Amy Winehouse was the master of Grammy’s 2008 ceremony without even being in the country. I couldn’t help but kick around the paradox of “Rehab” bringing Amy to, and simultaneously keeping her from ― the festivities. Her substance rehabilitation treatment was in direct conflict with Grammy’s 52nd annual gala, and because she had difficulty securing a work visa (she did so in the 11th hour), Winehouse’s Staple Center performance status had been the topic o’ the week. Fanatics readied for the big show in hopes that CBS would deliver on their promise. In a seamless cut from LA’s Staple Center to Riverside Studios in London, a tuxedo-clad Cuba Gooding Jr. emerged via satellite amidst a cabaret-style backdrop of hyped Londoners; “Sometimes life trumps award shows … we obviously didn’t know if our next artist would be available to perform on the Grammy show tonight.” The heavy crimson drapery peeled away to Ms. Winehouse, proof that CBS and Grammy producers had burned the midnight broadband to secure the evening’s main event (every award show worth its live stream has one). Aligning her charcoal cat-eye gaze with the camera through curled lips and a defiant’ b-girl stance, Amy officially put us on notice; “I tol’ yewww, I was trou-bu-uhl, you know that I’m no good.” Trouble? Possibly ― but the gritty proclamation that she was “no good,” those with eyes and ears didn’t subscribe. It was ALL good, and beyond. The two-track set wrapped with “Rehab,” and 2008’s new Song of the Year equaled a fifth gramophone to be stacked on behalf of Back to Black. Winehouse digested the win as crowds erupted on both coasts. Cheers and hugs from parents and fellow musicians proceeded Amy’s modest list of thanks: Island Records, Ray Ray ‘n Joe n’ them, London-town, Mom and Dad, her Blake “incarcerated”… and of course, Salaam Remi.
Salaam Remi Gibbs was best known in music circles for his work with Nas, The Fugees, Jennifer Hudson and Jazmine Sullivan to name a few. Today, his production discography reads like a who’s who of popular music (Google him – it’ll blow your mind). Salaam’s undeniable skills ushered him into the film industry, where he has contributed on various soundtracks including Office Space, The Departed, Rush Hour 3 and Sex in the City. He produced numerous tracks on Winehouse’s debut, Frank (among them, my personal favorite “You Sent Me Flying”), and he went on to produce 5 songs on Back to Black alongside the uber-talented Mark Ronson. Salaam and Amy were steady chipping away at her eagerly anticipated junior effort, juggling long recording sessions, skype conferences and multi-country travel. By the time my husband reached Remi by phone on July 24th, he had already jet set to London for the wedding of Amy’s former manager. Within the re-purposed tweets of electronic affection from artists and celebrities the world over, Salaam was clearly taking the time he needed (and deserved) to gather thoughts on his beloved Amy. “Very Very Sad Day. Just lost a Great Friend and a Sister,” he tweeted, adding: “RIP my baby SiS Cherry Winehouse. Love ya always.” Not only was Salaam one of the key contributors to Winehouse’s growing arsenal of hits, he’s considered by his colleagues as one of the most down to earth and humble ― in spite of great success ― producers in recorded music. His account has immeasurable value, and I knew he would divulge on his watch. In what would be his first interview post the horrific news of Amy’s death, Salaam Remi spoke with me about the friend he was “drawn to from the start.”
KK: My condolences. How are you, how’s it going out there in the thick of it?
SR: Thank you, yeah. It’s going as well as can be expected.
KK: Any word on the services?
SR: Not yet, they’re still working out all the details (story update: services for Amy Winehouse will take place later today). It’s first things first, you know. I was down here for the wedding, a bunch of us … I came here Thursday, July 21st and planned to go by Amy’s house on Saturday to see if everything was cool, if she was up to going ― then I got the call that she’s no longer with us.
KK: I can’t even imagine.
SR: Me either.
KK: You and Amy had been working on that new album, Curtis (my husband) said he just spoke with you in Manhattan …and you said things were coming along. How far along were you with her project, or are you ― because the latest buzz is that the third album is done and would be released pending Amy’s rehabilitation. Can you speak on that?
SR: We were working on it … It’s not a complete album, no. We had a lot of things going, there are recordings, but first things first I think … we’re trying to focus on what’s at hand and what her family wants to do. So those reports are false.
KK: Thank you for clearing that up. What direction were you and she taking it in?
SR: Well the way that Amy and I always created was, she would write and we would toss ideas around. She was influenced by a lot of different music.
Above: Salaam Remi in the studio.
KK: Who are some of the artists she liked?
SR: You know, she liked Nas, Mary J. Blige, D’Angelo, Patti LaBelle was a big one … she was in awe of Patti LaBelle. She used to (laughing) … debate anyone for hours that Rah Digga was the illest female MC.
KK: In your professional opinion, the last time you saw her, did you feel she would be able to complete the project?
SR: Oh yeah. Actually, to put it all in a nutshell, Amy loved to sing, to write, to be wit full, that ability never left her. And in terms of her influence, She would say her Frank (debut) was 85 percent “her,” but her work on Back to Black, that was 100 percent her and she wouldn’t change a thing. She was very good at channeling her emotions into lyrics, and then being able to sing them. She was in a place to go forward and make it happen. So now we’re down here for a wedding, and there are people who were close to Amy as well … and we’re trying to let it be a wedding even though we’re still mourning our friend.
KK: Well, you mentioned transferring emotions to lyrics … and you’ve worked with the most notable artists who’ve had great commercial success while simultaneously managing pressure. How did Amy’s coping skills stack up against someone like Lauryn Hill, for example?
SR: Honestly I think, I’ve realized I’m a good component for someone who’s really about their craft more than about the “Hollywood music business.” The artists I’ve worked with … like Lauryn, Nas, Nelly Furtado, Jazmine Sullivan – none of them actually cared or care about standing in front of people and hearing “yes you’re great.” They actually care about being good people. It’s really about their craft more … many of them are great writers and they make me a better producer. As far as Amy goes, she was inspired by artists like Lauryn Hill, artists like Ms. Dynamite here in the UK who I also worked with previously. Amy was different and happy to be different in her artistry. She was a great artist, a funny person, she had a great heart and she always had a joke. You could hear a lot of that in her lyrics, she would be sarcastic and she was extremely witty ― but more than anything else she was a real person. If she didn’t like something she would tell you.
KK: Well speaking of influences, Amy Winehouse was compared with Duffy and Adele, in some circles they would even call certain singers “the new Amy Winehouse”… when she wasn’t well, and now (on par with the trend of artists who are newly deceased) Amy’s work ― a lot of which you produced ― has shot up on the iTunes chart for most downloads. In terms of a similar sound, Adele’s 21 album is number one on the charts. Respectively, what did Amy think of these artists ― did she like Adele?
SR: Amy had strong opinions on everything. I never asked her about Adele or Duffy, at the end of the day … she had the ability to be her own artist. You know Adele and Duffy are their own artists, and will continue working after. Every great artist knows to be themselves, to really get things poppin’. If she (Amy) didn’t like an artist she would tell you, “get them out of my iPod.” She was very opinionated about what she liked. At the end, she was a real person. She had a huge heart. She would work … we’d be working for hours and she would have everybody in the room snickering (laughing), she always had a joke. You could hear a lot of that in her lyrics, she could be sarcastic and she was extremely witty – but more than anything else she was a real person, an individual artist. She had a lot of influences, but I never heard her reference Adele or Duffy.
KK: Who cancelled Amy’s tour ― was it her or was it her label? I ask because some have expressed confusion about (what is viewed as) a lack of intervention from her label and/or management.
SR: Yeah, you know what I can’t even entertain that (public) opinion because everybody, all of the people around her who loved her, they did everything they could do for her. In my opinion. And, no one knows how she actually died … it’s all speculation. First things first, she’s gone and everything else is speculation.
KK: It is. And we’re only people, mortal ― I believe much of the humanity is removed … at times like this. People read things, they see TV and speculate, especially in this age of “digital journalism” where anyone can get on the Internet and write anything with zero accountability. That concerns me. I really appreciate your time, because of that. I wanted to speak directly with you because you and Amy were so close … to bring some humanism to this woman who had a pre-mature departure. I’m so sorry for your loss.
SR: I appreciate that. Amy had such ability, enormous potential ― from the first day we met … that’s what’s driven me to this day. She was an enormous talent, a wonderful human being and she’s gone.
KK: I don’t want to keep you, thank you for your time in the middle of everything. Before we hang up, what are you working on? As far as Amy’s album, down the road, are you consumed with the details or going forward with your respective projects?
SR: I wouldn’t even say that at this point, but I’m working on new projects with Nas, Mary J. Blige, Nelly Furtado, Melanie Fiona, Alicia Keys, Ne-Yo, Akon, Usher … as far as the work with Amy though, we just have to see how things unfold.
KK: Understood. Well, safe travels to you and best to Amy’s parents. I’ve admired the fact that her parents were open in acknowledging things that would be difficult for families to acknowledge and speak out about … their child. They saw a problem, and no one can “fix” anyone … but they didn’t ignore the problem. They made every attempt to … basically to plead with those they felt were causing harm to their child. I feel that on some level that did help, because people began to understand the gravity of the situation. There was never a question if her ― or her people, for that matter, loved her. They never abandoned her. During that pivotal Grammy performance, they were there. It was clear she had a lot of love around her, and with the recent developments it’s nice to know. If you could please pass that along to her family from ours here in New York…
SR: Thank you, I will do that. Yes she was loved, thank you.
Salaam Remi: http://www.salaamremi.com/
Kim Kane: http://www.kimkane.com/
New York / London interview booking: Curtis Waller