Interview: Producer Shep Crawford Talks Making Hit Records, Origin of the Queen Project, R&B Coming 2nd to Pastoring
If you’re the type of fan of music that likes to read the liner notes when you pick up an album, than you would probably recognize the name Shep Crawford for being behind some of your favorite songs for artists like Tamia, Deborah Cox, Kelly Price, Sisqo and Montell Jordan. We caught up with him for this interview to discuss his path to becoming a producer, some of the biggest hits he’s had through his career, working with Kelly Price extensively on her latest album, working with Tamia throughout her career, his vision for assembling the Queen Project, being a pastor now, and much more.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What was your first major placement as a producer?
Shep Crawford: I co-produced a song with Montell Jordan on his debut album “This is How We Do It” called “Daddy’s Home”. That would probably be my first one on a major label.
YKIGS: How did you originally link up with Montell to contribute to that album?
Shep: Montell and I grew up together and when he got a deal at Def Jam he brought me on as his music director because we were both musicians when we were younger in the church. From music director, I started hanging out in the studio with them and just being there when he needed someone to do keys, and just collaborating and playing on some things and started actually doing production. So then he finally gave me my own room to do my own thing as well, so that’s kinda how I got into the business.
YKIGS: Most recently, talk about the work you did on Kelly Price’s “Kelly” album. What was it like working with her?
Shep: Me and Kelly have been working together for a long time now. I think out of the five or six albums she’s done whether r&b or gospel, there are probably only two of them that I’m not on. So we’ve been working together for awhile now. It’s always great working with Kelly and my experience with her is different than working with any other artist because I really don’t do a lot of work there. What I mean by that is Kelly will sing me a fully written song with the vocals laid acapella and I’ll take the vocals and start putting the music to it and start producing it and then she’ll come in and sing to it. So I really don’t have to coach her or tell her how to sing, I just kinda sit back and facilitate the buttons and let her do her thing. We have a nice little chemistry where sometimes we’ll go in and she’ll have an idea and start singing it to me, and then we’ll go from there. Everything I’ve done with Kelly she has initiated on the creative side and I just kinda take the lead from her and make it happen.
YKIGS: Another artist that I’d like to touch on that you’ve worked with over the course of her career is Tamia. I know that on her most recent album “Between Friends” you did most of the album. How did you get a chance to work with her, and what’s it been like working with her?
Shep: Tamia is a songbird. She’s ridiculous, she’s like no other. The first time we had a chance to work with each other was a song I did for her called “Stranger in my House”. Actually that was the second record; the first was a song on that same album called “If I Were You”. So while we were recording “If I Were You” she heard the song “Stranger in my House” and she told me she wanted the song and she ended up recording it. From there, we just have had a great relationship; I’ve probably worked with Tamia more than any other artists that I’ve worked with. When she decided to go independent, she called me up and said “Let’s just make great music, let’s not worry about keeping up with the trends, let’s just go in there and make great music.” So that’s exactly what we did, we didn’t have to answer to anyone; we went in there and made great music. So I went down to Orlando and stayed there for awhile, and every day we went to the studio and just started from scratch and that’s how “Between Friends” came about. So we’re very happy about that project, it was a successful album for her especially with it being independent. We felt that it was a big accomplishment in both of our lives.
YKIGS: Will you be working on Tamia’s next album as well?
Shep: Yes, actually we start working together this week. I wasn’t as involved in this record as I was on “Between Friends”, but I’m at least doing three songs with her. I know she’s been working with Claude Kelly who I’m a fan of, he’s ridiculous with the pen and the production. So I’m looking forward to hearing what she’s done there. Even though she’s changed direction and kinda done some different things, her and I definitely have to get down. So we’ve been writing together, and now we’re ready to get together and make it happen.
YKIGS: I’ve picked a few songs that you’ve had a hand in writing or producing over the years and I was hoping to get some background on these songs.
YKIGS: The first is R.L. and Deborah Cox “We Can’t Be Friends.”
Shep: Actually it was written for a group by the name of 98 Degrees, I don’t know if you remember the group, you might be too young to remember. *Laughs* It was written for them and it wasn’t originally a duet. What happened was Andre Harrell was over at Motown at the time and 98 Degrees was signed to him. He asked to make it a duet between them and a group called Shades of Brown. So I went back in and made it a duet and it didn’t happen with the groups. But when I ended up playing it for Clive Davis, he wanted it for Deborah Cox and it ended up going to her. So it was Clive’s idea to get R.L. on the song as well because they were label mates. “We Can’t Be Friends” was a song I wrote a very long time ago, one of the songs I wrote before I was a noted producer. I remember as a kid watching the end of a TV series called Joanie Loves Chachi and they broke up. I remember Chachi saying to Joanie “We can’t be friends because I love you.” I’ve always remember that as a kid when I was growing up, I always wanted to do a song like that. So that song is probably one of my favorites that I’ve written, it’s in my top three, and it became a hit so I’m glad about it.
YKIGS: I’m glad you brought up 98 Degrees because I did want to ask you about them. I know you had a hand in their first album which was an album a lot of people don’t even recognize because it was in a different direction than the boy band sound we got accustomed to. Talk about the direction of that album and the direction they asked you to go in with their music at the time.
Shep: I was a part of the Montell Jordan’s camp and we discovered 98 Degrees. They sung for Montell at a show he did in Seattle, they came backstage and they sang the National Anthem or something of that sort. Montell’s tour manager at the time was named Paris and he started managing them. We actually did the demo that got them the deal with Motown. I think our direction for them was too urban so we kinda missed on that first album. When they came with the second album, there was more pop there so it kinda worked for them. I haven’t spoken to the guys in awhile, but we did keep in touch during their whole run and they were good guys. I think I came back and worked with them a little later on maybe their last studio album. So that’s how that came out.
YKIGS: Talk to me about Sisqo’s “Incomplete”.
Shep: Oh wow. I’m going to give you some truth here, are you ready? It was written for a young man by the name of Sam Salter. The label wanted something that was a love song but showed some insecurity. So of course I collaborated with my man Montell Jordan on that one and we wanted to put together a song that said “Hey I have everything, but I’m nothing without you”, which is a tale as old as time, but we wanted to tell it in a very unique way. So we gave it to a young man by the name of Sam Salter but it didn’t happen; he did a good job on it but they didn’t really like the record for him I guess. After that, I played it for an A&R at Def Jam and he loved it for Sisqo. At the time Sisqo wasn’t really feeling the record like that, his album was pretty much done and he was ballad heavy. So the first studio session, he let me know he didn’t know it was a ballad and he didn’t really want to record another ballad, so we left and we didn’t record the song. Kevin Liles called me back and told me he had talked to Sisqo and told him how much he wanted the song on the record, so we came back in the studio and recorded it. Sisqo delivered an amazing vocal performance and you felt his emotion through it. It wasn’t scheduled to be a single but after “Thong Song”, radio started playing it even before a video came out and it ended up being number one. So he ended up filming a video or it and it became one of his biggest hits.
YKIGS: Another song that you mentioned earlier was Tamia’s “Stranger in My House”. How did that song come together?
Shep: I wrote it with a young lady named Shae Jones. Initially I wrote it with Toni Braxton in mind. Truthfully I don’t know if Toni heard it, but I sent it to someone at the label there and I never got a call back as far as if she liked it or not. So it was kind of around when I first met Tamia, and she really wasn’t too aware with my work, so I started playing songs. She came up and said that she wanted that one. How I ended up writing a song called “Stranger in my House”, I was in the studio and I had writer’s block. I was trying to come up with a song for Toni and I couldn’t write anything. So I was like “I’m going to shut it down for now. Let me go see a movie,” and I saw “Sixth Sense”. That movie had such a twist at the end so I came back to the studio and was like “I’m going to write a song that has a twist”. So that’s when the bridge says “Could it be that the stranger is me, have I changed so drastically? And you remained the same.” So that’s how the song came about. When Tamia heard it, she loved it. She called Sylvia Rhone had her hear it over the phone. At the time, it wasn’t just really easy using mp3s and then they heard it on the phone, then I went to New York to work with Boyz II Men and I left for a second to meet with Sylvia who heard the song again and wanted it for Tamia. Tamia came on there and she really did it. The demo is nice, but with the range that Tamia has and her beautiful voice and the video. At first, I didn’t care for the video concept. When I was came to the video shoot, she was sitting in the pool and I was like “What are you doing in the pool? Where is the stranger?” but it worked out. I got a chance to see Tamia be as beautiful as she is and then from there on it lifted her career and definitely helped mine as well and we kept that chemistry going with songs like “Me”.
YKIGS: You mentioned the concepts of how you’ve put some of these songs together. What is your usual process when writing a song?
Shep: Well most of the time I try to have the song before I go into the studio. So I have my piano in my living room, old faithful here is where the songs start off. My barber who used to come into my house and cut my hair when he heard one of the songs I had written on the radio, said he had remembered when I had written it because it was written on a piece of paper and lines were scratched out. So I’ll sit at the piano and I’ll try to work out at least the chorus at the piano. “We Can’t Be Friends” I finished the whole song before I even stepped into production. So most of my songs start at the piano, sometimes I can hear a track and then I’ll write to it, but I would say at least 80% of the songs that I have done have started at the piano. Then I’ll just write the chorus, know the melody to the verses, and then I’ll start production on it and finish it up as I go.
YKIGS: I know you were the one who had conceptualized the whole Queen Project with Tamia, Kelly Price and Deborah Cox. What was your original vision for putting that team together to create that project?
Shep: My original thought was these are three women that I’ve worked with extensively and I’m very close to them and their family, know their home number, we talk whether it’s music or not. These are three women who are very respected for their voices and not compromising. So I think for awhile, I think I first started trying to get the three of them together to do something in 2005 or 2006, but everybody was kinda busy doing their own thing. Then when r&b started taking a plunge and hip hop started taking over, the real singers were kinda getting put on the back burner. So at that point, I sent out an e-mail to each of them saying I would love for everyone to call in to this conference number and everyone called in. I told them I wanted to present something to them which I had tried to do years ago, and with the music industry being the way it was, I felt like we need to make a huge comeback and I felt like in order to do so we needed to come together. Not to say individually they couldn’t pull it off, they’ve proven time after time they could sustain and make their thing happen. But I felt like we could together really, really make an impact. So initially everyone thought about it and they were ready to go and come together. We were happy about it and we tried to come together to make it work. We had an album done but we were having some problems with the business concepts of how it should run because everybody kinda had one way of doing things because solo artists are used to doing things one way. So we were working things out and making it happen but the timeline we had, we only had a certain window to do it in. Kelly had obligations with the label she was going with, Deborah had Broadway obligations, so we had to make sure we would have time to do the full run which was not only putting out an album, but also a full tour. When it got to the point where it just seemed like we couldn’t see eye to eye on the business and the time frame was going much over what we had anticipated, we decided to leave it just as a great idea.
YKIGS: There’s a song I want to ask you about specifically from that project and that’s a song called “Mirror” by Keke Wyatt and it has Kelly Price on it. Was that originally intended for the Queen Project?
Shep: Well that was another one that was originally written for Toni Braxton, but for some reason she didn’t take it. Montell Jordan and I wrote it for Toni. So when the Queen Project came about, we were like “Let’s put this on the ladies” and the ladies got on the song. The song was never released. So when the project failed, I was very much holding onto the song and thought about giving it to En Vogue because I was ready to do some work with them, but I was very much holding onto the song. Then the Keke Wyatt project came out, I was working with her and remaking a song called “Love With a New Management”. I sat down with her and listened to her story. I don’t know if you know her story, but she dealt with domestic abuse for years. She had a story, so we started talking about the song “Mirror” and I was starting talking to her label about it, but now I had three people in my mind for, it had to be three ladies on it. Kelly, who I do everything with, was down to do it too. And I didn’t want to reach out to Deborah or Tamia because then I would have had two of the Queen Project on there, so it was kind of like “Which one?” I only wanted one and that was Kelly. We were then trying to figure out who the other person was going to be, we were thinking about Faith Evans or maybe Gladys Knight, and then we all heard the word Tweet and we’re all fans of hers. I was ready and said “Let’s get Tweet” and then we got it done. It was a beautiful record and I wasn’t going to let it get to waste. There were so more songs from The Queen Project initially that you’re probably going to hear from another artist that I won’t let go to waste. It probably won’t be a trio or duet, but there are some songs that are dear to me and wrote from my heart and I’m not going to let it go to waste. I like Keke Wyatt who is now a spokesperson for Domestic Violence and I thought it would be perfect. The song is pretty much a reminder to never go back to a situation that was not healthy for you. I feel like with her, she’s ready to come out with a reality series that I believe with Faith, Tweet, one of the members of SWV. So I thought it would be a great thing for her.
YKIGS: What are you currently working on and what artists are you currently working with?
Shep: Right now, I don’t know if you know, but I’ve started pastoring. I started pastoring October 31st of last year. So my main focus is uplifting the people of God through his word. Of course, with me being an R&B producer, I don’t disclaim that. I’m not the person who is saying “There is no more R&B.” .R&B is who I am. When you come to my church, you’ll get to hear some great product of R&B too. At the end of the day, my main focus is doing God’s will. Music will have to come second. Nevertheless, the projects I’m working on right now, first is Keke Wyatt’s album which I have three songs on, that’s coming out. I’m getting ready to work with Tamia as well. I’m also coming out with a gospel compilation where all of my friends: Deborah, Tamia, Kelly, David Hollister, Coko, Montell Jordan and a lot of people I’ve worked with throughout the years are going to be on it as well. It’s going to be a gospel project that has my production, songs that I’ve written or produced. So those are pretty much the main things I’m working on right now, getting that album out and at the same time working with artists that I love.
YKIGS: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Shep: I love great R&B singing and I’m never bashing any of the music that’s out right now. I just want to say to any producer, songwriter or singer: “Make sure you identify yourself through your music because if you don’t have any identity, you’re just joining in to whatever is current. When it’s not current, you won’t be. So make sure you get an identity so you will have songs that will play forever.” One thing with me is I’m not as active as I was ten years ago, but my checks are. *Laughs* My songs are still on the radio stations and I still get ASCAP checks so it’s a blessing when you can write timeless songs that will last throughout the changes of the music industry.