Producer's Corner: Focus...
The longtime hit-maker with Dr. Dre explains why he left Aftermath, working on Busta Rhymes' upcoming album, and why the music industry is filled with cliques, yes-men, and not enough musical substance.
He worked along side one of the most prolific producers on the Hip Hop timeline; meticulously working towards the release of a project that has still yet to see shelf life. When Bernard Edwards II, more favorably known as Focus..., emerged from his seven-year studio session with Dr. Dre he did so as an impeccable producer.
But like any relationship, whether it is personal or professional there are always battle scars to contend with. In case of this Atlanta adoptee, the scars, albeit minor, were to affect his personal progression into the music business. His recent release, Music For The Misinterpreted, solidifies all he has achieved as a producer yet talking to him in this candid interview you can’t help but ponder on what could have been had the masses been able to embrace him as more than just as Dr. Dre’s protégé.
Still trying to find that aspect of music that not only grabs him but maintains his attention. Focus delves into the fear of flailing with relevancy in this interview and explains just what seven years with Aftermath boss and Interscope’s golden boy has equated to. But more importantly he explains just why that aFam imprint, one would expect from a producer from Dre’s stable would secure just never came to anything.
You live, you learn and then you live again, all in the name of music.
Focus... Talks About His Album, Music For The Misinterpreted
HipHopDX: How did the concept come about for Music For The Misinterpreted?
Focus...: I really started doing songs that I was going to leak myself to keep myself relevant, as there is so much time between when the music is actually coming out that I have done. So just to keep my name relevant I put out Idols and Role Models, but then I wanted to work with some people who I really admired, Sha Stimuli, Phonte Coleman, Rapper Big Pooh; so I just kept doing things like that and when it got to three songs I thought I may as well make an album. But instead of making it out to be a follow up to the Avante Gard project, I gave it that title. I know people don’t always understand my music so it was juts a perfect title and it came out of nowhere and I loved it.
DX: Why don't people understand your music?
Focus...: Because I am not doing what everyone else is doing. I refuse to do the songs where you talk about women and cars and jewelry. I try to do other things where I am educating the people who are listening, as I love appealing to a listener, not just someone who nods their head to the beat – someone who actually dissects a song. Since I am not doing that sound, a lot of people don’t gravitate to what I am doing.
DX: But when you see the response you have had on a viral level, people appear to be gravitating to what you are doing though, surely?
Focus...: Yeah and with those blogs and sites we have had a good following as we have had quite a few downloads on this album. I was really surprised with that. But if you look at a lot of the comments people are just listening to the beats and the messages are actually in the songs, not just from the production but from the people on the album and that might fall on deaf ears.
DX: You are known though as a producer and being from that school of producers that has always given listeners what they want.
Focus...: Because I had my name tied in with Aftermath [Entertainment] as a producer, they are looking for that sound, the big drums, the dark chords, they’re looking for all that, but because I deviated from that path, I lost a lot of listeners. But the ones that do follow me understand that I just love music as a while and in that that’s a blessing.
DX: Was it an easy decision putting the album out for free?
Focus...: Well if you listen to it, it is very sample driven and I wanted to make a Hip Hop album and keep to the essence of real Hip Hop and I knew I didn't want to have to go through clearing samples or try to clear the artists, so it was easy for me to give it as a gift and the people understood that – it was awesome.
DX: Being that so many people are complaining that they aren’t making the money they once were in the music business, yet give away music for free; do you think this is just something people have to do?
Focus...: I think in essence to remain relevant, when you see Lil Wayne doing six or seven mixtapes a year, Drake is doing five a year and they are giving the stuff away and they are still coming out with an album. It would be something if I had a deal that was keeping my name relevant, but there is the need to just keep my name relevant.
DX: You keep mentioning relevancy, is that a big fear not being relevant today?
Focus...: It’s a fear for everyone. It’s unfortunate but as the music generation gets younger, ADHD is really effecting everything in entertainment all the way around. Movies aren’t lasting in the movie theaters as long as they used to and are being thrown onto DVD as soon as possible to keep relevant. You have to keep in sight and in mind because you know once it is out of sight – it is out of mind. I’m getting older, my family is getting bigger and I have to remain relevant to keep food on the table and clothes on my kids back.
DX: So what have you been working on beyond your own projects?
Focus...: I jut recently did something with Christina Aguilera’s Bionic album and I had a song ("Tears") on Marsha [Ambrosious' Late Nights & Early Mornings] album and I did work about a year ago with Busta [Rhymes] for his [E.L.E. 2] album, but that’s not coming out for some time. So right now it looks like I’ve just been sitting on my hands, so what I am trying to do is build and establish a bunch of new artists. The artists that are established such as Drake and Lil Wayne, they already have their core producers that they go to. Because I never made it with Lil Wayne, my hits are with Busta. He comes to me but the likes of Wayne, they aren’t coming to me.
DX: Is it hard to infiltrate the inner circles of these big artists even at your level?
Focus...: The funny thing is, the more you tell people you don't have it made the more they think you are lying. You remain a soldier when you come in as a soldier. Some people boss up and they get a label, that’s great and wonderful for them. But its not like you don't have to remain relevant, because if your artists don't pop then you have to fall back on being a producer and if you are not able to make a hit, then you are a nobody now. I know with me, I tried to do the label thing, make my artists pop and it just didn't work out and I still work with Al Gator and Kida. So its really funny that everyone is cliqued up and they have these new producers coming in and really having to fight to get in the door and what I’m contending with, listening to, what these producers are doing, I can’t dummy down because I don't know how to make the beats that are on the radio now.
DX: I could never understand why you didn't branch off on your own and utilize that Aftermath affiliation when you were over there. Why was that?
Focus...: I tried. I can be honest about it now, and it’s not me being derogatory about [Dr.] Dre and his legacy, but at the end of the day I came to Dre and I asked him to make aFam a brand under Aftermath. I told him we could do R&B as he wanted to R&B out of the label, and like I said, it was to win it would look good but if it was to fail then he could blame me. But at the end of the day we could branch off and do other types of music, but he didn't want to do that and you just get to a point where you are kind of hitting your head against a brick wall. I knew Dre knows what he wants to do and understands his vision but trying to get in his head is not an easy job.
Focus... Explains Leaving Dr. Dre And Aftermath Entertainment
DX: Did you and Dre part on good terms?
Focus...: Yeah we were together for seven, almost eight, years and we were working on the same projects. We were working on Detox. After so many years people were asking how it was sounding as no one else had heard it. I felt like I was talking about a myth that wasn’t in existence. Some people had heard the leaked tracks and they were now hearing Dre talk about it so now it is probably coming to fruition.
But I was there in the early stages and it started to get frustrating to sit there, going day in and day out, working on a project that was not seeing the light of day. So it was easier for me to go off on my own and make my own music as I had neglected so many things; my family, myself, other genres of music and I was just sitting there, focused on making things for Dre and it just got frustrating. Before I did anything where it wouldn’t have been cool between Dre and myself, I just told him I appreciated everything he had done, but it was time to go and do something for myself.
DX: Do you feel you are making up for lost time right now?
Focus...: I definitely feel I am as far as family is concerned. I got married, I have a son and I have a daughter on the way. My two oldest boys – I am trying to spend more time with them and just be a father. It’s frustrating as this is my line of work, so I am always asking my wife as she hears it the most, about how I can’t get into this ‘new music.’
DX: When you say this "new music" do you mean the music on the Billboard charts right now?
Focus...: When you listen to artists – Rick Ross, I thought he was going to be a gleaming light as he was bringing the live feel back to tracks. But these kids are all Logic and Fruity Loops and becoming these one-finger producers. Then when they get a hit, they suddenly think they are producers, not beat-makers, not track-makers – they are producers. It just discredits the true producers; it makes me one of them.
DX: What do you believe are the problems with the music industry today?
Focus...: I think it is because we are not doing any artist development. We are not using producers; we’re putting beat-makers with luke-warm rappers. These kids may have trend-setting abilities with what they say, but there is no story behind them. They set up a story, there’s no substance to it and they are not creating stars, they are just one hit wonders. Then after they’ve ridden that mule for a year, they’ll put out someone just like them for the next year. There’s not A&Rs at the labels as an A&R would stick their necks out and say they are a star. Nobody is risking anything. Berry Gordy risked it all. Real people did real things. I have no respect for any A&R, as they’re not doing anything.
DX: What is the situation with your aFam imprint now?
Focus...: That has folded. Right now I produce under aFam as that was my baby and something I still hold dear. But I felt that I was keeping Al Gator and Kida back and instead of me competing with these people out there who were making these records I don’t understand and telling the guys to sell out and sound like the rest of them, it was easier for me to let them free and allow them to do what they wanted with my support. I am not willing to sound like the rest of them?
I didn't want to sound like everyone else. Kida was getting on stage with a live band and yeah we know about [Jay-Z: Unplugged with] The Roots, but Kida was doing this in demo stages. To see him and hearing him doing that I had to give him real music. Like when I heard Al Gator, he didn't sound like the kids who came from the traps. The first song we did caught the ear of Jay-Z and his crew and to catch that ear coming from the south at that time was amazing to me. I wanted to set a precedent with these rappers, but at the same time they were rappers amongst a whole bunch of rappers who swear they can rap. So I thought about what would set my artists apart from everyone else. I would do them bigger and better, so their music sounded like stadium music but no one anted to listen. I had to step back and let them do their own thing as they really are talented but I didn't want to go to make the dummy down songs.
DX: Letting go like that must have been tough?
Focus...: Yeah it is hard and it hurts. I like to be a man of my word and I thought we would be sitting down laughing, them having bought their own homes and I really believed that, it just never came to fruition. We couldn’t get the magazines and Hip Hop periodicals to cover our music or review our mixtapes. I had never offended anyone, and you know how XXL had always covered Aftermath, but I couldn't get in XXL; they wouldn't do anything and a lot of that stuff helps producers from being just a name to a household name. No one wanted to let me in and I felt I was holding them back.
DX: So you are not the type of guy who takes people down with him?
Focus...: No, I’m not the dude in control of the Titanic; I’m not that guy. If I can get everyone off of a lifeboat I’ll do it. I might go down with the ship but I’m not taking everyone with me. The funny thing is they could assign blame if they wanted but there was nothing more I could do. I wasn’t about going to the clubs and throwing money at strippers, they knew that from the get go. So when I was out people made a big deal. I’m not from that world. I wanted to make music and our music spoke for itself, but no one was willing to give it a chance.
DX: Are you satisfied both musically and personally?
Focus...: No, professionally, I am very distraught with my life, emotionally and spiritually I am very content with where I am. But I know that to find happiness where my career is concerned I need to find the genre that will accept me for what I do and who I am and not have people try to make me in to who they think I should be. I don’t want to be "Dre, Jr."
DX: Do you feel that’s what the expectations were or are of you?
Focus...: Yeah, as when you look at a lot of the fans who follow me, and I call them family, a lot of my family are avid listeners and they always make the comparison that Dr. Dre is better than Focus... or Focus... is better than Dr. Dre or that Dr. Dre needs Focus... and it is something I am never going to get away from. I will never be able to get people to avoid putting my name and Dre’s in the same sentence and that gets frustrating.
DX: But with that being said, does being branded with Dre and having been under the Aftermath umbrella for so long, does that have something to do with what you are feeling now?
Focus...: I feel that working with Dr. Dre, I had the joy and pleasure of working with on of my main mentors. I got to build relationships that I wouldn't have been able to build and it definitely opened doors for me that wouldn't have been easily opened on my own. So I do appreciate everything Dre and Aftermath did for me. I’d never say anything other than that. Bit it is very hard when all you what to make is music and I could have probably done the same thing if I was telling everyone that my father was Bernard Edwards from Chic. I tried my best to do it on my own so I could survive on my own.
A lot of people don't liken their careers to their lives and they don't liken that a successful career comes from a successful personal life. I get all my inspiration from my family. I know when all is said and done that if I was to never sell another track, my family is still going to love me and accept me for who I am, so I am still somebody.
DX: Do you believe that the music industry has become automated in a sense?
Focus...: I hate seeing people become something that they aren’t especially when I know the real person they are. To see them playing to what the industry wants them to be and what the fans want them to be as opposed to who they really are, a lot of them come up and its disheartening and that is why I keep to myself and no one can say Focus has changed. I may have stopped drinking as much and lost a few pounds but I am still myself.
DX: Now you did a stint on the Real Housewives of Atlanta, how was that?
Focus...: [Laughs] I was on Season three as Kandi is a really good friend of mine who I met when I moved to Atlanta. It didn’t change a damned thing though. [Laughs] It was great as Kandi believed in me to have me on the show but all it did was get me some more followers on Twitter. It was a cool experience on TV, your family seeing it but once the series was over that was it.
DX: What are you working on right now?
Focus...: I have another Avant Garde project in the works and I am just waiting for someone to hear something they like and then find a home. I will keep experimenting with textures until I find something the people understand and then love.
DX: Music is still a love then?
Focus...: Music will never be anything more than my first love, the music industry is what has become the chore and the music business has become my job.
Focus... Explains His Work On Dr. Dre's Detox
DX: Do you see yourself with a credit on Detox?
Focus...: No. One thing I thought and took it to the bank was when Dre said to me, "You know Foc, this album can’t come out without one from you on there," and I was like "This is Dre saying this," and I thought if I was to send him something he will find something we can build on and work on it. I invited him to Atlanta to sit with me in the studio and he was all for it, but it never came to fruition. I lost heart after that and I don’t want to just sit here sending him beats. Maybe there is an ounce of ego in there, who knows but I did say to him, “I am the most separated from your project than anyone, I need to know where you are trying to get to.”
DX: No hard feelings?
Focus...: None whatsoever. If it weren’t for Dre and Aftermath my career wouldn't be what it is. I would love to work with him again.