Grammy nominee Kendrick Dean is no stranger to making big records. Along with his production partner Bryan Michael Cox, Kendrick has been able to create hits with artists such as Destiny’s Child, Chris Brown and Monica (just to name a few). In this part of the interview, Kendrick shares his journey to the music industry and gives us some insight on what a studio session is like with himself, Bryan Michael Cox and the rest of the camp.
YKIGS: How did you get your start in the music industry and how did that eventually lead to you working with Bryan Michael Cox?
KD: I always like to take it all the way to back to when I started music period. I might have been like two years old when my Godmother bought me a little play school drum set and I banged on that thing until I broke the head in a couple of days. There was a piano around my Grandfather’s house that I would always play with as a kid and he was like “You know what? I need to get him his own piano.” So when I was maybe about 11, my Grandfather bought me my first piano. We put it in our house and I started taking lessons in Classical music, Jazz music and I was also in special gifted music programs in school so I would take Theory and all that stuff. In Elementary, Middle and High School I took Jazz band and started playing in the Church. My musical background is pretty solid and extensive and eclectic in the sense that I studied Jazz, Classical violin and Contemporary Gospel and Traditional Gospel in Church. That’s how I started with music.
In terms of production and getting into the business, my parents bought me my first sequencer when I was 15 years old. It was an Ensoniq KS-32 and what I would do is listen to my favorite songs on the radio and record them and try to make a soundtrack, just instrumental of the music and just break it down and recreate it. It gave me experience on how to produce songs through musical composition. I took that knowledge and in college, I bought a new Keyboard (Motif 6) which I still have to this day. I did a lot of my sequence in there, did talent shows and backed up a lot of singers in college. After college, I was kind of left in dilemma. I had a degree in History and I was like “Do I take this and go to Law school? Or do I do something else?” Deep down inside of me, the passion was burning to do music, but I have a very tight family that’s very strict on education, getting a career and retiring and being all good, so that mindset was always implanted in me. At the same time, I had this tug and had this dilemma so I had to figure out what I was going to do. What I decided to do was to wait a year after graduation to figure some things out. I took a few temporary jobs and went back home to Miami to weigh my options. I asked myself “What am I really going to do? Am I going to law school and if I do, I’m not really going to give this music thing a shot or at least have a chance because my head is going to be buried in books.”
I decided to go the route of education which is a career my Father retired from as a principal. I knew I was very good at public speak and I was good with the youth because I did some educational programs while I was in High School and a couple in College, so it was something that wasn’t far-fetched and it was also a career that would allow me to have my weekends and holidays and the short days so I can invest that time into music. So that’s what I would do a lot of times after work, I would go home and just sit with my Motif at the time and create until it was morning time to go back to work.
Bryan and I are cousins, we grew up together. I remember Summers, he would come over to Miami and spend a lot of time with me and have this walkman and have Babyface, Bobby Brown and the Ghostbusters Soundtrack. These were things I wasn’t fully exposed to. Being in Miami, I had the Miami Bass experience and of course growing in Church, I had a lot of the church influence so I didn’t really have a lot of full exposure to Bobby Brown and Babyface until Bryan really introduced me to them. Ironically, Babyface is probably my biggest influence in my music. So anyway he would come over and play those tapes and we would rock to them and then he would go back to Houston. I always kept in touch with him. So as I went into the teaching profession, he would call me up and be like “Hey, are you still doing music?” And I was like “Well, I’m kind of dabbling here and there.” He was like “Come on, let me hear what you got” because we were both into music really tight when we were young. We would play in Church, we would swap instruments a lot of times. He would play drums and I would play piano and then he would play piano and I would play drums. He knew something still had to be there, so I just made him a CD and sent it to him in Atlanta and he was like “Kendrick, you’re dope. I want you to come up here.” So I started a slow transition from teaching into the music. What I would do is I would leave work at like 3 in the afternoon and it would be a Thursday. I would take a drive to Atlanta. At that time, I was teaching in Orlando so the drive was a 6 hour drive. I would get there at like nine o’clock and I would go into the studio where Bryan was and he was currently working on sessions. I would just sit in the corner and observe and take notes until about midnight when I would have to hop in my car and drive back to Orlando before work. So I did that several times with no real dire straits like “I have to get in on a record while I’m here.” It was more so a focus of: “I need to learn as much as I can learn and I’m willing to sacrifice hours of sleep just to be in a position”. He saw that drive and extended an offer for me to work with him. I told him “Hey look, I got to think about this” although I knew in the back of my mind, I was going to go up there. At the same time, I didn’t want to be a burden on Bryan financially, so I had to make sure I was all together. So I deferred my last year of teaching. I taught for two years, I deferred my checks which means every two weeks, you get less than what you would normally get and the remainder of that would be stored up for the summer and you would get a lump check. In 2004, I took that lump check and relocated to Atlanta with that. Bryan was gracious to make available his townhouse for me to live in. He was like “I don’t want rent”, I still gave him rent because I felt like that this was an opportunity and I was investing in not only myself, but in what we’re doing together. I looked it as “Hey this is something we get to do together that we haven’t done in a long time so I’m very excited”.
So I did that and within the first month, it was all glorious. We had so many years that we created and I got my first placement which was Destiny’s Childs last album “Destiny’s Fulfilled”. The song “Bad Habit” was on that album and that turned out to be the first a first Grammy nominated project for me, so it happened really quickly for me. I definitely need to acknowledge the knowledge and help that Bryan has given me and gave me when I first got on in terms of that being such a significant contribution to my early success. I was just really thankful for that opportunity. I was hungry man. We would stay day in, day out with no sleep in the studio just creating because I just wanted it. I was like “Bryan, whatever I got to do. If I have to write, if I have to play the Piano. What do I have to do?” I needed to do it so I can make a mark. At the same time, I had the pressure of the family who wanted me to have a career for a long time and retire. So by me up and going and saying “Hey I’m quitting my job to go and do music”, some people thought I was coocoo. So I always committed to making it work and it’s worked since and I’m very satisfied where my career is now seven years later. I’m looking forward to greatness that perceives me.
YKIGS: Tell me about the nickname Wyldcard and where it originated from.
KD: Wyldcard is a name that I actually coined for myself a few years back. I’m a big sports fan, in particular Football fan. I’m Miami Dade-County all day. Miami Dolphins usually, throughout my adolescence, always made the playoffs as a wild card. Everybody gave wild card teams flack because they aren’t that good to make it to the playoffs as a first seed, but at the same time, there’s an old saying that says “On any given Sunday, anybody can win.” The wild card represented the underdog that might be slept on, but they have the same tools and gifts as anybody else and they can win on any given Sunday. I also made a parody with the card game. Typically in any card game, the person that holds the wild card usually wins the game so that’s how I coined that name, kind of coming from nowhere, but with the mindset of dominating and changing the game really quickly. In recent months, I’m actually maturing and transitioning from Wyldcard and going more by my full name Kendrick Dean. I think it’s just a maturation, I think everybody goes through it. Dwyane Wade went from Flash to now just Dwyane Wade. I definitely feel like Wyldcard has had its run and this is a new phase in my career and I have different outlooks now. I have an artist that I’m grooming and I’m doing more things independently. I felt like there’s a need for a transition, so currently I’m transitioning just by Kendrick Dean, but Wyldcard has great significance that I could never forget or downplay.
YKIGS: For a lot of music fans, the word “co-producer” or “co-writer” confuses people because they don’t really know who is doing what on the track. When you’re working with Bryan, Adonis or Johnta on a track, do you have a specific, certain role or do they vary from track to track?
KD: Let me take the first part of your question in terms of co-writer and co-producer. Co-writer is basically any of the people who wrote the song whether someone wrote 99% and the other wrote 1%, they’re both co-writers because they wrote it together. Whether someone just came up with the concept and the other one did the rest or they split it in half, they’re equally co-writers. Now you have marketing that highlights a particular writer as the writer for the song and a lot of times it’s based on what the writer has done and how well their marketing plan is. At the end of the day, co-writer just indicates there’s more than one writer. Co-producer also indicates there’s more than one producer, but the difference between co-producers and two equal producers is really subjective. It’s based on the camp, it’s based on the two individuals and how they interpret what would constitute as production. A lot of times, people think making the track is producing the track and that’s not the case. Producing the track is seeing the track from conception to reality from A to Z or seeing the song really. It’s not just about the track, the producer oversees the writing, whether or not the producer writes on the song or not, he oversees the writing. He oversees the mixing and he gives the final word on everything. Whether it’s a co-production or equal production, those people are all involved in making sure the record actually comes out the way they envisioned it from the beginning.
A lot of times when Bryan, myself and Adonis work, the interesting part about it is each of us are equally producers as we are writers. When we work together, a lot of times Adonis takes the lead at writing because he is amazing. He’s incredibly fast and accurate at depicting an emotion. A lot faster than myself and I’m sure Bryan would agree a lot faster than him. So it’s almost like you give the team member the opportunity to display whatever their strength is that’s greater than yours just for the benefit of the team. I consider myself a good writer, but Adonis is quick, efficient and great so we always defer to him. Now at the same time, Bryan and I have a lot of input and there have been occasions where we equally have written a song together. Most of the time when it’s production, Bryan and I handle the majority of the music. There are occasions when Bryan would handle the blueprint of the track such as the keys and the programming and I would come on top and do a lot of what we would consider overdubs or the extra sprinkle like the string arrangement and some of the lead lines or some additional keys just to build it up and grow it to the next level. There are other times when I’ll start with the track and start with piano or keys and then Bryan would take that loop and build upon that. A lot of times when we do it that way, it’s an equal production because both of us are involved in not just creating the record, but making sure it comes to reality after the mix and after the song is written. We’re equally in a sense in producers in that way and it just depends, every case is different. Sometimes it might be required for me to be more of a writer on a particular track or Bryan being more of a writer or Adonis to impart someway in production. We’ve been pretty good at respecting each other and working together effectively and we definitely respect each others’ gifts. I think that’s benefited the songs we’ve created because we’ve been able to respectfully bow out when it’s time to bow out or be aggressive. We’ve learned how to work as a team and that’s how we’ve been able to be so successful.
YKIGS: I admire a lot of the work you guys do because every song you guys produce is real and what I mean by real is that musically it’s real, lyrically it’s real and every song you guys do just connects with the artist. It’s like you guys tailor made it for the artist. I think that makes the song much more believable. What is the mindset when you’re going into the studio and making a song?
KD: Well it is to make a real song. I think it all starts with the conversation and this is something I learned really by paying attention to Bryan, Adonis, Johnta and all the great writers and producers that I’ve worked with early on in my career. They all start with the conversation with the artist. You want to be able to make the artist so comfortable that they are themselves. They take off the mask of being a celebrity and being an artist that they tell you a personal story they have experienced. You want to base the song off real emotions. A lot of our songs are either done that way or personal. There are many songs I’ve contributed to that are very personal to me and experiences that I’ve either faced one on one or faced through other people. I think that’s very important and critical in making a record that is a hit, you want to be relatable. You want people to be like “Hey, I felt that way too. I thought I was the only one.” It’s kind of therapeutic. I kind of consider myself a musical psychologist. So in approaching a song, having a real conversation, to come out with a real song that makes a real impact and a real change in somebody’s life. That’s what it is.
YKIGS: I know you’ve also done some solo production for artists aside from working with B-Cox. Tell me a little about that.
KD: I’m working Q. Parker from 112 and he’s working on a solo album that’s due out later this year. I’ve also worked with Tyrese and continuously in working with him this year, we’ve done several songs together. He’s also coming out with a solo album. I’ve worked with Brandy earlier this year and plan to get back in with her before the end of the year. Trey Songz, LeToya Luckett and I can’t forget my artist. I have an artist that I’m developing and her name is Samantha Bailey Cruz. You can find out about her through her YouTube and Twitter. Those are the projects that I’m focused on. Of course, there are a lot that come in that I draw attention to that I’ll be more influenced in contributing before the end of the year. But those are the ones I’m focused on as this moment.
The ones Bryan and I are doing together include Johnny Gill. Of course he’s a legend in the game and still has a recognizable tone, so we’ve been very excited about that project. We’ve done a couple of records already and he’s in mix stage so his album should be out before the close of the year. And of course, Ginuwine which we just did and we’re ready to do another run with him soon. So those are the main projects that I’m focused on right this particular minute.
YKIGS: What’s the major difference between the work you do with Bryan and the work you do by yourself?
KD: Bryan and I are very similar in terms of musical studies. We’re both pianists first, Church piano players and Jazz piano players. There’s a lot of similarities in progression. I think the general approach that varies is probably in the drum programming and that holds true for most producers. Most producers make their distinction, not just in instrumentation or what the select to use in the track, but in the way they program the drums and the drum samples they actually use. Bryan has his own sample bank and I have my own sample bank. He has his own rhythmic way of approaching a drum and I do as well. We have variations in the way we sequence or format a record. Bryan does a lot of loud claps in his records as a snare. I do some of that, but not quite. I might do a clap but it might not be as pristine as the one Bryan uses. I might use a deeper clap. The difference is probably highlighted in that a lot of my training has come through orchestral stuff. I’m a violin player so a lot of my songs are going to be cinematic or orchestral. A lot of the contributions that we do together, you’re going hear some of that string arrangement or orchestral influence in there. That’s the main difference, but I find similarities in myself and Bryan, and myself and Babyface, and any other producer that’s been successful. There’s a formula and that’s solid melody, solid chord progression, solid drum programming and of course the end result…the song.
Follow Kendrick Dean on Twiter @KendrickDean.
Stay tuned for part 2 of the interview as we ask Kendrick about some of the specific songs that he’s worked on for numerous artists.