A few years ago, the producer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Dernst Emile II, known as D’Mile, was on the verge of quitting the music business. He was writing and producing at the highest levels, and had been for more than a decade, landing credits on albums from Janet Jackson, Justin Bieber, Usher, and more. He was still frustrated.
“You put in so much work, and it doesn’t seem like anything is paying off — not even money-wise, just period,” D’Mile explains. “There were a lot of letdowns. A lot of stuff that I worked on, then more people get involved, and things change. It started feeling like, ‘What’s the point? What am I doing this for?'”
But when the Recording Academy announced the 2020 Grammy nominations in November, D’Mile’s work was up for seven different awards. In two categories, Best R&B Song and Best Traditional R&B Performance, he was actually competing with his own productions: Lucky Daye’s “Roll Some Mo” and H.E.R.’s “Could’ve Been” were up for the award in both categories. D’Mile also oversaw a nominee for Best R&B Album (Daye’s Painted) and Best R&B Performance (“Roll Some Mo” yet again), and contributed to one of the Album of the Year nominees (H.E.R.’s I Used to Know Her).
“He is literally the best producer I ever worked with,” says Ty Dolla $ign, the prolific singer-songwriter-producer-multi-instrumentalist who has worked with D’Mile on almost every one of his albums and mixtapes, including those in his lauded Beach House series. “Anything I imagine in my head and can’t explain with words, he can bring to life through music.”
D’Mile’s musical pedigree is strong: His father, Dernst Emile, was a producer and arranger who worked on Haitian music and was obsessed with Wes Montgomery and Earth, Wind & Fire; D’Mile’s mother, Yannick Etienne, sang backing vocals on Roxy Music’s classic ballad “Avalon” and then contributed to several of Bryan Ferry’s solo albums. Growing up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, D’Mile started playing his own keyboards “around [age] two or three.”
When he was a teen, he began putting together beat tapes and trying to get them into the hands of people in the music industry. D’Mile developed a relationship with another Brooklyn group, Full Force, which helped him earn a credit on Rihanna’s “That La, La, La.” He also co-wrote the title track on Mary J. Blige’s Grammy-winning album The Breakthrough and landed a cut on the soundtrack to the Tyrese film Waist Deep.
D’Mile’s visibility grew rapidly when a friend, the music director at his church in Queens, handed his music to Rodney Jerkins, whose sinuous, percussive R&B productions — Brandy and Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine,” Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” and “Lose My Breath” — were ubiquitous on radio in the late 1990s and early 2000s. D’Mile produced alongside Jerkins for two years. “I had three songs placed before [working with] him,” D’Mile says. “After that, it was a lot more.”
That’s in part because he helped put together high-profile albums like Janet Jackson’s Discipline: D’Mile co-produced the first three songs, two of which became singles, and a pair of creeping interludes that helped stitch the album together. In addition to working with Jackson, D’Mile watched Jerkins craft soon-to-be hits like Lady Gaga and Beyonce’s “Telephone” — “seeing him work on songs like that was crazy.”
But when D’Mile emerged from his apprenticeship with Jerkins, the music industry was in a nosedive brought on in part by digital piracy. R&B was hit especially hard during this era, as now-leaner major labels focused on genres they believed were more commercially potent — hip-hop and Top 40 pop. R&B “got so lost [in the industry] at one point,” D’Mile says. “There was a time I forgot how to even do R&B [because] I was trying so hard to make it in the pop world.”
High-profile artists like Blige, Toni Braxton, Trey Songz, and Usher — once guaranteed commercial successes — found themselves struggling in the new landscape. But D’Mile kept getting calls. Shawn Barron, an A&R at Atlantic Records for 10 years, worked frequently with the producer. “Atlantic used to have these studios at Paramount and he would come and do writing sessions for us,” Barron says. “Since then I’ve always told him he’s top five, dead or alive. He’s so musical.” One of the songs D’Mile started during this period eventually became “Boss,” which earned a Grammy as part of The Carters’ Everything is Love.
D’Mile sensed an uptick in R&B’s fortunes when he saw the success of Childish Gambino’s “Redbone,” an unabashed revival of Seventies funk that unexpectedly became a mainstream hit. “I was like, ‘Dude, if this can work, how big it became, then I’m gonna go back to this and do what I want,'” D’Mile says.
He had already started crafting a passion project with a then-unknown singer named Lucky Daye. The two had previously worked together in writing sessions. (Daye has credits on songs by Ne-Yo and Keith Sweat, among others.) “At that time, I was fed up with everything else, everybody else,” D’Mile remembers. “[Daye] was kind of on the same thing. This was his last chance to do anything. He was ready to quit.” But before Daye gave up, he wanted to make one more album. The initial concept was partially inspired by the glory days of Motown.
Daye played two demos for D’Mile, who liked what he heard. “I was like, ‘Let’s just do what the hell we want to do,'” he says. “I didn’t care if it came out, if it didn’t come out. I needed something for myself that we could have more control over as musicians, not letting execs tell us what’s right or what’s wrong. We finished the whole project before he even got signed.”
Most of the now-Grammy-nominated Painted was recorded over the course of 2016 and 2017, and it’s a conscious throwback. The album starts with one lolling, smokey ballad, all softly strummed guitar and strings, and ends with another, a disconsolate, no-one-wins number that’s parceled out in 6-8 time and stretches over nearly eight minutes. In between, there’s post-disco funk and bossa nova and barely a programmed drum in sight. “Karma” pays tribute to Ginuwine; “Paint It” to Prince; “Real Games” to countless Seventies funk groups. D’Mile played everything except for the strings.
Some of the same elements course through D’Mile’s productions on H.E.R.’s I Used to Love Her, which came together during a Miami writing camp in May 2018. The tendrils of acoustic guitar running through “Going (Full)” would run easily into a Daye ballad, as would the hushed, piano-and-voice opening of “I’m Not OK.”
Grammy voters tend to reward R&B that is conscious of tradition. Still, their embrace of D’Mile’s production is a welcome turn for an ace producer who’s been hiding in plain sight. “He was flying under the radar for so long, even though he was doing so much,” Barron says. “He wasn’t getting his recognition. He is now.”