Quietly Making Some Noise
Sunday, October 9, 2005
"This isn't going to get deep, is it?"
The words escape Rich Harrison's mouth before his jeans even hit the sofa. The young R&B producer -- a D.C. native -- is back on his home turf after a summer on the West Coast crafting tracks for the likes of Christina Aguilera and Mary J. Blige.
Foot traffic in the lobby of Georgetown's Ritz-Carlton is light on this Thursday afternoon, and Harrison seems to have chosen the spot, only a few blocks from his apartment, as if it were a certain parking garage in Rosslyn -- a safe place to discreetly divulge his life story.
Wearing a Dr. Dre T-shirt, he speaks of his burgeoning career with the brassy enthusiasm of a teenager, but manages to keep his volume in check, eyes darting around the room. The story of his ascent unfolds like a secret he's thrilled to tell you, but suspicious of whom you might pass it along to. And while this demeanor is more playful than paranoid, it quickly becomes clear that life is about to get "deep" for Rich Harrison, whether he likes it or not.
He's produced three Top-20 singles in 2005 alone -- Amerie's "1 Thing"; Jennifer Lopez's "Get Right"; and Destiny's Child's "Soldier." He spent the summer lining up collaborations with everyone from T.I. to Nelly Furtado to Justin Timberlake to Busta Rhymes. He has hopes of launching a record label in Washington by the end of the year that will, he says, "establish a movement and put D.C. on the map."
And he wants to do it all in the shadows. "I enjoy a little mystique, man. It works for me," Harrison says with a shrug. "I just want to be the Howard Hughes of this [expletive]." (Part of his enigma seems to be dodging questions about his age. After much cajoling Harrison claims to be 29. A recent publicity blurb says he's only 24. District voter records say he turns 32 tomorrow.)
Sure, you might not recognize Rich Harrison at the gym, but you've definitely heard his music there. And in the car, in the club, at the spring formal. Most of his singles feature some lovely diva du jour sweating it out over a thundering drum break. As with his work on Beyonce's "Crazy in Love," a Harrison-produced song is rife with kicky percussion loops and scalding-hot soul samples, amped up to dazzling effect.
"It's co-writing with people that I would never be able to play with," Harrison says of his penchant for sampling. "You're not just sampling the instrument, you're sampling the arguments they had in the studio, you're sampling the temperature in the room, you're sampling the engineer's attitude, you're sampling the coke they snorted. Those are conditions that will never be re-created, and I get to use them for my records."
His latest mega-hit is "1 Thing," which he produced for onetime protege and fellow Washington native Amerie, whose vocals soar over a blazing Meters sample with aplomb. On the radio, it sounds like a party; on the dance floor, it sounds like a revelation.
Even better, "Crazy in Love," the 2003 summer banger that cranked up Beyonce's solo-career. Grafting Ms. Knowles's spotless vocal delivery to a spicy Chi-Lites horn break earned Harrison his first No. 1 hit and his first Grammy.
The Go-Go Years
Before the big break with Beyonce, there was his first break with Mary J. Blige. Harrison owes it to Chucky Thompson, a former D.C.-based record producer who made his name in the '90s creating tracks under the mogul formerly known as Puff Daddy.
"This young kid Rich had some stuff that was kind of hot," says Thompson, remembering how Harrison floated a demo his way. "But I was more impressed with his determination. He was hungry and ready to rep for the area."