Producer Dallas Austin talks about Boyz II Men’s debut album, Cooleyhighharmony
Boyz II Men, ABC, and BBD: The East Coast Family… was the mantra for the Biv 10 collective at the beginning of the 1990s. After being discovered by Michael Bivins, the collective known as Boyz II Men—Nathan Morris, Shawn Stockman, Wanya Morris, and Michael McCary—signed a recording contract with Motown Records in late 1989. Hailing from the streets of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the quartet spent years cultivating their trademark vocal chops by rehearsing and performing in their legendary high school’s choir and at local venues. Under the guidance of Bivins and music executive Jheryl Busby, they were on the verge of becoming pop superstars with their debut offering and a successful partnership with up-and-coming producing talent Dallas Austin. On February 14, 1991, Cooleyhighharmony would be released by Motown Records, and it spawned four singles, including “Uhh Ahh” and “Please Don’t Go,” and two top-five hits: “Motownphilly” and the remake of Freddie Perren and Christine Yarian’s classic, “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.” For the album’s twenty-fifth anniversary, we spoke with Dallas Austin about his role in constructing one of the biggest albums from the early ’90s.
How were you discovered by Klymaxx member Joyce Irby?
Dallas Austin: I started out playing in bands in the Atlanta area. I was doing lights for a band called Princess & Starbreeze. She signed them, but no one knew that I was able to produce music. I was 15 at that time. I started doing music over at their house. Everyone started listening to my music, and they were telling me how good it was. So I signed a deal with her. Once she started seeing more of my production work, I produced her “Mr. DJ” record and a couple of Troop records. After that, she said, “Why don’t you become my producing partner?” That’s how our partnership started. She had a deal with Jheryl Busby at Motown, who was the president of the label at the time, he had signed her, Boyz II Men, and few other acts to their roster. He called me to ask if I could produce Boyz II Men, but he wanted me to do it on my own, without her influence on the music. So that’s when fireworks started to happen. [laughs] I went to Philadelphia with them to record “Motownphilly” and “Sympin’,” and they were the only two tracks I was going to produce for their album. When I got there, I clicked with the guys, they asked, “Why can’t you do our whole album?” Then, they asked me, “Can you do ballads?” So I went and bought some Babyface records to listen to them, and I figured out how to do ballads. I ended up doing their whole album. When I called back to tell her I was doing to whole album, she said, “Oh, really. I’m suing everybody.” [laughs]
Can you describe the Atlanta music scene before you were involved with the Boyz II Men project?
Cameo was the biggest group around us. There was the SOS Band, Peabo Bryson, and Issac Hayes, but there wasn’t anything that connected with the young people there, except for Kilo [Ali] and Raheem the Dream.
How were you chosen by Jheryl Busby to begin working with Boyz II Men?
Jheryl Busby made an offer to me to work on their project, but I was signed to Joyce Irby’s production company. I was working as a work-for-hire producer for her. Once I started producing more than those two records for the group, she started to feel like something was going on with Jheryl, and that they were trying to take me away from her and this, that, and the other, when really, I was just in a bad work-for-hire contract. The more I learned about the work-for-hire contract I signed, the more I realized I wasn’t going to make that much money off the stuff I was doing unless I got it situated. It was Michael Bivins who hooked me up with Joel Katz. Then, Jheryl Busby, Clarence Avant, and a bunch of people started to get involved at a certain point to help make sure I was cleared from the contract because I was doing so much work for them by then.
What was your relationship with Jheryl Busby when you began producing records for the Motown label?
He thought I was a bright young kid. I was into producing music, but I was also interested in guessing the artist and that type of stuff. He said to me, “You can learn what we know, but we can’t learn what you know.” This was before I got my own label. As I was working with Another Bad Creation, I thought that we should turn them into a miniature version of Bell Biv Devoe (BBD) and not New Edition. The same thing happened with Boyz II Men. I thought that the music should match what the artist looked like. So he was excited about the music I was creating. He thought that when Joyce mixed the songs, she mixed them too soft. This was during the days when Teddy Riley was just starting up and everybody else. Hard beats were just coming into R&B songs. At the same time, Michael Bivins had Boyz II Men and Another Bad Creation. We started hanging out with him. Once I produced “Iesha,” and the by the time we got to “Motownphilly,” we already started making a lot of noise with these records.
What do you think Michael Bivins saw in you to make him believe that you would be a great fit to work with his new group?
When he met me, he saw how musical my stuff was with my beats. Once we broke through with one song, and continued with song after song, he said, “Let’s keep this moving.” By the time I was done, he wanted me to sign to his label, Biv 10 Records, but I told him, “If I sign to Biv 10, then I can’t start my own Biv 10. I’ll keep doing records for you, but I don’t want to be signed to a production company.” Later on, I started my own production company, DARP.
You mentioned earlier that when you first met the group, you guys clicked instantly. When you first started working with the group on this album, what were the things that made you guys click and how did it help you create songs in the studio?
One thing was that I used to like the group Take 6 a lot. So I was excited to work with an R&B group. We could do Take 6-like harmonies and do them over pop songs. When I first met the guys, the first song they were singing was “Mary.” We took that and kind of played off of it. Their voices were amazing. When they did harmonies, they didn’t sound like anyone else. Having that doo-wop sound coming back out of Philadelphia mixed with that youthful early 90s sound was a good mix. You could tell there was magic happening in the room. We were excited about the next song and the next song, and the ones we hadn’t made yet because we knew how the combination would sound after we made them. Other than that, we were so broke and hungry. [laughs] We would do things just to pass the time. We used to walk to the studio together, and their feet used to be hanging outside of their shoes. I was broke from being in a bad contract, so we had that in common, too.
When you began working on this album, you were 19 years old. The group was relatively young around the same age back then, too.
Yeah. That is true. Wanya was the youngest. He was around 16 or 17.
What was the regular studio routine with the group during the making of this album?
We would usually start working in the studio around two or three o’clock in the afternoon, and we would work all night until three or four in the morning. Then, we would come in the next day and finish what we had worked on the night before. Everything wasn’t that quick. We didn’t have Pro Tools back then. They would sing, and it’d be put down on tape. Then, we had to go in and fix things the proper way because there wasn’t Autotune or anything like that. It made our minds work differently. It made our ability to play stuff sharper because we didn’t have any other options. We were constantly trying to perfect things. You had to be talented to sing on records. If you listen to a lot of records now, people get away with not being talented. Back then, there wasn’t an option. You had to be talented. When we were in the studio, I’d sit behind the console, and my keyboards would be set up there, too. The guys would be in the vocal booth or we would sit around and just write.
In the process of making the songs on this album, who usually took the lead in writing the lyrics and coming up with the melodies and harmonies?
Nate, Shawn, and I did the core of the writing. They would have harmony arrangements, and I would come back in and rearrange them to make them fuller and make them into different parts that would go on top of each other. Nate and Shawn spearheaded the writing and how the melodies would sound on songs. For “Motownphilly,” I did the track, and I sent it off to Motown. They heard it and said it would be great for Boyz II Men. They arranged for me to go to Philly, and when I got there, they already started writing the hook for “Motownphilly,” then we finished it. After that, we recorded “Sympin’.” Since we clicked, we wanted to keep making more songs. I wasn’t about to go back home. Every day we would either come up with another song or something new. While they went back to their house, sometimes, I would stay in the studio and work on tracks, so when they would come in the next day, we could get right to it.
How long did it take for you guys to finish the album?
It took about six weeks to complete it or a little longer. Once “Motownphilly” came out, it started to take off, so we had to hurry up and get the album done. The album, that’s in existence, isn’t the one we mixed. Those are my rough mixes from when I came home to listen to them at night. I compiled the final versions of the real mixes to send to Motown. I was like, “Here this is what the album sounds like. We can submit it to be mixed now.” They were cool with it. So we went to New York and started mixing with Dave Way and some other engineers. Right before printing it, Jheryl called and said, “I hate to do this to you, but the demos sound better. Stuff is missing here. I don’t like the way it feels. We’re going to use the rough mixes for the album.” [laughs] So, that’s what they did. He thought when the songs were mixed, they sounded too slick and lost some of the grit. I used to be pissed off because I knew was going to have to hear that every day along with everybody else, knowing that it wasn’t the best it could be. But I guess it didn’t hurt us too bad.
What was your approach in creating a track from scratch for this album?
The first thing I would do is lay down the drums. I had so many drum loops going on at the same time. This was before clearances came. [laughs] Then, I would play a regular bass line in a regular song on top of all these loops that were out of tune. And some kind of way it would come together. I used to like listening to the Bomb Squad and Public Enemy. By the time I got the bass and keys down and the roots of it down, then everything else would fill in around it. Back then, I used to use a lot of horns. It was the start of New Jack Swing and the swing era. That was Teddy Riley’s influence.
During the making of the album, were you based in Philadelphia for its entirety?
Yeah. We were based in Philly for the album, but we spent a couple of days in Atlanta recording, too. We finished a couple of songs there. We added vocals to them. Boyz II Men was singing all of the backgrounds for Another Bad Creation’s stuff. We were doing that at the same time as well. They ended up going back down to Atlanta for choreography training with DeVyne [Stephens]. When we were in Philly, we were in three or four different studios. Ruffhouse Records was based there. At one point, Lauryn Hill and the Fugees were recording in one room. We were in another room, and Kwame was recording in the next room. Working out of the studios in Philly was the easiest because everyone could just go back home. Plus, their sound was Philadelphia. I think it was good for them to be in Philadelphia.
What instruments and recording equipment were you using at that time?
I think I was using the Sequential Circuits Studio 440 for sequencing. I had my Yamaha and Roland gear for my keyboard chords.
How many vocal takes did you conduct with the group while you were working on songs for the album?
Not many because we didn’t have as many tracks. We would do a few takes and that would be it, but then I’d do so many stacks of harmonies. I’d do eight mixed note stacks, so that it would sound super full and crazy, compared to if you only had one person doing one note each. I’d stack the notes eight times. On “Please Don’t Go,” Nate sung it to me on a piano. This is when I went and listened to Babyface’s song “Whip Appeal” to see how it was supposed to sound. I asked them to give me a shot at producing it. So I went and did a track for it, and we completed it. For “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye,” Mike Bivins used to talk about the group being from Cooley High. That’s why they called the album Cooleyhighharmony. It was his idea to remake this song. I arranged it and put the harmonies in the right spots. With “Uhh Ahh,” they sang it a cappella, but it started out with them snapping their fingers.
Are there any interesting background stories that occurred during the making of the album?
Yeah. We used to be so hungry back then. One time, when I came back to my hotel room, I threw half of a donut away in the garbage can. Everyone was sitting around chilling, but then it started getting late. Nate looked over at me and asked, “Are you going to get that donut or am I going to get it?” I replied, “Oh. That’s what you’re still sitting here for?” He said, “Yeah. I’m trying to wait you out to see if you’re going to get that donut or not.” We didn’t have any money, so we were starving. I said, “Why don’t we just split it?” [laughs] We had a lot of fun in the studio. They would go their houses and walk to the studio every day. Luckily, Motown put me and my partner Rick in a hotel. They couldn’t pay me any money, but they could pay for studio time. I had to order food through the studio bill. This happened during the six weeks it took to make the album because I was still in that work-for-hire contract.
As you look back twenty-five years later, what was the best thing about being a part of making this album?
The best thing was that we were young and new to the industry. We never knew what was going to happen. Everything just felt so new and exciting. We finally had a chance to do what we wanted to do with our lives. This was the first album where I had creative control. I knew the combination of me working with these four guys was going to turn into something special.
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