Any conversation about the greatest producers of all time must include Timbaland. Timothy Mosley emerged in the Nineties with a series of beguiling records that changed the course of hip-hop and R&B; in short order, he launched a career in pop, helping to create unforgettable hits for Justin Timberlake, Nelly Furtado and Jay Z. The open-minded, genre-hybrid approach that dominates contemporary production would be hard to imagine without Timbaland’s example.
The famous beatmaker’s memoir, modestly titled The Emperor of Sound, arrives tomorrow. Somewhat like a Timbaland beat, the volume takes a lot of strange jumps — ignoring, for example, the recording of the classic first Missy Elliott album — but the book still contains a wealth of interesting details. Here are 10 key revelations.
1. Timbaland loves Rod Stewart.
The producer showed his genre-defying impulses early on: While Rick James, Queen and Prince all played an important role in his musical education, no one receives more praise than Rod Stewart. “The genius of the instrumentation is unparalleled,” writes Timbaland of “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” “Like every truly great pop song, it’s got all the elements you’ve heard before, lined up in a way that you’ve never quite heard before. … That song picks you up and doesn’t let you go until the very last guitar lick.” He adds later that “trying to chart my influences is like trying to pinpoint the origin of a cell-phone signal in those movies when the bad guy is using a scrambler.”
2. In high school, he was in a group with Pharrell.
In his teens, Timbaland put together the wonderfully named band Surrounded by Idiots. Timbaland was the DJ and Pharrell served as one of several rappers. (Pharrell also had his own group, Dead Poets Society, at the time.) Magoo, who would eventually release several albums with Mosley, was also a member. Mosley believes Surrounded by Idiots were ahead of their time: “We even had a few songs that I think would still be up to the standards of today.”
3. He has a bullet lodged in his arm.
While working at Red Lobster in high school, Mosley was accidentally shot — someone was attempting to deliver a gun to another kitchen employee, but it went off and hit Timbaland, causing him to lose the use of his left arm for seven months. He DJ’d anyway, using his shoulder to scratch despite the pain.
4. Timbaland spent several torturous years as a producer for DeVante Swing of Jodeci.
Initially, Timbaland and Missy Elliott thought that earning the attention of Jodeci — an R&B group at the peak of its commercial powers — would be their big break. According to Timbaland’s description, working under DeVante Swing was more like being under house arrest. “We would go for days without eating,” he remembers. “We would be woken up in the middle of the night to run crazy errands. We were knocked around, kicked around, and beat down.” In addition, Timbaland suggests that he was barely paid royalties for work he did on various songs during this time period.
5. Mosley’s unique approach to sound was partially inspired by physically distorted records.
Around the time Timbaland was making the beat that would ultimately become Ginuwine’s “Pony” — a modern R&B classic — he developed an interest in degraded records. “If you leave a a record out in the sun, it will warp,” he notes. “[I]t’s going to have a strange, distorted sound. I love that sound and I started making beats with that vibe. I was thinking, Warp it a little, when I added belching synthesizers to the beat I was working on.”
6. After Aaliyah’s death, Timbaland went through a serious bout of depression.
Timbaland and his partner in rhyme, Missy Elliott, played a crucial role on Aaliyah’s second and third albums — Timbo produced roughly half of 1996’s One in a Million, which went triple platinum, and three songs from 2001’s Aaliyah, which won a Grammy for Best R&B Album. He was very close to the singer, and when she died in a plane crash in 2001, he went into a downward spiral. “I drank, as early as seemed social acceptable,” he recalls. “Then I drank until the finish, to pass out. … I kept the shades drawn and banned all guests. I gave up on grooming myself.”
7. He disagrees with Jay Z about “Big Pimpin’.”
In his own memoir, Decoded, Jay Z disavowed “Big Pimpin'” due to its lyrical content. “Some [lyrics] become really profound when you see them in writing,” the MC explained. “Not ‘Big Pimpin’.'” It was like, I can’t believe I said that. And kept saying it. What kind of animal would say this sort of thing?” Timbo does not share his regrets. “Making records is all about the moment,” he counters. “You capture that moment in time and it’s a letter in a bottle. Sometimes, years later, you go back and you play a track and it’s like reading the diary of a you that you can barely remember. Doesn’t mean that the old you was bad or something to be ashamed of.”
8. Justin Timberlake’s “What Goes Around … Comes Around” came out of a “Cry Me a River”–inspired jam.
When Timberlake headed back into the studio with Timbaland to craft the follow-up to his breakout album, Justified, the singer was creatively frustrated, crippled by the pressure of matching his solo debut’s impressive commercial performance. In an attempt to break out of the gridlock, Timbaland and his partner Nate “Danja” Hill started “fooling around and freestyling with some of the sounds from ‘Cry Me a River,'” the Timbaland-crafted hit from Justified. The result became “What Goes Around … Comes Around,” yet another Number One smash for Timberlake. Another interesting tidbit: The singer was apparently bumping INXS and Bowie constantly during the FutureSex recording process, though you wouldn’t be able to tell that from listening to the finished product.
9. Timbaland actively reads his own press.
At least the good press. He gleefully quotes The New York Times‘ Kelefa Sanneh on two separate occasions, touting his bold production on Aaliyah’s “Try Me” single and the success of Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds album.
10. He’s just getting started.
Timbaland isn’t interested in resting on his laurels. “Do I feel like I’ve hit my ceiling yet?” he asks. “By no means.” He holds himself to a high standard: “My goal is to achieve a body of work that can sit in comparison with the work of the one and only Quincy Jones.”