Makeba Riddick: Beyonce and Rihanna’s ‘golden girl’
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Makeba Riddick walks into Takami Sushi & Robata Restaurant in downtown Los Angeles every bit as stunning as any diva, with vibrant pink lipstick, glittering earrings, heels that reach the high heavens and luscious locks.
To the wait staff she’s just another glamizon getting lunch, but if they dialed the radio from the ambient soundscapes to a Top 40 channel they’d hear one of the scores of hits the 31-year-old has penned for divas like Rihanna, Beyonce, Mariah Carey and Toni Braxton.
This particular day Riddick is apologetic for running a tad late, though only by a few minutes. She had to fit in a vocal session with Rihanna -- who was overseas on tour. Still fresh off her fifth No. 1 single -- she penned the singer’s current hit, “Rude Boy” -- Riddick’s happy to honor the request from the singer who is already hard at work crafting her next album.
Riddick is dedicated to her work -- she once hopped on a flight to Milan after just returning to New York from a London trip to work with the superstar. The result, “Live Your Life,” a collaboration with rapper T.I., ended up being a smash.
“She’s the type of artist that, she’s on the road a lot and she’ll have an entourage that’s like family. It’s really fun, but it’s a lot of work,” Riddick later says of her frequent collaborations with Rihanna (the two have worked together on all four of Rihanna’s albums). “Her schedule, my schedule, photo shoots and all of that -- and trying to meet the deadlines from the label.”
Such is the life for the Baltimore native. When asked how she went from a girl in West Baltimore’s Edmondson Village to penning chart-topping hits she jokes that she’ll make a long story short. But her road to having the golden pen was anything but short.
After graduating from Berklee College of Music, she moved to New York and began working on a demo, not sure whether she wanted to be an artist. Her work soon floated around different labels before it landed on Diddy’s desk.
“Initially Puff wasn’t blown away,” Riddick recalls. “He said, ‘Oh, she’s good, she’s cool. Let me hear more from her.’”
Riddick went to the studio with some of Bad Boy Records’ top writers and producers to hone her skills, all the while collaborating with other producers. These outside sessions yielded “All I Have,” a duet with Jennifer Lopez and LL Cool J, which ended up on Lopez’s “This Is Me... Then” album. Riddick not only had her first song on the radio, but it soared to No. 1.
Diddy was now blown away and signed her to her first publishing deal.
“At that time I was 21 years old, I didn’t know what that meant at all. Not only did it go No. 1 but it stayed there for [four] weeks and I was just like ‘OK,’ and everybody was calling me and congratulating me and asking me if I knew what it meant,” Riddick laughs. “It didn’t really impact me what that meant until after the record was over. Now it was time to do it again.”
A few years after her big break she got the chance to work with Rodney Jerkins, her “dream producer.” Riddick went to Orlando, Fla., and did what she calls a “writer’s boot camp,” where a team of different writers wrote nonstop. Much like what would become a frequent occurrence, just as she’s ready to return home Jerkins tells her he has this record, a “dope” one that needs to be finished. And she did.
Shortly after her phone rang again. Columbia Records called about the song and Beyonce, who was prepping her sophomore solo disc, wanted it for herself -- and Jay-Z would put a verse on it.
“Once again I’m like ‘really,’ ” she says laughing. “I didn’t believe it until I was walking in the door to meet her, and that’s when I started getting nervous. I came in the room and from the minute we shook hands it was like we were distant cousins. Like we had known each other in a past life or something because we clicked. I’ve never clicked with an artist the way we did. Same with Rihanna, which was more like a big sister, little sister [relationship]. With Beyonce we were closer in age. We just had a ball and before I knew it three weeks had gone by and the album was done.”
The track, “Deja Vu,” was picked as the first single, and scored Riddick another No. 1 single. Of the 10 tracks on the original album released in 2006, Riddick had her hand in writing half, including singles “Upgrade U” and “Get Me Bodied,” rightfully earning her the nickname of “Golden Girl.”
“It was crazy to me when we were done. That was a whirlwind,” Riddick says. “Every day we would be talking for hours -- that’s how those songs came about. It was fun, that’s how you should make an album. It amazes me how a regular girl from Baltimore from the inner city has the same life experiences as a girl from Houston, Texas. You forget that she’s Beyonce until a L’Oreal commercial comes on.”
Jay Brown, president of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation and Riddick’s manager, said someone like Riddick is a rarity in urban music.
“She writes what she feels, she keeps it organic. She’s not out there trying to chase the next dollar, and she loves doing music,” Brown said. “For her I think the separation [from other writers] is they all write very differently. There is only one top 10, one No. 1 spot and 52 weeks out of a year. Everyone shoots for that spot. What separates them is the consistency of being able to write a hit song. Other than having that No. 1 spot, the only place you can go after No. 1 is down. I’d take five top 5s rather than one No. 1.”
Though she’s inked hits for everyone from Mariah Carey to Jessica Simpson to a few “American Idol” alums, Riddick is mostly in demand with Rihanna and Beyonce(she wrote a track in the eleventh hour for “I Am … Sasha Fierce”). She admits watching the grueling travel schedule of her biggest collaborators makes her shy away from wanting to be an artist herself, even though she has collaborated with David Guetta and Rodney Jerkins on solo tracks on their compilation albums.
“It’s a totally different beast. I’m going to be honest with you, being an artist has never been my dream. To be on the road and be an artist … I feel like if it’s not your lifelong dream, then don’t do it. I love to sing. I love to record,” she says. “I’m totally going to do more singles and stuff like that. Albums? Especially with the way the industry is changing now with everything being about singles, we’ll see. Whatever God says, if he opens that door -- would do it.”
In the meantime Riddick is working with her mentor Jerkins on new projects including one from Diddy. And there is also that new Rihanna record, which she remains tight lipped on the sound and direction of it.
As Riddick noshed on a spread of her favorites -- sashimi and sushi -- without any interruptions, maybe it’s a good thing no one in the restaurant knew who she was.
-- Gerrick D. Kennedy
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