December 01, 2002

Damon Elliott Has His Hands Full

Damon ElliotFrom creating music for several new films to making records with the likes of Kelly Rowland, Mya, Jessica Simpson, Beyoncé Knowles and his mom Dionne Warwick, songwriter/producer Damon Elliott is one busy man –– By Erik Philbrook

When Playback talked to songwriter/producer Damon Elliott a few weeks back, he was in the studio working on music for the upcoming hip hop comedy, Malibu's Most Wanted, starring Jaime Kennedy and Taye Diggs. Although Elliott's score for the film will be his first (a collaboration with composer John Debney), his film music track record is about to get much longer. Last summer, he contributed music to the Scooby-Doo soundtrack and he is currently creating new material for three more 1970's TV shows-turned-feature films: Charlie's Angels II, S.W.A.T. and a live action feature of Fat Albert.

You would think that his new film work would be enough to keep him occupied, but Elliott's sizzling career as a writer/producer shows no sign of slowing down. He has made a name for himself as an aggressive and progressive producer who is not afraid to experiment with sounds and styles, forging funky beats with infectious melodies. He has worked with a who's who of today's reigning hip hop, pop and R&B stars, such as Pink, Mya, Destiny's Child, Eminem, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Keith Sweat, Barry White, Ziggy Marley and many others. Add to this a record project that Elliott is most excited to produce: an album of duets featuring many of today's young pop divas which will mark his mother Dionne Warwick's 40th anniversary in music. On a rare break in Elliott's schedule, Playback's Erik Philbrook had the chance to talk to him about how he does it all.

What's on your plate today?

Today I'm working on Jessica Simpson's new album.

With all the different people you are working with right now, how challenging is it to keep everyone's project apart?

It is surprisingly pretty easy because each artist has his or her unique personality. They are all so cool. It's not like I'm dealing with people who aren't experienced. All of these people are so professional. You would be surprised. A lot of these people are excited to work with me. So everyone is very cool and humble and we just get it done.

In general, how do you choose the material? Do you have stuff that you present to them? Or vice versa?

There are never two sessions that are the same. And I don't plan on it happening any given way. I'll give you two examples. On the Pink album, she came with what she wanted and knew exactly what she wanted. And Linda Perry and I took her ideas and crafted from there. Whereas, on Mya's album, there were some things she knew she wanted, but she was also open to other material I had come up with just for her specifically. There were some instances in which she would be sitting right there in the room, and I would come up with an idea, and we would have a track right then and there. And she'd write to it. That's kind of how it's working with the Jessica Simpson stuff right now.

Which do you enjoy more, having more freedom to explore your own ideas, or to take someone else's ideas and help make them come to fruition?

I like both ways of working. I love to come up with my own ideas and sharing them with somebody. But you never know what that other person is going to give you. It's a growth thing every time I get an idea from somebody else and I think "damn, why didn't I think of that?" (laughs).

You are creating a lot of music for film these days. What do you enjoy about film projects?

It's a different creative process. For a film, you need to create something musically to go with a picture or a scene. And you only have a certain amount of time. You have to get certain points across. For instance, I'm working on a Jaime Kennedy comedy right now called Malibu's Most Wanted. You gotta hit certain notes certain ways. It's pretty wild. Whereas, when you make a record, you start from nothing. You're creating the script. It's not like there's a script telling you what to do. With Malibu's Most Wanted, I'm doing all the music. I'm scoring the film. I'm also doing songs for the soundtrack and song pieces, like when Jaimie raps in the film. There are many different levels.

Are there days when you are working on two or three things at once?

It's an everyday occurance, man! (laughs). I wake up. I hit the studio about now, which is 12:30pm. I'll give you my day today. I got Jessica Simpson coming in at 2:00. We'll work from 2:00 to about 6:00. After that, I've got to finish another song with Mya. And after that I have to finish a theme for the movie, which will take me to about 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning. Then I'll put rough mixes on everything and get to bed around 4:35. I'll sleep for a few hours and then go right back at it.

That's a typical day?

Yeah (laughs). It's been like this for about a year straight now.

It must be exhausting.

It is, but I'm not complaining one bit. I love every minute of it. Of course, you have your days when you walk outside and it's a beautiful day. I have a wife and I have children, and they will say "we should all go to the beach." But I have to say "you all go on without me. Just call me and tell me what it smells like down there."

In looking at your discography, it looks like 1997 was a pivotal year for you.

Yeah, 97 was when things really started to pop for me.

What was happening prior to 97? Were you just not getting the high-profile gigs?

It's kind of funny how music is. I'm not doing anything different now than I what I was doing in 95 or 96. Actually, in 96 I did work on the Bones-Thugs-N-Harmony record. But it just seems that music changes and it grows and people become a lot more liberal each year in terms of what they will allow to be cool. What I was doing in 94 might not have seemed cool, such as using certain samples. I use different sounds than most people. I'll sample a vacuum cleaner. I'll sample a siren -– all kinds of crazy stuff -– and use them in a song. I don't know if that was so cool to do back then.

Do you think that listeners are, in general, more open-minded now?

Absolutely, and I love it. For instance, some of the stuff I did on Kelly's record, like taking an alternative guitar and laying it over some banging hip hop track. Back in 94, people would probably say "what the hell is this?" Music was more segregated back then. Now you can combine things. I'm doing folk hip hop. I was doing this back then but people weren't responding to it. Now they are calling me and saying, "we need that sound." It's great to hear a Busta Rhymes rapping over folk hip hop music or Egyptian beats.

Do you try to listen to what other producers are doing, or are you so absorbed in your own studio that you don't really get a chance?

I'm pretty much lost in my own world. I always have been. There's so much music going on in my head, that when I do listen to the radio, I listen to talk radio, just for a break. I'm best friends with Rock Wilder, one of my brothers. We play off each other a lot. He'll come play me a beat, or I'll go play him and beat, and I think we inspire each other a lot. We have similar tastes and styles.

A lot of kids seek out music that is different from their parent's music. When you were growing up, did you embrace you mother's music?

Absolutely. I love every song that my mom has done. Growing up in a house and listening to Burt Bacharach and Hal David songs was very inspiring to me. I think that's why I love to combine really pretty orchestra strings with other things. I was in the studio when they cut a lot of their hit records and I just absorbed it all like a sponge. I also grew up loving hip hop music. So I was listening to hip hop music on a daily basis and then I would go into the studio with my mom and listen to beautiful R&B/pop music. I think it gave me that edge in thinking "wow, you can combine these two things."

Did you pick an instrument at an early age?

I picked up a lot of instruments at an early age. But I never got great. I got good. I'm a pretty good drummer. I'm pretty good on the keyboards. Me, I'm more of an electronics guy. I'll pick up a vacuum cleaner and plug it in and hear a frequency that I can use as a snare. I'm weird like that. In the Destiny's Child song, "Sexy Daddy," which I did for their Survivor album, the bass part is actually a vacuum cleaner. I called Mathew and asked, "Do I have to call Hoover and clear the rights to use this?" (laughs).

With everything that you have done and are doing, is there a dream project that you would like to pursue someday?

At this point in time, not to sound conceited, but I'm kind of achieving what I really set out to do. I'm fortunate to be working with some of the top female artists in the business. I want to stay busy and take it day by day, project by project. I just want to keep it going.