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The-Dream On Why We All Need R&B

The-Dream performing in New York City in May.
Daniel Zuchnik
Getty Images
The-Dream performing in New York City in May.

The singer and songwriter Terius Nash writes and performs under the name The-Dream. Over the past decade he's had a hand in some of the biggest pop songs on the Billboard chart: Justin Bieber's "Baby," Rihanna's "Umbrella," Beyonce's "Single Ladies" — the list goes on. But when The-Dream writes music for himself, he makes R&B, which he says is "the closest point to the reality of love that there is." He says the decline of the genre since the '90s is a shame, because we all need it. "You need it because that's real life. So, when you take real life out of a song, suddenly we're dancing to a song that doesn't mean anything," he says. "Like after I leave the club, then what?"

The-Dream spoke to All Things Considered about "Too Early," one of the songs on his latest album, IV Play. Hear the radio story by clicking the audio link on this page, and read more of his conversation with NPR Music's Frannie Kelley below.

Can you describe the difference between R&B and pop?

Tempo is probably a different thing. Pop, of course, is short for popular music, and what I consider pop would be probably more so who's singing it versus the type of style. So, it's whatever is popular at the time and whoever is popular most of the time.

That can be altered, of course. There are certain records I've called hip-hop/R&B that Rihanna's put out lately — one being "Birthday Cake", a second one being "Pour It Up," which is basically a pop diva singing these more ratchet, cultural hip-hop records. But because of her stadium status, she kind of makes it pop. But it's not a pop song — basically, tempo drives what's going to be pop at the time. It's usually these songs that, in a certain point in time, doesn't really talk about that much, if you think about it. Yeah, so that's pop to me. It's not really a message.

But you make R&B.

Definitely, on occasion.

Do you think of yourself as a songwriter or a singer?

A songwriter. A singer — I'm actually just more of an extension of what the instrumentation is. So me being a record producer, I'm always just trying to fill in the gaps. Always think melody first and tone — like, I love tones. I've never been the super controlling singer. I can't control my voice. I definitely wouldn't give Beyonce a run for her money, at all. Not even on my best day. I'm a singer by trade because that's my genre of song that I release. But it's more emotion and feeling when it comes to me, in tone and texture of how to create a record purely based in emotion.

That's what R&B is; it's a patient practice. It's really that to me, and it depends on if people like what they're putting into their hearts and bodies.

That's the goal? To make a record?

Yeah, that's my goal, always. However you wanna feel. If I wanna feel like I'm in the club and falling in love with a girl, that's how I want to feel — when I leave that song out for people to listen to it. If I wanna make a song that I'm angry about a break-up, I want to make sure I get to the feeling.

It isn't about what I'm doing, vocally. It's about the whole mood and whether I'm able to change that. It's my tone here, where I'm talking, where it's more inductive to saying, "I feel tired. I'm probably miserable. I'm probably in this sad place," versus, "Hey! How's everybody doing? We in the club and I'm crunk and yeah, yeah get it going!" That's what I'm trying to do, but vocally I didn't have to do anything. It's just uplifting and, I guess, downshifting your emotions at a certain point.

How do lyrics play into that?

Lyrics play into it because it's the artist's storytelling. For me, being from the South, it's just always been a — you never know exactly how much you're into storytelling because it's such a regular thing.

Just growing up with my grandfather — him telling stories. It's gonna be a joke and you're gonna laugh and, "Oh my god!" "She beat me all the way home!" And you're like "Ah, that's so funny" and he has this way that he sets it up — it's almost like watching a comedian set up their lines, like, "OK, where's he going with it, where's he going with it?" So, it's the same way with songwriting; it's starting with, "Where's he going with it? Where's he going with this?" And by the time I get to the hook, you should know. Basically, that's how my songwriting thing goes.

I'm reading R. Kelly's book Soulacoaster, and he tells a similar story. He had a really hard time reading, which he thought was weird because he loved words. And he would listen to each of his family members tell stories their own way, distinct from each other.

That's probably exactly what I'm talking about. Like, yeah, you don't know that. You have no idea that that's going on because it's just regular, until you start singing and writing for others and then you're like, "Oh it's a gift. I had no idea."

Was that how it was for you, when you were younger?

Yeah, there's just so many stories, man. And then, I started to have my own, so now I tell stories about myself when [I was] younger. I would fall, or something crazy happened with a girl or something, and I have this whole setup thing and this roundabout way. I set the premise, but the conclusion — I know immediately what I'm going to talk to and what I'm trying to get back to — but I set it up and I go all the way around to keep you interested, just long enough and BOOM there's the hook and it's like "AAAhh that's funny!" Like I said, it's like a comedian; you just have to have that explosion at the end.

A lot of your songs are funny, that's on purpose?

Yeah, definitely. I have a pretty good sense of humor.

What do you want people to do when they hear your how do you want them to feel?

It depends on what mood they're in. I want them to feel like how I feel, and that's it. The only thing I can give you, as far as me being an artist myself, is my own artistry and where I am at that particular time. And either I can bring you into that place, or I can lock you out of it. But it's going to be a very simple choice — you're not going to think, "Eh, I don't know what he's talking about." You're either going to say, "I know exactly what he means," or "Wow, I've heard that before, but I've never been there."

So they're really personal.

Of course.

Then how do you decide — do you write for yourself differently than you write for other people?

Yeah. Because we all go through different things. Kelly Rowland has a record I've just written for her called "Dirty Laundry," and it's personal to her. But because of — whether [it's] storytelling [or] emotion — I probably understand how to rely the message, where people can feel attached to it and say exactly what I just said. Like, "Yo, I know exactly what she means," or "I know somebody that went through [that], so I heard it through hearsay." So it's different, but it's still the same; you're still attacking the same emotion. I literally have to wake up and be the person that I'm working with, whether that's Mariah, or Beyonce, Celine Dion. I have to wake up.

Justin Bieber.

Justin Bieber. I have to write "Baby." I have to be the teen guy who goes out there and gets all the girls.

In your work process, do you separate when you work with someone else and when you're writing for yourself?

I probably would love to, actually, if that could happen. If it actually happens. That never happens now.

When I started with my first album, Love/Hate, I had a lot of time to just do me. And I don't mean that it took a while to do it. It's just — I had time to work the record, I had time to do my interviews and do my stuff. And so, those things you think about before, when you're doing an album, when you have the time for it, versus trying to control what you hear in your mind and say, "I can write an album basically today, but when would I actually be able to put it out?" Because I'm working with Beyonce next month and then I'm working with Mariah after that. So you hold it in, and you wait four months, and then you come back and you're like, "Well, I have a better idea now."

So it's a mess.

Yeah, a beautiful mess.

Let's talk about some of this stuff as it relates to "Too Early." Tell me about the emotion that you want to convey with that song.

It's like having the argument [with your] significant other — I'm going to say a girl because I'm a guy and it's usually how it goes from a personal experience. You're having an argument, and it's 6 pm. You have a good chance of getting over that argument and it's going to be OK by the time you go to sleep. 9 o'clock, the same thing could happen. You could have an argument, maybe about food or whatever it is, your choice of food or "Why didn't you want to go out with me?" or whatever it is. But, you have enough [time] to make up before you go to sleep.

Too early in the morning means when you wait 'til that hour, like something's been bothering you and you wait 'til like 2 am in the morning, and then you wanna start the argument, it's just too early. People have jobs, they got things to do. Now we're gonna fight, we can't make up. It's going to set the tempo for the next day. And that's tiresome in itself and it's like, "Oh, god." So, that's what this song is; it's too early in the morning to break up, then make out. It's just like, no.

How do you convey that, then, with your textures and your tones?

You just hear my frustration of where I am and how I've been thinking of things all the time. This guy's been working all week and he's sitting there and basically, she's kind of run over him all the time, and he's just too tired to really do anything about it. He doesn't want to leave. If you pick a fight with him, it's not going to go anywhere. But there's a window of opportunity for him to leave, and depending on when you pick that fight, it could mean he could stay and y'all can make up and make love, or you can wait 'til 2 am in the morning and he'll probably leave and ride off into the sunset. So, that's exactly what this record is. It's very simple but [it] happens to a lot of people. I've heard.

There's also a climax to the song. How does that work harmonically?

Wow. I have this – once we get to the hook, actually — this church type of harmony that goes on, and I layered it, man. I was channeling my earlier church days, when I used to go to the country in Hawkinsville, Ga., with my grandfather, and these guys get up and sing. And these are guys that sang hymns, like the old-school ones that are basically still sewed into my brain.

They would have these harmonies that move a certain type of way. You would think – the harmony from one key to another on the keyboard is one thing, but vocally, the pain of a Southern church harmony from probably the 1800s, has this slave type of feeling to it and it's just hurt. And that's what the climax is. The climax is that much hurt.

And wrapping that up into this song and saying, "That's how hurt I am, that you started this at 2 am in the morning, and I have to leave because this hook that I'm about to sing." And that's not even what I'm going to say; the harmonies themselves explain the hurt and the feeling.

How does it feel in your body when you hear a harmony like that?

It's hard to explain. It's definitely more spiritual — why I would be doing music in the first place, if I didn't get goose bumps and stuff? We're so excited, all of us — we're like kids. If it's me and another music producer, or — Beyonce does this all the time. We'll look at each other and be like, "Oooh, that harmony! Let's add it, let's add it." We're like these kids that just found out that you can mix the packs of Kool-Aid – mix the powder with the sugar, and just eat it straight. We used to do it as kids — I have no idea why we used to do that. But that feeling of childlike – childhood — finding something for the first time.

You can do that with harmonies time and time again. It's not like it's going to be a different note invented that we didn't know about, but it's this crazy thing that just keeps happening that you're so happy and adamant about. Like, wow. I literally go into different songs looking for the note that's missing, whether it's a major or minor chord, especially on this album on the song "Crazy." I do something at the end where I come out of, I think, a minor chord and go into a major for about a bar and a half and it's just — it feels like the sun is rising, without me having to say that in the lyric.

With music and with harmony it's just one of those things, man. Yeah, I can't even explain it. It just makes me feel alive, I guess.

You've said that you think "Too Early" is different from what else is out there, and that you've done this before: put out a song to see if people are ready for something different. How is "Too Early" different from what else you're hearing, or what we're about to hear?

What I like to say is that I change, or try to change, peoples' minds one song at a time. I did it before the song "Fancy," which sounded more [like] alternative R&B, on my previous album. I always like to take that risk of [putting out] a song that is great to me — I know it's different, but I know it has a hook, so I'm not afraid of it at all. But musically, I like to just get it out.

I just push it out and roll it out and see where people are, just to check. Like, "Are you guys here yet? Or are we still in the no nonsense?" The quickie — I call it the quickie time period – of "I don't want to think about what I'm listening to, I don't want to be wrapped up in it. I just want it to be far away in the background." Most people think of songs that way.

And you have the others who want the songs to literally describe their lives, and be their ridealong buddy — you know, ride shotgun with them along the way. "Too Early" is one of those stand outs for me. It's different, not because I can't do it — I would love to do it all the time, especially something like that live, and do like nine of those songs — but it's different from my genre, which is not that accepting of those type of songs, because of a lot of things. Tempo probably being the first one.

What are some of the other things?

Tempo, the feature itself — it features Gary Clark, Jr., who's not — immediately you think of me, you think of urban radio. He doesn't have a song on urban radio right now. You think of the people I sell to, who have no idea who Gary Clark, Jr., even is. So with just those things, and even introducing him into that place, you know, it's not like I get really anything out of it other than to test people's intellect when it comes to music — and how it shouldn't probably be a box anyway.

You tried to get B.B. King on it? What happened with that?

B.B. King is very, evidently, sought after. He's working. Yeah, still. Of course, I kind of imagined that, like, duh, it's B.B. King. That doesn't take anything away from Gary Clark at all. I'm quite sure he would say like, "Ahh, that's B.B. King." It was me trying to introduce B.B. King also the same way, because I know a lot of people from my genre like, "Who is that?" Like psssht. They wouldn't know. He doesn't have any tennis shoes and a cult just so you can remember him for years. It's not like Jordan where, even if you didn't see him play, he's everywhere.

R&B is a conversation that you should be able to sit down and have; that's what "Single Ladies" was.

B.B. King was my first thought when I heard the song because I just heard Memphis in it and I just heard Tennessee and this play — it's kind of a rock and roll vibe. And I remember seeing B.B. King in Adventures in Babysitting — it's kids and they're on this adventure and they're lost and stuff. And they go into this juke joint, or something like that, and B.B. King is there and he's like, "Nobody leaves here without singing the blues." I haven't seen it since probably '94, but I remember the feeling of them saying, "This is what the blues is. This is what it feels like." And so immediately, regardless of whatever happened in that movie years ago, B.B. King comes to mind.

But to introduce Gary Clark is more exciting for me because he's new, in a way. Not only to the people that are listening to him now, but to me — to be able to be this close to him. Because even though I had heard of him, it wasn't a thought for me to work with him.

Who would you consider your forefathers?

Oh wow. Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Michael, Prince and R. Kelly.

Tell me about why for each of them.

I think the pain of the '60s, with Otis and Sam and the placement of their times in my life through my mother — so basically, it's early '80s. So, '81? I'm like four years old and your mom's playing that and you're like — your brain is pounding. There's nothing you can do it about it; you don't have any control over what you listen to. So basically it starts your DNA of what it is. Between those two and church, it's basically the same thing. Of course, Sam Cooke started in the Soul Stirrers, which was a church group, before he started singing contemporary R&B.

Michael, because — for obvious reasons. He made music come to life visually, and because we were in a time of television, that has the impact — it's the highest pop prop for music period. Whatever dance he was doing, it was like, "Oh, that goes with what the song is." He was drawing lines, like where there were probably gaps before, but using TV to do that, which his predecessor, James Brown, at [one] time was doing. [Brown] didn't have the advantage of being able to make a Thriller and do that type of thing, but I think [he] could have done it if he was born at a different time.

Prince I would say because of his cult-like standing, where it's, like, against the machine — I'm pop for all the wrong reasons, and that's what I love about my own music. I want to be that for all the wrong reasons. The view of the world in this place, and trying to pretend beside the machine and be cool with it and it's like, I don't care. I'm me, and you either take me for who I am or beat it. Like Michael.

R. Kelly because of — as a teenager in high school, and watching everybody react to what his music was at that time. And actually, Jodeci at the time, but more so R. Kelly because he was a single individual. The feeling of love, and being excited about it being cool and dark. You get to high school, and sex, at some point, becomes the topic of conversation for everybody. It's just reality. And he was the guy at that time, so you can't block it out — he's the guy that's bumping and grinding — so I guess he's my guy.

What is it about the '90s? You've said what they mean for you personally, but why do all of us keep going back? Why did it even stop?

I'll tell you why. MP3 interrupted what R&B was starting to be. It's like taking an engine out of something and saying, "Now drive your car really fast." It's not going to happen. It's the same thing that I deal with now. It takes a lot to put a 5-piece band on, even though we need it. We need those harmonies; I need those four background singers — not because I can't sing but because I need to relay the message of what the song is emotionally, or the feeling, period. [From] a money standpoint, it didn't really affect hip-hop — they could still keep going. You don't need a band to do hip-hop; you only need a DJ.

That money — when it goes away, you can't put on that show, which is where we are now. We can't put on that show unless we make it somehow to a big awards thing and then, of course, that means your favorite R&B artist at some point better do an up-tempo record, or an electric record, so they can get there to perform. Other than that, someone like me is probably never going to perform on that stage unless there's a certain person that's sitting there that hears a record and says, "I'm putting this on regardless. I don't care where it is on the radio, I'm just going to put it on." But then, that's a far cry, that's like lightning in a bottle.

MP3 interrupted what R&B was turning into, so that's why we're going back. We kind of tried to fix it and technology is helping us out a lot, but it's pretty hard to duplicate the fullness of what R&B had become at that time, and mood, with so little, whereas in hip-hop and rap and EDM and all those guys, they can do it with basically nothing.

What do we lose when we don't have it?

It's the same thing you lose when you put food in the microwave: certain nutrients, vitamins and all of the stuff that actually works. Yeah, sure, that pie is hot and it's good — it's probably cold in the center, though, when it comes out of the microwave versus you putting it in the oven and allowing it to take its time and cook and be patient. And that's what R&B is; it's a patient practice. It's really that to me, a patient practice, and it depends on if people like what they're putting into their hearts and bodies.

Where and when do you want people to listen to your songs?

Where ... [laughs]. It's definitely not a good time to listen to my songs if you're with the mother-in-law. Or the father-in-law. Unless your father-in-law is really, really cool and you can get away with it.

It's a very relationship based. It's the experience of two people that are together. It's like that couple that you kinda think is kinky, but you don't know, and you shouldn't know. And as soon as the doors close, there's a pole that comes out of the ceiling and then lights come on and you're like, "Oh my god I had no idea my neighbors were freaks, this is crazy." Mostly everybody's like that, but you just never know and you shouldn't know.

The best time to play my record probably would be while you're in the mood with your girlfriend or boyfriend, vice versa. And just let go, and search that inner freedom of --what did I say? I said, yesterday, wanting to live and wake up and destroy my life in the best way possible. And everybody was like, "What do you mean 'destroy?'" Because the word destroy means to take away and I'm like, "No, not to blow up, not to leave life tomorrow in a bad way — destroy all of the premise that is set for the day."

We're supposed to have a hard day. Work is supposed to be long, somebody's going to irritate us. I want to destroy all those things in the best way possible, with some type of happiness and some type of love where I feel great at 7 and 8 o'clock at night and say, "Oh my god, I had a great day! I destroyed the day." All of those things which I knew would happen, and do happen on an everyday basis, especially for your people who are at work — I wanna wake up one day and have that time where I can fend off all of that and be fine, and be a hero. Like this ratchet sex hero.

Why does R&B matter? Why do we need it? People feel deeply about it. Where does that care come from?

Because it's the closest point to the reality of love that there is. It's the closest point. Other music and genres, they're slightly – from R&B, there's a big gap of how close love is involved in the song. That's what rhythm and blues is based on; it's based on love and heartbreak. You need it because that's real life. So, when you take real life out of a song, suddenly we're dancing to a song that doesn't mean anything, that has nothing to do with my life after this. Like after I leave the club, then what?

And that's what those great storytelling songs of the older days — when R. Kelly would do that and tell those stories and you're like, "Oh, man." That's what "Dirty Laundry" is. It's a song for real, it's not like, [sings] "I was at the club last night and I met my girl and she told me she loved me and I kissed her on the cheek." That never happens to no one else ever. It's like, what are you talking about?

If you take R&B away, you take away the feeling of one human being to another. You take away so many things. You take away the passion, and the love. And once you get out of R&B, actually, even if you're dealing with tempo records, that's still just about your love for music. It has nothing to do with human contact. Like, at all. It's just, "Oh man, we're getting off on this thing, and we're doing our thing, and these instruments, they are crazy." But what are you talking about?

R&B is a conversation that you should be able to sit down and have; that's what "Single Ladies" was. Even though it began to be a pop record, melodically, because its tempo was — underneath it all, it was a conversation about "When are you going to marry me? Because if you don't, I'm going to go over here and then, you're going to be talking about it later. What are we doing?" And that's what it was, it was summed up in that: What are we doing? Because Beyonce just told you, you better put a ring on it.

You lose that whole conversation. It never happens. So we're just walking and living with each other, like never having any type of — and it's like reading about Osiris and how he used music back in the day from the Egyptian god, how he used music to civilize the world. Like, that's the point. You have to try and stay civilized, though, and you can't really do it without the genre of R&B because it's the closest thing to that.

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Frannie Kelley is co-host of the Microphone Check podcast with Ali Shaheed Muhammad.
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