Interview: Producer Vidal Davis – Crafting the Sound of Philly and Keeping it on the Map
The emerging neo-soul sound that came out of Philly in the late 90’s and early 00’s brought us a fresh batch of new artists that are still prominent in music today including Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, and Marsha Ambrosius. Behind the creation of their music was Vidal Davis of Dre and Vidal productions who came out of DJ Jazzy Jeff’s famous A Touch of Jazz production camp. After achieving success in his home state, he managed to take his producing skills nation wide, working with the likes of Ciara, Chris Brown, and Fantasia just to name a few. The one thing that remained constant though, was he brought each of these artists into Philly for the creation process. YouKnowIGotSoul caught up with Vidal to touch on his history with Jazzy Jeff and Andre Harris, his work in the neo-soul movement, working with different writers, history behind his work on different songs, and much more.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about where you got your start as a producer. I know you did some work with Kenny Lattimore early on in your career. Where did you get your break?
Vidal Davis: Actually my first break was Kenny Lattimore. In the mid 90’s, the remix game was hot, so we were just on a lot of remixes and making what money I could make. I actually got my first single on Kenny Lattimore, that was in 95 or 96.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Obviously you were heavily involved in the whole neo-soul movement coming out of Philly in the early 2000’s with A Touch of Jazz studios. What do you remember most about that?
Vidal Davis: I remember just actually having a studio to go into. We had DJ Jazzy Jeff who we were signed to, A Touch of Jazz was the production company. He made it so that we could go and work and do what we had to do and not worry about time constraints and all types of stuff like that. Out of that, look what came out of it; we have Jill Scott, we have Musiq Soulchild, we have Floetry, we have Glenn Lewis. It was just so many things that came out of that situation. Just the people who were down there together; myself, Andre Harris, Carvin Haggins, Ivan Barias. That’s what made it a dope situation because it was like a friendly competition amongst all of us to make the projects. That’s what made us step it up as well to make it real crazy and everybody wanting to get on the project at the same time.
YouKnowIGotSoul: How did you originally link up with your production partner Andre Harris?
Vidal Davis: Me and Andre knew each other just from the musician scene in Philly and two of our uncles are best friends. My uncle was the music director for Phyllis Hyman, for the Winans, and just various artists. Those two were together; Andre’s brother played the bass with Andre’s uncle for the Winans. We kinda linked up during rehearsals here and there, and then we just started hanging out when we were teens. We just figured out we wanted to do the production thing, and just to make a long story short, we were drummers so we bought all of this stuff and traveled the world playing with a lot of different bands. I think I was about 17 or 18 and I got some money and that’s when I really decided to reinvest in myself. Not too many kids that age think like that, they want to go get a car or whatever else. I kinda was focused and I knew what I wanted to do. From that point, I got equipment and just started getting work, meeting up with cats. I had a friend who I used to go over his house and he used to teach me certain things of production and it just went from there.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You worked on a personal favorite album of mine, Musiq Soulchild’s debut “Aijuswanaseing”. We’ve had a chance to talk to Carvin & Ivan about their work on there, but talk about what you remember about the creation of the album.
Vidal Davis: I remember this kid coming into the studio and actually he was homeless, Carvin took a big part of really looking out for him. We all took care of him. Musiq used to come in and sing, he was dope but a little pitchy and we knew we could work on it. We all came together and helped something that Carvin believed in and we all came in and achieved it. Musiq came in and we were working on Jill’s album at the time, so we put him on backgrounds, just to get him into the mix on that. We had him around sessions and just watching him grow into the great artists that he is today. I remember us just going back and forth, Ivan would have a track and I’d play keys on this, or they’d have me do something on another part. That’s what made it what it was.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Another album you had a major part in was Glenn Lewis’ “World Outside My Window”. What do you remember about creating his debut?
Vidal Davis: That was a turning point in our careers. That actually was the first project of Dre and Vidal productions, that was our leaving Touch of Jazz and going out and starting our own thing. That’s when I met Marc Buyers and I knew Marc since I was about 14 or 15, we grew up around the same area in Philly. I would just always call him throughout my career for advice and he would give me it. I never asked him to manage. I touched base with him once we left A Touch of Jazz and he told us he had this kid from Toronto and though we should work with him, he’s kinda got a Stevie feel, so we took it from there. The first two songs we cut with him are the first and last songs on the album “Don’t You Forget It” and “For You (Your Song)”. After hearing his vocals, we knew it was going to be a winner. We then packed up our bags, we went to Toronto and lived there for a month and a half to record half of his album in his city. We had help from Marsha Ambrosius, Carvin helped us out on it, but he solely wrote that album mostly himself. We just helped him really bring it to light. Glenn’s talent is amazing. He’s getting ready to come out with a new single. His new album is stronger than ever.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about your work with Jill Scott. I know she’s definitely blossomed as an artist over the years and you’ve had a big hand in that. Talk about her growth and what you’ve seen in her.
Vidal Davis: Jill is family at the end of the day. I wouldn’t be here to do what I do if it wasn’t for artists like her. Working with Jill is amazing, just her personality, she’s just a real down to earth girl and sweet person and she’ll say what’s on her mind. We knew each other very well between all of this, and this is how it started with Jill. We had this spot and we used to play there every Tuesday night. It was open mic so there was a whole bunch of musicians. Jill used to come and do poetry and we used to do music, but she’d just do poetry over the music, we never heard her sing. Long story short, Jazzy Jeff was telling us about this girl he wanted us to meet, she could sing and do poetry. We didn’t know it was Jill, and a couple of months went by and we had been playing with Jill in this club. He brings her to the studio, she looks at us, we look at her and it’s like “Wow!” That right there was a great point, we already had a connection just with the music and maybe a month after that, we still didn’t get into the studio. Jill called a meeting and said “If you’re not going to work with me, tell me now!” She was very forward with what she wanted to do. From that point on, it was just one of those things. Next thing you know, we cut “Long Walk” and “The Way” and “Getting in the Way”. Those were her first singles, we cut them in a week. Jill is a good friend and we know her kids and she knows my kids. It’s just more than just getting in there and making music. That’s just with any artist as well.
YouKnowIGotSoul: After the success you had in Philly with the artists we talked about, when did the calls start coming in from artists nationwide to work with them?
Vidal Davis: We had a point where we were just stagnated as just being neo-soul producers. We just wanted to let everybody know that it wasn’t the case. We wanted to step outside the box even though we had been doing a lot of stuff, people just didn’t know it. The first thing that kinda made everybody say “Oh man!” was “Ooh” for Ciara. After we did that song, it was like “Uh oh”. It was just like how do we do a down south track, what would we make one like? And we just went in. Long story short with that, we were in Philly working on a project and Ciara was in Philly and we got word that she was in the studio working with R. Kelly on his record. We had Balewa Muhammad of the Clutch in town at the time and we wrote a record and took it up there to the studio, which was this studio in Philadelphia called The Studio. We played her a couple of tracks and she was like “Eeehhh, I don’t know”. But we got a call back a few days later like “Oh my God this song is amazing, this is about to be her first single”. From that point it just blossomed, we hooked up with Mark Pitts and a lot of that camp. We then worked with Chris Brown and developed him for “Yo (Excuse Me Miss)” and “Poppin”, the first two songs he cut. It ended up being two of the singles. It just went on that from that from Chris to Usher to Trey Songz to Fantasia to 112 to New Edition. There’s so many. That “Ooh” record really just put us on the map to say we just don’t do soul.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Speaking of Usher, I know the work you did on his “Confessions” album, you had the single “Caught Up”. I love “Superstar” even more. What do you remember about that one?
Vidal Davis: Oh man, that record we created in the apartment. It was me, Andre Harris and Ryan Toby and Pooh Bear. We were in Philly in our apartment and we had a little setup and we had our engineer at the time and we just thought “What can we make for Usher?” We had an opportunity, L.A. Reid and everybody were waiting to hear what we could do so we just wanted to make sure we did it right. We knew Ryan at the time, he and Usher had similar tone, so it helped a lot. Ryan and Pooh Bear linked up and we had a strong writing team. We just wanted to make a song for the fans for him. The concept of it was so crazy that you couldn’t deny it. That record actually should have been a single we thought, some things got in the middle, but we’re grateful for the singles and everything we had on the album. That record particularly, a lot of people still to this day say that record is crazy.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What do you remember about creating “Yo (Excuse Me Miss)” for Chris Brown?
Vidal Davis: I remember Chris Brown coming to Philly. Notice, every artist came to Philly. It takes that to get any work done. To really get the great records, once we kick it with them a little bit after they come down, it’s a wrap. We like to get people here to feel what’s going on. With Chris Brown, they called us and let us hear this kid and asked what we thought about him. So we said “We like him, let’s do it.” So we sat down and figured out who would be the best writer to get for him. We narrowed it down to one writer and that was Johnta Austin because he had hits for Mariah and Mary J. Blige and everybody. He came in and we wrote “Yo (Excuse Me Miss)” and “Poppin”. He cut those two records, Chris came down and heard the demos, and he cut them. So “Yo (Excuse Me Miss)” was the second single after “Run It”, and then “Poppin” was the third single. Getting in with that kid, when we first met him, we had cut about 7 records for him and two made the album. We would cut like three songs a day, that’s how fast he would go. His work ethic at that young age, 14 or 15, it was amazing. That was our first time working with a young kid that age that was so talented. We just knew he was going to be here and he’s still here, he’s going to be here for awhile. Seeing that kid grow into a grown man now and handling his career, he’s doing a very good job now. He’s even writing smashes on his own rather than from people like myself and producers and all of the big guys he worked with. He’s really turned it up to another level.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Another song I wanted to ask about is Robin Thicke’s “2 Luv Birds”. What do you remember about creating that one?
Vidal Davis: We were kicking it with Robin in L.A. for awhile. We were talking to him for a couple of days before we got in. That’s a part of production too; you don’t have to be in the studio the whole time. We were trying to figure out what direction to go in, what he had and what he needed for the album. He wanted a classic ballad. So me and Dre, we cut live music all of the time, I have to do that. I have a lot of live tracks so I just happened to have a track that he liked, and once he heard it, it just sparked an emotion. We recorded the song at his house and he would go out and write and come back in and we’d be out playing pool. He sang it down for us and when we first heard the record , we were like “That’s it!” That boy, he’s got some soul! *Laughs*
YouKnowIGotSoul: Since you do the production side of things, when you’re working with writers, what’s the chemistry like? Say you have an artist, then you have a particular writer come in and you’re doing the production, how do you all coordinate?
Vidal Davis: Sometimes before the artist comes we’ll get a couple of songs that they did from the label or management to hear their voice and see where they’re at. Basically once we hear what they have, this may be even before the writer comes in, we’ll figure out what writer we want to get in. Then we’ll make calls and whatever writer we need to get to come in, any writer I get, I need to work with them and the relationships got to be there. For the new writers I haven’t met, I just base it on how we go the first round and see how things work out. Normally, it always works out. I’m pretty good with going in the studio and making people feel comfortable. The thing about writers is, every writer can’t write to every track, so you’ve got to get writers for certain tracks. It’s a process.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Lately I’ve seen you and Andre Harris credited separately on songs. Do you guys still work together?
Vidal Davis: Yea we do still work together. We actually did co-production on a couple of songs out now. Me and Dre have been together for about 14 years, so we kinda laugh at it, like “What you think, you wanna try and do separate stuff?” We both play the same amount of instruments. He wants to be out L.A. now and wants to work on different things, and I’m very supportive of him and he’s very supportive of me. We’re just at that point, but it’s still Dre and Vidal. To keep all of the haters out, that’s what it is. *Laughs*
YouKnowIGotSoul: Who have you worked with and who are you working with currently?
Vidal Davis: I’m a mixer as well, and I just mixed Kindred’s whole album that came out this year and the single on there as well. From that it went to Kenny Lattimore, I mixed about 5 songs on his new album. I just did a song with him and Lalah Hathaway that’s killer, their first duet together, it’s a very special record. I did a song for Keyshia Cole that I’m currently mixing now. I just finished up with Jawan Harris, I did about 5 songs, he’s a new artist that Mark Pitts has on the Bystorm Records. This kid is so talented, from Chi-town. I’m working with two artists of Star Islands’ artists, which is Pop & Oak’s company. I’m working on Sterling Simms who is a Philadelphia native and a group called MPrynt. I’m getting prepared to go back in with Jill Scott now. I just finished a record with Marsha Ambrosius. I just did a record with Raheem DeVaughn. I’m mixing Patti LaBelle’s new jazz album. Vivian Green’s new single is getting ready to come out, I just got the number 1 record with Jill Scott on “Blessed”. Just trying to really keep building this thing out and help put Philly back on the map.
YouKnowIGotSoul: I know you produced the song “1970 Somethin” for Notorious B.I.G. which Static Major wrote the chorus to that Faith Evans sang. Did you have a chance to work with him on other songs?
Vidal Davis: Yes I have worked with Static a lot. He was a very, very great friend of mine. We were writing with Static for Monica, we did writing with Static for Fantasia, we did writing with Static for Chris Brown. That one didn’t make the cut. He’s still missed to this day, he’s one of the best that ever did it, just with that Aaliyah album alone. He gave her a sound, when that album came out, it was just so fresh. Static is always gonna be remembered.