You are a regular visitor to our shores. What keeps you coming back?
Well, this Abu Dhabi Festival award is absolutely incredible. This trophy has a place all by itself. I love this part of the world and the UAE. I have also been working here too. With (the Emirati social entrepreneur) Badr Jafar we started a company called the Global Gumbo Group and we launched the charity single Bokra in Dubai in 2011 and that was a hit. Twelve weeks that song was on the charts, so it was very successful.
Last year the Global Gumbo Group also launched Dubai Music Week which had concerts and an industry conference. What’s your take on how the first edition went down?
I was happy with it. The shows were great and I think that we are going to get better all the time. We are trying to get used to this whole new situation but everybody has the passion, the energy and the love for it. So when we come back this year in September we are going to blow your mind with music and films and just everything.
Dubai Music Week also had a talent competition which the Lebanese singer Xriss Jor won. Have you been working together since?
She is a handful. I feel that she is going to be a star. We are hooking her up with the right songs and the right producers to launch her in America.
Is discovering new talents the most satisfying aspect of your career?
That has been my life and it’s important to me. I did The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and we found Will Smith. I worked on the movie The Color Purple and we discovered Oprah Winfrey. She got US$35,000 (Dh129,000)for that role and now she’s worth three billion dollars. When someone tells me: “You can’t do this, it’s impossible and no one has ever done it” – now that’s when I get really interested.
What’s your take on the current talent in the music industry today?
Music has gone so far down lately because everyone is going after the money. People are making songs to sell all sorts of things such as tyres, clothes and alcohol. When you go after the money, God walks out of the room, trust me. I never went out after the fame and money. I was just doing what I loved and the money came. You gotta do what you love and really believe in it because that is your truth. I plan to stay like that.
Can you give examples of music that you feel is product-driven?
I don’t like techno at all. That’s just noise. I can try it because there is nothing to it but I just don’t think there is anything to learn from it. Now all these DJs are making more money than rock groups. They don’t even need bands anymore. People such as Skrillex and those guys get half a million to a million dollars a show all over the world from Las Vegas to Brazil. As a musician it is extremely frustrating. Because that’s just music to sell products.
How about today’s pop artists? How do they stack up to the legends you worked with it?
Let’s get real, man. When you come from the era of Ray Charles, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson, it gets hard to get used to Lil Wayne. I just can’t handle it. There are some good singers out there. Mary J Blige can sing, so can Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera. I know who they are. I also know who they aren’t, too.
You always expressed your love for Middle Eastern music. As a composer and arranger, what are some of the qualities you dig about music from the region?
I have been interested in the sounds from here for a long time. I remember back when I was 18 and 22 years old, I would go to Turkey and I would spend all night long in the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque and I would listen to the Arab music called raï. I loved it because it was like the blues and eventually I had the chance to work with a lot of these artists. One guy I worked with was Khaled and I remembered him being so ghetto, it was unbelievable. But the man could sing though. We had a great time working together.
You have mentored many artists throughout your career. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received regarding your art?
Nadia Boulanger, my former music teacher in France, told me that music can never be more or less than who you are as a human being. You have to live a life to have something to say. You have to make a lot of mistakes. The more mistakes you make, the better you are. The latest saying I fell in love with is that life is a lot like photography, you need a negative before you can develop. That is just so true.