How The-Dream wrote Umbrella, Single Ladies, and other hits

Genius grilled the era-defining songwriter to get the details on some of his biggest tracks

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Rihanna Umbrella
Still from Rihanna’s video for “Umbrella”via YouTube

Terius Youngdell Nash is known to most as The-Dream, a hitmaker who shaped what the mid-2000s and early 2010s would sound like. He churned out hit after hit, like Rihanna’s “Umbrella”, Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)”, Kanye West and Jay Z’s “No Church in the Wild”, and, for better or worse, Justin Bieber’s “Baby”. As part of Genius’ new talk series, Genius Level, the marathon songwriter delved into his back catalogue of chart toppers for an illuminating history lesson.

Nash grew up in Atlanta, admitting he only fell in love with music when his grandfather sold an out-of-tune piano that was in his home. He was six years old. He grew up listening to Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Michael Jackson, and Prince, though “Prince was the older person’s (artist),” he said. Working at a collection agency that was “worse than Sally Mae”, Nash decided this wasn’t the life he envisioned for himself. While teeing off at a golf course, the thought struck him to go all or nothing. “If I didn’t put 100 per cent into music, really I would never be able to stay in,” he said.

His first writing credit was B2K’s “Everything” in 2002, and from there he worked his way up. He has since released five studio albums, written 102 songs and his influence can still be heard in music. (He doesn’t exactly shrug off the idea that Drake ‘borrowed’ his style.) This is how five of his most popular tracks came to be.

“ME AGAINST THE MUSIC” – BRITNEY SPEARS FEAT. MADONNA

“This was a track that was stolen out of the garbage. Literally. (Producer Tricky Stewart) was playing this track and I remember hearing it. I knew about the meeting coming up with Britney. Trick had his (songwriting) camp and every now and then I’d listen, see what they were doing. I could hear some struggling, sometimes, trying to find out what hook should go where. He left one night and left (the beat) up on the desktop. I stole it literally out of the trash bin. I recorded it down with this, (sings) ‘All my people on the floor / let me see you dance.’ That was the chorus at that point. Not thinking that much of it.

To paint a more broader picture of that is, I had a 92 Cadillac sedan DeVille with no A/C in it. It was hot. There were leather seats. (laughs) I get a phone call, driving down the expressway. Trick calls me, ‘Yo! Brit’s going to do your song, it’s the first single.’ I was like, ‘C’mon man, you’re fucking with me. It’s hot. I got leather seats.’ I was like, ‘OK, man! Cool!’ So I hang up my little cell phone […] it was actually a real thing. It really happened. I was excited this thing was happening for me. However, I didn’t have much control over what the end product would be. With every step my song changed. The verses changed, people added words here, words there. When you’re new, it’s like watching your baby fall. You’re like, ‘Ah, no! That’s not the right verse! Don’t say that!’ So I ended up with like 2.2 per cent on the song.”

“UMBRELLA” – RIHANNA

“I told myself: ‘Write a hit! Stop playing around, you know what a hit sounds like. You know what songs you like from people. If you went to make a playlist, you knew what the fuck a hit was. If you don’t, you know how to make it.’ I just told myself that. That day, literally, Tricky and I were moving stuff around in the studio. His cousin, Kuk Harrell, who now side-by-side with Rihanna records a lot of stuff now. Kuk finds this kick loop. Trick starts to play this chord. I kind of walk in at this same moment. And I hear it, I heard about maybe eight bars of what Trick was doing. I said, ‘Man, turn the mic on.’ He’s like, ‘We’re not ready. We just started moving this shit around. We’ve got to plug it up. We’ve got to get it right.’ I’m like, ‘Turn the mic on.’ I maybe had to go back and change four words but I sung it from the top to the end – exactly as is, how you hear the song today. Right now.”

“SINGLE LADIES (PUT A RING ON IT)” – BEYONCÉ

“When I wrote that record, if you guys can recall, I was on tour with Jay Z and Mary J. Blige at the time (The Heart of the City tour). I was on that tour and Jay called me at one of the cities, and he was like, ‘Yo, I want you to go in to the studio with my girl.’ ‘Alright, cool!’ Literally, when the buck stopped here, we went to rock the mic, everybody is ready to work. Stargate is in one room, a couple of other producers in the side rooms. Timbaland is in the back. I walk in and the thing that people mostly know about me is I talk shit to rev myself up to do it. So I walk into the studio and I’m just loud and obnoxious and being silly. I said, ‘I don’t know who has, or think they have, the first single on Bey, but it’s over with. I have the first single.’ I had not written a record yet. I didn’t know what I was going to write. I never heard a beat. Literally nothing. I backed myself into this corner. That wasn’t the first record I wrote that night. It was another record that was really, really good. But it wasn’t a single. It was the next record I wrote, which took approximately 17 minutes to do. Usually the songs that take the smallest amount of time are the bigger ones. It’s just a mood.”

“NI**AS IN PARIS” – JAY Z & KANYE WEST

“I was listening to all the records they were playing at that point (for 2011’s Watch the Throne). Kanye had it pretty much in hand. They were kind of close to finishing ‘Ni**as in Paris’. In the end, there was one change where Jay’s verse started off, ‘Ball so hard / these ni**as wanna fine me.’ We had heard ‘ball’, like ‘balling’ in a song, so many times. Nobody was scared to use it because nobody had done it to a point where it was like, ‘OK, that’s it. Done. Nobody use it again.’ He said it in such a way. The repetitive reverb, I was like, ‘Put ball so hard through the whole song. Every two bars. Ball so hard… ball so hard. Just put it through the whole thing!’ And it ended up in the whole thing, which is awesome.”

“NO CHURCH IN THE WILD” – JAY Z & KANYE WEST FEAT. THE-DREAM, FRANK OCEAN

“Jay has Holy Grail, his own project. They’re wrapping up Watch the Throne. I get a phone call from my good friend (President of Roc Nation) Chaka Pilgrim, who says, ‘We need you to come to New York ASAP. Like, now.’ I was like, ‘Nah, I’m in Newport. I just bought a boat. I was chillin’ like a motherfucker. I think I had just finished 1977. I was in the groove, like ‘No, man. I can’t fuck with y’all right now.’ Of course I went. If I didn’t go, ‘No Church in the Wild’ ended up winning a Grammy award – it wouldn’t have happened […] A Grammy literally came out of that one moment and just me doing what I was naturally born to do.”

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