Interview: Warryn Campbell – Producer Extraordinaire

Posted: May 6, 2011 in interview, music
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Warryn CampbellDate of Interview: 05/06/2011

When all things are considered, great music is quite simply great music. As a result, Warryn Campbell’s production talents have defied musical categorization – fluttering effervescently between the lines of hip-hop, Gospel and R&B. The diversity of his discography speaks for itself: Alicia Keys, Luther Vandross, Jennifer Hudson, R. Kelly, Yolanda Adams.

Warryn Campbell is also the founder of My Block Records, whose roster includes artist such as Mary Mary and Kelly Price. With the recent release of these artists’ respective albums, Something Big and Kelly, Warryn Campbell managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on his internship at Death Row Records, the founding of My Block Records, and his production contribution to Our Stories Films’ Jumping the Broom.

Clayton Perry:  After reviewing your discography, two words immediately come to mind: diversity, in regards to the genres represented, and versatility, in regards to the numerous instruments used in your musical productions. When you look back at your career, what do you consider to be the greatest contributor to your musical diversity — and musical versatility?

Warryn Campbell:  Really, man, I’m a product of two things, and those two things are at both ends of the spectrum, very far and very wide. One is church. I grew up in church all my life. I’m a preacher’s kid. I’m actually a minister myself. And then the second is the street. I grew up in South Central L.A. in a Crip neighborhood, gang infested, crack, drugs, weed-smoking. I was entrenched in that life pretty much just as much as I was involved in church. And it basically [lent itself] to my musical style. Back in the day when I was a kid, during the ‘80s, my favorite music wasn’t R&B. I didn’t like R&B music. I wasn’t really into Freddie Jackson, Luther Vandross or LeVert – all of the stuff that was cracking at that time. My favorite singers were The Winans and Commissioned – gospel singers. But while I was rocking that, my favorite music outside of that was N.W.A. So I had The Winans and N.W.A. Those two albums I played every day. Sounds crazy, right?

Clayton Perry:  Well, for many people politics is their form of religion, so to speak. Many preachers speak about the same injustices that N.W.A. targeted in their music. So in a way, those two groups go hand-in-hand together.

Warryn Campbell:  True.

Clayton Perry:  When you commented on growing up in the church, while being raised in the street, my mind fast-forwarded to the present day and your current work with Mary Mary. Your production work with them danced between the lines of hip-hop, traditional Gospel and contemporary R&B. And when one considers the artists that you have worked with over the years, why do you think that some artists are able to make seamless transitions between these genres? For example, one of your current artists, Kelly Price, has released Gospel and R&B album, even though she started out as a backing vocalist on hip-hop hooks.

Warryn Campbell:  I think artists, like Kelly Price, are blessed to be able to do it. But I think it is also a testament to their talent, because at the end of the day, music is just music. The song doesn’t become R&B until the lyrics say it’s R&B. The song is not Gospel until the lyrics say it’s Gospel. Other than that, it’s literally just music. It’s just sound. I grew up in church, but I didn’t necessarily even know how to do “gospel” music. That wasn’t even my style. When I started making beats at twelve years old, the first beat I made sounded like a Redhead Kingpin song or something like that. It sounded like Slick Rick, but I was writing a gospel song on top of it. That’s how I started. I feel like with Mary Mary I found two girls that had the same exact upbringing as me. They were raised in church, but they were raised in Inglewood at the same time, and it just clicked. They felt how I felt. They heard how I heard. They wrote how I wrote. That flowed in between the different worlds. They are entrenched in both worlds, so when they speak or when they write a song, it speaks to everybody at one time. It’s nothing that we actually try to do. It’s just some people, it happens for them that way and for others it doesn’t.

Clayton Perry:  When you reflect upon how the industry has evolved over the years, especially within the field of contemporary gospel music, what kind of obstacles have you seen that not only Mary Mary had to overcome, but younger, up-and-coming artists in general? And what recent innovations have excited you, too?

Warryn Campbell:  One thing that’s cool about the Internet is that everything is set up as far as information. So now, as it was in the late 1990s, gospel artists and music was pretty much behind. They would come out with a record, and it would sound like a record that somebody in hip-hop or R&B did ten years . The cool thing about that is they don’t have to trouble with that anymore, but the challenge is really the world. When you’re a gospel artist and you do something that sounds hip-hop and that sounds R&B, some of the church people – especially the older ones – they get down on you on that. They don’t like it a lot of the time. If you have a set of people that actually do like this, you cater to those people; but if, by the same token, you put a record out, the people that aren’t necessarily Christians and they’re not really gospel music singers, they want you to stay in their lane. They want their Gospel to sound “gospelly,” whatever that is in their minds. But the challenge is people’s minds don’t evolve. Some people that are young, they think of gospel and they think it’s supposed to sound like slave music…but we’re far removed from that!  I understand it. I get it. I love it. This is where we came from, but I’m just not set to write a song like that, because that’s not the era I grew up in. That’s a challenge.

Clayton Perry:  As a producer, in what ways do you go about challenging yourself, or “pushing the envelope,” so to speak? One of my favorite songs Mary Mary’s recent release – [Something Big] – is “Never Wave My Flag.” Even though “Shackles” was far from traditional-sounding Gospel music, “Never Wave My Flag” sounds like it is light-years removed from “Shackles.”

Warryn Campbell:  First of all, I have one mantra when I step in the studio: “Whatever you do, just don’t suck.” That’s it. I’m paranoid of putting out sucking music that people go like, “Oh, I hate this song.” And so I think up-to-date.  I’ve been able to do records where it might not be somebody’s favorite song, but they definitely won’t say: “That song is the worst song I ever heard.” So that is the first thing. After that, it is to compete. I was in Hawaii with Kanye [West] when he was working on his new album. I listened to stuff he was doing. We worked together on a few things. When I’m in those arenas, those things drive me as well. They drive me to want to think outside the box creatively. And we’d do that for each other. When I’m in the studio or working on a Stewart record, that stuff spills over to when I’m doing Mary Mary. I don’t switch hats. I switch my mindset based on the genre of music that I’m doing. Musically, I don’t switch. It’s just what I feel like. I just did a record with Jill Scott. We wanted to just freestyle the record. And that’s just what we felt like doing. That’s the freedom. That’s why I do music, because I’m free to do what I want to do with expression. Whether it’s housed in a frame that says it’s gospel or a frame that says it’s hip-hop, it’s going to feel the same to me. It’s coming from the same place, as far as I’m concerned.

Clayton Perry:  In your line of work, you often go into different environments where people may or may not believe the same things that you do, which may challenge you spiritually. How do you go about maintaining yourself as a person even if the professional environment might not necessarily be 100 percent aligned with it?

Warryn Campbell:  Oh, I’ve dealt with some artists who were stark against it. Especially in the hip-hop world, I worked with some rappers who are Muslim or Five-Percenters. They absolutely do not believe anything that I believe. But the difference for me is I believe what I believe because of experience. Life is just a collection of experiences, and my experience and your experience are two different things. But because I’ve experienced what I have, I believe what I believe, and there’s nothing you can say or do to really shake me from that. I feel the same way about other people. When I’m in a space with a guy who doesn’t believe like I believe, I’m not trying to change his mind about anything. What happens is the truth is the truth, man. Sometimes I could be minding my own business and people will challenge you. I’m not walking around saying: “Don’t do that. I’m Christian. Don’t say that. I’m Christian.” I don’t even live my life that way, like I was raised. I was raised as a Christian, but we weren’t that strict. We don’t believe in certain things like certain churches and certain Christian sects believe. I feel like you can accept the music. You can go to the club. You can celebrate and have a little champagne. There’s nothing wrong with any of that stuff. But there are some church people that feel like I’m too loose. And then, you’ve got some guys that I work with who just don’t believe that I ought to be even wasting my time fooling with God or with Christianity.

Clayton Perry:  So you get it from both ends?

Warryn Campbell:  Yeah, I get it from both sides. But the important thing is to stand firm. My thing is I live how I live, and if you’re going to look at my life, you’re going to hear what I say most of the time. People will take what you say sometimes, and it goes in one ear and out the other, but what leaves a mark is your personality and who you are, how you deal with certain situations, and how consistent you are in that. I think that what ultimately helps me is that I’m always the same person. If you see me and we had a conversation about religion and you’re telling me XYZ and we had a conversation about it. First of all, I’m not going to argue about it, but I’m going to tell you how I feel, and if you tell me how you feel, I’m not going to try to pull you either way. I’m just going to tell you, “Well, that’s how you feel. This is how I feel.” But if you see me sixty years from now, I will be the same way. You see me sixty years  after that, I’m going to be doing the same thing. So I’m always consistent. I believe what I believe, and there’s nothing anybody can do to change me from that. So I think everybody in the music community that knows me, they know that already. They know what it is. I’m the guy that they may call after something tragic happens. “Hey man, come play.” I was at Death Row Records when I first started. I was the youngest guy there. I was seventeen years old, but there was always a need for somebody to say: “Hey, man. Go get Lil’ Warren. Go get Baby Warren. Have him come pray.” To me, that was my job. My job wasn’t just to do music. I was kind of like the little penlight in the dark place.

Clayton Perry:  As the founder of My Block Records, at what point did you realize that the music business was just as much about the business as it was the music?

Warryn Campbell:  Oh, when I signed Mary Mary to my label. I was nineteen or something like that.

Clayton Perry:  Oh, wow! I did not realize that you started at such a young age!

Warryn Campbell:  It was back in 2000 or 2001. I knew that I wanted my own label, and I’ve been that way since I was twelve years old. I was a kid that had a sign on my door that said DW Records. I had a record company in my bedroom. I always wanted to do that. The record business as it is now, it really just took a turn, and what I did was instead of seeing the down side of it, I saw opportunity. I said, “Okay, here’s my opportunity.” A major label right now may not want to sign some of these artists that are great artists – and some of the best singers in the world – and have a following. I mean volume fan bases upwards of 300,000 to 600,000 people who will buy these people’s albums. We do it smartly, and we don’t spend a bunch of foolish money, and we can make more money than the major labels make. So we said: “Okay, let’s do Kelly Price…”

Clayton Perry:  …and you landed a GRAMMY nomination! [laughing]

Warryn Campbell:  Yeah, we got a GRAMMY nomination for “Tired,” and the album came out truly great. People love the album. She’s out touring and doing her thing. And her new music video is out. It’s all funded by my pocket, rather than some company who’s telling us what we’ve got to do. Me and Kelly basically call the shots ourselves.

Clayton Perry:  With only a two-year period between your time at Death Row and the founding of My Block Records, what professional lessons and skills immediately transferred between the two entities?

Warryn Campbell:  First of all, I learned how to have fun in the music business. When I was at Death Row, we had a lot of fun, man. We had so much fun doing that music, and it was about the music. And then we saw how a powerhouse label could actually function, and that it was possible. Because you know, when “Suge” started that thing, man, he was twenty-seven years old. He wasn’t that old. But we would do a record on Friday and it would be in heavy rotation at the radio station on Monday. And so that spoke volumes to me to see the impossible become possible. Two, we’re doing it, so if he’s doing it, I think I could do that. That was always in my mind. So, I started going to school. I started buying books. I was in the music business. Because at that time at Death Row, I wasn’t necessarily the producer kid. I was the guy that was playing all the keyboards and stuff like that on some of those songs. I played on seventeen songs on Tupac’s first Death Row release, All Eyez on Me.

Clayton Perry:  Oh, I love “I Ain’t Mad at Cha”! [laughing]

Warryn Campbell:  When you hear the piano playing, that’s me! [laughing] But Death Row lent its musical thing to me. I watched and learned how to make albums. And while most guys today know how to make hit singles, my rearing and my upbringing in music was basically how to put an album together to touch you, and how to make a great album. And the reason I got this was DJ Quik, who was my mentor. He taught me physically, hands-on, how to do everything in the studio that I do technically: how to produce a record, how to make a beat, how to mix a record. All those things that this guy took the time out and just showed me. I don’t know why he did it, but I might have been one of the only cats around at the time that was even interested in knowing that stuff, but that’s how I learned. Then businesswise, back in 2002 I did a stint with Elektra Records as the vice president of A&R there and I was able to learn the business part. Two people were my mentors then: Jay Brown, who now is the owner of Roc Nation. He was my boss at the time and mentored me. And then Big John Platt taught me music publishing. Those guys helped rear me in business and they actually took time to show me stuff. They let me be in environments where I could see certain situations and scenarios played out so I can learn what to do, but most importantly, to learn what not to do. That’s what led me to this whole thing. I said, “Okay, I can really do this. All I need is the money.” I’m at home watching Krush Groove getting my inspiration. Reading books on Barry Gordy and Clive Davis and all these different people who did it. I’m thinking: “Okay, if they did it, I can do it.” That’s all I can really offer to anybody. Like if somebody else can do it, and it’s in your mind to do it, you think you can do it. There’s nothing stopping you from doing that. So that’s what I tell everybody, man. Just do it. I feel like I’m starting a revolution, man.

Clayton Perry:  Well, you definitely are doing something right!  As a virtuoso on the drums, bass, guitar and keys. Which instrument owns your heart?

Warryn Campbell:  Well, it’s hard, man. I love all of them. My gift musically is basically I’m a mimicker. I grew up learning how to play instruments by watching other people do it and then maybe two weeks later, then I could do it. That’s typically what it was. So all the instruments are near and dear to my heart. Like I’m a drummer first. I played drums for the church choir. At six years old, I picked up the bass guitar and played for three years. And then when I turned nine, I started playing keyboards. Now my father made me concentrate on the piano because he was so gung ho and happy about my ability to play the piano that he made me stop playing drums and stop playing bass. He said: “Just learn the piano and really get engrossed in that and master that, because if you learn how to play the piano, then from the piano you could play any instrument after that.” So I said: “Okay.” I took his advice. But I always find myself just swerving right back to the drums and the bass. Piano is what I play the best, but it’s my least favorite thing to play.

Clayton Perry:  In previous interviews, you have cited Dru Hill’s How Deep is Your Love as the song that took your career to another level. What immediate changes did you experience? And in regard to your professional learning curve, what lessons or skills did you have to pick up quickly?

Warryn Campbell:  One of the first things is that business is not personal, so when you mention Dru Hill, that was pretty much one of the first things I did. I did that before I did Mary Mary. That Dru Hill album and that single How Deep Is Your Love was the second single that I ever had out in my career, but it was my first No. 1. What happened was one of the guys in Dru Hill – [Nokio] – was a producer, as well. What I didn’t understand was that him being the producer of the group – kind of like how DeVante was for Jodeci – that he would be taking credit and all that kind of stuff. He’d be producing the work for me, basically. I got that, but then when it came down to the money of it, they said:  “Listen, now when your check comes, you’ve got to split it with this guy.” And I said:  “Wait, hold on. Why do I got to split it? I did everything. It’s my money.” I start doing all that. And then it got to the point where I was getting upset, and I’d be ready to fight. One funny story: I was on a conference call with my publisher Big Time and – I’m I’m not going to say who the artist was – I told this guy that I felt he was trying to play me and trying to basically steal money from me at that point. I said: “Listen, you can’t come to L.A. no more.” I revoked his Los Angeles privileges!

Clayton Perry:  Oh, wow! [laughing]

Warryn Campbell:  And my publisher said: “Listen, man, you can’t do that. This is business. It’s not personal. They’re not attacking you. They’re trying to get money like you trying to get money.” And he let me know like that’s not cool. That’s not how you play that. He said: “That’s why we’re negotiating.” So I had to learn that. That took me a while to get, and then after that I said, “Okay, I get it.” They’re trying to get what they want. I can say no. I don’t have to get violent.

Clayton Perry:  Until you stand up for yourself, people do try to take advantage of your naïveté, especially when you are so young in the game. When you look to the future, what are some areas that you wish to develop – personally and professionally?

Warryn Campbell:  Well, I’m learning how to play the harmonica right now. It’s the hardest thing I ever tried to play in my life.

Clayton Perry:  And what made you decide on the harmonica?

Warryn Campbell:  Stevie Wonder, man. He’s a genius – ever since he was a small kid. I keep saying to myself: “How am I going to get this down? It’s very difficult.”

Clayton Perry:  Man, oh, man! Stevie Wonder! I don’t  think the word “genius” is enough!

Warryn Campbell:  Yeah, he’s the best!  That’s going on, but I am really focusing on working as a composer for movies. I just finished production work on Jumping the Broom. That’s my new heart right there.

Clayton Perry:  Well, I will be looking for your name in the credits.

Warryn Campbell:  I appreciate it, man. I’m in there!

For more information on Warryn Campbell, visit the official website for My Block Records:


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