As the music industry gets ready for its biggest night, the Grammy Awards, there's one young Penn Hills native who's had a hand in two nominated records — but most Pittsburghers wouldn't know him by name. Tommy Brown is a songwriter and producer on the rise; outside of the music industry, he might be a relative unknown, but to those who know pop music, he's quickly developing a reputation as someone to work with.
You'd think having a nomination would be a pretty big deal to a pop-music producer, but Brown, whose projects have received the nod before, plays down the Grammy talk.
"I'm excited, but I told myself I'm not going to the Grammys until I'm nominated for Song of the Year," he says.
"I feel the same way," says his writing partner and girlfriend, Victoria Monet. "As a songwriter and producer, one of the only Grammys that you actually are able to go onstage for, and get an actual Grammy, is for that category. Otherwise, you'll get a certificate, and that's cool — don't get me wrong, that's crazy — but once you get to one step, you're already ready for the next thing."
Brown, 28, grew up in Penn Hills, attending a few public and private schools; it was in school that he first started training as a producer. "I actually lied about making beats," he recalls with a laugh. "They had a digital-recording class in high school. So then they asked me to make beats and I had to actually learn how to do it."
But that wasn't Brown's introduction to music. His father had worked as a manager for Mel-Man, the Pittsburgh-born rapper who went on to become well known for his work with Dr. Dre, and as CEO of Big Cat Records. "I kind of was seeing music a little bit" growing up, Brown explains, "and I think I was just intrigued."
After high school, Brown moved to Atlanta, one of the centers of industry in the hip-hop world, to work on his connections.
"I'm a person who believes there's no plan B," Brown says. "When I went down there, I wanted to be in music. I got a job to get an apartment, and I just took it seriously from that point on."
It wasn't a quick and easy entry into the music world; Brown spent many a night on his feet, handing out samples of his work to anyone who would take one, hoping to get a bite.
"Every night, I'd take the little bit of money I had and I would burn 50 CDs, with a tag over top of it, so people couldn't steal the beats. And I would go and hand them out at open mics, to up-and-coming artists. It kind of spread; I'm handing out 50 CDs a night. Eventually, I was at work and the artist Gorilla Zoe called me, then Yung Joc called. It was one after another at that point. I started working with a lot of the major rappers."
"I kind of learned marketing on accident," he adds.
He worked briefly with Atlanta industry notable Ray Hamilton, then signed with Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins, whose past production credits are a pop-music who's who, from Mary J. Blige to Michael Jackson. That signified both the start of his career in Los Angeles — where he lives and works to this day — and the beginning of his partnership with Monet, who's from Sacramento, Calif.
"She was in Rodney Jerkins' girl group [Purple Reign], and of course we became fond of each other," Brown recalls. "I had sent her some tracks when I was staying in Pittsburgh for six months, and she wrote a song, and I'm like, ‘Yo, you're a crazy writer!' And I told Rodney, ‘She's a great writer!' And she wrote stuff for Diddy-Dirty Money, and we did four songs on [Shontelle's album No Gravity], and we decided to branch out from just working with [Jerkins] to form our own team. We're writing for everybody now."
Brown and Monet's biggest success of late has been with Ariana Grande; they wrote a song on her debut album in 2013, and last year had two tracks, including the title track, on Grande's Grammy-nominated follow-up, My Everything. (Brown and Monet also wrote on "Drunk Texting," a track on Chris Brown's Grammy-nominated album X.)
It's an interesting setup, especially given that while Brown is generally satisfied behind the scenes, Monet is a singer in addition to being a writer. She says it works, though.
"It'd be easy for me to want to keep all my songs and not give any of them away. But I have the ability to write a lot of different kinds of songs, so not every song is for Victoria Monet as an artist. It's nice to be able to give someone something you wrote and were able to feel, and kind of see them translate it into their own version."
Plus, there are certain things a singer can take away from watching other singers interpret her songs.
"Working with a bunch of artists, you get to learn their processes, and I also work as a vocal coach," Monet explains. "I'll be in the studio with the artist helping them with their vocals, and it teaches me a lot about myself.
Brown and Monet are now operating out of a big house outside of L.A., where they invite artists to come and work on tracks.
"I used to have a studio, but I moved out of the studio, because it's smarter to just have a huge house," Brown explains. "I'll have my producers and writers coming in and working on these projects. I might have three working rooms of production and writing. I'm executive-producing Amber Riley's project, so I'll have her in there, I'll have Ariana, T.I., different artists working in my main room while other people are working in the other rooms — all building this brand, which is gonna be huge this summer."
For all the temptation and excess that comes with working in the entertainment industry, especially living and working in L.A., Brown and Monet right now are focused on working hard and smart.
"I want to stay far away from what anybody else is doing," Brown says. "I moved the camp, like, 30 minutes away from where anybody is, and we just work here. No distractions, no ‘Hey, I'm gonna go run to the movies.'"
The other key, Brown says: working together.
"People always try to separate you; it's like divide and conquer: ‘Yo, Victoria, you gotta go work over here; Tommy, you gotta produce over here, this is what's gonna make you bigger.' At the end of the day, they didn't tell Missy [Elliott], ‘Hey, Missy, you gotta go work with Pharrell.' No, Missy worked with Timbaland, which made one of the biggest production-writing duos, to me, in history."
Monet says she and Brown don't encounter may of the pitfalls some associate with working together with your romantic partner; despite spending basically all of their time together, she says they're as happy as ever.
"He's getting back into rapping, and I did a hook for him," she says by way of example. "And people can just tell, just by us being on the same song, that there's a certain vibe there, and I think it's dope."