Attached to the global pop hit Con Altura, released this spring to Spotify-smashing success, are the names of no less than seven songwriters. Some of them should come as no surprise: The song’s Catalan singer Rosalía; featured artist the Colombian reggaetón star J. Balvin; and Rosalía’s go-to producer El Guincho. But also receiving a songwriting credit (and co-producer recognition) is Canada’s Frank Dukes, a Grammy-winning producer-composer who is likely a mystery to many. To get to know him, though, is to better understand how pop music is being made and consumed today.
Parkscapes and Toronto’s Regent Park School of Music
Dukes (a.k.a. Adam King Feeney) is a Toronto native now based in Los Angeles. In addition to Rosalía, he’s worked with the Weeknd, Frank Ocean, Camila Cabello and other superstars. His latest collaborators, however, are some of the students of the Regent Park School of Music, a subsidized institution in a high-priority downtown Toronto neighbourhood. Along with Matty Tavares, former keyboardist with the Toronto jazz/hip-hop quartet BadBadNotGood, he worked with the students to create sparse musical snippets for the specific purpose of being sampled by other artists. Those snippets (or samples) make up the 11-track compilation called Parkscapes, available on Dukes’s online Kingsway Music Library, which is where Dukes makes his originally composed samples available – for a fee – to anyone who wants to use them in their own songs.
If a major recording artist were to use one of the Parkscapes snippets on their own recordings, some of the money generated (through licencing fees and royalty proceeds) would go to the Regent Park School of Music. “You never know what can happen if you get sampled by the biggest artist in the world,” says Dukes, on the phone from L.A. If the kids don’t know what could happen, Dukes does. Because it happened to him.
The Dukes-Drake hook-up
Traditionally, sampling is the appropriation of a portion of an old recording for use in a new recording. It could involve the recycling of a James Brown drum beat or, as in the case of the 2003 Beyoncé and Jay-Z hit Crazy in Love, the snazzy horn riff from Are You My Woman (Tell Me So) by the 1970s R&B act the Chi-Lites. This kind of sampling brings with it copyright issues and the process of acquiring permission (or clearance) from the owners of the original music. The clearance process is bureaucratic and can be expensive.
What Dukes and others like him do is to create their own samples – short musical ideas of their own composition that can be used in full-blown songs by other artists. There’s less red tape involved. For example, Dukes created a guitar sample that made its way to one of Drake’s in-house producers, Boi-1da (pronounced “Boy Wonder"), who used it for the first half of the 2014 Drake song 0 to 100/The Catch Up.
At a certain point, Dukes decided to store all his original samples online for purchase by anyone who wished to use them. “I had amassed a huge library of ideas I had written,” he says, about creating his Kingsway Music Library. “It’s an ecosystem for people to access my music and sample it. And it can lead to songwriting collaborations.”
Songwriting and the internet
Where songwriting sessions often used to happen in music-industry offices such as New York’s Brill Building and studios such as the Motown headquarters in Detroit, today songwriting partnerships and cross-cultural collaborations are just a fibre-optic connection away. “Internet has created the ability to connect people instantly,” Dukes says. “I might find out about a songwriter and start following them on Instagram. Within a day, we might be hanging out and feeling out whether we can work together.”
The collaborative process
Though Dukes received a producer’s credit for Drake’s 0 to 100/The Catch Up, he never actually worked side by side with the superstar rapper on that song. On other projects, however, his production work and songwriting collaborations are in-person and much more hands-on. For Cabello’s smash hit Havana last summer, Dukes talked to the Cuban-American singer about her background and her perspective as an artist before coming up with the track’s piano loop. “We then spent five months writing different verses,” says Dukes, the song’s co-producer and one of the 10 people with a songwriting credit.
For Con Altura, Dukes flew to Miami to work with Rosalía’s main producer, El Guincho. “I imagined her doing something really hypnotic and aggressive,” Duke says. “It was her idea to make an homage to old-school reggaetón – something dirty.” The lyrics are in Spanish, and even though Dukes doesn’t know his buenos días from his Luis Fonsi, he helped with the lyrics. “I just based it on phonetics,” he says.
Pop music’s globalization
The internet, of course, not only has changed how songs are created, but how they are received. Where local radio was once the curator of pop-music tastes, streaming services such as Spotify and online suppliers like YouTube are international in their reach and content. Music consumers have global jukeboxes at their fingertips; borders and languages are less the barriers they used to be, which helps lead to Spanish-language international hits such as 2017′s Despacito and Con Altura.