There are several feathers every producer lives to wear in their cap. One is to be Grammy nominated or to win a Grammy. Another is to work for Dr. Dre. Multi-platinum producer Bernard “Focus…” Edwards, Jr. has not one, but both of those plumes in his fitted.
The New York born, Connecticut raised son of the late music legend Bernard Edwards of CHIC fame has a Latin Grammy under his belt for singer Mala Rodriguez and spent seven years working with Dr. Dre as an in-house producer for Aftermath Entertainment. With those two feathers in his helmet he should be flying high like Hermes or Thor. But as you read this exclusive interview with Nodfactor.com about his new album, Music Of The Misinterpreted, know that this “messenger of the gods” has some important things you need to know. The view from Mt. Olympus isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Nodfactor: Your father was Bernard Edwards. What was it like growing up in a musical household?
Focus…: My dad was playing in a group even before I was born. From what I understand He was playing with the New York City Band and that’s how he met my mother. When I came into the picture that’s when they started up CHIC. “Dance Dance Dance” was out on Buddha Records at the time, it wasn’t on Atlantic. When they switched to Atlantic I was still a young buck and that’s when things started picking up for them. I’ve always known him to be in music. He had a record collection when I was younger and that’s how I got my love of music.
What did he share with you in terms of the creation of music?
That was never a part of it. He didn’t want me to do [music]. I actually put that up on Youtube (watch below). There is part of an interview when I was 8 or 9 years old sitting next to him with my other siblings and my mother. He literally says I was in the basement making rap records but if there was something else that I could do he would rather I do that. He didn’t want us to get into the industry. So when I started doing it it kind of put a strain on our relationship as father and son. I really was going after it as hard as he did and he didn’t want me to go through the headaches of it.
Syleena Johnson told me the same thing! Her father Syl didn’t want her to get into music either because of his experience.
My dad did not want me to do it at all. It’s not a bad thing, but this is how strongly he felt about it. He said if that’s what you’re going to do but there is nothing I can do to help. I’ll point you in the right directions but there is nothing I can do per se.
Considering how he felt did you have to sneak around to get your music fix?
I used to steal my dad’s equipment from his den when he’d be on tour or be in the studio. He had a Fostex four-track and the first synth that he bought was a Prophet 600, a sequential keyboard. I’d turn around and steal that and make my little tracks and put it back before he got home. I didn’t have any equipment of my own until he got the endorsement with Ensoniq. Then the stuff he just left it in his den and one day I asked if I could use it and he said go ahead. He and Nile (Rogers) did a big thing with Ensoniq because of the bass sounds and guitar sounds they gave them, so Ensoniq gave them everything. I had a SD-1, an EPS-16 Turbo, I had three or four synthesizers from them and all of the software that came with it.
So when did you feel like your music was ready to he heard?
I never did [laughs]. I never got comfortable presenting my stuff but I did the best I could with it. It was like presenting my wife to the world. I played my music for my dad and he’d say “oh that’s cute.” After that I didn’t want anyone to hear it. I’d go back in the lab and do the best I could. He did that because he didn’t want me to think “Dad thinks it’s cool so let me go [do more].”
Around middle school or H.S. I began playing with the bands in school and my boys knew my dad made music so I started making music for the kids around the way. When one guy became ten, and I started doing talent shows then I realized this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.
My first professional placement was for myself. The first record that was on the market was a song called “Movin’ Something” when I was signed to Scotty Brothers, the label was called Street Life. Eric B from Eric B. and Rakim was the President of Street Life. They were supposed to sign a group that I was part of at the time, but they signed me. I really just kind of rocked out. I did one song but then the label folded. It was me, Craig Mack and this West Coast group called The Comrades.
So you actually started out rapping?
You know how many people don’t know that I rap. They think I just put my name on it because I produced the track. I don’t claim to be a rapper but I like to write, so it’s easier for me to do it.
After producing for yourself when did you first get work for others out into the market?
I did some remixes. I did one for Charisse Arrington called “Down With this” for MCA. That was big for me because it was a major label. Then I started…I stayed in the remix thing for a minute but the biggest thing that happend for me was working with Sole. I did four records with her in Atlanta and then I started working with Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs after that. We did songs for Usher, Before Dark, ..we started going back-to-back and all of this stuff started charting. But She’kspere at the time wasn’t giving me production credit because he felt I was a new producer. So I just paid more dues. It got me where I am so I appreciate it.
So when did you become part of the Aftermath production squad?
It was right after The Chronic 2001. Dr. Dre had cleaned shop. Literally everybody was out and I was one of the first ones to walk in. When Hitman and Chris “The Glove” and all these people were leaving I was literally walking in the building. And I’m sitting there and my mouth just dropped at the way things went down. Dre was like “if you’re really about your work then let’s get it on.” So I showed him some stuff and the first record I did for Dre was on The Wash soundtrack. (“Riding High“) We had a sit down, drew up the papers and I stayed with him for seven years.
People are a little tight-lipped when it comes to Dre, but what can you say about that experience?
It’s awesome to be in his presence and see him do his thing and be in his presence when that happens. You just sit and you learn. As for working for him it’s up and down. I’mma keep it 100. There are great days and some days you’re sitting there wondering what the hell is going on. Instead of me being frustrated about it I just kept my distance and stayed in my own world and made as much music as I possibly could for him and turned it in. Instead of being right up under him. It would have drove me crazy, to be honest.
What did you work on for him that we’ve heard?
I did “Where I’m From” for The Game on the first album, “Live By The Gun” for Tony Yayo, “Next To Me” for Truth Hurts when she was signed. “Riding High” for The Wash soundtrack. Then Dre put me on Detox for six years.
Six years?? And just last week he announced that he was taking a break from music.
Yeah, I told everybody…and the funny thing is I told everybody it wasn’t coming out. We have changed the sound of Detox [several times] over the years. When the leaks came out they still weren’t cohesive songs. So I know that Dre didn’t find what he was looking for. It didn’t come out like 2001. So at the end of the day Dre could have told the whole world it was coming out but it wasn’t ready yet.
You left Aftermath eventually but did you do anything with him recently?
I went back out there [a few months ago]. He told me it would be a shame if I wasn’t on the album as it stood so I flew myself out there. I sat there for a week and tried some things and he was like “eh, they’re not hot.” So I said cool and I knew my time there was done.
Now we have Music of The Misinterpreted...when did you first start putting this together?
The first record I did was “Role Models” and that was just me being frustrated with the way music was sounding and being frustrated with stuff people was asking for. So I just kept making records like that and when I looked up it was an album’s worth of material. I released it for free at first. Then I told my wife that I wouldn’t do anymore free stuff. So I re-released it with some more good stuff. The whole title is about how people want me to do the Aftermath sound and every time I put out something different it gets misconstrued. Everybody’s like “focus lost it, he doesn’t know what he’s doing, What did Dre see in him” This is the stuff I read in the blogs. It gets really personal.
Is that what the cover is about? You getting out of the Aftermath box?
First off, that cover concept came from the artist himself. His name is J. Taylor. His whole movement is N’Syde Out. He’s always thinking outside the box. He said you gotta let me interpret one of your records so he had the idea of me being a jack in the box and I broke off the spring and I’m thinking outside of the box. It was the most perfect picture to me. It was the first time I’ve ever been an image on any of my music.
(Watch J. Taylor making the album cover in the video below)
People are expecting to hear the big crispy claps and pianos that I’m known for, but I’ve gotten out of the dark, minor chord thing and been trying to brighten up my sound. Taking elements of what’s going on in the popular world and bring it into my world. Still sell commercially but still maintain integrity. So when I do play stuff for people they say “that’s hot, but do you have anything like…” and at that moment I go def because I don’t listen to the radio. But I have some stuff that’ll work if you give it a chance. But people want to go with what they already know.
But you’ve won a Grammy…
Brother, I’m back in the trenches. That Grammy win did nothing for me. It didn’t change my life and you wait for that. That’s our finish line. But people don’t think it’s valid because they don’t know who she is. They didn’t see it on TV with Lil Wayne performing so it doesn’t matter. I still have to run off my whole discography just to get meetings.
I find that crazy knowing that projects like the Marsha Ambrosius mixtape “Yours Truly” getting so much praise. How did you guys put that together?
The reason Marsha called it that is that it was something we were giving her fans. Dre had us in the studio for six months. When he was off doing his thing we just kept making records. We ended up having 15 or 17 records. She ended up leaving Aftermath and going to J Records. So I said, I own the rights to my music, let’s put it out. You didn’t sell these records to Dre, Dre didn’t own them, so we said let’s put it out. We got Don Cannon to host it and as a street album, it was one of the solidest –and that’s not even a real word-pieces of work I ever did. And it wasn’t even supposed to be one piece of work. If you listen to the songs you can see we were all over the grid because we were trying to appease Dre and get his ear on something. But when we put it together as a whole piece of work people were cool with the fact that she was experimenting with harder stuff. We played with textures a lot but we kept to the real nitty gritty of Marsha. She did a joint on there called “Some Type of Way” that was solely her production with her on the piano. That’s when we started gravitating to her core fans. It was a blessing. They were playing “Take Care” in London like it was charting.
Among the lessons you’ve learned, how did you negotiate the rights to your music?
It wasn’t something I sat down and negotiated. I just made who I was non-exclusive to whoever I was working with. In doing that I owned my stuff, but they had first right of refusal. Dre had a set time that he had to listen and either take and set aside or refuse it. Once he refused it I could do whatever I wanted with it. That was stipulated in the agreement. The importance in that is that it opens up every door to you. If you’re working with a Toomp, A Dre or Pharrell and you’re non-exclusive, and they don’t want the beat, you can give it to somebody else. If you don’t like it it’s cool.
“Appreciation” is one of my favorite beats on the new album. How did you make that one? Is that a sample or you playing?
I’m playing Rhodes, piano, bass and the Moog over these strings from an interlude on an R&B album. It was just way too beautiful for me to sit there and do nothing. It’s a big thing for me not to use an entire sample, but on this MOTM, it was me keeping to the essence of what hip-hop is, which is sample driven. So a lot of times I wasn’t goin into my hardware. I was taking my Pioneer CDJ, jacking into my Pro Tools and finding loop points and constructing a beat freestyle.
Nice. What else are you using to make beats?
MPC 3000 and I’ll jack into my Logic as a keyboard but I’m still a hardware guy. They gave me Maschine but I’m the old dog that doesn’t want to learn a new trick.
What’s next for you?
My heart and soul is in the Avant Garde project part 2. I put up part 1 for sale and people didn’t know how to gravitate to it because I was singing and I had rock, R&B ballads. When I put it up for free everybody was raving about it. For the second one I went deeper into who I am musically and it’s come out amazing. We’re going to do about 5 visuals for Misinterpreted and then the Avant Garde project.