Jonathan “JR” Rotem:
Music For Life

jrrotem1.jpgBay Area-bred producer Jonathan Rotem is one of rap’s fastest-emerging producers, but a glance at his musical history, speech patterns and even his physical appearance suggests otherwise. A studied jazz pianist and a classical head, Rotem speaks like a Mathlete, and on his web site, jonathanrotem.com, he looks more like a model from MTV’s Laguna Beach than a chart-topping beatmaker.

But Rotem’s material speaks for itself. Ever since landing two songs on Destiny Child’s Survivor album, the son of two Israeli immigrants has been making his presence felt: everyone from street mainstays like 50 Cent and Dr. Dre, to R&B crooners Trey Songz and JoJo have enlisted his knob twisting skills. And after a year of producing over 60 chart-toppers (Rihanna’s “S.O.S.,” Rick Ross’ “Push It”) and album highlights (Obie Trice’s “Mama,” 50 Cent’s “Position Of Power”) for urban music’s elite, he’s showing no sign of slowing down. In an interview with XXLMAG.COM, Rotem explains how his musical upbringing is linked with his current hustle, what he’s working on for Dr. Dre’s concealed Detox album, and the pros and cons of not having a distinctive name-brand sound.

How did you get into classical music and jazz piano?
I started off as a very young kid, taking piano lessons and doing recitals and performances and all that kind of stuff. So I was just hardcore into classical music. Then I went to Berklee College of Music in Boston where I studied jazz; then when I got out of there, I was pretty much a jazz pianist. I moved back to the Bay Area. I was a jazz pianist, until I decided to start producing.

Do you think your roots in classical music and jazz piano give you an edge over other producers?
I think that they definitely define my sound. That’s a big part of what makes my music sound the way it does. So, as far as an edge, you know, I don’t really like to think of it as an edge so much as that’s what gives me my individuality. That’s just part of who I am. There’s other producers who might not come from a classical or jazz background, like a Timbaland or somebody who’s a genius at what they do. And even though they’re not coming at music the same way, they’re just as innovative, if not more. So again, I just look at it as what defines myself.

How much time did you have to spend listening to music in your studies?
When I was studying classical music, I was definitely listening to it a lot and playing it so I was around it quite a bit. As far as jazz, a big part of jazz is listening to records, the same way hip-hop is. When you study jazz, the main thing to do is called transcribing solos, which is essentially you listen to like a Charlie Parker saxophone solo or a Miles Davis or a piano and you learn to play what that guy is playing on your own instrument. It’s the same thing as a rapper memorizing the lines off a favorite rap song. Obviously, it’s even more difficult to imitate an instrumentalist because it’s not words. So I definitely listened to a lot of jazz, it’s kinda necessary in order to be a good jazz musician to listen to a lot of music.

jrrotem3.jpgSo how did hip-hop come into the picture?
To be honest with you, it was basically just the desire to do it—and I love to do it. I was a jazz pianist, as I told you, but I was really, really liking hip-hop, so I was starting to play the music, the beats of hip-hop songs, in my jazz performances. We would play them and then improvise on those. And then I started making beats. I was always into composing; I had keyboards and was composing. Didn’t take it that serious as far as producing, but then I decided to. Soon after I started making beats. They got in the hands of Dwayne Wiggins of Tony Toni Tone, who took some of them to Beyoncé, and I ended up doing a couple tracks off the Survivor album with Destiny’s Child.

When that happened, I decided to move to LA to do it full-time. So then I struggled and finally met up with the right people. Met my manager, and he really started making me shape myself, getting the drums bigger and that kind of stuff. He put me with his producers Hi-Tek and Mr. Porter. I started learning from them and then I started placing a bunch of hip-hop stuff. I sold a track to Dre for Detox and then Snoop Dogg and Fabolous. For Lil Kim, I did the “Whoa” single. Things really started to happen. Then I started getting into more of the pop world. I did “S.O.S.” with Rihanna and I started getting in working on Britney Spears’ new album. Game, Mya, JoJo and all these people started happening. Then I did the Rick Ross single “Push It” that’s out now. Things just started to happen, really just from hard work and wanting to do it.

Your parents are Israeli immigrants, and you were born in South Africa. Are you open to working with artists from other countries?
I definitely like music from other countries. I’ve actually worked with Rohff and Arsenik, which are some of the biggest rappers in France. I just worked with one of the biggest rappers in Japan. So yeah, I’m definitely open to it.

Do you ever run into a language barrier?
With the Japan thing, we definitely needed a translator, because I was producing the vocals and it was kind of difficult because I don’t speak Japanese. But I could still feel the flavor of this cat, and just his energy. He’s just a real cool cat. We did connect because he spoke a little bit of English, but obviously it’s a completely different thing when I’m working on vocals and producing a record and I really don’t understand any of the words in the song. But still, you can hear the rhythm, you can hear the flavor. It’s actually kind of cool to work on a song in a different language.

One thing I’ve noticed about you is that your scope is so broad, you don’t have a distinct “JR Rotem” sound. Do you think that works to your advantage or disadvantage?
It is what it is. I think the fact that you mentioned it and other people have said that maybe my sound isn’t as distinctive, I think that’s a combination of a couple factors. Number one, I would say that I am blessed to have all the placements I’ve had in such a short amount of time. Like last year, I placed over 60 records, and now it’s like 90, just an incredible amount. But it’s happened in a short amount of time and truthfully, I think I’m still developing my sound. Even though my sound is professional, I would still say that I’m developing it. The other part of it is that I’m very, very eclectic in my musical tastes. Coming from jazz and classical piano, I feel just as comfortable producing a club track for Game as I do doing a pop ballad for a Disney star. One day I’ll be in the studio with Game, the next day I’ll be in with Britney, and next day I’ll be in with Mya, so I do all the different genres. And when I do them, I don’t necessarily try to rely on the same drum sounds or the same kind of synth sounds. I always try to give that artist the best possible song in their genre. And because I play music and enjoy many different kinds of music, I don’t try to get caught up in one sound.

jrrotem4.jpgPart of it is intentional, also. I don’t want to be known for just one sound; I want to be known for giving people really, really hot records, regardless. So if it’s going to be a piano ballad, cool. If it’s going to be an up-tempo dance song, great. If it’s a club banger with old school 808 drums, cool. If it’s a mixture, cool. I just want to make the best song at the time. I think all those factors are a part of why people say I have a less distinguishable sound.

But other people tell me…they might hear “S.O.S.,” [which] I produced for Rihanna, and then they’ll hear “Push It,” that I did for Rick Ross, obviously two totally different songs for two totally different artists, but they do have some similarities. They both have kind of an ’80s thing to them. And even the single I did for Lil Kim, “Whoa” didn’t have any samples in it or anything like that, still had a little ’80s sensibility.

You’ve had a lot of work in pop and R&B, where I’m sure the big money is. Would you ever think of shying away from rap in favor of other genres?
To be honest with you, no, because of a number of reasons. Number one, I straight up love hip-hop and rap. It’s what I wanted to do and it’s what I still want to do. I think there’s just a magic to that music, there’s a rawness that you just can’t take away from. So I would always want to be involved in that. Second, rap and urban music in general are really what’s pop now, so that’s still making a lot of money worldwide. And third, I think a lot of the pop and R&B people I get in with, I think it’s not because I can give them pop and R&B stuff, but truthfully, they’re fans of what I do in hip-hop. That just gives you a lot of credibility when people are feeling that. And even people in pop and R&B need producers with credibility and knowledge in urban music.

  • fuck you

    first

  • john cochran

    Dudes shit is hot. It’s crazy cause I’ve heard his shit and one never sounds like the other. I produce as well and thats how I try to be. He dont have signature intros and shit like that on his records niether. Jazze Pha and them niggas kill me with that shit.

  • http://www.myspace.com/bigsydproductions syd2yall

    keep up the good j.R,90 placements says a lot about your music,its simply fire thats why you are in demand.your are pushing it to the limit.

    peace

  • brodel34

    good article… as a struggling producer i can relate with JR in many ways.

  • http://www.myspace.com/goochmusic Paul Cantor

    JR’s an incredible producer. I’m happy about the success him and his team are currently enjoying. It’s well-deserved.

  • DOCTORS ADVOCATE NOV 14

    DOCTORS ADVOCATE NOV 14 HE KILLED A TRACK FOR GAME S LP ITS CERTIFIED

  • http://WWW.MYSPACE.COM/LARRYBRITE Larry_Brite

    YAY AREA!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Hova Tha Top

    Yeah, I’ve been into this guy’s production for about a year and he is definately my favorite hip hop producer. His beats are grimey but still have a lot of depth in them. The stuff he did on Obie’s CD is great and “Doctor’s Advocate” is my new favorite song.

  • http://www.xxlmag.com L.A.’s Finest

    I liked this fools answers, he’s a smart guy, and humble. Stay up homie keep doing your thing.

  • http://www.blastmaster.com bmaster
  • e aka the real noreiaga

    This guys production is sick. Obie Trice should of used him for his entire album instead of having Em produce.

  • Maidi One

    SOUTH AFRICA, SOWETO STAND UP….! I am proud and all Africans should be.

  • fcukisthis?

    How did a Jew from South Africa, classicaI pianist, get to make grimey West Coast beats like that? Got nothin’ against Jews (hate fuckin’ Israelis though) I was with a Jewish girl for 2 years. Biiaaatch!

  • http://www.myspace.com/yungdapps YOUNG DAPPS

    YOU NEED TO HEAR ‘ONE NIGHT’ ON GAMES NEW ALBUM. THIS J R ROTEM GETS MAD PROPS- THIS IS THE BEST SONG ON THE ALBUM GOD DAMNNNNN!!!

  • http://www.xxl.com RSA

    He’s from South Africa for real, I like he’s beats too but since he’s on top like he is now is it possible for him to produce for South African artists cause I think that would actually build up the industry (hip hop) in the country more.

    Don’t get me wrong in any way but i think it would be great to come back and have a touch in some of the hip hop artist in the country and still do your shit with other top artists.

  • koofiesmacker

    This Def. Unrelated:
    Just to keep y’all inform, that Game album is Defenitly fire,..JR Rotem made 2 tracks on it,..
    ok ok…it’s not Documentary quality, but it’s has it’s own flavor In it’s own lane. From the Jump you can get it has GAME stamp all over it, I mean the quality of hooks are just o.k average compared to the brilinant hooks from his 1st album,(i know thanks to 50)…but don’t let that fool you, In my opinion it’s the best hip-hop album (yes better then you T.I) thus far,…
    Joints not to sleep on: track # 9 “Scream on ‘Em” produced by Swiss beats,…(Remember when a song just made u just wild out? Well if U don’t smack the life out anybody after listening to this, you would def. think about it…)
    # 10 “One Night” produced Nottz …Obviouly # 11 the Track w/ Busta,..my by the south African Jew JR Rotem,…..man fuck it the whole album hot,.. Except from the Will.I.am joint, def. skiped that garbage, but other then that, I won’t coplain, considering what has been out this year I.e youg joc, young dro, chingy etc,…this album is over towering all that.
    So XXL.Com readers, hip hop is being resurrected, it’s being sold today since the 11/7/06 in the for of AZ new album, also will be sold on the 14th, 21st and Dec 19th …get your doze of the real crack music…don’t even holla back

  • Rhazes

    JR got love from me ever since
    I heard his keys on that 50 cent
    track “position of power”.
    He’s definetly a talented dude.
    My only problem is hip hop culture
    wise dud is a fraud. I think he got
    in the game based on some connect.
    I read another interview where
    dude said he started to listen to rap
    2 years ago and he is like 25-26. WTF?
    I guess he was a casual listener before
    If you compare to a cat like Scram Jones,
    who did it all as far as hip hop culture
    you realize that he’s lucky.

  • SONNY CHEEBA

    “The Poor Man’s Scott Storch!!!”

  • http://jliveent.com Young B

    He mentions Game more than any artist…Doctors Advocate Nov 14th..Cop That Shit…

  • CMoney

    A lot of people are sleeping on J.R. Some don’t even know who he is, but he’s a force to be reckoned with. His game steps up with every new beat he makes. 8-)

  • syleone

    he’s hot for real!i love his collabo with french rapper rohff!

  • HOTT TRAXX

    yeah this dude really makes them perfected polished tracks i like position of power and california vacation…..if any1 in here can get a hold of his production credits list please post em up….. good looks

  • DOCTORS ADVOCATE NOV 14

    THIS DUDE COULD BRING BACK THE BAYAREA,BUT U GOTTA COUGHT UP SOME SERIOUS PAPER FOR HIS BEATS,DR DRE BOUGHT A BEAT OFF THIS DUDE FOR DETOX

  • big e

    ohhh anothaa white dudeeeee keep up the good beatzzz comingg !!

  • http://gmobb.com Ace Roddy

    Well i am one of the few rappers in tha bay that dont do that hyphy shit. Real tlk i was bout to get a hot beat from him for 3400 at the tyme i wasnt signed so i was pretty much broke. I freestyled for him. CHECK OUT ME BEARING MY CHAIN ON VH1 11/13 ON THE BAILEY VIDEO

  • Big Will

    Someone please tell Game to stop tryin to rap and act like he’s from N.Y.

  • naveeb

    his melody blow my mind to bits .. the repsect begins and joking doesent start..

  • RANCID

    FOR DR.DRE TO BUY YOU A BEAT!.. YOU GOTTA BE HOTT AND TALENTED… BUT TO BUY A BEAT FOR DETOX!… LEGENDARY SHIT RIGHT THERE!

  • YB

    Young Dapps, JR didn´t do One Night on Game´s album. he did the Doctor´s Advocate and California Vacatio. Nottz actually did One Night

  • bugaboo

    “I don’t want to be known for just one sound; I want to be known for giving people really, really hot records, regardless” – now aint that brilliant? MUCH love to JR! this game needs more educated producers like JR!

  • http://www.yahoo.com Shamir

    this nigga beats is hot. i usually see his productions in some peoples cds. he hot

  • http://gmobb.com Ace Roddy

    Im from the bay and i freestyled for Rotem Back when he was just another producer and i told him that he could never bring the bay back. NEVER becuz of that stupid ass HYphy shit. Them niggas can spit without saying go dumb so i dont kno why they just dont spit

  • http://www.myspace.com/2cute4sa Chè

    Yo JR, whats up man… Ya South African? Thats damn awesome.. Me to homie..

    your beats are lekker man, like they said it in South Africa..

    Anyway, keep it ‘mooi en lekker’…

  • Trueog

    With Scott Storch gone from aftermath
    *
    *
    *
    *
    JR is DR.DRE’s NEW MAIN SQUEEZE
    *
    *
    *
    *
    Dre has a habbit of wanting young men around, help him move switches on the boards and all that
    *
    *
    *
    *
    He also loves jewish men, Jerry Heller, Scott Storch, JR rotem and on and on.
    *
    *
    *
    *
    Suge Knight once told everyone how he found dr.dre crying one night
    *
    *
    Suge Asked Dr.Dre why he was cryin, maybe he could help
    *
    *
    *
    Dr.Dre said he wish he was white, that all he wanted
    *
    *
    *
    Suge was like I told him that can’t happen, you’re black, maybe if u married a white gurl you could eventually change it for your kids..
    *
    *
    *
    *
    I see another suge knight and dre’s jewish white lovers scandal coming up

  • Cracka2

    fcukisthis?
    in your comment (November 10th, 2006 at 2:28 am
    ), ur basically labeling urself as a racist. If ya got something relevant to say, say it. Keep the racism 2 urself, tho. There’s enuf hatas and racist shyt out there as it is. tx

  • Zion

    big ups to my men J.R.
    next big star producer in tha making

  • celo

    Isnt this the dude bangin Britney Spears while she was still with k-fed

  • New York Nigga

    YOUNG DAPPS Says:

    November 10th, 2006 at 5:28 am
    YOU NEED TO HEAR ‘ONE NIGHT’ ON GAMES NEW ALBUM. THIS J R ROTEM GETS MAD PROPS- THIS IS THE BEST SONG ON THE ALBUM GOD DAMNNNNN!!!

    he dint prod that Nottz did

  • brodel34

    young dapps^^^^

    ‘one night’ was produced by nottz.

  • http://www.myspace.com/zeeprod Zee Productions

    http://www.myspace.com/zeeprod

    Nas – Hope ZeeMix

    The Game – One Blood ZeeMix

    Prod. By Zee

    Hottest beats comin’ from the UK, and from a 16 year old!

    watch out

  • http://www.myspace.com/madmattic madmattic

    wasn’t that gay beat SOS from an old song? This guy just sampled it, n’ he should stop saying “I produced it” bitch nigga. Rick’s also is a sampled beat. Sampled shit don’t need no creativity but fuck it.

  • MATTHEW L

    I REALLY LIKE HOW HE PRODUCES MUSIC!!!I WANT HIM TO BE MAH PRODUCER 2!!!I KNOW!!JUST HIM AND MEH DOING MUSIC!!!