There’s been a murder! Pop music’s top songwriter details his diabolical M.O. for killing radio.By Damien Scott; Photography by Matt Salacuse;
MORE CREDITS: (STYLIST) DIGIT; (CLOTHING) HAT BY NEW ERA; SUNGLASSES BY LOUIS VUITTON; VINTAGE JACKET BY MCM; JEANS BY NOM DE GUERRE; SNEAKERS BY AIR JORDAN; (PHOTOS) WOLF: EVERETT COLLECTION; REMAINDER: AP PHOTO
Terius “The-Dream” Nash doesn’t scream “Radio Killa!” just to promote his newly minted Def Jam imprint. He yells it out because he believes he knows exactly what it takes to craft the songs that radio stations (and your brain) play ad infinitum, those songs you can’t help but hum to yourself. And now that the Atlanta native has penned those hits for everyone from superstars like Rihanna (“Umbrella”) and Beyoncé (“Single Ladies”) to rookies like J. Holiday (“Bed”), he’s ready to take it one step further by making himself—along with his label’s artists, girl group Electrik Red and Christina Milian—go pop. Can he do it? Why not? He’s the Radio Killa!
Aside from writing your own hits, you’re mostly known for your work with female pop stars. Where does your ability to understand the female sensibility come from?The-Dream: That has a lot to do with my mom and the relationship I had with her. She passed away from throat cancer when I was 13. When she passed, it made me real sensitive and feel real fortunate to have any woman around. To fill that void, I just began to listen to women in a different way and started to understand them in a different way because my mother wasn’t there. That’s the missing piece that you can’t put a finger on.
What’s the most important part of your songwriting process?The-Dream: Wow, the most important part is the engineer.
Really?The-Dream: Yeah. We have microphones recording me all day. In whatever building we work in, at any particular time that something jumps in my brain all of the mics are ready. I may think of an idea and go right into the booth and the engineer has to set up the tracks and make them available to record. He has to set up my read track, my performance track and about 10 tracks for harmony, so there’s no “getting ready.”
With the Radio Killa imprint, you’re not only responsible for writing hits for artists, you’ve got to make sure they actually have a career, too.The-Dream: Exactly. There is no room for messing up. When something happens, everybody’s going to point at me. I probably don’t get that much credit for the decisions to write certain records at certain times or pick certain singles. I would never write and release the song that isn’t the right song. I know the songs that are album songs, I know which song is a single.
What makes a record a hit record?The-Dream: It starts when the artist connects with the song that they’re singing. If the artist isn’t willing to do what they need to do in order to connect to the record, it doesn’t matter. Beyoncé is showing on “Single Ladies”—and Rihanna on “Umbrella,” too—what a hit record actually encompasses. They showed you. It’s real easy. Video: simple, beautiful, glamorous, focus on me, focus on what I’m doing. And they both delivered on those songs. They did the perfect video to the perfect song and created a smash record. That’s something I have to pass on to Electrik Red or Christina Milian.
Do you sell those hit songs to anyone who’s willing to pay?The-Dream: No, no, no. I work with people because I have a supreme respect for them.
But what about somebody like J. Holiday?The-Dream: That was a different relationship. Him getting that record had nothing to do with J. Holiday. You would know if me and J. Holiday really had a good relationship—you’d see us [together] more often. He’d probably be on my album. I would probably be on his album, which I didn’t do a song for.
With your latest album, Love vs Money, you’ve lost a couple of pounds and you’re putting yourself out there more. You trying to be a pop star?The-Dream: Yeah, I’m gonna turn it on! You start out and people are like, “Aw, look at this chubby guy.” [Laughs.] I get it, but I’ve been writing records for 10 years at four in the morning eating White Castle. Whatever it took to get my bills paid, that’s what it was. Now it’s more of a focus. My job is multi-faceted; it ain’t like I’m able to just get up and go to work out in the morning or have an interview and work out. After this, I have to go to the studio to record for Snoop Dogg. But I’m trying to sell 50,000 tickets. It will happen.