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Harrison played her a couple of his beats, including a track that eventually became "Float," a song on Amerie's 2002 bow All I Have. She liked the tracks so much that she got emotional and teary-eyed, which he says was a good sign. Then, when she sang, Harrison asked her: "Do you always sound like that?" referring to her very young voice with a slightly old-school rasp.
"No, I have a cold," responded Amerie. She didn't really, but she was afraid Harrison wouldn't like her raw, emotional delivery. She was wrong. It was exactly what he needed.
"I had been looking for a certain kind of voice," says the 29-year-old Harrison from Los Angeles, where he's working on upcoming projects for Christina Aguilera, Mary J. Blige, Jamie Foxx, and Justin Timberlake. The Maryland-born, D.C.-bred producer is extremely hard to get ahold of, thanks to A-list credits such as Jennifer Lopez's "Get Right," Beyoncé's Grammy-winning "Crazy in Love," Usher's "Take Your Hand," and, most recently, Amerie's "1 Thing."
At the time, however, Harrison's only major credit was for Blige's "Beautiful Ones" from her 1999 album Mary. "I wanted somebody who could present me with some cool options to play with musically, a pop/mainstream personality with real beats and real substance under her, as opposed to the things that were being done at the time," he says of Amerie.
The stunningly beautiful daughter of an African-American father in the military and a Korean mother, Amerie was instantly given the part of Harrison's protégé after that impromptu audition. And for the next five months, night after night, that perfectly imperfect voice and the beatsmith with a love for obscure samples, go-go drums, and horns worked on Amerie's demo, which eventually led to a deal with Columbia/Sony Urban Music. A gold-selling debut in All I Have; a major movie; cameos on Nas's (Stillmatic, Street's Disciple) and LL Cool J's (10) albums; and several tours (with Faith Evans, Usher, and Nelly) later, Amerie is gearing up to release her hotly anticipated sophomore project, Touch.
"When we first started working together, it was in my pop's basement in Maryland," recalls Harrison, who as a teen played the drums in several D.C. go-go bands. Nowadays he runs his own production company, Richcraft Inc. "She used to sit on the back of the sofa, and I would put a milk crate on the floor so that she could rest her feet, and then I'd set up a mike and there were no booths or anything. She would come over after a class and I would just give her direction and we would put in four to five hours. When she learned how to ad-lib, that's when the fun started, because she realized she could create and improvise and that it would sound amazing. She helped me grow as a producer, and I pushed her to grow as a vocalist."
Coincidentally the 24-year-old Amerie invites comparisons to Blige circa the latter's R&B classic My Life. On songs such as "Why Don't We Fall in Love?" the first single off All I Have, or the more recent "1 Thing," Amerie is singing with urgent, almost desperate emotion. Obviously she's no seven-octave chanteuse à la Mariah Carey. Like Blige, Amerie often strains to hit high notes, and sings from the gut. "I think the most important thing about singing is emotion," says Amerie, taking a break from her week-long tour in Tokyo to promote Touch.
Although tender balladry was the overall theme of All I Have, Harrison and Amerie decided to go "hard" on Touch. Take "1 Thing," where Harrison sampled the Meters' 1970 hit "Oh, Calcutta!" "After finishing the first album, I was really happy," he says. "I had never executive-produced a whole album; I had never written a whole album; I had never had an artist before. But I remember I used to go out, and when they would play "Why Don't We Fall in Love?" and [Amerie's follow-up single] "Talkin' to Me," it would always slow the party down. "So this time around, I wanted to give öA' this record. I wanted to make sure she was pushing some boundaries and I wanted to communicate her personality as true as I could -- her now personality."
To get in the mood for Touch, Harrison listened to the blues stage, which eventually led him to the Meters, particularly legendary Meters drummer Zigaboo Modeliste. Hence the brash soul samples, the loud horns, and the hard club drums on "1 Thing" and the other tracks he produced on Touch, including "Rolling Down My Face," "Come with Me," and "Like It Used to Be." Harrison speaks specifically about his newfound affinity for horns: "The horn is the quintessential party instrument because you can bend it. You can do a straight note or you can do a crazy one [as in Lopez's "Get Right"]. The fact that a person can bend it with their own breath, it's just so visceral."
In addition to Harrison, Amerie worked with Miami producer Red Spyda (known for his work with 50 Cent and G-Unit), as well as producers Dre & Vidal and Bryce Wilson. Amerie further breaks down her new album's tough-love sensibility: "I'm in a different place than I was before," she says. "I wanted the album to reflect me, and I feel like the songs are more confident, more assertive. I feel like people knew me on the last album, but it was a single-faceted version of me. I was the nice girl, the cute goody-goody."
All that may soon change with the sizzling title track and obvious second single, courtesy of his royal crunkness, Lil Jon. A cross between Britney Spears's "I'm a Slave 4 U" and Ciara's "Goodies," the song reveals what Amerie's fans got a sneak peak of when she appeared in last year's teen comedy First Daughter. Playing the role of Mia Thompson, Katie Holmes's sexy roommate, Amerie proved she could also be a very bad girl.
At the end of the day, though, Amerie is a perfectionist. So when it comes to her music and image, she likes to have control. "I executive-produced the album [with manager Lenny Nicholson], and I wrote or co-wrote all the songs," she says. "I co-directed the video, and I was instrumental in the album packaging, from the colors of the pages to the photo shoot. I like to be the one in control of my own ship." Hence the cohesiveness, deliberate seductiveness, and near flawlessness of Touch.
What's the secret to this duo's success? Like all great artists, Harrison found his muse in Amerie, who inspired him to create a refreshingly new kind of R&B that's simultaneously new and old, strange and familiar.
"I'm not trying to blow my own horn, but I get a lot of people coming up to me saying, 'Thank you for bringing it back to beats; thank you for bringing it back to hardness,'" says Harrison. "To me this is just a journey, and I don't know where it's going to lead me. I guess I really just want to change the game ... make it cool for people to be new and old, which is what hip-hop's always been." And, consequently, what R&B should sound like.