The Game calls him "the white Dr. Dre." Britney Spears and Kevin Federline call him a close friend. And Snoop Dogg, Mya and Paris Hilton — well, they just call him. A lot.
Perhaps it's the success of Rihanna's "S.O.S." — or, at the other end of the spectrum, Rick Ross' "Push It." Or maybe it's the two tracks he did on 50 Cent's The Massacre. Regardless, in less than two years of producing popular music, J.R. Rotem has become quite a hot collaborator.
Not bad for a Berklee College of Music grad whose childhood dream was to become either a classical musician or a jazz pianist.
"I always liked hip-hop, but didn't see how it would apply to me," Rotem explained recently. "When I heard Dr. Dre's first Chronic album, I didn't necessarily know what production was, but I was like, 'I like this music' — and I'd be trying to play, like, 'Bitches Ain't Sh--' in jazz format. Then, when Dr. Dre's second Chronic came out in 1999, is when I really started thinking, 'I want to make beats.' "
Eventually Rotem hooked up with the same manager as resident D12 producers Mr. Porter and Hi-Tek, who both mentored him in the studio. His big break came when none other than Dr. Dre himself bought one of Rotem's beats for his still-unreleased LP Detox.
"Dre is the type that will record 100 songs for a new album and never choose them, so no one ever knows if it's going to be on the final [track list]. But just to hear his voice on my beats, it was amazing," Rotem said.
Through Dre, Rotem hooked up with 50, and that led to work with Obie Trice, Young Buck, Fabolous, Trick Daddy, Lil' Kim (her "Whoa" single), Foxy Brown, Lil' Flip, Trey Songz and Ross.
On the R&B and pop side, an early collaboration with Destiny's Child brought gigs with Paris Hilton and Rihanna. And that's just what's been released. In the pipeline are songs with both Spears (see "Britney Working On 'Crazy-Ass' New Music And Even Rapping" and "Britney's New Music Is 'The Next Level,' Producer Says") and Federline (including his single "Lose Control"), Snoop, the Game, Mya, JoJo and Ashley Tisdale from "High School Musical."
"There's definitely a heavy musicality to my style, just because my roots really are classical and jazz music," Rotem said. "There's also an '80s sensibility, because I like the sounds and the keyboards. I was always really intrigued by synthesizers and things like that."
That explains the Soft Cell sample in "S.O.S.," although the grab wasn't exactly a stellar example of what Rotem means by "musicality."
"That's the ironic thing," he said. "When I started producing I always said to myself, 'I'm not gonna sample, because I can play.' But then when 'S.O.S.' hit, a lot of people came to me for those type of things. And I kind of started realizing, 'You know, it's cool.' I do play 90 percent of the time, but at the end of the day, I'm not concerned anymore with showing off — 'Hey, I can play classical, I can play jazz.' I just want to be somebody people can go to for hits, and if that hit samples something that resonates, fine. Obviously 'S.O.S.' was a great song, and the beat was flipped, but it wouldn't have been a hit song if people didn't at least on some level recognize 'Tainted Love.' "
Because he grew up so immersed in the classical and jazz worlds, Rotem now relentlessly studies what he hears on the radio. "It may not all be my cup of tea, but I'll at least be like, 'OK, why does everybody like this song?' " he said.
Rotem also credits his success to utilizing the one-on-one time he has with artists in the studio.
"When I started out I thought, 'Hey, if I just make a hot beat, that's it,' but it's not really that," he explained. "That's a starting ground, but there's a lot more to a hit song. To be a consistent hitmaker like Dre and Swizz Beatz and Scott Storch and the Neptunes and all these people I respect, they've learned a craft, and I really respect that."
But unlike most of those artists, Rotem has no interest in becoming a star in his own right.
"I don't want to put limitations on myself, but I don't think you're going to see me getting on the mic or doing a hype track like Puffy or dancing in a video or anything like that," he said. "That's just not my style. I'm happy to get recognition behind the scenes."
As for his decision to abandon classical and jazz, Rotem has no regrets — and not just because of the bling around his neck and wrists.
"I feel that hip-hop is kind of like the jazz of today," he explained. "Now it's respected and it's taught in schools and stuff like that, but when jazz first came out it was looked at like these crazy musicians playing this new music. I've studied musicians from Bach to Mozart to Charlie Parker — and I look at Snoop now and he's like a Miles Davis. He's got that laid-back style. Miles played less notes and things like that, but [he also had] the swagger, so I definitely see a lot of similarities. I look at the producers as the new Duke Ellingtons.
"I don't want to say that jazz is dead," he continued. "But hip-hop is the innovative music now that's really, really alive."