The Young and the Rowdy : At 21, Dallas Austin is a hit R&B; producer, an A&R; scout, a hip-hop frontman and a record label owner. Now he wants to branch out
The name Dallas Austin may conjure up a Lone Star state of mind, but don’t be fooled. The 21-year-old Georgian may be today’s most streetwise producer of contemporary urban music.
Named top R&B; producer by Billboard magazine for 1991, Austin has created No. 1 hits for groups not old enough to vote. First he showed a penchant for coupling catchy lyrics with even catchier samples by writing hit songs for the all-boy band Another Bad Creation. At 19, Austin had written and produced eight of the 10 songs on “Cooleyhighharmony,” Boyz II Men’s multiplatinum debut album. More recently, he helped propel Atlanta’s TLC to the top of the charts with one of last summer’s most infectious hits, “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg.”
Although Austin’s boy-wonder reputation has earned him a steady flood of record company requests to work with more R&B; artists, he is itching to branch out into music’s less commercial sectors. With his own new record label, Rowdy Records, a hip-hop group he fronts, the Highland Place Mobsters, and A&R; deals with EMI and Motown, the easy-mannered Wunderkind is poised for action.
A recent day found Austin busy in Atlanta applying the finishing touches on his new studio: placing furniture throughout the four production rooms and splattering graffiti on the walls. He was supposed to have caught a plane to New York that day for a meeting at LaFace Records--the home of Highland Place Mobsters and TLC--but it’s widely known he’s terrified of flying.
LaFace cut him some slack. After all, Austin is, by his own account, still a kid.
Question: How did you take young acts like Another Bad Creation and TLC and give them a cross-generational appeal?
Answer: I try to make good songs for young people. And older people always can recognize good songs, classic songs, songs that can be around for awhile. And to the younger audience, they’re attracted to the younger groups, the trendy stuff they wear, their images. I guess the combination comes when you try to write music with melodies and stuff, and try to put it to what could be a trendy group but still has good songs.
Q: In “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg,” you have TLC promoting safe sex. Do you think part of the adult appeal is that the world that kids live in isn’t so innocent anymore?
A: Oh, definitely. A lot of restrictions that used to be aren’t restricted anymore. It’s more open. Another Bad Creation were the first kids to have a little edge to ‘em; songs that older guys and teen-age guys could relate to, even though they were like 6 and 7 then. They were the kinda group that the cool kids could relate to. Whatever group I work with, if they were younger I try to give them music that was a little bit more advanced for them, not just stuff that was kiddie music.
Q: Is your age an important part of why they relate to you?
A: I can relate so much to the groups. Like with TLC, people asked me, “How did you write ‘His Story’?” 'Cause it’s like a total song against guys. You have to transform into what you’re doing. Because we’re all from the same age bracket, we all relate to the same things. So it’s a lot easier.
Q: Growing up in Georgia, what inspired you toward music?
A: The whole time I was growing up I was into music. My brother always had bands, so I was like the little kid that they’d tell to get out. I loved George Clinton, Earth, Wind & Fire, I listened to a lot of Chili Peppers. . . . I would listen to their music, and I don’t know, I’d just get this feeling, man, like chills over me because of lyrics and because of the contents of the songs.
When I moved (from Columbus, Ga., to Atlanta nine years ago), we moved to this house on Highland Place in this neighborhood where the Klan used to live and where they used to burn crosses. And when you drive through the neighborhood you see all these little white houses with American flags and stuff. And then you get to our house, and it’s made of stone and looks like a castle. . . . It’s where the Klan used to do its thing.
And on the street, there was still like a couple of prejudiced people who lived, you know, in the neighborhood. . . . I would go to my programmer’s house and make music and I’d come back and play the cassettes, and we’d write to it and sing all night. And you’d hear people across the street screaming, “Turn it down! Turn it down!” It was weird, man. So we decided to call the band the Highland Place Mobsters, because it was so frustrating. We were like rebelling against these people.
Q: How does that racism affect you?
A: Well, now Atlanta is like a predominantly black city and most of the prejudiced and people who are like that are outside of Atlanta. I guess they tried to help us out. It’s mostly on the outskirts. You don’t find a whole lot of prejudiced people around here now. Or maybe I’m just not seeing them no more, or something.
Q: What are your favorite acts to go out and see live?
A: Alice in Chains. Red Hot Chili Peppers. Ministry. That’s what my label Rowdy is all about . . . I want it to be, like, a real creative, artsy label. I’m not going to say it’s not to make money, but it’s not geared toward commercial acts. I’ll see a guy playing a saxophone on the corner with a guy with bongos and give him a record deal, you know.
I want it to be like if (Def American’s) Rick Rubin and (Def Jam’s) Russell Simmons had stayed together, like the combination of hip-hop ‘n’ rock and all kinds of cultural music. Whatever is not in the normal. . . . I think the most creative people are people who are not commercial people, ‘cause when you get commercial, you have to be like everybody else.
Q: Some of the people who have had the same young success you’ve had--the Phil Spectors and Berry Gordys--stayed pretty specific to a genre. Why do you want to branch out?
A: Boyz II Men and TLC and stuff are cool, but it gets to the point where it’s not as fun. It’s like a challenge, you know. It’s more creative. We have Yall So Stupid and a group called the King and I, which is like straight hip-hop. We have this Rastafarian gig called Face Man. I just signed this great band called Babayaga (for EMI). Babayaga is like an Egyptian witch. One of the guys is from England and two are from Czechoslovakia--they’re like what U2 used to be--a cross between Pearl Jam and U2 but not the same.
There’s a little area of Atlanta called Little Five Points. It’s like the closest thing to (Greenwich) Village, the closest thing to (Venice Beach), just darker places where all the weird people hang out. It’s crazy creative. I’m pulling a lot of groups out of there, like a group called Headblown. . . . This is where I’m getting myself off right here, ‘cause this is stuff I really like to do.
Q: Did working with TLC make you want to work with an all-girl group again?
A: Girl groups tend to have a little more problems than guys. Just because they’re girls. This might be taken wrong, but even girls that are friends, they tend to go through different problems. ‘Cause a lot of stuff is sensitive to girls that’s not sensitive to guys. It’s something you have to deal with.
Q: What do you see yourself doing 10 or 20 years from now?
A: By then, I hope to look at Rowdy almost like a piece of art. And also I have my studio and my production company, I want to be able to see producers that I sign go through whatever we’re gonna go through. I hope they learn a lot, and I can teach them a lot. Then I hope to see them set up their own production companies. Like 10 years from now, I hope to see everybody in the position I’m in now.
Q: As you head toward a more alternative scene, do you think working with an independent label will give you an advantage against the self-censorship that’s currently occurring at major labels?
A: Yeah. Major labels are worried more than the independents because they have more at stake. I deal with a label that is small so I can do the unheard of. Some people might think the stuff is totally trash and some people might be in love with it.
Q: Is there an artist you haven’t worked with that you’d really like to work with?
A: At this point, the only artist I’d really like to work with is Prince. But I would wanna go back and just do a Prince album without the (New Power Generation). Just Prince. Like “Dirty Mind.” Back then, it wasn’t time for that kind of stuff yet because alternative music and darker music wasn’t registering to people. But I think if Prince went back and did like a dark Prince album that was closer to what that stuff used to be, man, I would die to work on that.