"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."
When Thompson eventually played one of Harrison's tracks for Blige, "she flipped over it," Thompson says. "Beautiful Ones" earned a spot on her 1999 album, "Mary."
The tune hardly resembled Harrison's later work -- it's a delicate, mid-tempo affair -- but the track's flickering percussion foreshadows the sound that would later become his hallmark: a drum-heavy mix inspired by D.C. go-go music.
"Go-go is like hip-hop -- it's just in your heart," Harrison explains. "Every beat that I make has that feel, whether I want it to or not. I want to represent this sound and show where I'm from. [Go-go] deserves that."
Harrison spent his teenage years kicking around the local go-go scene, playing keyboards in a group called Perfection Band. "We used to do battle of the bands all the time," he says. "We'd battle with Junkyard, open for Rare Essence."
His mother, Yolanda Harrison, says Rich's beatmaking began long before that. "Since he was 5 years old, he used to bang on all kinds of things," she recalls. "Tables, chairs."
By elementary school his aunt had enrolled him in piano lessons (Harrison claims to have hated them at the time), and he was playing keyboards alongside his friends at 13.
During summer vacations from Archbishop Carroll High School, Harrison befriended a local jazz musician named Brother Ah, (ne Robert Northern). The student-teacher pair met through the D.C. Summer Youth Employment Program, an initiative under then-Mayor Marion Barry to provide area teens with on-the-job training.
Having recorded with jazz legends John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, Brother Ah turned Harrison on to the hot horns of jazz as well as the modalities of Eastern music. "He showed such potential," says Ah, who still teaches in the area. "It all came so natural to him. He didn't really know how impressed I was with him."
After high school, Harrison studied history at Howard University, an interest the 1997 graduate sees reflected in his love of gritty soul samples. ("I was a history major, so I'm a throwback, anyway," he says with a laugh.) A few years down the road, after he worked with Blige, Harrison began searching for a protege and crossed paths with Amerie. "I thought what I was doing was a little too different, so I thought I would get an artist to showcase it." Tight-lipped as ever, Harrison is happy to leave the Amerie story at that.
But what about the pair's fabled chemistry? Their relentless ambition? Their storybook success?
"I've told this story sooooo many times," Harrison groans, rolling back his head.
But like a peeved parent telling a beloved bedtime story for the umpteenth time, Harrison recounts the rags-to-riches tale of two future pop stars who climbed from a Silver Spring basement into MTV rotation.
Once Upon a Time in D.C.
It starts in a McDonald's parking lot on Georgia Avenue. That's where Harrison hosted an in-car audition for Amerie Rogers, who was then a Georgetown English major with platinum-size dreams.
"I heard that raspy kinda thing I had been looking for," Harrison says of the young singer's voice. "She had enough talent where I thought we would make a really cool team, because she was as ambitious as I was."
At the time, this shared zeal fueled the pair's round-the-clock recording sessions. Amerie's first solo record, "All I Have," was written, recorded and engineered by Harrison in the quaint basement confines of his parents' Silver Spring home. ("At first it was a lot of noise," says Yolanda Harrison. "But we got used to it. Now I see [Amerie] on TV and remember when she used to be in my house drinking tea to clear her voice.")
"It was the first time either of us were in such an intense working relationship," Amerie says by phone from a hotel room in Paris, where she's on a publicity tour. "We learned together -- we created a sound together. It kind of made the two of us who we are."
"All I Have" was released on Columbia in the summer of 2002, eventually went gold, and brought both Amerie and Harrison into the industry limelight. She soon snagged an acting gig opposite Katie Holmes in 2004's cutesy "First Daughter"; he was given the chance to produce tracks by Beyonce and Usher.
But when it came time for a second go-round, on Amerie's "Touch," things had changed.
" 'Touch' was way different," Harrison says, his tone tightening up. "Amerie and her manager basically wanted to run the show. And even though they couldn't run the show without my approval [Amerie is signed to Columbia through Richcraft, Harrison's production company], the arguments and the fights would have been so counterproductive. I actually pulled away from the project." Things came to a boil in the pages of Vibe magazine this summer in a cover story, in which Amerie and her manager, Lenny Nicholson, according to the article, "wrestled the creative control away from Rich Harrison."
The producer begs to differ.
"I gave it to them," he says, "because this album was not about me. Believe me, I'm good. My bank account is fine, my work is fine, everything is going straight. This album was for her. But she's not down anymore."
Amerie feels that she was misrepresented in Vibe and blames the flap on lack of communication.
"Rich and I are like family -- but we never talk," she says. "I consider him to be my musical soul mate. I feel we're like Timbaland and Aaliyah. People don't recognize just how creative and how innovative he is."
For his part, Harrison isn't flinching at the possibility of taking on another protege or two. He's currently preparing to transform Richcraft into a full-blown record label.
"I'm trying to create the next urban label, the next Uptown, the next LaFace," he says. "I want to encourage the next generation of superstars. The goal is to start a LaFace in D.C."
It's a tall order, but one that Harrison thinks is worth tackling.
"D.C. has to grow up a little more. There are so many talented people out here -- why am I the only one that broke through?" he asks. "There's never been an entertainment label with that kind of validation in D.C. It's a difficult task, but I think it's important, not only for the musical legacy but for the image of this city. D.C. could be so much more hip, so much more sexy."
Meantime, Harrison contends with a bigger obstacle -- overcoming his desire to work behind the scenes exclusively and not become the star. "I was always the keyboardist in the band," he says, recalling his go-go days. "I wasn't the rapper or the drummer or the flashy conga player. I was the songwriter and I played the back. When you're able to blend in, I think you're able to learn the most. I like going places by myself, having a drink and watching the crowd react."
Unfortunately for Harrison, he is living in an era where producers often feel more like name brands than discreet custodians of creativity. Diddy, the Neptunes, Jermaine Dupri and Timbaland have all made their fortunes by attaching a face to their sounds. Harrison, with enough Billboard hits that one can presume he's now in a more rarefied tax bracket, stands apart from these camera-hungry colleagues; so far, he's never appeared in a music video.
"I'm sure my manager will eventually coax me into it, especially when you're trying to drag a city on your back," he says. "It's just not me."