Interview: After College Career In Athletics, Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon Continues To Carry Competitive Spirit Co-Producing With Timbaland
If you check out the writing credits for some of Timbaland’s recent music, you’ll notice the name Jerome Harmon included in the majority of the songs including joints for the likes of Chris Brown, Justin Timberlake and Keri Hilson. YouKnowIGotSoul had a chance to talk with J-Roc about his history in the music industry, his creative process with Timbaland and also gives us some information on projects he’s working on with Missy Elliott, Timbaland and Keri Hilson.
YouKnowIGotSoul: How did you originally link up with Timbaland?
Jerome Harmon: I linked up with Tim like the end of 2006. I’m a former band member/producer with Kirk Franklin before and during that time, I was also working on some artists like Bobby V. and Mario at the same time while I was touring. I guess after the tour, a friend of my name of King Logan who is under the management of Rick Frazier who also co-manages Tim had given me a call because during that time, Danja who used to produce with Tim, had kind of just went on his own, so he was short of producers. Like someone who could come in and just do some of things he couldn’t do as far as playing keyboarding and programming. My friend called me and asked me to come up to Vegas. This was during the time they were touring with Justin Timberlake. We had tracks that he needed me to complete and before I went there, I sent him a couple of tracks that I was doing right on the spot and he heard it on the phone and he was like “Get this guy up here, I need him here ASAP!” So I went up there, met him and got there and he was playing me a lot of the songs that were on “Shock Value”. He needed some touches on it. The first song he pulled up was “Apologize” and I heard it and I was like “Yo this is a really great tune. It might be one of your biggest songs ever!” I hadn’t heard any of the tracks he had played for me but that one. That’s what I started working on and co-producing and from that moment on, we just hit it off. He saw that we had the same approach to producing and writing tracks, and he felt comfortable with that and we’ve been banging it out ever since.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You mentioned you had a hand in keyboards and organs for people like Kirk Franklin and also Timbaland. How important do you think it is for a producer to have a musical background when creating music?
JH: I think it’s very important because the industry has changed a lot. You can go to a local grocery store and get a box that contains Fruity Loops and you can program, mix and master different sounds. It’s more like putting a puzzle together. Any ten year old can do that. When it comes to real production, when someone hears of your success, like maybe you were successful in the rap industry and you get some inquiries from the pop or rock side and their approach is more organic. They do things really organic still. They still use real instruments and real people to put most of the sounds together rather than programming. Having the ability to be versatile and switch is paramount in this industry because you don’t want to feel limited. Everyone wants to grow and not become complacent in their own format, at least I don’t. Whenever you do get that opportunity, you don’t want to get in a situation where you get in the studio and say Bonnie Raitt likes your production, and they come in and they have no clue on how you do your groundwork, but they might come in and bring in some paper work and say, “Okay, this is the song I wrote and the beat.” It may have some chord changes. The average producer today really doesn’t have that type of background to be able to switch over and to be able to give an artist like Bonnie Raitt what she’s trying to dictate. If you want to be more successful and branch out in different genres, I think it’s very important that you at least know the basics in music. I’m not saying that you become a band director or someone who is a musicologist and someone who teaches music. Just know some of the ground basics so if you ever get stuck, you know how to get yourself out of it. Even if it still requires you to do basic programming. At least you know that you can at least approach whatever style is and be confident in it because of the musical background that you do have. I feel it’s really important. I don’t think anyone wants to limit themselves in this industry because you never know what really might catapult you into the higher echelon of producers such as Quincy Jones, Timbaland and even Teddy Riley. I think he’s still a prominent producer because he’s very versatile. We haven’t heard from him in a minute, but he’s ready to come out in a minute. But yeah, being versatile is great.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Take me back to your first placement “Anonymous” by Bobby V. and how that song came about.
JH: Well that was the first track that I played over the phone for him actually. When he heard it, he was like “Yo get up here!” When we got there, we started working on Bobby V. as well as working on “Shock Value”. That came up together. That first track was already in the hands of Bobby V. before I got to Vegas and we just completed it while we were there. That first major placement was a shocker because it was the first track I did. When I got on there, I was very surprised and was like “Okay, this is cool. I can do this”. *Laughs*
YouKnowIGotSoul: Timbaland has had success producing for himself. He’s also had success producing with other producers such as Danja and Scott Storch. Is there kind of a pressure that you put on yourself to make hits knowing that you’re working with someone who has been as successful as him?
JH: It can be. To me, it’s not pressure. I’m a competitor. Growing up, I played sports. My degree is Music Media, minoring in Psychology, but I got to school on a Basketball, Track, academic and music scholarship. I’ve always been a competitor from day one from Junior High, High School to playing state finals in Basketball. Everything to me was competition. When I got to someone who was just as talented or had even more talented, and had the exposure, for me it was time for me to step up. It’s almost like Dennis Rodman left San Antonio and went to Chicago. To do that, he knew he had to play with the best player in the world and that was Michael Jordan. That was kind of how it was like for me. It was either put up or shut up. You have to really know what you’re doing when you get in there. That takes a lot of confidence and takes you not being afraid of the person such as Timbaland, but to embrace the producer or the great mind of him. To me, it was like “You can’t be starstruck or caught up with who you’re in the room with or who you’re working with” because it’s almost like you have to show up and be confident. It takes a great deal of confidence to work with Tim because if you don’t know what you’re doing, he can take over. You’d be left in the dark like “Okay” *Laughs*. To me, it’s more competitive. We compete against each other to always give our best when we work with an artist.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What is the creative process like with yourself and Timbaland?
JH: It varies. I wish there was a basic approach. I mean there’s always a basic approach to anything, but when you get in the studio, you never know the mindset of an individual. You never know what your mindset is. Of course, you’d like to go in with a clear conscience working. I think most producers like working at night because all the daily activities are past you. You aren’t in the building with family, manager or lawyer. All of that stuff is done after 7 O’clock. When you go in, you go in with a clear conscience and allow your mind to be able to set the direction of where you want to go. It’s different. It’s mindset more rather than just going in, pulling up some drums and start banging out. A lot of cats just do that. It’s more of a mindset. People have used different techniques as far as how they become creative. It really varies how it comes about. Sometimes we come in with an idea. Sometimes Tim will come in with an idea and he’ll be holding onto a melody in his brain for 45 minutes because that’s usually how long it takes for him to get to his house to the studio. He will hang onto that melody until he gets in the studio and when he comes in, he’ll be like, “Alright, turn everything off. I can feel it!” He’ll hum out the melody, go on the mic and put the melody down and get on it. Tim will use that and then we’ll bang out a drum pattern that will make you sick. Then we’re just inspired then. It’s different.
YouKnowIGotSoul: I wanted to ask you about a personal favorite of mine which is “Breaking Point” by Keri Hilson. Talk to me about the creation of that song.
JH: *Laughs* Yo, if I tell you, you wouldn’t believe me, but I’m going to tell you anyway. That song came about in a conversation that Tim had with a friend of ours who was having some personal issues with men. We always have issues going on. We’re just some crazy beings and we drive women crazy. That song came through in a conversation and I guess when they were talking, she was just like “You know everybody has their breaking point!” As soon as she said that, it was like a light went off on this guy’s head. He just went to the mic and started humming all the parts as far as the vocals on the mic. Our engineer Chris Godbey, who is a mastermind as far as using EQs and different types of effects, put Tim’s voice into a guitar chamber. We just treated Tim as though he was the guitar. We used different effects around his vocals to give out different distortions to kind of create this organic sound. After he did the vocals, we started working on approaching the track instrumentally. If you listen to that, all that is Tim’s vocals at first. It was first the conversation and then as soon as he heard “Breaking Point”, it just went off in his head. We were like “Damn that’s kind of dope!” So we started adding effects to it and that’s what became the groundwork of “Breaking Point” which is one of my favorites as well. To me, when he started doing that, it reminded me so much of the early 70’s type of stuff like Dorothy Moore. She sung this song called “Misty Blue” way back in the day. When it came about, that era kind of just popped into my head. I was like “Yo it has to be organic like that!” That’s when we started adding different instrumentations like the live Rhodes and handcrafting the ooze like Gladys Knight & the Pips. We kind of wanted to keep it really organic, but still new and dated at the same time.
YouKnowIGotSoul: We’ve heard reports that Keri Hilson is starting on her next project. Are you going to be involved with that?
JH: Of course, that’s my little sister. I’ll do whatever for her. She’s getting ready to start. I think she’s finishing touring with Lil Wayne. I don’t know if that’s over yet, but yeah we’re really gathering material. We’re giving her some ideas as far as track wise to kind of work on. She’s also giving us a little hint of direction of where she wants to go as far as artist wise. This is going to be her third album. It’s going to be a great one. I can already predict it’s going to do well. Every time she puts something out, it progressively gets better. Her name becomes more of a household name now, so we just want to help her take that next step into being an established artist as a Beyonce or Alicia Keys. We want her name to be household as well. I love her and I can’t wait until we get really in-depth with this album because we really want to put everything into it. This is an important album. The third one is always very important. It can either make you or break you. I wish her best of luck and look forward to working with her.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What kind of sound do you want for that album?
JH: We haven’t discussed it yet. We want to do something that’s not the norm. A lot of things are just so mundane and kind of cliché and pretentious to me. You kind of want to sit back in the cut and let all that kind of blow by and let consumers get their feel of it and then come with something that’s new, refreshing and that it transcends from her just being a R&B crooner, but goes all the way too. Hopefully, our approach is going to be adding more organic sounds. Some more live sounds as well, so that we kind of break away from things that are kind of synthetic because she really is a great singer. Given the right material and the right element, she can blow your mind. We kind of want to go with an organic sound with it this time.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Two other projects you’re currently involved with are Missy Elliott’s next album and “Shock Value 3”. What can you tell me about the Missy album?
JH: Really, we don’t know yet. *Laughs* Missy is so secretive. I mean even when we do tracks for her, she kicks us out of the room when she starts recording the vocals. She doesn’t even want us around, just like a woman *Laughs*. We had a meeting in New York last week with Atlantic and played a lot of the tracks that we worked on, not only ours but some other producers, and they were more than pleased. Now we’re just to the point where we’re picking and choosing which tracks she wants to put on the LP. We’re just weeding and seeding now. Once we pick those tracks, then we start the process of programming it and putting it all together. We’re going to go in and touch up on things and making everything make sense. If there are some tracks that she wants to be redo vocally, that happens during that process. During the mixing and overdub process. Right now she has tons of tracks that all have great potential to be on her next album. This album is very important for her and we approach it as such. We want to make sure that we pick the right ones that will give Missy her old audience that same feeling when she first started out in the 90’s and also introduce her to a new audience because this is a couple of generations later. You have a different listening audience. She’s been involved with some projects here lately with other artists that kind of keep her out there and voice out there, now she has a totally different listening audience. We have to approach it as such. I predict this album is going to be stupid, trust me. Missy is going to give her that energy that she’s been having. She hasn’t changed and she’s still Missy. When you see her, it’s like “Damn Missy you never change!” She doesn’t. She stays youthful, energetic and creative. And the girl can produce and if you put her in front of pro-tools, she can run that as well. Don’t sleep on her, she knows what she’s doing!
YouKnowIGotSoul: The other project you’re involved with is Timbaland’s “Shock Value 3”. What can you tell me about that one?
JH: Same thing. Tim and Missy are the same person. It’s just one is a male and one is a female. *Laughs* I’m for real. You can be totally intimidated when you walk in the room with them because you really don’t know them. When they step into the room and they give you that look like “What are you doing here?” you may want to lose it; but it’s the same thing. We have great music. We’ve been working on “Shock Value 3” since “Shock Value 2”. We never stop working. We never stop tracking. We never stop being creative. Right now, I think he has over 150 tracks and we can use them for Shock Value 3, 4 and 5. We can keep going on and on. Same approach though. Once we’re done with Missy, then he’s going to start putting his album together and picking the right songs. Trust me, it’s the shit. I’m not going to lie. We’re still doing tracks. That kind of makes it hard because you can become confused because you have so many songs. We don’t know what to put on the album. Hopefully, we’ll narrow it down here pretty soon and start programming album.
YouKnowIGotSoul: It may be a little too early, but are there any confirmed guests on that album yet?
JH: No we don’t have any confirmed guests yet. Not as of yet. I’m pretty sure at the top of the year, he’ll start putting the guests on the album. That doesn’t take long to do. The songs are mostly already done and it’s just adding the artists and implementing the artist in. Then we’ll go from there. The music is going to be great. Trust me.
YouKnowIGotSoul: An artist I would love to see on that album is Brandy. I know she was on “Shock Value 2” and she did a track with yourself and Timbaland called “Drum Life” back in the day.
JH: Oh yeah! We would love to have Brandy. That’s our little sister. We were really close to signing her to Mosley Music Group. I don’t know what happened, it just fell through. We still have tracks that we done on “Shock Value 2” that she was involved with that we haven’t put out yet. That’s been a blessing if we ever wanted to put those out. That remains to be seen if it happens, but I agree with you. She’s such a beautiful lady and has a great vocal ability. I wish people could see what really goes on behind the studio door when the artist is just free and not apprehended, when they get to be in their own element. It’s incredible. I think most artists give you 45% of what they can really do as opposed to when they’re by themselves and when they’re in performance mode. Performance mode is just performance mode, but whenever we’re in that creative or organic mood, it’s mind blowing what Brandy can do when she’s just by herself. Like she hasn’t been rapping long. I was there when she started rapping. She started poetry at first. We were working with her in Atlanta maybe in 2008/2009 and we had a conversation about how she started getting more into rapping. She said she was in the car one day and you know, everybody is the best rapper when they’re riding in their car and when they have the radio on, can’t nobody beat you in rapping. But when you step outside the car, it’s over with and you fall in your face. She said she started out rapping here and there with a few lines and she was like, “That was alright!” and the next day she made a whole rap verse. She started writing it down. What I did was I presented her with a writing book. It’s the book where people can jot down things like a journal. I gave her a journal and said “What you should do is when you’re at the crib, just write your ideas down in this journal”. Three months later, I saw her in LA and she gave me the journal. It was completely covered from the front to the back with just nothing but raps, rhymes and poetry. I’ll say 2008-2010, she really was working on being a rap artist. When she came in and started working with us for “Shock Value 2”, she said she wanted to rap and Tim was like, “Yeah right!” We pulled up a beat and she just killed it. A lot of people don’t get a chance to see that side of an artist when they’re that versatile. We really want to bring that more out of her. We have a lot of tracks where she’s rapping on and you’d be like “Nah, that’s not Brandy”.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Anything you’d like to add?
JH: I just want to say thank you for calling me and inquiring about me. I’m the type of producer that likes to be heard and not seen a lot of times. I’m a guy that can walk in a crowded room and nobody will know what I do. A lot of times, I’m profiling and they’re just like “Oh, that’s a basketball or football player”. One time I walked in and they thought I was security because I’m a big dude. I’m 6’6, 255 lbs and I stay in shape. I take care of my health. That’s really important for producers and artists because we do work weird hours and eat weird times and do some weird things that could affect our health. I try to take care of myself. I like to be heard, but sometimes not seen which is great, but when it does happen, I really am honored and I show gratitude and I’d like to thank you for inquiring about me and wanting to do this interview. I hope I’ve said some things that will help other producers or just help people look at me in a different light instead of just the big basketball-looking guy.
Follow Jerome Harmon on Twitter @JRocHarmon