Interview: Having Own Creative Space Has Transformed Danja Into a New Age Rock Star
One of the toughest tasks for a producer is finding success over and over again. There are producers who try to follow current trends, those who try to live off the success of a sound that may have worked for them a few years back and then there are producers like Danja whose sound constantly evolves on an everyday basis. Since working under Timbaland in the mid 2000’s, Danja has branched out and developed into one of the most demanded producers in the industry. Currently, his label New Age Rock Stars (N.A.R.S.) is generating a lot buzz with Luke James’ voice, Kevin Cossom’s writing and of course Danja’s unique beats. YouKnowIGotSoul.com had a chance to speak with Danja about his history with Timbaland, his new label situation, his production skills and finally his approach to the music.
YouKnowIGotSoul: I was introduced to you through a song titled “Betta Half” by Ginuwine. How did that opportunity come about? I know you were working on Timbaland at the time, but how did that particular opportunity come about?
Danja: I actually did that record before I started working with Timbaland. It was just through meeting a bunch of different people. I was pretty young at that time. I actually went to Ginuwine’s house, met him and played him a bunch of tracks. He loved the track and out of that meeting “Betta Half” happened.
YouKnowIGotSoul: The production on that song is very different from what we know from you now. What was the approach with that song?
Danja: Well I always did a lot of different styles of music, but just for Ginuwine it was just a batch of R&B tracks that I gave to him. I was in a real heavy R&B mode at that particular time as well as Hip Hop, but you have to cater the music to the type of artist you are working with.
YouKnowIGotSoul: I know you as well as Keri Hilson and Marcella started out originally working under Timbaland. Talk to me about the grind and journey that you guys went through to develop into who you guys are today.
Danja: It was just getting the opportunity as individuals to enhance our craft outside of the camp we came from. I began to work with Diddy a lot and worked with Bad Boy at Daddy’s House in New York. I would work there. We would have our own rooms to work, so I guess I was just left in my own space to grow and develop myself. I always wanted to develop my own sound and my own style. Listening to a lot of different music, putting a lot this together and working with a lot of different artists, it didn’t lead me any other reason but to come up with something eclectic and something to call my own. Just over time working with a lot of artists and having that opportunity for us to be by ourselves and work separately allowed us to grow.
YouKnowIGotSoul: When you and Timbaland first came out, you guys had this crazy sound that was very unique and ended up blowing everywhere. Talk to me about that creative process and how you guys came up with that particular sound.
Danja: It was just two individuals with two different music minds, being open minded and coming together. That just created something different. I have a different music opinion than what Timbaland has even though we agree a lot on the same things, but we just have a different approach with how we do things. We compromised at that time just for the collaborative effort. I wasn’t trying to do something he did and he wasn’t trying to do something that I did. We just brought something different to the table and the hits that we made were a product of that.
YouKnowIGotSoul: It seemed like every song you guys put out together ended up being a hit from Justin Timberlake, Nelly Furtado to even Madonna. Do you think that type of success can be replicated or was it because of the timing?
Danja: You never know. I think it has been replicated in the sense that we had the Dubstep movement. I can’t really speak so much for the Dance movement because I think we opened the door for the dance world. Even the Dubstep movement, we opened that door for this broad, international sound. The David Guettas had an opportunity to also have hit records on the side because we already paved the way for that sound. It just really depends, you never know. I think what we did at the time was a product of fun in the studio and not really setting any boundaries or being inside a box. I think it can be replicated. No one knows the recipe. There’s no set thing you can follow to come up with that again. I think when the stars align, it’ll all happen again. Music evolves and I think more than anything, people just have to keep their ears open for things that’s new and different and not really expect the same thing that’s happened over and over. It’ll happen, but it may be in a different form.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about that decision for you to eventually branch out and start your own thing. To a lot of people, it seems like a huge risk because you had a lot of hits working with Timbaland. Talk about that decision and do your own thing.
Danja: It just came from careers going in two different directions. Timbaland was doing his thing touring with Justin and I was still here in the studio working on projects. It wasn’t necessarily a decision, it was just kind of the way things had prevailed. From that point on, things picked up on my end and I started working more and more on different things.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Do you see yourself working with Timbaland in the future?
Danja: You never know. We haven’t planned on anything. We spoke a few times on a couple of different things. I think for the right project, we’ll make up and work. As of now, there is nothing planned.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Moving forward with that, you launched your label New Age Rock Stars (N.A.R.S.) which has a lot of great artists on there like Kevin Cossom and Luke James. What’s been the challenge with running the whole label?
Danja: Well you start from scratch and break artists from ground zero. You get a little help from the record label, but that’s not their strong point as far as breaking artists. It’s good at the same time because we got the total creative freedom to do what we want to do. We’re not pigeonholed to one thing or another. We can really carve out a name for ourselves. The challenge is putting everyone on one plan and moving together, but the beautiful thing about it is that we can do what we want to do. I look forward to doing that and building the record label every day. I think the talent that I signed speaks for itself. We’re putting out music, mixtapes, videos and you just have to follow us. It’s a small company that people don’t really know right now, but we’re building and growing every day. Just look out for New Age Rock Stars records and just follow.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Something that I’ve always noticed is that you aren’t one of those producers who look to be in the spotlight. You let the music do the talking for you a lot of the time. Do you think that brings you at a disadvantage when you’re trying to push your label because you’re not constantly looking for the spotlight?
Danja: I don’t know what I could do or say besides me doing my own project to draw attention to the label, which are things that we plan and are in the works. You are right though, I’m not so much in the spotlight. But I think a lot of record labels have failed and it’s because the producers are so in the spotlight and so worried about their own brand that their artists fall to the wayside because they haven’t pushed their artists at all. I feel like my approach is to establish the artist first and then I come through and put the cherry on the top. We can all share the same spotlight instead of just me saying “By the way I have this guy.” My approach is just “This is the team, these are the guys. Get familiar with them”. Then I’ll come through with other projects that I’m working on and my own projects. It’ll just make the whole awareness of the brand big.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You’ve always been labeled as underrated from fans to people who have worked with you. Is that something that you’re content with?
Danja: I’m definitely not content with being underrated, but that doesn’t bother me if that’s people’s opinion. I definitely feel that on a track to track basis, there’s nobody in the world that can do a track like me. We can go track to track and when I say that, I mean the drums, snare, bass, hi-hat and piano. We can go track to track and then we can go beat to beat. I don’t feel like there’s anybody in the world that can do anything and compare it to anything that I’m capable of doing on any level. I’m not saying this on some cocky stuff or just being an asshole, I know how versatile I am. You can look at my catalog and see the range of things that I’ve worked on. I’m glad I’m not labeled as a Hip Hop producers because a lot of my music hasn’t just been Hip Hop. It’s been Pop, R&B and Rock. That’s fine if that’s people’s opinion. I still feel like I haven’t really developed. I still feel like I have another 20 years of just moving and shaking in the music business as a producer. I’m still learning, growing and developing. I still don’t feel like I have the perfect sound and I’m not as good with instruments as I want to be. It’s just things with myself that I work on daily and I think that’s what separates me from a lot of people. I don’t feel like I’m all the way there yet. Even though I feel I’m probably the greatest, I still don’t feel like I’m all the way there, so I have to continue to work and build my own craft. I don’t feel like I’ve made it yet. The whole underrated thing is something that I don’t even think about it. I hear it here and there, but I think it’s a good thing. I think underrated leaves room for more. It means I’m on the radar. They see exactly what I’m doing and it’s just more so the question of “Why isn’t he considered being even more great by other people?” I’d rather be underrated than overrated. *Laughs*
YouKnowIGotSoul: You’re a producer who constantly switches up their sound. On the latest song you did for Usher, I noticed you incorporated some Dubstep elements into it. How do you decide when to switch it up and how would you describe your current sound now?
Danja: I feel like when I did “Till I Die” by Chris Brown and the Usher record, they both had Dubstep influences. I still have tracks that have Dubstep influences, but I just try to stay ahead of the curve. I think the Dubstep thing came and I don’t think it’s gone. People are still doing Dubstep music, but I think the sound of Dubstep is evolving a little bit. I just try to stay ahead of the curve and do things that people just wouldn’t think about. I try to, but I can’t say that anybody hasn’t thought of some of the things I’ve done, but it’s just a matter of how they put it together. More importantly it’s just about the song. The track can be anything, it could be the most amazing or bland track, but it’s about that record. It’s about that top line to make it a hit. I don’t know though, it’s a feeling. Normally my rule is that when I place two records and people hear two or three records that sound the same to me, it’s time for me to switch. That’s kind of my rule. Being that “Til I Die” and “I Care 4 U” came out, I feel like “Alright, now I need to start working on something new.” You have to think, before you guys hear it, I’ve already been doing that for a year. So by the time you hear the new batch of things I’ve been doing, I’ve already been doing that for the past 6-7 months. My sound is just in development. I’m searching right now and trying to experiment with different drum patterns. I’m getting more intricate with more drum programming. I’ll say right now my sound is very moody, emotional and hard-hitting. I can’t even describe it. I never can describe what I’m doing. *Laughs* I have to leave it up to you guys to tell me exactly what I’m doing. I think now a lot of stuff is very moody, emotional and even though it’s that, it’s still high energy. That’s the weird thing about it. I can’t put a name on it, but that’s kind of what I’m working on right now.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Give me some background on “This Is How I Feel” by Tank which is very different for him, so what was the approach with that one?
Danja: He was writing to another track and I was working with my headphones on and I came up with it. I just played it and he loved it. It was just sexy and it definitely came out like that as far as the song. I don’t know, it was just one of those things in the studio. Those are the things that happen in the studio instead of sending tracks. We were just in the studio. It wasn’t any thought put into it like “This is what we want to do.” It was just something that was created at the time, we jumped on it and we got what we got.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Another record is the one that you did on Brandy’s new album. The song is “Can You Hear Me Now?”. Talk about that song.
Danja: That’s the record Rico Love wrote. It was one of those “Last Train to Paris” beats that didn’t make it. Diddy loved the song, but I guess it didn’t fit into the overall vain of what he was doing. He was collecting so many records at the time. It was still different though. That’s another sound that I’ve been experimenting with. I’m using the vocoder and instead of just singing through it, I’m trying to do different things with it like beat box, mumble or just something weird. I think one of the other times you heard me with the vocoder is a track that leaked off one of Usher’s record. I was singing through the vocoder and I was like a hype man through it. The song is called “Stay Down”. Another one is something that I have on Luke James’ new pre-album coming out. It’s actually the intro to his new video. You may hear it tucked back a little bit, but that’s a style I’ve been working on. That one is still in development. I think it’s still a bit ahead of its time, so I have a little bit of time to get that right.
YouKnowIGotSoul: My personal favorite song that you did is Keri Hilson’s “Where Did He Go?”. Talk about that song.
Danja: That’s a collaboration. That was myself and Timbaland. It was him with the drums and I just played a guitar line. He just heard a sample of what I did and reprogrammed it with the ASR. He did with the ASR. That’s an old throwback track, but it was a collaborative effort. It’s two brains on that record with the drum sound and the melodics from me.
YouKnowIGotSoul: As far as New Age Rock Stars, I know you guys have a lot of things planned. Luke James has a new single coming out and I found it interesting because it was produced by Salaam Remi and not yourself. For a lot of producers who sign artists, they want to produce the entire project because it is their artist. You seemed to have made that sacrifice and have someone else produce the single, so talk about that.
Danja: For me it’s about the record. It’s not about me. I definitely did some amazing records for him and if collectively we don’t feel like it’s a single, then we won’t go with it. I can always be beat out by another producer, but for me I don’t have to do the whole entire record. Salaam Remi and Ne-Yo wrote it and they had this amazing record for Luke. He really killed it vocally. I think his vocal performance more than anything is why that record sticks out so crazy. It’s an open track so it just leaves a place but for Luke to shine. But yeah, it doesn’t matter. We have other producers on the record. Kevin Cossom also works with other producers, so it’s really about the record. I can be selfish and I can be limiting the artist at the same time because what I’m probably currently doing may not be right for radio or for the artist, but ultimately may the best record win. I think with that competitive nature from everybody, that’s how we’re always going to come up with the best record. Hopefully I win because Luke James is on N.A.R.S. record, so it’s not a losing situation with me not having a record. On his pre-album though, I did a lot of it and I’m very proud of this next project that we’re releasing on him on December 12th.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What can we expect from your label or anything you have coming up as far as projects?
Danja: We have a new single from Caligula that’s crazy. I don’t want to mention who is on it yet for the single, but it’s crazy. Kevin Cossom has a new record called “Sexy Time”. Luke’s new single which was produced by Salaam Remi and written by Ne-Yo. His pre-album is coming out December 12th. Wyld Money’s “Street Power 3” is definitely feeling like a Hip Hop street classic. We have videos for everything. Really you just have to pay attention and follow us. As far as myself, I have a couple of things in the works that I just have to get started on. For Danja the producer, I have a collaborative project with Babyface for Aretha Franklin. I’ve worked with a few new artists. One is named B. Smith on Motown and Jacob Latimore. It’s a few, but there are some I can’t mention because they’re still in the works. I’m still very active and working as a producer. I’m just trying to knock out as many records as I can and come up with as many hits as I can. I’m very busy, we’re very busy over here from all angles. It’s a good time. Follow us and you’ll see what we have going on. We’re definitely doing a lot good music and it’s something for everybody with N.A.R.S. That’s one of the things I’m proud of. We’re not just Hip Hop, R&B or Pop. We can do everything that crosses into everything. It’s something for everybody with us. Like I said, I’m just working hard and on the production side as well. Keep a lookout.
Follow Danja On Twitter @Only1DANJA!