Rob Grimaldi: How He Works With Hip-Hop, K-Pop And Country Artists
The 100 Years of Radio – 100 Years of Hit Makers limited series podcast gives music fans a front-row seat for conversations with songwriters behind some of the biggest hits of yesterday and today. You’ll learn the stories behind the songs from the people who wrote them. Each episode will focus on one writer: sometimes, they’ll just talk about one song, other times, they’ll talk about a number of hits.
New episodes will be released each Monday through November of 2020.
100 Years of Radio – 100 Years of Hit Makers special podcast series is produced in partnership with Beasley Media Group, XPERI (HD Radio), and BMI in celebration of the 100-year anniversary of the first commercial radio broadcast.
Diversifying your skills is smart no matter what field you’re in. Rob Grimaldi is a producer/songwriter with a resume that includes work in hip-hop (with Queen Naija), K-Pop (Monsta X and Blackpink) and even country (Jimmie Allen). He spoke to us about working within all three of those genres.
How did you start working with Queen Naija?
The Queen Naija story is a great one. It actually came as a vocal recording session, first and foremost. I had gotten connected with Queen through a friend, who said that a friend of his needed a vocal recorded and wanted a producer on the project. And I said, “Of course.” And I remember it was a super late night session the first time we met, and I hadn’t known Queen’s story ahead of time. So I was coming into it a little bit blind, but in a good way. And Queen came into the studio in New York, Engine Room, and she told me she had one other song out that was doing pretty well. She was interested in making more music. And that was the beginning of our relationship. It kind of stemmed from getting a song recorded to being able to help develop and and coach and eventually co-write and co-produce “Karma” and “Butterfly.” So it was a pretty fun journey for sure.
Talk about writing “Karma.”
She had come in that first night and mentioned to me, “Hey, you know, I’ve been in the studio a few times before. It’s still a new thing to me. I have this idea that I’ve been I’ve been messing around with.” And if you listen to Queen, her strength is her lyrics. Her lyric game is great. She’s super relatable. Her fans really pay attention to her story, being that she’s so prominent in the social world. And when she came in, she’s like, “I have this track that I’ve been writing to. It’s kind of rough. And I wrote the song to it that I really like.”
And she sang to me what turned out to be “Karma.” I’m thinking, “Damn, this is really, really good. I can see how people would really relate to this.” And the story was super personal to her, and that perspective is everything when it comes to new artists and especially records that work in the marketplace.
I thought, “OK, well, this this is an amazing start. Let’s just try cutting it.” And we went through it piece by piece and I was coaching her with the vocal and really making her dig because the story, again, was so real to her. It was an actual life thing, which makes it even more powerful. So when we started cutting it, she’s singing and I’m kind of just producing her vocals. It was just like, “OK, let’s try this here with the track or let’s repeat the chorus twice and add background [vocals].” When we finished it, she was so thrilled about it. I remember, her manager was like, “Hey, we want you to hop on production on this and make sure it sounds right.” And it became this this whole ordeal of: how can I get this thing from 75 to 120? And it was all about going in and really working with the production for scene changes and twists and turns. I said, “Perfect, leave it with me for a week and I’ll have it finished.” And the rest is history. It was a wild ride.
And I think the moral of that story was: I didn’t want to take away from her message on the record because the writing was so good. That’s kind of what production is. Everything was just based around “Karma.” There was a story that I had to preserve and El Jefe, the other producer on it, did an amazing job of kind of getting this thing started in a direction where she just loved to write to it. And then my role on it was to just make sure the vocal was right, kind of coach on some melody things here in the vocal production, and then to just take the track and and amplify what he had originally done.
Is it weird to meet somebody who you don’t even know, and the first thing you do is to record an intimate song inspired by their lives?
Absolutely. I think you’re less you’re less surprised by that nowadays, because my job is to bring the best out of the songwriter or the artist to to allow them to feel comfortable to get as personal as possible.
So I think at that point, when you get a record like that where it was so specific to her but so global to everybody else, I think my job was just really to tell her it was OK to feel, and it was OK to dig into that emotion even in the recording. Like, I didn’t want her to be happy recording “Karma.” It just wouldn’t have delivered the message. So pushing her against her feelings, even as [it was] a new working relationship between me and her… sometimes it’s a little bit awkward. But she was such a great listener and so willing to kind of dig at that side that I think it made the process so much smoother and the vocal makes all the difference on a song like that. So I think we captured something really exciting for sure.
It’s like an actor in a movie: if you’re not going to perform the role, people are not going to buy into it.
After that, you worked on “Butterflies.”
So the timeline was: we finished “Karma.” That was before Queen had signed her label deal that she signed with Capitol, which was a really exciting moment for her. And that was a huge step in her career and in her manager’s as well. I know they were so thrilled about it.
So “Karma” came out, I think, in June of 2018. We had a bunch of records that they wanted to put on an EP through Capitol, “Butterfly” being one of them, “Mama’s Hand” being another, “Bad Boy” being another. So we kind of just had a meeting, the three of us together. And it was like, “Hey, we need these records done for Queen’s EP. How can you help?”
It was it was really just, how can I help finish things and take some pressure off of them? Just just knowing the label game and knowing what the label needs, how can I be an asset to them? So we went through the process. “Butterflies” was one of my favorites on the record. Again, it was another song that you heard it for the first time and you said in back of your head, “Yep. This one makes sense for Queen. This is a no brainer for her.” It was about her relationship, her new relationship that she was over the moon about. And it was just one of those sticky, sticky melodies where you were in the back of your head saying, “OK, cool.” Again, the bones are so strong here. Let’s make sure the production and make sure the track elevates the record and sends the message out.
It’s like the opposite of “Karma.” You wanted her to be happy in the studio when she’s singing that one.
Absolutely. With a lot of this stuff, “Karma” included, the production almost came after the fact.
I love having the vocal recorded before I go “ham” on the production because the vocal plays such a big role in how I shape the tracks. But it’s also it’s also the feeling. Half the time, I’m doing production and getting the tracks to a certain place, recording the vocal and then going back in and changing a lot of what I had because the feeling changes.
“Butterflies” was the same. They had a track that was really cool and got the vibe across. We got the vocal done. Did all the vocal production and the backgrounds for Queen. The background vocals were a huge, huge piece of that EP. I think it kind of put a stamp on what she could do vocally. We tried to really kind of switch it up with some cool runs in the back, some cool ad libs and a lot of layering which was new to her, in the best way. I think she absolutely killed it. And she she’s a harmony queen. So she really enjoyed that process. And then, I just kind of came in and made sure those productions were solid.
You have a diverse “resume.” You’ve worked with Queen Naija, but you’ve also worked with Monsta X.
Yeah, we’re kind of all over the map, man. I think it’s cool. I’m doing a bunch of country now as well. But I’m really excited about the Monsta X record. People ask me, “How did you how did you do a Jimmie Allen and Tim McGraw record and then do a Queen Naija record?” It’s really it’s all about capturing the song and being able to then pivot sonically. A lot of it is studying and listening to a bunch of music. But at the root of it all, it’s if we can write a great song that makes sense for the artist, the production follows. If you know what you’re doing in those [genre] spaces [it works]. I think that takes practice. But as soon as you lock in and understand what works, it all comes back to the song.
Is there a language barrier when you work with a K-Pop group?
Well, it depends. For the Monsta X record particularly, I wrote with two really good friends of mine, Joren [van der Voort] and Ben [Samama] and [“Got My Number”] just had an infectious chorus; that’s where the song started. And I remember we were in L.A. writing at Sound Factory and we were playing it on piano. And the second day were kind of vibing in this chorus. I said, “Okay, cool. This is something.” When you write so many songs a week, which is kind of what we’re in the business of doing these days, and you hear something that catches you right away, it’s inspiring, you make sure you get it right. In a lot of cases, you don’t get that feeling. So the Monsta X record was one of those where it was so hookey, especially in the chorus. I remember we all looked at each other. We were like, “Okay, let’s chase this.”
To answer your question about the language barrier and stuff like that, we have a Blackpink song coming out pretty soon as well [editor’s note: this interview was done during the summer before the song came out], which I’m really excited about. It was the same thing: write the best English song you can. And either they will take care of translating that to a different language or they’ll leave it be. The Monsta X record was was left in English and so is the Blackpink one. So sometimes you get you get lucky and sometimes either way it works. They’ll just translate it and it’s going to sound different to your ears. But in their space, it may work really well.
When you write a song like that, are you writing with a specific artist in mind?
No, the “Got My Number” record was not written with any focus in that space at all. I remember we got up and it was kind of a reunion for us three, becuase we hadn’t written together in a while. I love to write with purpose every day. I think that’s the most important piece. If there’s a direct opportunity with an artist, that makes the most sense. It’s always, as a business person, smarter to do that. But I remember that day in particular. We literally were just trying to write the best song we could.
When you’re writing with the intent to give it to a group, are you thinking, “OK, there are multiple singers in this group. I need to come up with a spot for each of them to shine.”
Yeah. If we had Monsta X in the room, if it was a Blackpink situation or any other group, my approach would 1000 percent change knowing the dynamic of the group. I think in that case particularly, we had no target. It was more: “Let’s just work on the song,” because we thought the idea was cool. But yes, for sure, if I was in the room with with a group, and knowing who does what, I think having that research done ahead of time is so important because how you craft the melody and how you craft parts to each person’s strength is so important in making the song as powerful as it can be. I think knowing the group or listening to a bunch of their music and figuring out who does what best is so crucial, because I think the dynamic of the record can change pretty drastically with each personality doing the right thing.
You were mentioning the Jimmie Allen/Tim McGraw song. Going from some of the things that you’ve done to Jimmie Allen is certainly a stylistic leap. Talk about that song, and getting Tim McGraw involved.
I consider Jimmie a good friend, and I have so much respect for his journey as an artist. We meet so many artists in this game; some of them have worked really hard to get there, some of them not as much. In Jimmie’s case, his effort and his persistence is so, so admirable. And I think that going in I was super excited to work with him because I also I knew his story. I knew what he was all about. I loved his music beforehand. Our first session was in L.A. We wrote something really “crossover,” which was super cool. And Jimmie is open all that. He loves being different, but still landing kind of in his space.
So I remember the first day we wrote something that was very crossover country-pop/urban. And when we came back after the session, I was like, “Yo, you trying to come back for a second day tomorrow?” He’s like, “Absolutely, let’s go.”
So he texted me that night and we set up the time for the next day. We were writing with another great friend of mine, Riley Biederer, who’s incredible. And I told Riley beforehand, I was like, “Riley, we got to do something for Jimmie’s record today because I’m not sure if we really landed that yesterday.”
I knew we had to, like, nail a country record. So Riley was like, “Let’s just do something [country] for his project.” [But] Jimmie came in with two pop ideas. And I said, “Dude, we got to do something for you today. Let’s just nail something that makes the most sense for your project.” We were working on a piano record. I sat down and just played. It was an idea I wrote prior to the session. And Riley is like the melody monster queen, and she’s one of my favorite people to write with. And I always know if I can if I can capture a great progression and emotion that she’s gonna bring it home.
And Jimmie’s instincts are insane as well. So it went really fast. That was a great day. And I remember Jimmie, after the session, called me and said “I think I love this song.” And it was it was kind of done when we left. We didn’t even do any edits. I felt really good. And he called me after was like, “I think I got to get [Tim] McGraw on this thing, I’ve been wanting to work with him for a while. And I think he’d really love it.”
And I didn’t think anything of it because people say that kind of stuff all the time. But it actually happened. And Tim added so much personality and sauce to it, and he’s obviously a legend in his space. And it was a dream of ours to work with someone like that, even if we didn’t get a chance to meet him. But I think the character he added to the record was so powerful. And for a song that was very personal to Jimmie in his journey, Tim was a really great addition there.
Have you been in a situation where you’re at restaurant, at a club, at a store and you hear a song that you co-wrote on P.A. and you’re watching people dig it and they don’t know that you’re one of the people who made that song?
Yeah, I’ve had that happen a few times. One of my favorites was a “Karma” one in L.A. It was in an Uber. And I was leaving the studio and it popped on and the female driver was like freaking out and singing the whole song. And I was just in the back smiling because it was a new release. It was like the first week at radio in L.A. and it was really cool to see.
That’s the most exciting part for songwriters and producers: if that can change someone’s day in a positive way and whether it’s feeling emotional and getting in your feelings or feeling happy or any sort of emotion we can cause through a record, I think is the end goal, because it’s people use music as an outlet to heal and as an outlet to feel. And I think if you can be part of that, that’s always a winning formula for sure.