Atlanta-based songwriter & producer Dallas Austin is one of the great hitmakers of the past 30 years. Starting in the music business when he was a teenager, Austin has written & produced many pioneering, cutting-edge hit songs, several that launched the careers of top artists. He has written or co-written 14 Top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and collaborated with Pink, TLC, Boyz II Men, Monica, Madonna, Gwen Stefani, Rihanna, Paul McCartney, Kanye West, Blu Cantrell, Another Bad Creation and other artists.
Impressively, Austin has recently been selected for induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He will be inducted in a special ceremony on June 13 in New York City.
Austin had his first big hit in 1990, when he co-wrote & produced the Top 10 hit “Iesha” for R&B boy group, Another Bad Creation. Then the following year, he co-wrote & produced Boyz II Men’s breakthrough single, “Motownphilly.” This song became the group’s biggest uptempo hit, and it’s been a crowd-pleaser in their live shows for decades.
In 1992, Austin co-wrote & produced hits for multi-platinum, female group, TLC. He expertly mixed pop, R&B & hip-hop for their early hits “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg,” “What About Your Friends” and “Hat 2 da Back.” A couple years later (1994), Austin and TLC teamed up for the number one hit “Creep,” and they reached #1 again in 1997 with their pop-rock hit, “Unpretty.”
During the mid-‘90s, while he was enjoying success with TLC, Austin also had major hits with Madonna and Monica. He co-wrote & produced Madonna’s #1 hit “Secret,” and he co-wrote four songs on her 1994 album, Bedtime Stories. For Monica, he co-wrote & produced the two singles that launched her career: the Top 10 hits “Don’t Take It Personal (Just One of Dem Days)” and “Like This and Like That” (from her 1994 album, Miss Thang). He also co-wrote her Top 10 hit, “Ain’t Nobody.”
Into the 2000s, Austin continued his hit success by creating some of the most unique, inventive songs of that time. Notably, he wrote the fresh, original “Hit “Em Up Style (Oops)” for singer Blu Cantrell. This song combined retro and modern R&B sounds, plus rich harmonies, for a one-of-a-kind hit that reached #2 on the pop chart.
It was in 2002 that Austin had one of his greatest successes, co-writing & producing four songs for Pink’s blockbuster album, Mizzundaztood. He co-wrote the cutting-edge, rock-pop hits “Don’t Let Me Get Me” and “Just Like A Pill” (both which went Top 10) that remain two of Pink’s best songs. He also wrote with Pink the equally powerful song, “18 Wheeler.” Mizzundaztood has now sold over 12 million copies.
Here’s the video of Boyz II Men’s hit “Motownphilly,” which was
co-written by Dallas Austin.
In 2005, Austin co-wrote & produced Gwen Stefani’s hit, “Cool.” Then in 2016, Austin collaborated on a superstar project, co-writing the Top 5 hit “FourFiveSeconds” with Rihanna, Kanye West and Paul McCartney.
Austin has also written or produced songs for Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Chris Brown, Usher, Carly Rae Jepsen, Janet Jackson, Santana, Duran Duran, Lionel Richie, Ciara, Joe, Troop, Grace Jones, After 7, Sammie, JC Chasez, Macy Gray, JT Money, The Boys, Shanice, Brand New Heavies, Anastacia, Deborah Cox, Funkadelic, Brandy, Will.I.Am, Paula Abdul, Klymaxx and Sugababes.
An impressive, lesser known fact about Austin, is that he’s also an excellent lyricist. On his records, not only does he usually play most of the instruments and create the tracks, but he often writes much of the lyrics. Notably, he wrote the hits “Creep” and “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops)” by himself.
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Dallas Austin. He tells how he got started in the music business, and how he wrote & produced several of his classic hit songs.
DK: Congratulations on being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. How does it feel to receive this great honor?
Dallas Austin: It’s unbelievable…it’s the highest accolade you can get as a songwriter. I’ve been writing songs since I was 7 or 8 years old, and I’ve been producing records since I was 16, but it’s still something that you don’t think about, because it’s almost so unattainable. I truly appreciate this honor.
DK: I read that you were born in Columbus, Georgia and you’ve lived in Atlanta for many years. Do you still live in Atlanta?
Austin: Yes, I still live in Atlanta…I was 13 when I moved here. Since I was a kid, I told my mom that I wanted to be a big record producer. She saw how determined I was, so she said, “Okay, give me some time to sell the restaurant and I’m going with you.” Then we moved to Atlanta when I was 13, and I’ve lived here ever since.
DK: You said you’ve been making records since you were 16. So how did you get started as a musician and songwriter?
Here’s the video of TLC’s’s hit “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg,” which was
co-written by Dallas Austin.
Austin: I would listen to the songs, and learn to play along with them. I remember “Genius of Love” (by Tom Tom Club) and simple songs like that. I would put the records on and just play them over and over on my Casio (keyboard) until I learned how to play the songs. And when I started listening to songs by L.A. (Reid) & Babyface, that’s when I really got addicted to the songwriting part of it…I would learn to play the parts. I would hear the melodies of L.A. & Face and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, and I was like…Man, those are some amazing songs. And I think for me, at the root of it was hearing Prince. When I was little, I thought that one person did everything, because I looked on the back of the Prince records and it said, “Written, Composed, Performed & Produced by Prince.” And so I came up being inspired by him, and then by Jimmy & Terry and L.A. & Face.
DK: How did you learn to play all those different instruments?
Austin: Well, I spent a lot time not playing basketball and football (laughs). I didn’t play many sports as a kid…I’d just come home. I was in the marching band at school, and they would give me drums. Then as soon as I got out of school, I would go home and play keyboards to all the records, and pretend I was in the band. And that led up to being 16, and starting to [write & produce] records.
DK: What was the first record you worked on?
Austin: My first record was called “Mr. DJ” with Joyce “Fenderella” Irby. She was one of the first people to tell me, “Hey man, you’re a great songwriter. You know melodies and you know stories.” At this point, I still didn’t know what that meant with what I was doing. I got more into writing and production…we worked with (the group) Troop. And then I got to Another Bad Creation and Boyz II Men (on Motown Records). By around that time, I had figured out the songwriting process.
I told Michael Bivins (of the hit trio Bell Biv DeVoe and manager of Another Bad Creation), “You know what? I’m going to try to make Another Bad Creation a small version of BBD (Bell Biv Devoe), and I’m gonna write them a song like (their hit) “Poison,” but for kids. So I did “Iesha.” And from that point on, I always knew that writing out of the blue is one thing, but when you write from a standpoint of where you know where you’re going and know what you’re doing, it [can be very effective]. So I would write songs that I knew came out of the environment that we were in, and so I knew that laying back in the environment [could lead to] cool songs, because most of your lingo and most of your topics were gonna come out of what just happened to you. I always tell my friends that a great song is something you can cram…it’s like cramming a movie into three minutes. A movie gives you two hours to tell a story, but with a great song, you have to tell the story in just three minutes.
Here’s the video of TLC’s hit “Creep,” which was written by
DK: I’ve always liked Boyz II Men’s hit uptempo song, “Motownphilly.” Can you tell the story behind that song?
Austin: It was great to work with them. At the time, Jheryl Busby was the President of Motown Records. I sent him some tracks, and he gave them to Michael Bivins. One of the tracks I sent them was the track for “Motownphilly,” and they said, “Why don’t you go to Philadelphia and work with these guys?” So I went to Philly and started working with them. We started writing in the studio, and just vibin’ and clickin’ together. We came up with “Motownphilly,” and after that we did “Sympin.” And from that point, I convinced the guys to let me do the rest of the album. That’s when I did “Please Don’t Go” and the rest of that album. But it all started from doing “Motownphilly.”
DK: Soon after that, you had several hit songs with TLC. First, how did you hook up with them?
Austin: I knew T-Boz from the skating rink—we used to hang out before they were considered a group. Then one day L.A. Reid (who was Co-Owner of LaFace Records) called me and said, “Hey man, I got this group I want you to to work on. Why don’t you come check them out?” So I met with them, and I knew them already, because Atlanta’s small like that. And so I [told L.A. Reid], “I know what to do with them.” We’d already had (the groups) Bell Biv DeVoe and Another Bad Creation, but not a female version yet, so that’s what TLC should be. They should be kind of fun and animated.
When I wrote (the hit) “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg,” it’s funny, because radio stations wouldn’t play it at first because of the [sexy, explicit] lyrics in the hook. And so the label thought, “What if we put the video out first?” And everybody can get to see that the girls aren’t coming off offensive. And that’s what really broke the record, because once people saw the video, they’d say, “Oh, I get it now, they’re not being dirty. They’re just being TLC.” Then from that point, I did “Hat 2 da Back” and “What About Your Friends,” and the great thing about the girls, was that I was considered like the other member…I was just turning into one of them. I knew them so well—I knew what they wouldn’t say, and what was cool for them to say. They would come to the studio, and I would sing them songs. And they would say, “Oh yeah, that’s me! Let’s do this.”
I think that’s one of the things I learned as a songwriter, is that’s it’s never really been about me. Because songwriting and producing has to be about making the artist as vivid as possible to somebody else. And you’ve got to get out of your own way, and learn what they would say so that it would be natural, and how they would do it. So I’d spend a day or two hangin’ with the artist, before I worked with them. It’s about talking with and knowing the artist that you’re writing for.
Here’s the video of Madonna’s hit “Secret,” which was
co-written by Dallas Austin.
DK: A couple years later, you had a number one hit, “Creep,” with TLC. Can you talk about how you wrote that song?
Austin: At the time, I had a girlfriend who I’d known for a very long time. We were friends first. So when we started to date, it kind of messed it up for awhile (laughs). And I knew I hadn’t been home, and I hadn’t been around, and it was one of those things where the relationship was kind of going south. Then I found out that she was cheating on me with a friend of mine through a poetry book that he wrote (laughs). He wrote poems about her. So I thought…this sounds like my girl. So I go back to her and say, “Hey, are you messin’ around with that guy?” And she said, “Yeah, you haven’t been here…I didn’t want to hurt your feelings and I needed some attention. Hey we’re friends and I love you, but you haven’t been here.”
In Atlanta, we could call it “the late night creep,” when you would go and see a girl late at night after 11 o’clock. And so I took that, and just told the story that she told me, [and I wrote “Creep”].
DK: Around the time you were working with TLC, you also wrote several hits for Monica. How did you connect with her?
Austin: When I found Monica, she was 12 or 13 years old, and she was singing at a talent show. She was so nonchalant (when she performed), just kind of moving her neck and rolling her eyes when she was done. And I was like, “Look at this girl’s attitude—even more than her singing…yes she can sing, but her attitude was incredible (laughs). She was the opposite of Brandy, who was more of a suburb girl. Monica wasn’t from the Hood, but she’s close enough to the Hood where she had an attitude about everything, you know.
When I did (the hit) “Don’t Take It Personal”…I got her. I understood her attitude and I thought…this is where we have to take her for the records, because a lot of girls are just like her, with an attitude that’s a little frustrated, a little ghetto. I then took “Don’t Take It Personal” to play for (label CEO) Clive Davis, and he says, “Well I don’t know…it needs a bridge.” And I said, “No, it doesn’t (because of the style).” And he says, “I don’t understand why [the lyrics] say ‘Dem Days’ instead of ‘Those Days’” (laughs). But I said “That’s not what we say in the environment. We say it’s one of ‘dem days’.”
Here’s the video of Blu Cantrell’s hit “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops),”
which was written by Dallas Austin.
Monica sang “Don’t Take It Personal” and (the hit) “Like This and Like That” really well, and from that point on, she was able to carve her own space in the music world. She was unique, and she was able to go and be Monica.
DK: In 1994, you wrote several songs with Madonna, including her hit, “Secret.” What was it like working with Madonna?
Austin: It was a great experience. She came to Atlanta, and we worked together for about a month. It’s great to be able to work with artists that I grew up on and who inspired me, and then to write with them. Everybody has a different writing technique…nobody writes the same way. And so when you do write with somebody, you’ve got to pick up a clever way of saying something that you didn’t have before. I think that’s the whole purpose of collaborating with someone. It’s like, “Oh, that’s another way to look at it.” And I learned a lot by working with Madonna.
DK: One of my favorite albums that you worked on is Pink’s album, Mizzundaztood, with the hits “Don’t Let Me Get Me” and “Just Like A Pill.” How did you connect with Pink and write these great songs?
Austin: It was pretty amazing, because I worked on her first album (Can’t Take Me Home) and they were doing really R&B stuff like “There You Go.” And I didn’t think that [R&B style] was her. I was like, “I don’t really get that part.” So by the second album (Mizzundaztood), she came to me and she was literally sitting on the steps in the front of my studios. And she said, “I’m not leaving until you work with me.” She had on this silk jacket and roller skates. I said, “I know what you should sound like, I see it already…you’ve got this Pinky Tuscadero, Fonzie pop-rock thing (from the TV show Happy Days) that you should do.” And when I did “Just Like A Pill,” I would sing the songs to her and say, “What do you think?” With“Just Like A Pill,” it was really about me and my ex at the time. We were out there taking pills that made you feel good (laughs). And when we broke up, instead of that pill making me feel better, it made me feel ill.
When I started working with Pink, I would play the songs for L.A. Reid, but he didn’t like them at first. But then a few weeks later he said, “You know what? This stuff is great. Finish doing what you’re doing.” And so then we did “Don’t Let Me Get Me.”
Here’s the video of Pink’s hit “Don’t Let Me Get Me,” which
was co-written by Dallas Austin.
It’s funny, because [when we were working on the lyrics], Pink would check me and say, “Man, do you think I should say the thing about L.A. (Reid)?” I said, “Well you’re not saying anything bad, you’re just saying he told you that you’d be a pop star.” And when it came to the line about Britney Spears, she was like, “Do you think she’s gonna think it’s a diss?” I said, “No it’s not a diss. It’s just saying your attitude is different. You’re saying she’s so pretty but that just ain’t me.” So it’s all about your craft, and when you’re writing songs, you’re not just writing a song, you’re helping craft the attitude. [Mizzundaztood] was a really great project to work with Pink on.
DK: Another big hit you wrote was “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops)” for Blu Cantrell. That song was very unique, with a different flavor to it. What’s the story behind that song?
Austin: It’s a funny story. L.A. Reid had asked me, “Can you write a soul song for Blu Cantrell?” So I go to the studio with her, but I couldn’t feel the soul song vibe. Then Blu leaves the studio and I’m finishing up, and this Merrie Melodies cartoon is on TV, and there’s this little owl who’s singing, “I wanna winga, I wanna move, I wanna dance I wanna swinga.” I started laughing at this and thought…Hey, I should make a song like that” (laughs). So I found the horns first, and then I wrote the whole song.
The next day, Blu came to the studio and I sang it to her, and she said, “This is great.” So we recorded the song and I loved it, but I knew it wasn’t what L.A. Reid asked for. Then I went to his house to played him some TLC songs, and he loved it. Then he said, “Hey man, didn’t you work with Blu Cantrell?” I told him, “I’ll play you the song we did, but you’re probably not going to like it…it’s not a soul song.” But I played it, and before it even got to the hook, he stopped it. L.A. said, “What the hell is this? This is genius. Play it again!” So I played it again and he said, “Oh my God, this is one of the most clever records I’ve ever heard. This is her first single.” That was one of my favorites.
DK: You also had the hit “Cool,” with Gwen Stefani. How did you connect with Gwen on this song?
Austin: “Cool” is a great story. I had seen Gwen Stefani [perform live]. She was in No Doubt and she was dating (bassist) Tony Kanal, and they had these songs like “Simple Kind of Life.” [And I knew] it’s got to be pretty hard to be in a band with somebody and make those kind of songs. So when me and Chilli from TLC, when we broke up, once we finally got cool, I wrote this song. And I wrote it [for another artist to sing, not TLC]. But then I started to work with TLC, and one of my producers said, “Play them that song, “Cool.” And I’m like…No way, I don’t want [them] to be singing that song, and to hear [their version] on the radio (laughs). But I played it for them and they went, “We have to record this song.” So I thought…this is a nightmare. I don’t want to sit in a studio with my ex-girlfriend, [with them singing] a song about us. We had broken up.
Here’s the video of Pink’s hit “Just Like A Pill,” which was
co-written by Dallas Austin.
So I tried it on them, and I just couldn’t do it. Instead, I wrote them a song called “Damaged.” Then later on when I saw Gwen Stefani, I said, “Oh, I’ve got this song I wrote that was actually inspired by you—we could change it to make it more for you.” And when Gwen heard it, she was like, “Oh my God, this is like the third level to “Simple Kind of Life”—this is the conclusion to it…now we’re cool.” And I said, “Exactly.” So we ended up doing the song and it’s one of my favorite records I’ve done.
DK: Thank you Dallas for doing this interview. What are your more recent projects that you’re working on?
Austin: I did (the hit) “FourFiveSeconds” with Kanye (West) and Rihanna (and Paul McCartney). That was amazing. And recently, I’ve been writing stuff for Usher and Rihanna. [Currently], I feel like I’m in the most amazing songwriting place that I’ve been in, [writing new songs] and having the knowledge of songwriting and knowing the stuff you’ve done before. And I have a friend who has this incredible studio in Joshua Tree (California), so that’s my new vortex. I go out there and just write. I actually just came from there for a seven-day writing retreat.