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Your favorite producer's favorite producer

The Superstar Maker from London (London Evening Standard)

Alex Grant abandoned a professional football career to write music as Alex Da Kid. Now he is on the speed dials of the A-list, has his own LA-based record label and is the hottest hotshot on a new radio documentary that trumpets the current success of British producers in the biggest, toughest, music market in the world – America.

The UK Producers documentary hears from dance duo Chase and Status on their work with Snoop Dogg and Rihanna, and former So Solid Crew member JD, aka Dready, on his productions for 50 Cent and Busta Rhymes. There’s also Harmony “H-Money” Samuels, who’s gone from working with Tottenham rapper Chipmunk to US R&B stars Mary J Blige, Janet Jackson and Chris Brown; and Al Shux, a Lily Allen collaborator who also produced the Jay-Z and Alicia Keys smash Empire State of Mind.

Alex Grant abandoned a professional football career to write music as Alex Da Kid. Now he is on the speed dials of the A-list, has his own LA-based record label and is the hottest hotshot on a new radio documentary that trumpets the current success of British producers in the biggest, toughest, music market in the world – America.

The UK Producers documentary hears from dance duo Chase and Status on their work with Snoop Dogg and Rihanna, and former So Solid Crew member JD, aka Dready, on his productions for 50 Cent and Busta Rhymes. There’s also Harmony “H-Money” Samuels, who’s gone from working with Tottenham rapper Chipmunk to US R&B stars Mary J Blige, Janet Jackson and Chris Brown; and Al Shux, a Lily Allen collaborator who also produced the Jay-Z and Alicia Keys smash Empire State of Mind.

But Alex Da Kid, at a not particularly kid-like 28, is the one at the top of the tree. And though he played for Bristol City’s youth team for three years, he’s actually from Wood Green in north London. He started travelling back and forth to network in the US while still studying audio technology at Thames Valley University, and made the move to New York in 2009 with almost nothing of note in his production CV.

“America was the obvious place to start,” he tells me, in a transatlantic call while he’s en route to one of many meetings in LA, where he has been based since last year. “I thought if you could break America you could touch the whole world.”

That was exactly what happened in April 2010. Just as an actor suddenly moves up a division when they coincidentally have two impressive films in cinemas simultaneously, Grant had two key productions for different acts out that month.

There was Massive Attack, the tough, minimal debut single from Nicki Minaj, who quickly became the biggest female rapper in years. At the same time rapper B.o.B released Grant’s song Airplanes, which would become a UK number one later in the summer.

“One song was more urban and one was more pop leaning. It showed how much I can do,” says the producer. “My phone started ringing a lot more.”

Airplanes in particular was something new and exciting, a shift away from the robotic Auto-Tuned sound of so much urban pop with its grandiose piano, weighty rock drums and a surprisingly poetic chorus sung by Hayley Williams of rock band Paramore: “Can we pretend that airplanes in the night sky are like shooting stars?/I could really use a wish right now.”

Eminem liked it so much that he rapped on a new version, Airplanes Part II, and then raced to include another Grant composition on his Recovery album at the last minute. Love the Way You Lie, a similarly dramatic, piano-led hip-hop song, featured a chorus recorded by Rihanna in a single take while on tour in Dublin. It went on to be a US number one and the biggest-selling single of 2010 over here. It’s been largely responsible for the rapper’s rejuvenation and Rihanna’s ongoing superstardom.

It must be hard not to get big-headed about all this, especially when it happened so soon after his arrival on American shores. How did he first get people to take him seriously as an unproven musician? “I tried to work harder than anyone else, running around trying to get anyone to notice me. I think people responded to that.”

Even if he didn’t expend any energy on cracking the UK first, it won’t have harmed his prospects Stateside that he hasn’t yet abandoned his London accent. As the long list of names in the UK Producers documentary shows, American stars are more open than ever to a British innovator to bring fresh ideas to their increasingly generic pop music. The fact that our own urban stars, such as Tinie Tempah and Dizzee Rascal, are now making an impact in America only adds to the growing idea that Britain can do cool. However, Grant has definitely benefited from American-style positivity and big thinking.

He’s obviously intensely driven, fast-talking, with none of the self-deprecating, if-anyone-else-likes-it-it’s-a-bonus meekness of so many British musicians. He uses the word “iconic” so many times during our conversation that I assume it must be written in red on a Post-it note above his mixing desk for inspiration. “I want to work with current icons, and new talent that I can make into iconic figures. I’m not interested in whoever happens to be hot right now,” he says.

He is clear about his commercial appeal. “American radio is in a time of transition. People are trying to find that new sound that can take over for the next five years. I’m all about merging different sounds, making songs that can be in the worlds of rock and hip hop and sound authentic in both.”

That ability to straddle genres has also led to work with U2. He wrote the song Rise Above from U2′s musical, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, and is hopeful that the experience will lead to work on the next U2 album.

“They’re experimenting with their sound right now,” he says. “I know they want to expand on what they had and keep it moving. They don’t usually use outside writers but I want to convince them that they should.” So should Bono squeeze a few guest rappers on to their songs? “He’s friends with every single rapper ever, so why not?”

And the coups keep coming. Perhaps Grant’s greatest achievement is persuading Dr Dre, the epicentre of all modern hip hop, to release a single from his album Detox, a mythical beast that has now been awaited for more than a decade.

I Need a Doctor, featuring Eminem again as well as a big chorus from the unknown Skylar Grey, was a top 10 hit in February and there’s still no sign of the album. “He’d been making that album for 10 years so for him to finally say, ‘This is it, this is the single’, it was kind of emotional.”

Now Grant is already at a new level, trusted to groom new artists with his own record label, KIDinaKORNER, backed by a major label, Interscope.

He thinks his first signing, gothic Wisconsin singer Skylar Grey, could go all the way when her debut album comes out later in the year. A striking-looking woman with a powerful voice who had minor success in the mid-2000s under her real name, Holly Brook, Grey is determined to get it right the second time around.

“I was so timid and naive and scared that I let other people kind of run the show. Now, coming back into this, I’m grateful for that period because I learned so much about how to do this, how to run this business,” she has said.

Grant adds: “She’s already written some hits for other people with me, and on her own stuff she’s not staying safe, she’s pushing boundaries. She has a real clear vision of where she wants to go as an artist.”

Grant must fit in well in Los Angeles, talking the talk, swelling with self-belief and a mighty work ethic. “This is my entire life. I don’t really have much of a social life,” he says. But his feet are still on the ground, just about. He still plays football, too – only now it’s every Monday at Robbie Williams’s place. A simple pleasure for an expat in stratospheric demand.

The UK Producers is broadcast on BBC Radio 1Xtra on Sunday at 9pm. Skylar Grey’s single Invisible is out on Interscope on Sept 16.

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