“The Pragmatic Producer” by Chris Brooke
Originally appeared in Nasty Mind Creative Magazine (1) 2017
Michael DeBarge is a name you may have seen etched in black ink over vinyl record labels or featured in the credits of multiple music and past stage productions. But if you’re reading this and can't quite place the name behind the label it’s alright. The former child performer was featured in numerous music videos and national tv commercials throughout his childhood, appearing on Ed’ McMahon’s Star Search - at the time the highly popular TV show whose formula became the foundation for today’s American Idol & America’s Got Talent. Today he is the enigmatic record producer behind The Premier Entertainment Group, who has until very recently worked hard to keep himself in relative obscurity.
Michael and I agreed to meet at a local family owned Italian eatery, a mere stone’s throw away from Times Square. Once inside I was greeted by lounge singer and film producer Tom D’Angelo who directed us to a table far removed from the brisk winter cold outside. Seated within an elaborately carved wooden throne Michael admits, ‘I don’t think you’re ready to hear this.’ He shifts to face me from across a round table draped in white linen topped with several place settings; it’s almost time for the dinner rush in this rustic Italian eatery near the heart of Manhattan. ‘Dance is like a hobby, and much like football it’s short lived. You’ll be lucky to have 5 good professional years and then you need to know what you’re doing after; you need to plan for a job after the dream’, Michael says. He speaks from over a quarter century of experience. After having entered the world of dance and entertainment at age four he would go on to be nominated for Paper Mill Playhouse “Best Male Actor in a Leading Role” award in 1999 for his portrayal as “Lead Player” in Stephen Schwartz’ Tony Award-winning musical “Pippin”.
‘There are too many variables with dance. You can’t control the competition. It rarely has a future, and it can end in an instant. One wrong landing, one bad roll of the ankle, and you’re done.’ He pauses. ‘A dancer is a hardworking background player. When you see a Beyonce concert you might notice the dancers but they’ll never be the main focus. That was my life for a while and in the end it wasn’t fulfilling enough to dance, retire, and start a dance studio. But music? Music has royalties.’
Of course the switch from dancer to music producer didn’t occur overnight and as it is with many artists Michael had to start from somewhere. ‘Learning production was mostly self-taught. I had primitive versions of pro tools at home which weren't very reliable but I was able to cut full demos and pitch my ideas to the different labels and artists I met. To put it in perspective, dance came easy to me but music was hard. I was terrible in some ways so I loved the challenge; I wanted to prove something to myself. Just like dance I never stopped practicing’, he says. ‘I started hoarding recording and stereo equipment, taught myself how to blend and overdub recordings, and even how to DJ. Eventually I had chances to work with other Indie labels where I learned everything about setting up a studio, arranging microphones, and overall just being an studio assistant. At the end of the night I would have time alone to tinker.’
As with most lifelong passions his decision to pursue music was solidified by experiences. ‘At live performances I was always fascinated by the sound engineers and loved studying both producers and engineers. There were musicians on both sides of my family growing up but what really sparked my attention was when I’d see behind the scenes footage of artists recording songs like “We Are The World”. I always thought, ‘I want to be there’.’ It’s a sentiment I recall having myself and I believe most do who decide to pursue a passion that deviates from the usual routine. ‘Eventually I started landing placements and other recording opportunities with different boutique labels.’
Michael shifts in his chair, his black suit casually reflecting the ambient light around us. ’It was my ego’, he says, ‘money wasn’t as important as the ability to make someone successful out of obscurity.’ As unbelievable as this sounds it’s exactly what Michael has done numerous times before. The 2010 EP “Overdose” by rapper Skee-Lo, in which he performed the track with fellow rapper Doc Ice (of Whodini), marked a major comeback for the artist since the success of his 1995 single “I Wish” which had ranked #13 on the Billboard Hot 100. The project was Michael’s idea and after tracking Skee-Lo down on MySpace he worked with fellow Producers Chey de Los and Michael “KolordPimp” LaMotte to put it all together.
I was fortunate enough to be introduced and connect with Skee-Lo over the phone, and he was able to affirm everything I have been discovering and have come to believe about Michael DeBarge. Skee-Lo explained that he was then retired and not working on any music when Michael messaged him: ‘I had gotten offers before but when Michael reached out it was a no brainer. He’s into creating and developing projects; it’s a science that’s more than about just writing songs. In Hop-Hop we take things people live through every day and as artists we’re supposed to reflect the times through our music. Michael understands creating music that affects how you feel and, for me, music is very spiritual. Working with him restored my confidence in the art of making music.’
But as the release of “Overdose” approached the project almost fell apart. ‘Skee-Lo got cold feet. He’s the sweetest guy on Earth however he wasn’t ever treated properly and all those stresses and self-doubts started to come back,’ Michael recalls. ‘I totally get why and where he was coming from; he went from being this huge star to a humble, working class guy and dedicated family man. Once you step back out there, you have to win, all or nothing and there is no turning back. That’s a lot of pressure.’
‘It was a ‘motherfuck’ moment.’ He takes a sip of water, choosing his words carefully. ‘Skee-Lo was acting out of anger, fear, and nervousness. It got ugly and we were butting heads. We suddenly started arguing over the silliest things. It got hostile and Skee-Lo eventually snapped. So I called Doc Ice and said ‘Bro, I’m about to go find this guy and set this straight.’ Doc agreed, already privy to the way Michael operates, and knowing what it would take to get the album back on track. ‘It’s a moment that I’ll never forget’, Michael says. ‘Doc said to me, “It’ll show him, you move the way you want to move when you want to move and nothing will get in your way.”’ As he sits back in his chair Michael admits, ‘And from that point on…that was my approach to everything.’
He continues, ’I flew out to L.A., knocked on his door and let Skee-Lo know I go where I want, move how I want, do what I want, and won’t shy away from confrontation. Needless to say Skee-Lo was stunned and we spent the day hanging out and talking about the future; it was nothing but smiles and laughs.’ The dedication paid off as the title track “Overdose”, about a woman ‘so killa’ Skee-Lo wouldn’t mind making her his favorite drug, continues to be the most popular track off the album. Electric sounds and fast, cohesive lyrics prove Skee-Lo didn’t lose a step in the fifteen years between albums.
Michael’s persistence paid off. The reintroduction of Skee-Lo led to a second release of “Fresh Ideas” in 2012 followed by appearances on Conan, Jimmy Fallon, a Toyota Rav-4 Super Bowl Campaign, and most recently a placement in the ABC show “Fresh Off the Boat”. The rebirth of Skee-Lo, the musician, all started with a MySpace conversation in 2008. Then fast forward 9 years to Michael & Skee-Lo’s new release “Neck Snapper”, a collaborative effort which features Michael himself, along with David Ruffin Jr., writer and vocalist of “Gin & Juice” & Q. Ivory an apprentice of Michael’s on vocals.
The Skee-Lo project also kickstarted Michael’s relationship with VH1 HipHop Honoree Doc Ice (of UTFO & Whodini), which resulted in Doc’s first Top 100 song in 20 years “Ghetto Baby” which was featured on the Golden Globe-winning debut season of “Jane the Virgin” on the CW. Michael also arranged the collaboration with Doc Ice and his other client Corey Feldman for the song “Everybody” – Corey Feldman’s first ever nationally charting record which peaked at #13 on the Cashbox and Record World National Hip Hop & R&B Charts. Michael followed that up with the Doc Ice single “Hunnids” featuring David Ruffin Jr. & Retro Glam which peaked at #41 nationally on the Hip Hop & R&B Cashbox and Record World charts in September of 2015. Then in September of 2016 Michael paired Doc and Corey Feldman together for the globally viral Today Show performance for Corey Feldman’s “Go 4 It”. The show was declared the highest rated Today Show performance of the year, with over 10 million YouTube views in 24 hours. With the help of Michael and his mentor Gary Lefkowith, renowned record producer and radio promoter, “Go 4 It” landed Corey Feldman his first Billboard charting record, with the record hitting seven straight weeks on the Billboard Top 40 and peaking at #32.
Muffled opera envelope us as patrons begin to flow past our table for dinner. Michael makes it clear that staying humble is the most important trait a musician or anyone else in the entertainment world can have. ‘When you see a music video with all that cubic zirconia or money, none of it is real. That’s the producers selling a product.’ It’s a fact that most rappers, at least in the beginning, wear cubic zirconia or moissanite, a silicon carbide so rare it’s mostly created in labs. ‘But if a musician gets out of hand producers will purposefully surround them with people who will bring he or she down until they come groveling back with humility.’ We share a laugh as backroom politics are of mutual interest. ‘I don’t mean to make it sound so dark.’
As much as an overwhelming ego can cost an artist, cigarettes will also prove costly for clients, with potential or otherwise. Musicians Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, and Courtney Love had all been noted for the drastic changes smoking had taken on their voices, with everything from acquiring incurable emphysema to finding themselves unable to hit their famous high notes. Some artists like Aretha Franklin were able to reverse the effects their smoking caused by simply putting the packs down early. ’By smoking you’re destroying the one asset you need to be successful. A client can smoke a joint as long as they do it 90 minutes before coming to the studio, but cigarettes are always a deal breaker. The same with drugs; I don’t care if you do blow at a party but you’re not doing it in the studio.’ It’s a decent philosophy as the transition from casual drug use to show-ending addiction is steep and slippery.
We step outside into the frigid New York air as a crowd leaves a nearby Broadway production. ‘There’s an energy here. Sure I could move to L.A. but I like the struggle of New York. It gives you an edge.’, he says, before greeting a passing couple. ‘I’ve been doing this since I was four so it’s nice being around real people, surrounded by the constant reminder that my fluffy life could change. It keeps me in touch with reality instead of what society shoves down our throats.’
Michael admits he wasn’t sure he’d ever put these things into words, yet sentences pour from him like water out of the fountain by the entrance to the restaurant. ‘This feels like therapy. Maybe I should lay on a sofa.’ It’s almost as if this meeting is adding to his convalescence after a health scare took a heavy toll on him earlier in the year. ‘I thought I had cancer. It’s why I went M.I.A. for a while. It was a lot to come to terms with. Thankfully it wasn’t anything too serious and I could get back to my life.’
‘I didn’t miss anything growing up as I did; sleepovers aren’t a big deal’, jokes Michael. Indeed his life has been far from normal but it’s worked out well for the fiery producer. A recent deal to market limited edition vinyl 45’s of Corey Feldman’s “Everybody” bears Michael’s name across the label. ‘I’ve been negotiating this for about five months. I’m not concerned with the deal being more in my favor. It’s about it being the right deal and fair for all. I don’t need it lopsided.’ Overall it’s a good time to produce vinyl. In 2015 revenues hit $422.3 million in the U.S. alone, according to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Vinyl sales have been slowly increasing since 2009 and limited edition records will always be eyed by collectors of all ages.
‘A day without profit is a bad day’, he says while leaning against a bronze railing. ‘I want you to put that in the article. This business is what you put into it. If I stay home smoking weed the problem is with me.’ Admittedly it’s this quote in particular which took me back slightly, though I’m not sure why as everything that makes Michael DeBarge stand out is his pragmatism. Maybe it’s that I haven’t met many individuals with such clear vision of what would or could hold them back from being successful. ’Other people my age are stressed about their jobs and mortgages; people like us are stressed because of our dreams and goals. You have one shot to grab life by the balls.’ They’re words that, while having been spoken numerous times throughout history, have yet to lose their impact. So I ask him, ‘What do you think keeps you looking so young?’ His reply is insightful, ‘One reason I still look so young, it’s because I’m doing what I love. Stressing about your passion doesn't age you as much as stressing over a job you never really wanted in the first place’.
Keeping true to form Michael is busy doing what he loves in 2017. He recently discovered the rap duo The D.R.A.F. (@thedrafmuzik), consisting of members Toox and Big Mig$, whose debut video for “What I Do” dropped in February. The track features the vocals of the Electro-Pop/Nu-Disco all-female band Retro Glam (@retroglamband) and Dean (@dean8string) from the horror punk band Children of October on guitar. All-in-all it’s an exciting time for Michael as four of his clients Demi David, Retro Glam, Chrissy Milan, and The D.R.A.F. have all made it into the Top 10 of the Independent Music Awards with Chrissy Milan holding the number one spot with her pop hit “ATL”. The future's looking bright for the dancer turned record producer and I, for one, am excited to see what the rest of 2017 has in store for Michael DeBarge.