Chicago native Rob Lewis can boast flawless skillfulness with producing, writing, musical directing, musicianship and arranging. He has created with accomplished musicians and artists such as Patti LaBelle, Eric Clapton, Babyface, Brian McKnight and Christina Aguilera. His work with Aguilera on Herbie Hancocks A Song for You earned a nod for the 48th Annual Grammy Awards in the Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals category.
Rob, who reigns from the elite Berklee College of Music in Boston, began his career at the age of 18 as a musical director for Brian McKnight. Since then, he has been blazing trails with his creative, old-school approach to music and writing. Drawing inspiration from the Motown Era, Lewis is looking forward to making high-quality music long after sampling gets old. He is making his own blueprint for music instead of following the protocol.
With a 20-piece orchestra in his corner, movie soundtracks under his belt and production credits on the forthcoming albums of Christina Aguilera, Sean Diddy Combs, and Black Eyes Peas, Lewis shows no signs of slowing down. Despite his busy schedule, he did come up for air long enough to share his thoughts, accomplishments and hopes for the upcoming year with AllHipHop.com Alternatives.
AllHipHop.com Alternatives: Afternoon, Mr. Renaissance Man! Glad to finally catch up with you. Youre always so busy doing this and that.
Rob Lewis: [chuckles] Hey! Yeah, thats the grind. Always have to stay on top of things.
AHHA: True. Chicago is definitely on the map, with the likes of Kanye West, Common and Twista. How does it feel to come from an area with so much musical significance today?
Rob: It’s hot. I came straight from the south side of Chicago. I wanted to get serious in the music game, so I went to Boston to attend school. I learned most of my craft in Boston, just grinding. If I had 50 dollars, I would spend 25 of it on studio time.
AHHA: When did you really emerge onto the music scene? Was it gradual, or did it just happen suddenly?
Rob: I got my break at the age of 18, when Brian McKnight did a clinic at my college. I was his biggest fan. I really consider my emergence onto the music scene to be fate or destiny, because if I didn’t go to Boston, I wouldn’t have met him, and without him, I wouldnt be where I am today.
AHHA: From Brian McKnight to Christina Aguilera and Diddy, your musical evolution has been amazing. How have you stayed ahead of the curve?
Rob: Believe it or not, [it] comes from studying those that came before us. There are different fusions and styles that the world creates, but I get my knowledge from Marvin Gaye and the Motown Era.
AHHA: Whats so distinct and great about the Motown Era, aside from the wonderful singles we listen to, even today?
Rob: In music today you have a beat maker, MC and/or writer, then there’s an artist. Back then, there was a songwriter, arrangers, musicians, outside arrangers for live strings and horns, an artist singing, etc. That’s music. I want to be that kind of producer. I want to die in this game-doing music. I don’t want to say, I used to be famous.
AHHA: When did you meet Christina Aguilera?
Rob: I met Christina at an audition, my first audition ever! I missed the first day of auditions. When I got there, my friends were there and had been the day before, so they knew the arrangements. But I got up there, looking fly, and did my thing because in the music game, you gotta be fly. She went in the room and the guy came out and said, “She definitely wants you.” And he ended up making me the musical director.
AHHA: Christina Aguilera has been a catalyst for your most recent collaborations, right? How did that happen?
Rob: When you’re working, it’s always a rule of mine to do your best, because you never know who is watching. You just get into a venue and do a good job, and people recognize your ability. She called me in to work on Diddy’s project, because we have that level of comfortability with one another. Diddy saw what I could do and asked me to come on board as a musical arranger for some of his tracks.
AHHA: I hear your relationship with Diddy has landed you a role on his MTV show, Making the Band. When is it set to air, and what will you be doing?
Rob: There has been a lot of talk between me and Diddy. I cant say too much, but I will say that the offer is definitely on the table. We shall see.
AHHA: The life of a producer, writer, musical director and arranger has got to be interesting. Which “job” to do enjoy the most?
Rob: I love being a producer. And when I say producer, I mean I love production from conception to end. Just because you make a beat doesn’t make you a producer. Production to me means an idea coming up on a guitar then coming up with a drum beat then vocal arrangement for the vocals then maybe adding in some strings. Afterwards, you go into the studio and put it all together. I like being the chef in the studio-the creator!
AHHA: I hear you’re working on the score for the new romantic comedy The Seat Filler starring Kelly Roland and Duane Martin. How’d you get hooked up with that?
Rob: A film company, Momentum Experience, called me in. I do scoring for some playwrights, and some of the film directors had seen my work, so they asked me to work on this project. I wrote all the songs that Kelly [Rowland] sings in the movie, and did the score. I’ve done the score for four other films. The two I can think of off the top of my head are, Book of Love on BET and Truth Be Told starring Regina King and Blair Underwood.
AHHA: What can we expect from the soundtrack?
Rob: Kelly [Rowland] has a very big ballad at the end of the movie that is going to surprise a lot of people. Its going to make them really look twice at her.
AHHA: Another thing on your “to do” list is the Toni Braxton tour. Toni is making a grand comeback, how are you preparing for that?
Rob: When youre putting on a show for an artist, you have to make sure you’re displaying them in the best possible light. So in preparing for Toni’s tour, I want to make sure she’s presented as a legend, not just someone that’s making a comeback. I want the show to be hit after hit, with immaculate arranging, because Toni has hits.
AHHA: You’re dibbling and dabbling in everything under the sun. What are some other goals you’d like to accomplish? Other artists you’d like to work with?
Rob: I have a band called The Movement Orchestra. We play for Patti Labelle, Christina Aguilera, Babyface, Toni Braxton, and a few others. Im trying to bring that old Motown sound back, with crazy arrangements and Stevie-type lyrics over real music. I want to make a movement back to that. It’s my priority to bring that sound back. I feel like Andre 3000 and Christina Aguilera are about the same goals. Im looking forward to us [The Movement Orchestra] being the next generation Sly and the Family Stone. I really just want to make quality music and look back and say that I didn’t sell my soul, but I tried to change the game. Whether I have been successful or not is yet to be seen.
AHHA: That’s amazing. What made you start your own orchestra?
Rob: My band members have played for everyone from Prince to Janet, and are well respected in the game. My genius idea was for us to become super-friends. I know the power of having great talent in the studio with me to help with collaboration. I love the fact that I can ask my drummer for advice, or [ask] my bass what he thinks about this run.
AHHA: People are so quick to post artists and images against one another, for comparison. Can you pinpoint any producer or musician that most evokes your style?
Rob: Quincy Jones. My main focus is versatility. That’s what has kept Jermaine Dupri, Pharrell Williams and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis in the game so long. Quincy [Jones] not only changed the game musically, but he used his versatility to branch out into movies, magazines, etc. If I could accomplish a quarter of what he accomplished, it would be amazing.
AHHA: There are so few true musicians in the music industry today. Everything is sampling and recycling. What do you offer that makes your work a breath of fresh air, so to speak?
Rob: Im making music. Thats what sets me apart. Think of it this way, if everyone is cutting up old records over and over again, what will the next generation have to cut up? Thats my goal in this industry, to make music for the next generation to look back on.