The (retro) future is his

Lee is a Times staff writer.

Just because hip-hop/R&B; star T-Pain single-handedly -- albeit accidentally -- transformed the pop chart with his retro-futuristic sound, don’t expect him to strangle the goose that laid the golden egg.

That is to say, he isn’t going to stop using a voice-distorting computer program called Auto-Tune any time soon. Not after employing the technology to create two hit albums and land a whopping 27 songs on the pop chart since 2005, most of them in collaboration with the multi-platinum-selling likes of R. Kelly, T.I., Rick Ross and Akon.

Nor is T-Pain troubled by the fact that a constellation of rap stars -- including Snoop Dogg on “Sensual Seduction,” G-Unit on “Rider Pt. 2” and Lil Wayne on his No. 1 hit “Lollipop” -- also have used the effect, which manipulates vocal pitch to “correct” a note in a scale, resulting in a heavily processed sound perhaps best described as robot lust.


As the rapper-turned-singer sees it, if continuing fealty to computer vocal tweaking means he has to suffer the occasional sling or arrow from his record label, Konvict/Jive, so be it. To the chagrin of some label artist-and-repertoire honchos, about half the songs on his new album “Thr33 Ringz,” which hit retail Tuesday, use Auto-Tune.

“Recently, I got some [flak] for it,” T-Pain said by phone from Atlanta, where he was in the middle of moving into a new house. “They said I should stop doing [Auto-Tune] because too many other people are using it now. They figured that people would get tired of it. What I explained to them is, there’s no one better than the originator.”

The top-hat-loving Grammy winner places his innovation within a larger continuum of musical FX technicians who inspired him. He pointed out that Teddy Riley, one of the fathers of New Jack Swing, and Roger Troutman, a ‘70s funk-R&B; legend, used an earlier funky-voice technology called the Vocoder to distinguish themselves and achieve chart success. (In 1998, Cher recorded the electro-tinged romantic paean “Believe,” which is widely credited with injecting Auto-Tune’s mechanical modulations into pop consciousness.)

“Teddy Riley can’t do it better than Roger Troutman,” T-Pain said. “I can’t do it better than Teddy Riley. And can’t nobody do it better than me. So whoever come after me have to bring it!”

A former member of the Tallahassee rap group Nappy Headz whose solo output largely has cohered around temporal pleasures -- as evidenced by songs such as “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’),” “I’m N Luv (Wit a Stripper)” and “Bartender” -- T-Pain, 23, said he first heard Auto-Tune on a song by Jennifer Lopez, though he can’t recall the title, and used the effect for his contribution to a 2003 mix tape.

Around that time, he had been experimenting with other pitch-shifting technologies he remembered as “a bunch of weird stuff where people would have thought I was an alien.”


“As I was ending my rap career, I was thinking about switching to singing full time,” T-Pain said. “If I was going to sing, I didn’t want to sound like everybody else. . . . I just wanted something to make me different. Auto-Tune was the one. So I just stuck with that effect.”

Ironically, T-Pain’s efforts to stand out from the pack have resulted in hip-hop’s new normal. Earlier this year the singer-producer traveled to Hawaii to give Kanye West a crash course in using Auto-Tune. And now the effect turns up on every song on the Louis Vuitton Don’s upcoming album “808s & Heartbreak” -- a paradigm shift for a performer known for his clear, enunciative rap style.

“Auto-Tune. That’s like the new word that represents wack,” West said at a listening party for his album last month. “But it’s the funnest thing to use.” He added of his collaborator: “When T-Pain came to Hawaii, his energy was just so pure, so untampered with. His light was so bright.”

Although T-Pain doesn’t begrudge other top-tier performers who want to dip their beaks into the Auto-Tune pond (indeed, he has enough of a sense of humor about his reliance on the technology to make a digital film for about it), he takes exception with hip-hop Johnny-come-latelies who use the technology as a stand-in for creativity.

“Imitation is the best form of flattery only when it’s huge people doing it,” T-Pain said. “People like Snoop, Kanye and people like that. But when it’s some dude trying to get a record deal, it’s like, ‘Come on, man!’ People think that’s the thing that’s going to get them a deal. It’s like, come on people, you still gotta write a song!”