We recently caught up with producer / songwriter Steve “Stone” Huff for an interview on Instagram Live. During our conversation, we talked about how he helped introduce Avant, his work on his debut album “My Thoughts”, having him collaborate with Keke Wyatt, working on Avant’s “Ecstasy” and “Private Room” albums, creating Joe’s hit song “Treat Her Like a Lady”, and much more.
Steve “Stone” Huff: So, you know, I started out in Gospel music, you know, so I’m like church baby, I learned to play bass and I was a bass player by trade. So I learned to play bass in church and so Gospel was like the first music that I started in. My first placement was with Fred Hammond of Commission. It was an exciting opportunity. I mean, especially with somebody as big as him at the time we were playing and touring because I started out as a touring bass player and so when he went solo actually from the group of my first placement was with him and I mean, it was a great. It was a great feeling, kind of surreal. And you know music has been my life. And then to work with people I grew up listening to and end up producing. Working with Fred, you know, that was like a serious plug and I went to Detroit, I went down and ended up, I was supposed do one song and it ended up being like two or three songs and I work with two or three of those other groups there. So I made like three placements off my first placement. So, you know it was just a great feeling but a sign of things to come, maybe you know me being a musician and turning into producer, you know, maybe that’s something I needed to really consider right? I never set out to be like all I want to be is a producer. It’s what I want to be. I was a musician. And I was playing and you know making making great money touring but in my head, I knew there was something more as far as being able to leave a legacy.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You first caught our attention for the work you did on Avant’s debut album “My Thoughts”. I remember reading that his first single “Separated” was a big hit before he even got signed. How did that all go down?
Steve “Stone” Huff: In 1998 or 1999, I went on tour with R. Kelly, it was the Mr. Biggs tour. Avant’s manager at the time, his name is Eric Payton, he was on tour. We did a world tour, we did the leg overseas and then did the U.S. side. I just remember this guy, he was always around, he was actually responsible for discovering R. Kelly. He was always around but we never spoke. After tour was over, I saw him on Michigan Avenue. I was with R. Kelly’s artist Sparkle, we were dating at the time. We bumped into him on this main street and he pulled over. He asked if I produced and said he had this guy named Avant from Cleveland. He was trying to get him a deal, but the demos didn’t really sound great. He played some songs, the songs were ok. I could hear his voice and his tone and his passion. It was almost like I was hearing somebody I knew. So he called him and he picked right up. So we talked and immediately he started singing. Avant is a testament to anybody trying to make it in this game as an artist. Be ready to sing! I didn’t even have to ask, he sang all types of songs. I told him I’d write three tracks and we’d work over the phone. This was before social media and all of that, we wrote over the phone. Then he flew in a month or so later, I had the tracks ready, and he came to town and my engineer Peter Mokrin heard the stuff and thought it was hot. He said he’d mix it for free. It was kind of one of those surreal moments. I had these relationships as well. Eric Payton was making moves with Avant as well. He flew in, we cut the songs, we mixed the songs, we took it to the the program director at WGCI and he loved it. It was all love out of the gate and he started playing the songs. It was actually the song “I Wanna Know” that blew up first locally. We technically met on the street on the phone.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Avant’s debut album “My Thoughts” recently celebrated it’s 20th anniversary. You had a big part in creating that. What do you remember about it?
Steve “Stone” Huff: I was living in Indianapolis at the time. We had built a studio there and that’s where I met Keke Wyatt. I was in transition back to Chicago. There was an Amish guy who had a studio on the north side in his basement. It was like washer and dryer and then speaker and board next to it! I brought my gear, we found him, it was called “Horse Drawn Productions”. I will never forget it. We got in there in the studio, he had a really good sound, and we recorded the whole album in this guy’s basement. We couldn’t work on the weekends because religiously they couldn’t use power! We just got really cool and close, Avant flew in, we cut the vocals for the entire album, and it was like Avant became instantly my brother. We just hit it off. Avant was from Cleveland, but he was pretty much living in Chicago at that point on. So we were working everyday cutting songs. That was the experience of that album. It was in the dark basement of an Amish engineer who was super awesome. We cut that whole album there. We went everywhere and they all loved it. But then all we heard from everyone was they weren’t interested, it sounded too much like R. Kelly. We went to every label. So first everyone said they loved it and then 3 days later nobody was interested. The song started blowing up, Avant was big in Chicago. MCA had made a commitment, but they came back and said they were no longer interested. We knew the music was great. So my engineer Peter Mokrin went back to L.A. He ended up working with a guy who worked for Magic Johnson, who had just struck the deal with MCA Records. When MCA refused, a month later, he walked into the office and he heard Avant’s music. Next thing I know, Magic flies us to L.A., picks us up in his car, and the rest is history! It was impossible to stop at that time because Chicago was rocking so hard with Avant at that point.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about the duets you did for Avant with Keke Wyatt.
Steve “Stone” Huff: When Avant got the deal and we put “Separated” out, I had still had Keke Wyatt in my back pocket. She was in Indianapolis. She had a big name there. I told her I guaranteed her that as long as I was alive that she would make it, the world needed to hear her sing. I decided to piggyback an artist on the coat tails of another. “My First Love”, I wanted to do something to honor Angela Winbush. I love that song. I brought the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in to do live strings. In my head I was going to put Keke on the song. I brought the idea to him and he said of course. We put that out second and that was what ushered in her deal with MCA Records. That was a really dope time. That was why the second song was “My First Love” to get Keke out. I produced her debut album and it went Gold right away. I’ve been blessed to work with some amazingly talented people. These songs still to this day are being played.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You next worked with Avant on his second album “Ecstasy” which had the huge single “Makin Good Love”. What was the approach to that album?
Steve “Stone” Huff: I ended up with the opportunity to buy Battery Studios in Chicago, which Jive Records owned. I was booking it out of pocket. R. Kelly had all of the studios taken up at that particular time. *Laughs* I started paying out of pocket, and I’m not sure if he heard, so then he wouldn’t work there. We were getting ready for the next project. At that point I was cutting songs and went from bass player touring to Avant’s thing heating up, and I got off the tour stuff and was just a producer in the studio. When it came time to work on the second album, I had a bunch of stuff done. It was just a matter of Avant coming in and from morning to night recording. He’d come with a lot of ideas as a writer. They’d either fit with a song or I’d make something to go with it, or we’d both write from scratch. “Makin Good Love”, when I look at it in retrospect, it’s really a borrow from Benny & the Jets. That song we were just vibing and writing and coming up with whatever we felt at the time was the tone back then. Really it was about love making and the love scene and all of that.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about the song you produced for Joe “Treat Her Like a Lady”.
Steve “Stone” Huff: I had caught a vibe while writing and I grabbed my guitar. I remember Al Greene did that one song, I can’t remember the name of it. I turned the mic on and went in the studio and started stomping on the ground. I recorded that and put drums to it, and I recorded that in about 15 minutes. Avant did not want to do that song! So when I was working in the studio, it was Jive’s studio, the studio manager was in charge of Britney Spears, N Sync and all of the others. The manager of the studio was DJ Wayne Williams, and when he heard it, he told me not to play it for anybody else. He told the label about it, and they had Joe in mind for it. Joe came to Chicago to cut that song. The album was pretty much done, but they weren’t done until he did that song. So that’s how I ended up getting the studio after that happened. Now when Avant came to Chicago, we’d basically sleep at the studio, party at the studio, after hours at the studio, literally living at the studio.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Let’s talk about your work on Avant’s third album “Private Room”. You had the Intro, “Read Your Mind”, “AV”, “Seems to Be”, “Don’t Take Your Love Away”, “Everything About You”.
Steve “Stone” Huff: We were in a real serious groove at that point. I was making songs every day at that point. I’m a bass player, I learned to play by ear, so I approached that album from a bass player’s standpoint. That record was just at a very good time. The crazy thing is, we were working so much, we just were doing what we do. “Read Your Mind”, I wanted to make very minimal but thumping from the bass. That’s what started that project. I love old school, so “Don’t Take Your Love Away” I can write that stuff, I grew up on soul music. I brought the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for that one as well.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Catch us up on some of your recent music.
Steve “Stone” Huff: My project is called “I Promise”. It’s basically reminiscent of my production, I did 14 songs on there, I landed a deal at Empire Distribution. I cut videos on 4 or 5 of the songs. I’m working on a new project now. I’m working on about three albums now. Some known artists, some not known. My daughter Mika J Huff is a 14 year old rapper in Atlanta. I’m still writing, still creating, still producing.