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Dallas Austin: Manchild In The Promised Land

by Carol Cooper

1991 WAS A banner year for Dallas Austin. The Atlanta writer-producer was barely out of his teens when two records he made for Motown with then-unknown acts -- "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday" by Boyz II Men and "Iesha" by Another Bad Creation -- became massive crossover hits, bringing fresh energy to a label whose roster had grown cold and uninspired by the end of the '80s.

Shy, good-humored, self-effacing and generous to a fault, Austin became the front-runner in a wave of Atlanta-based talent (including writer-producer Jermaine Dupri and artists like Arrested Development) to make his mark on the pop world. The first hint this kid had something special came in 1988, when his songwriting stint for Joyce (Fenderella) Irby produced a Top 3 R & B hit, "Mr. D.J." A gifted keyboardist and drummer who'd played all kinds of music in local bands since the age of 14, Austin was one child of the MIDI computer generation who was never limited to drum machines and digital samplers when he entered the studio.

"A hit record has to be as easy to understand and recognize as Coca-Cola," says Austin. "So I go in and paint pictures of the artists with my records. When LaFace [the record company owned by Babyface Edmonds and L.A. Reid] brought me TLC [who had recommended him to the label] it was like, 'Dallas, you know these girls? Take 'em and do what you want with 'em.' So I hung out with the girls long enough to write the kind of stuff that gave the record company and the public a clear and attractive picture of who TLC were." He wrote the bulk of TLC's 1992 debut album, Ooooooohhh . . . on the TLC Tip, and came through for them again in '94 with the chart-topping single, "Creep."

Long before any of them were famous, Dallas Austin and T-Boz of TLC hung out together with their respective crews. "For a while we were all living in College Park," says T-Boz. "We would all go to the same movies and stuff, so that when we finally did speak it was like we already knew each other." One of their regular spots was Jellybean's Roller Rink on the south side of Atlanta, where all the hot young things would skate-dance to impress one another. Austin went skating not just for fun, but for research, since the music that worked best at the rink had the energy he wanted to incorporate in his songwriting.

As the '90s progressed and Atlanta-based acts like Arrested Development, TLC and Kris Kross made the hit parade, Austin suddenly found himself in a position to inspire, support and root for his friends and peers. And so did other black auteurs and entrepreneurs. By the time established stars began checking out "Hot-Lanta," a vibrantly creative scene was in full swing. The focus on Atlanta as the birthplace of The New R & B fit nicely with Austin's long-range ambitions. Through TLC, he hooked up with Reid and Babyface, who eventually asked him to launch and run their company's hip-hop division.

"Rowdy Records was a deal me and L.A. did together with Arista," says Austin. "It wasn't originally my label, but one day I just woke up and discovered I was eating, breathing, and sleeping Rowdy Records, even though I felt it was too early in my career to be trying to run a label." Despite his qualms, by late '94, Austin -- after a restructuring of corporate relationships -- wound up alone at the helm of a full-service record company, all the while maintaining his outside production schedule. Two of the three songs he contributed to Madonna's Bedtime Stories -- "Secret" and "Human Nature" -- became hits. He co-wrote the music and co-produced "This Time Around" for Michael Jackson's HIStory and contributed the opening track, "Thank You," to Boyz II Men II.


MEANWHILE, DETERMINED TO EXPAND Rowdy from its original rap focus to encompass a full spectrum of black music, Austin devised a tri-partite roster with female crooners Monica and Debra Killings on the R & B beat, Malik and Jamal as solo rappers and Joi Gilliam and just signed rockers Fishbone as standard bearers of the label's high-concept "alternative" wing.

Behind the unspectacular brick fašade of a low-slung warehouse compound on Trabert Street in suburban Atlanta lies DARP Studios, the heart and soul of Austin's burgeoning empire. In the foyer the walls are covered with awards commemorating work with Heavy D, Madonna, Toni Braxton, Too $hort and many other chart-topping projects.

"I haven't finished painting my producer picture yet," Austin likes to say as he racks up one impressive credit after another. While he was grateful for the chance to work with Madonna and Michael Jackson, he is far more excited about raising the profile of his new signings. Making hits with Fishbone will establish Austin's credibility in a whole different marketplace.

"Everybody keeps saying, 'Well, we only know you for this'," Austin observes, "but that's just because I haven't been producing long enough. So now I'm on a mission to work with lots of different people: Tom Petty, Depeche Mode, Prince . . .

"But I'm not really a fan of mainstream music," Austin admits. "I almost never buy it unless I'm listening demographically -- because I don't respect the mainstream's creativity." He says he had never bought a Madonna record until he was tapped to work on Bedtime Stories.

"Portishead, Tricky and Massive Attack are my favourite joints right now," he enthuses. "And while I can write things I like that appeal to the mainstream, I feel that mainstream radio and TV put too many limitations on what can be heard."

In 1993 Austin refused numerous reliably lucrative projects to cut tracks with the Brand New Heavies and a quirky young singer named Joi Gilliam. "I originally cut 'Sunshine and the Rain' on another girl before I met Joi, but it didn't feel right," he recalls. "For the new material I was writing, I had a vision of a very creative girl, someone who would be a leader, who could write and improvise. Joi was the one I was looking for. Creatively Joi is like my soul mate."

Austin and Gilliam (who performs as Joi) collaborated on all 10 tracks of her debut, The Pendulum Vibe. The jazz, blues and gospel riffs that seethe and bubble around her vocals are totally different from the spaceage doo-wop he created for Boyz II Men, or the noisy, rap-infected ditty-wop he invented for ABC. As a prototype, The Pendulum Vibe had a profound effect on his subsequent work with Madonna and TLC. The cerebral moodiness in tracks like "Human Nature" and "Creep" springs from the stylized turmoil of Joi's "Sunshine and the Rain." Of Joi's work on the anthemic "Freedom," remixed for this year's Panther soundtrack, Austin says, "I just played the backing track for Joi and let her sing whatever she felt inspired to sing, knowing she would come up with the right stuff."

Giving his creative associates freedom, encouragement and the full benefit of his production and business knowledge are Austin hallmarks. During one busy June weekend at D.A.R.P., the production team of Tim Kelley and Bob Robinson (who co-wrote and produced four songs on the second Boyz II Men album) were in to do a Boyz II Men remix; Malik was due to finish vocals on a new single Staff writer Arnold Hennings was enjoying a lull after completing tracks on the new Paula Abdul and TLC albums and 14-year-old R & B diva Monica's first Rowdy single, "Don't Take It Personal," was heading toward the top of Billboard's Hot 100 chart. Dallas himself was about to begin work on a new George Clinton project. Not a bad little empire for a 24-year-old.

I'm not really a competitive person," Austin insists. "I'm really secure as a songwriter, and I'm not worried about where my money's coming from. I have nothing but time. My label is really just a way for me and my songwriter-producers to get music and messages out to the public that people might otherwise never hear."

Published in: Fanfare, 2 July 1995