio, see everyone sing along to them, and realize how my music has affected and touched people’s lives.’
Jonathan Widran is a free-lance music/entertainment journalist who contributes regularly to Music Connection, Jazziz and All Music Guide. He can be reached at [email protected]. He is also on Google+