Producer and songwriter J.R. Hutson is a renaissance music maker, a versatile and professionally trained musician whose rich soundscapes thrill ears across genres. Hutson’s years of experience both in front of the mike and behind the studio soundboard make him one of the hottest commodities in contemporary pop today. With jazz in his heart, pop in his soul, and R&B on the brain, Hutson creates new school electricity sparked by a foundation of old school technique.
Hutson’s five tracks on Grammy-winning superstar Jill Scott’s 2007 smash The Real Thing are a testament to his sonic style. The sexy “Crown Royal” finds Scott cooing a sexy verse and chorus surrounded by rising synth voices, a handclap rhythm, and a wash of sensual neo soul sounds so laid back one can float on them. Scott’s ironic “Whenever You’re Around” also swings on a groove layered with guitars, a samba-like beat, and a jazz-informed melody over an insistent heartbeat rhythm to tickle the fancy of any Chicago stepper. The sensation of being caught in a sensual vortex of sound is part of the Hutson production stamp, inspired by the melodic athleticism of Stevie Wonder and the knack for multi-layered arrangementsdemonstrated by Quincy Jones.
Now Hutson’s songwriting is getting another stab at the charts with the debut single by R&B male trio I-15 titled “Lost In Love.”
“I call my style Urban Classic,” explains the New York native who spent time in Miami and now calls suburban Los Angeles his home. “I come at records by trying to make them sound timeless as well as urban and street … Everybody is inspired by the greats, like Quincy and Stevie, but there are so many aspects to their work that most producers don’t touch on. What I learned from them is to do everything possible to make the record sound great.”
Hutson achieves the mission through imagination and attention to detail, two more skills demonstrated by his idols, Wonder and Jones. Like the Motown veteran, Hutson enjoys unusual chord changes, pretty melodies, and challenging modulations. He can then weave in a multilayered harmony of near-symphonic instrumental details: ringing electric piano chords, flamenco-precise guitars, walls of string synths, unique percussion accents. “It’s unorthodox to say this, but beats are not as important,” Hutson explains. “Beats are a necessity to music, but what I am looking for in writing and listening to music are chords and melodies that I can get caught up in, something that I can listen to for days and days and not get tired.”
In addition to credits on Jill Scott, Hutson has flexed his jazz chops on tracks for distinguished new soul instrumentalists like saxophonist Mike Phillips and NBA baller-turned bassist Wayman Tisdale, as well as production on the best-selling Hidden Beach Presents: Unwrapped jazz-meets-hip-hop series. He has remixed for Boyz II Men and Zhane, manned the production booth for SWV and I-15, and created tracks for rappers J-Shin and Trick Daddy.
Hutson admits that while he enjoys working with established artists, he likes working with newcomers as well. “I want them to feel like they have something musically that they never had before, or something they need,” he explains. “I like to fill the void in a project, or with a new artist, help create a musical identity. It’s like, hey, let’s discover the benchmark of your talent, let’s show listeners why you got signed and why this label believes in you.”
Hutson’s production company is called Lifeline Entertainment, and the busy writer-producer explains that the title relates to the creative phenomenon of being able to tap into a stream of artistic energy, a continuum of divine inspiration that seems to touch artists of all stripes. “I call my company Lifeline Entertainment because I really feel like there are a few musicians who have been able to tap into the lifeline, like they’ve been able to zone out and give us music that no one else has been able to give us,” Hutson explains. “I’ve experienced it where you go into the studio and work for 6 or 7 hours and listen to it the next day, and hear it almost like you didn’t create it, like whatever it is that’s giving us this music is from another plane.”
Developing his craft and the connections needed to showcase them hasn’t been a straight path into the spotlight for Hutson. The ups and downs of the competitive and unpredictable music industry forced the talented music maker to back up and start over several times.
Born Lee Hutson Jr. in Chicago, he got his first musical training as a kid who traveled nationwide performing with a Princeton, New Jersey’s American Boys Choir. Transplanted to Miami as a teen, Hutson added bass, keyboards, songwriting, and vocals to his proliferating talent list. At just 15, he formed a singing group called Living Proof for which he created and produced all the music, and the group was scouted by nearly every major label but missed nailing down a recording contract. After a brief apprenticeship with mega-producer Teddy Riley in Virginia Beach, Hutson packed up and moved to L.A. to reconnect with some of the executives he had met there, landing work at Motown with songs and studio work for Zhane, Wayman Tisale, and even Boyz II Men.
Former Motown exec Steve McKeever was now head of Hidden Beach, home to marquis act Jill Scott. Hutson placed a tune with Hidden Beach artist Mike Phillips, not only producing the lead single but singing the lead as well. He also produced the bulk of the fourth installment of the label’s highly successful Hidden Beach Presents: Unwrapped series, spinning out alternative instrumental versions of hip-hop classics like “21 Questions” and “Lean Back.”
A chance meeting with Star Trak partner Pharrell Williams resulted in Hutson inking a deal, where he got a chance to work on material for Faith Evans and new artists from the Star Trak stable. Though his tracks for Evans didn’t make her latest project, and one of the Star Trak groups disbanded before releasing an album, Hutson was able to build his demo disk into such a polished sound that Hidden Beach A&R rep Charles Whitfield put the demo into Jill Scott’s hands.
In the meantime, Hutson launched his own studio to work with both established talent and newcomers to the business. Among the acts he worked with was Las Vegas trio I-15, who were ultimately signed to Interscope with the music Hutson created. The group’s 2007 CD debut included the title track hit single “Lost In Love.” Hutson’s hallmarks – melodic hooks, tight harmonies, and airy, uplifting grooves – are evident in the chart-ready track.
Music changes so rapidly, especially within the last year it seems like it’s changing every four months,” says Hutson about pop music trends. “The challenge is maintaining the integrity and keeping constant the things that always make songs work. But it’s also to do what ever it takes to dress it up and “make it sound classic.”