The songwriter-producer Warren “Oak” Felder has an intriguing theory about the rise and fall of musical genres. “Any form of music starts at its simplest, gets steadily more complex, and gets to its peak of complexity, where people are doing music not for the audience but for other musicians,” he explains. “Some genres got to this level of complexity and they never came back from it, like jazz — it’s not pop culture any more. It’s a big influence, but you don’t have jazz artists coming out and selling 20,000 tickets at the Staples Center.”
“If a style of music is lucky,” Oak adds, “it resets.”
That’s what he believes has happened in R&B, which has been his primary occupation since he landed his first cut for Chris Brown in 2005. Oak has endured quietly through a decade of down years for the music industry and particularly harsh times for R&B to become an essential producer. He’s co-written and co-produced breakout hits for Nicki Minaj, K. Michelle and Alessia Cara and worked with other established stars, such as Rihanna and Alicia Keys. He is capable of helming large chunks of an artist’s major-label debut — Kehlani’s SweetSexySavage — or shepherding a pop star (Demi Lovato) into more overtly R&B territory as the Top 40 tries to respond to what listeners are streaming.
Oak has an unusual background — even by music industry standards. He grew up in Turkey, and he started to learn his way around the studio with his uncle, who produced folk, pop and, even, “a random Turkish rap group” in Istanbul. (His nickname is derived from his Turkish name, Okay.) Oak says listened primarily to rock while growing up — “MTV Europe basically meant you were listening to a lot of Rage Against the Machine, Metallica, Pantera” — and studied hard. Then he moved to the U.S. to attend school at Georgia Tech.
In Atlanta — which “was, is, and will always be the center of urban culture,” according to Oak — his musical education began in earnest. “I’m one of like eight black Turks that I know,” he explains. “I always felt like, growing up, there was something missing from my own life, culturally. Then when I got to the States, I really got into rap and R&B music and gospel music.”
Oak took a practical approach to building a career in these genres. “It’s like winning the lottery,” he says. “So my perspective was, rather than trying to win the lottery, I would be the guy selling the lottery tickets to everybody else. I opened this really cheap commercial studio in College Park and started charging people $500 a pop to help them produce and write their own songs.” He recorded some demos with Sterling Sims, who was later signed as an artist by L.A. Reid, the executive who had helped put Atlanta on the national musical map with LaFace Records. Reid bought several of Oak’s tracks, and soon enough he was in sessions with the singer Lloyd, Mario, Marsha Ambrosius and others.
Just as Oak earned a foothold in commercial music, though, the business was entering a period of prolonged contraction. “I was sort of stepping into a barren wasteland at that point — bootlegging had gotten so bad by this point that record labels started putting out fake versions of some songs,” he recalls. “I got into the music industry at the beginning of the era of the blue collar producer: I have two or three cuts right now and times are still hard; I’m still driving around in this shitty white Chevy Corsica.”
According to many industry experts, the rise of music piracy hurt rap and R&B harder than it did other pop artists. “Labels saw iTunes selling more Top 40, while urban music was being stolen peer-to-peer,” a former major-label radio promotions executive told Rolling Stone. But rap still showed more reactivity than R&B. As a result, “R&B was sort of relegated to the back burner,” Oak says. “If you walked into a label saying, ‘I got an R&B act,’ they’d automatically put you at the bottom of the pile. They automatically gave you the lowest budget.” And this meant that, even “if an R&B record went Number One, it wasn’t a huge commercial success after like 2006, 2007.”
In Oak’s telling, part of the reason that R&B suffered also had to do with the genre’s obsession with technical one-upmanship. “You had these really amazing singers, they sounded incredible and were able to do all these vocal acrobatics and had crazy background arrangements,” the producer says. “And that became complex until I think it became unattainable to the regular audience. People like me, who were into the making of it, were impressed. The general audience looked at it and went, ‘huh?'” (This is reminiscent of a comment made by another producer-songwriter, Tricky Stewart, about singing as “a competition” during the Nineties: “It was like, ‘Wanya from Boyz II Men hit this note’ — that meant something to Jojo from K-Ci and Jojo, and that meant something to Sisqo: ‘Oh we have to do better than that vocally.'”)
That “huh?” reaction also left R&B vulnerable to attack from rappers, who turned their vocal limitations to their advantage by creating easily singable melodies. “Rappers were getting on the microphone and just spilling their soul without worrying about, ‘wow, did you see how many keys he went through when he was doing that run?'” Oak says. “‘Did you hear how many harmonies were in that hook?'” The rapper-singer became especially common after Drake became a commercial force in 2008. The singer-singer went into a tailspin.
These factors hurt the whole R&B ecosystem, according to Oak; it’s hard to deny that few bona fide stars emerged from the genre for nearly a decade. “I know a lot of guys that really stayed in the R&B space and couldn’t survive, and ended up getting out of it, like ‘Man, I can’t do this shit no more, I gotta feed my kids,'” Oak says. “Then they end up going to drive Ubers or whatever.”
Oak managed to stay afloat in part by landing some pop cuts. “I always say that R&B is the catalyst for EDM, and people look at me like I’m crazy,” he explains. “But Omarion’s ‘Icebox’ [co-produced by Timbaland] represented a real paradigm shift in R&B because you had those trance sounds in tracks, and it was one of the first times somebody had taken electronic and dance-y sounds and put it into R&B music. Then the people that did EDM for real said, ‘Oh, wait, this sound is coming back!’ As it was moving that direction, I connected to my past growing up with techno records [dance music is much more mainstream in Europe than in the U.S.]. And I started to try and incorporate that into the music.” This led to placements with Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears.
During this period, Oak also met a young producer named Andrew ‘Pop’ Wansel, whose father, Dexter Wansel, was a producer, multi-instrumentalist and recording artist for Philadelphia International, one of the great soul labels of the Seventies. Pop helped Oak reconnect to R&B history. “We had all kinds of conversations about sampling and crate diving and white label records,” Oak remembers. “I didn’t really understand the heart of it until those conversations. He sort of made me fall in love with it [again].” Their first collaboration was Minaj’s “Your Love;” they’ve been working together steadily ever since.
“Your Love” revolved around a handsome Annie Lennox sample, and it established the core of the Pop & Oak sound. The two often use shrewd samples to create music that could have come out at any point during the last three decades. That’s Usher’s “Good Kisser,” which used a riff from Foster Sylvers; Miguel’s “Where’s the Fun in Forever” — Oak calls this one “my favorite song that I’ve ever done in my career” — which flips the Steve Miller Band; K. Michelle’s “V.S.O.P.,” which loops the Chi-Lites’ “That’s How Long;” and Alessia Cara’s “Here,” which borrows an old Isaac Hayes melody. Even when Pop & Oak don’t rely on a sample, they might make you think they do: The impressive dual bass-lines and stabbing organ in Tamia’s “Sandwich and a Soda” seem like they have to come from the Seventies, but they were created by hand.
These songs are not obsessed with contemporary trends; Oak rarely leaves of-the-moment clues, like the latest programmed drum pattern or Kill Bill sample popular in Atlanta rap a few years ago. At the same time, although Pop & Oak are unashamedly funky — limber bass is crucial for “Good Kisser” and “Where’s the Fun in Forever” — they don’t sound knowingly retro in the manner of any number of soul revival acts.
These qualities helped Oak’s production stand out at a time when much of R&B had become increasingly indistinguishable from rap, relying on minimal, quickly programmed, bass-heavy instrumentals. Pop & Oak’s vision for R&B, by contrast, could incorporate tradition while still enjoying commercial success: “Good Kisser” went Number One at radio; “V.S.O.P.” was K. Michelle’s breakout hit; “Here” was a Top Ten crossover record.
Oak’s best productions frequently have dynamics and rich melodies, which is seemingly at odds with his theory about the importance of simplicity. But the young singers he works with came up in the era of rapper-singers, so they tend to focus on direct communication rather than ad-libs, vocal pyrotechnics and harmonies. “People are gonna hate me for saying this shit, but the intensity of the singing [in the past] can sometimes be a little put on,” Oak says. “I’ve been in the studio where an artist is singing and they’re being directed: ‘Give me a little more emotion! Really show them what you mean!’ We got to a weird space where how aggressive you were singing the song was equated to how much you meant it.”
There’s none of that desire to blow the roof off in the music of Kehlani, Alessia Cara and Alina Baraz, all of whom have worked with Oak. Tone is often more important than force; emotion is not signaled through bravura displays of melisma or dazzling eruptions of impromptu ad-libs. Instead, a singer like Kehlani often delivers her lines as if she’s having a frank conversation with the listener: “You was on the road, I was on the road/ We’d be back to back, back and forth/ They know how it goes, know you got your pride/ Just admit you hate being alone.” “There’s a wave of going back to basics,” the producer says. “People are focusing more on saying real shit, relatable shit.” (Earlier this year, Baraz complimented Oak’s production style: “No one cuts a vocal like he does,” she said.)
The last part of Oak’s theory, when a genre “resets,” is what he believes saves a musical style from pop-cultural-exile. And for those keeping score, the growth in listening in hip-hop and his specialty, R&B, has been notable over the last few years. In the first half of 2017, the two combined passed rock as the most consumed forms of music in the U.S., and their lead has continued to grow in the subsequent year. Another signal of commercial rejuvenation: The year’s biggest R&B single, Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up,” recently upset a radio record that was previously held by Mary J. Blige in 2006.
This is not just good for Oak’s prediction, it’s good for his production schedule: He’s been working on more music with Alessia Cara and Kehlani. “I think we’re going to have an R&B renaissance, I really do,” he says. “I think now we are right at the top of that. It’s almost like going home.”