NEW YORK — Besides the paparazzi flashing bulbs while they were camped outside the studio, VMA 2007 performer T-Pain says working with Britney Spears was relatively event-free. He was in the lab with Spears a few months ago — right in the wake of her head-shaving episode, although Pain describes the pop superstar as normal. So normal they were able to knock out three songs — "Cold as Fire," "Boyfriend" and "One of a Kind" — in a short amount of time.
When she met up with Pain in the studio, "she had a wig and cowboy hat on," he told us last week while in town for Screamfest '07 (see "Jay-Z, Kanye West, 50 Cent, Diddy, T.I., Ciara, Swizz Beatz Make Hip-Hop History At NYC Show"). "She came in there, shook my hand and went right into the booth. She was smiling the whole time. In an hour we had a song. I sang it first and she sung over what I did ... in key and everything! Then did a whole 'nother song. She was about her business.
"I came out the studio and ... across the street [were] people with cameras on top of the building and waiting for her to come outside," he continued. "I come out, they are like, 'Oh, oh ... stop.' I was like, 'What about me? I got hits.' "
Indeed Pain does. Earlier this year it looked like Akon or R. Kelly would easily take home the Nate Dogg Award for Collaboration King, but Pain has slid in there with an endless array of winning guest spots for Kelly, Bow Wow, Plies, Fabolous and DJ Khaled. Pain's cameos have been so big that they have dominated his set on the Screamfest. During last week's stop in New York, Pain was one of the most popular attractions, inspiring the youth to scream at the top of their lungs.
"Only ones that are not competing on this tour is me and [Yung] Joc," Pain said. Joc, T-Pain, Lloyd and Yung Berg are the tour's opening acts, while Ciara and T.I. are co-headlining (see "T.I., Ciara To Headline Latest Scream Tour"). "I don't really do no songs off my album. I do 12 songs in 25 minutes and they all hits. I come out to '[I'm] Sprung,' do [Bow Wow's] 'Outta My System,' [Kelly's] '[I'm a] Flirt,' [Huey's] 'Pop, Lock & Drop It,' [Plies'] 'Shawty.' We run through it. It's continuous, nonstop. We stop maybe one time so I can drink some water."
Once he gets offstage, Pain doesn't slow down — he has a functional studio on his tour bus, and has been recording and producing for E-40 ("E-40 did like three songs"), Chris Brown and more. On Brown's upcoming single "Kiss Kiss," — a T-Pain production — he uses the Auto-Tune audio-processor effect he's made popular again in recent years. T is cool with Brown using the voice enhancement but says he doesn't appreciate anybody else trying to emulate his style.
"You gotta ask my permission, man. That's me," a smiling T-Pain said when asked about other people using the Auto-Tune. "Like when I did ['Kiss Kiss'] with Chris Brown, he used the [Auto-Tune], he asked my permission.
"You gotta sing in a certain tone of voice," he added, explaining how to use the device properly. "You gotta sing in a key that's between off-key and on key. You have to sing a half of a note. Some people are like, 'Let me put this on my voice and it'll sound good.' I think the only [other] person that could use it without my permission is R. Kelly."
Pain is giving fans permission to take what he did and try to make it better by remixing his song "Bartender." He's holding a remix contest in which the winner will find their remix turned into a ringtone — and might even get offered a record contract, if T-Pain deems them good enough. (Fans must submit their entries by September 23.)
"I don't want anybody to be the new T-Pain, the new Akon, I want you to be somebody no one has heard," he said. "That was me when I got in the game. I was the new vocoder guy."
Pain says he was inspired almost three years ago to use the Auto-Tune by Teddy Riley, the pioneering king of New Jack Swing, who used a vocoder.
"You gotta imagine I [grew] up with music around the time he was poppin'," T-Pain said. "It sounded like his verse was an instrument. ... Then I heard [Zapp singer Roger Troutman] on [2Pac's] 'California Love' — it was a wrap for me. ... I had been looking for that effect for a long time. That's me now. Remember back in the days when it was just music and it wasn't vocals at all? I was trying to make my vocals like an instrument 'cause I used to listen to straight instrumentals."
Pain has been using the effect for about three years now — but he doesn't use it on tour.
"I can sing a little bit too now," he laughed.
Some detractors have criticized him, though, saying he relies on the Auto-Tune too much and isn't a true singer.
"Look who's using it now," he said, answering the charge. "Chris Brown is using it. Jamie Foxx, Lionel Richie. It's so many people that can sing [who are using it]. What's to hide? It's nothing to hide. To me, sounding good ain't important — it's song content and feeling. You don't have to be able to sing. A lot of people are paying attention to looks and sound. In the old school, you barely had to sing at all. You just have to talk on your intro, go through and scream and you got a song.
"I could care less," he added about the criticism. "It's making me money."
Catch all the star-packed VMA action direct from Las Vegas on Sunday, September 9. MTV News' preshow kicks things off live at 8 p.m. ET, followed by the big show at 9 p.m. For all the latest VMA updates and info on performers, presenters and voting, check out www.VMA.MTV.com. For reports, photos, video and much, much more from previous VMAs, dive into the VMA archives.