J. Que Smith Talks Forming The Clutch, Creating “Ice Box” by Omarion, Working With Babyface (Exclusive)

We recently caught up with J. Que Smith for an interview on Instagram Live. During our conversation, we talked about some of his biggest hits for Fantasia (“Truth Is”), Avant (“4 Minutes”) and Omarion (“Ice Box”). We also talked about forming the writing team The Clutch which also included Keri Hilson, Ezekiel Lewis, Candice Nelson and Balewa Muhammad. We also talk about his work with Babyface and some of his work overseas in Japan and Korea.

YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about one of your earliest placements which was “Truth Is” by Fantasia.

J. Que Smith: We wrote it with Soulshock & Karlin. We were in L.A. and they gave us the record. At the time we were staying in Malibu at a friend’s house. They had a private beach, so we were loving being in Malibu and we didn’t write anything. The next day when it was time to go to the session, I had to come up with something. We hopped in the car, put the track on and wrote the whole song on the way to the studio. We wrote that song for Toni Braxton and played it for her. They said they didn’t like it and I was heartbroken. Then I went to Japan to do some writing and then I got a call from Soulshock & Karlin and they were like “Fantasia cut it. It’s going to be the single”. A week later they called me again and they were like “It’s not on the album anymore”. They called me back and they were like “It’s the single again!” and it came out. Meeting Fantasia was dope because we’re both from North Carolina.

YouKnowIGotSoul: How did the songwriting group The Clutch come together with yourself, Keri Hilson, Ezekiel Lewis, Candice Nelson and Balewa Muhammad?

J. Que Smith: It was the most random situation ever. I remember it because we were in Miami. Right before we went to Miami, I got a call from my publisher asking if I would be interested in doing a writing camp for Sony. I wasn’t interested, but then I got a call from Keri. We were already trying to build The Clutch, but our group was called The Writers Block. Keri said she would do it, so I said I’d do it too. We were in the studio that weekend and we wrote six songs, recorded five and then by Tuesday, four of them were placed immediately. We were like “Maybe we should get together once every two months to write something since this went well”. The next week we got a call from J Records and they were like “We heard you did a writing session with Sony for Jennifer Lopez” and they wanted a writing session too. At that time, we were putting together so many records. At the time before we refined our process, we were making so many records. They would put Keri and I in one room and then Ezekiel Lewis and Candice Nelson would be in another room. Keri and I would do two records and then Candice and Ezekiel would do two, so we had four records a day. Everyone was calling us to work. A bunch of those songs got placed and then not too long after that, we called again two weeks later from Interscope. They were like “How come we aren’t part of this whole Clutch thing?’. In 52 weeks in the year, we were booked 46 weeks in a year and we just worked. The craziest thing is that The Clutch was the easiest work ever. Our process was super weird because individually, we all had pretty dope discographies. We all had written some pretty good records. By the time we were rolling, we hit a niche market because these labels at the time had song deals with producers and they had all these tracks, but they didn’t necessarily have songs. We were the people that people would go to for the tracks that they had already paid for. Our process is that we would get in the room, play the track and Balewa was the concept king. He would come up with something and then everyone would split to different corners of the room and we would all write what we wanted to write. Then we would come back together and the way it ended up working in the end, we would all sing what we had and then we would work out the bridge. All of our records worked that way. People would always say “There are so many moving parts. Nothing felt the same” and it’s because we didn’t think it through together. In my opinion, Candice was the most talented out of all of us. It was amazing and super easy.

YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about writing “Ice Box” by Omarion.

J. Que Smith: I had worked with Omarion when he was with B2K. Omarion delivers my song better than anyone. We got a call from his team to work on his single and I was like “Okay cool!”. The studio was at 6 PM and Kawan Prather was like “The rest of The Clutch missed their flight, we’re pushing the session back to 8 PM”. I got to the studio at 8 PM and then the session got pushed back to 10 PM. I was at the studio already and Omarion was there too. I was like “I’ll start it and then everyone else can fill in when they get there”. Omarion had two tracks and they both came from Timbaland’s track. He played the beat for “Ice Box” and then “Beg For It”. I was like “Let’s write to the first beat”. He wanted to write a song called “Cold” and I told him if the song is going to be a hit, it needs to be a hit from top to bottom. If you have 13 tracks on the album, no one is going to go to “Cold” because the title needs to be interesting. He suggested “Ice Box” and I was like “No, that’s wack”. Then he showed me the computer with “Ice Box” on it and I was like “I can’t even front, that looks good!”. Then we tried figuring out what the song was going to be about. I think all dudes are pretty solid until they get really messed up by a heartbreak and then they go into dog mode. Omarion was like “Let’s write about the girl that broke your heart” and I was like “Why don’t we write about the girl that has to deal with you after the heartbreak?”. It happened super fast for me and that isn’t always the case. I’m writing the song to my wife about my ex girlfriend, so for me and my writing process, I don’t write until I can see the whole thing in my end. The second that I can see it, I can just write. We wrote the pre-chorus and chorus in a minute and Omarion was like “Let’s finishing writing it”. For me, I know my arrangement with The Clutch and the splits, so I was like “The energy is amazing. We should start recording”. Omarion did his part and then he went home. Afterwards, I called my friend Antonio Dixon and was like “I’m working on something that might special. Get over here”. He came in and started writing with Keri and Ezekiel when they got there. They started singing the verses and I was like “That’s not what the song is about”. I was like “The melodies are gold though” so we go back to it with me explaining the situation and then we write the song. I’m singing all the harmonies in the back and then Omarion cuts it the next day. He records it and it sounds amazing. Timbaland actually doesn’t have any vocals on it. We cut Ezekiel Lewis’ vocals until he sounded like Timbaland. I was telling Omarion that this was a hit. Timbaland came to the studio, heard it and was like “Well Sean Garrett has the other beat. Let’s see what he did with that track before we make a decision”. Two minutes later, Timbaland told us to play “Ice Box” again and they ended up loving it.

YouKnowIGotSoul: How did the remix with Usher come about?

J. Que Smith: I bumped into Usher at the airport and he was like “You know that should have been my record right?”. Usher was like “If you do a remix to that song, I will do it”. We wrote the remix and we went to cut it with Usher. I pressed play and Usher said “I’m not singing this!”. We wrote a whole different story with different melodies and Usher told us he just wanted to sing “Ice Box”. We sat down and wrote new lyrics over “Ice Box”. The vibe was really cool for that one.

YouKnowIGotSoul: After The Clutch era, you started working with Babyface and Antonio Dixon for Beyonce and Ariana Grande. Talk about your work with Babyface.

J. Que Smith: When The Clutch broke up, it was really difficult for me because I had spent everyday for four years with those guys. When we broke up, it was hard dealing with all those emotions because I associated myself with them. I would go to the studio and then I wouldn’t be able to perform or produce the way I needed to. For a very long time, I ended up doing nothing. I remember calling Antonio Dixon and for the first time ever, he rushed me off the phone. I was like “What was that?”. He called me like a day or two later and was like “I was in the studio with Beyonce and Babyface”. Beyonce loved what they were doing, but she felt some of those melodies and lyric choices felt old. Antonio told Babyface that he needed to bring me in. LA Reid signed me early on because he said that my writing reminded him of Babyface. I went in the studio with Babyface and I hadn’t been in the studio in a year. I got in the studio and I started freaking out after seeing Babyface. Antonio was like “You have to stop calling him Babyface. Call him Kenny” and I just couldn’t stop. We started writing the record and it was “Baby I” which we originally wrote for Beyonce because she was working on a 90’s throwback album. Whenever Antonio Dixon would leave the studio and it was just me and Kenny, I would turn into a Babyface fan instead of being a GRAMMY award winning songwriter. One time I suggested something and Kenny was like “No, I think we should go this way” and I was just like “Okay”. I had done a terrible job and after Babyface left, I was like “I’m sorry” and Antonio Dixon was like “We’ll try again in a few months and maybe he won’t remember you”. Antonio started playing the beat for “Best Thing I Never Had” and I started singing the melodies. We wrote the song and I was like “Let me record it”. Antonio was like “No, you need to sing it to Kenny so he knows you’re talented”. He came back a few days later and I was super nervous because I had messed up before. Kenny heard it and he was like “I love it. Let’s re-write it”. We re-wrote a part of it and the song was different. It wasn’t better, it was just different. Then we started tweaking the chorus and I didn’t like it. We finished that and then Kenny went “Let’s look at the verses now”. Antonio was like “Let’s write another record if you don’t like it”. The next day, Kenny was like “I really enjoyed writing with you and we have to go in the studio with Beyonce next week. Do you want to come?”. I was like “Babyface and Beyonce? Yes!”. We got to New York and wrote another song called “Million Excuses” and Kenny looked at me and was like “I want to take another look at that other record”. If you know him, you can see him turn from Kenny Edmonds to Babyface. You can watch it happen. He told me that “Best Thing I Ever Had” was cool but “Best Thing I Never Had” was different. He understands how to evoke emotions with the fewest words possible. He started going through the song and he was like “Your ideas are great, but you have to pay more attention to the little things”. He stepped out of the booth after hearing his voice on my song, it had me ready to cry. He was like “It’s almost right” and he was like “We need to ear candy”. Antonio was like “That’s easy! J. Que can do that in his sleep” and Babyface was like “Go write it right now!”. I was feeling super pressured and then Antonio told me to be “Young and dumb”. It’s something we’ll do all the time. We’ll make the stupidest songs in the studio. I turned the track on and I started singing “What goes around, comes back around my baby”. They ran to the next room to get Beyonce and it was like the light of the lord entered the room. She recorded the song and then played it back. We ended up doing another song called “Dreaming” and that record was amazing. It showed me who Babyface and Antonio were. That record was done, but they just needed a bridge. When they got ready to write the bridge and I was like “This song is going to be amazing”. Kenny was like “What are you doing?”. The song was done, so I didn’t want to force myself on someone else’s record. He was like “That’s not how a team works” and I got up there and wrote on the bridge with them. When the splits came out, Kenny’s assistant showed me the split and I got 33%. I was like “There was a typo. It’s just a bridge so it should just show 3%”. Antonio told me “Welcome to working with Babyface. We all wrote on the song so we split it even”.

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