Producer Ricky Reed: 'I always love feeling like I have something to prove'

The hitmaker and Wallpaper frontman has written for Pitbull and Jessie J, but in his LA studio talks about the transformative powers of partying and hammocks

In the backyard of a two-story house constructed along the contours of a steep hill in Los Angeles’s Elysian Heights neighborhood, Ricky Reed is lounging on a hammock. “I might have to do all of my interviews here from now on,” he says referring to the zen spot, replete with a fire pit and an Instagram-worthy view of the city.

Reed – who is dressed in purple pants, a Hawaiian shirt, and sports a Skrillex-style haircut – started renting this house in March. Up until then, he was bouncing around from studio to studio, but now he has a two-story abode that he rents exclusively to work in. (One bedroom is for vocals, another is for production, and so on.) It turns out that when you craft hit after top 10 hit, you get to do things like rent an entire house for the sole purpose of churning out party songs.

If you’ve never heard of Ricky Reed – or his solo act Wallpaper – odds are you’ve bobbed your head or become earworm fodder for at least one of the tracks he has produced. Whether it’s for top 40 mainstays such as Pitbull (Fireball), Jessie J (Burnin’ Up), or Fifth Harmony (Bo$$). Yet Reed’s biggest success came as a result of putting together a beat on a whim for Jason Derulo.

“At the time, he had broken his neck and hadn’t been very active,” Reed explains as he sways back and forth.

“I was in the studio doing a session that was not fruitful and this A&R, Miles Beard, came in and played me a song he heard while on vacation in Tel Aviv. When the horn part came in and I was like, ‘Fuck. That’s huge.’”

It only took a few hours for Reed to flip that sample (Israeli band Balkan Beat Box’s 2007 track Hermetico) and come out on the other end with Talk Dirty, one of the ubiquitous party anthems of last summer and a song that rocketed Derulo into relevance once again.

“Talk Dirty was meteoric and I was only a cog in its creation,” says Reed of his success with Derulo, which they also achieved with another risqué top 10 smash, Wiggle. “Real hit songs are different from just a veteran artist releasing a solid song. A hit is a guy like Jason having a song where it changes people’s opinions, and is startling, polarizing, and infectious.”

The rise Reed is referring to didn’t start in southern California, but in the San Francisco Bay area, a place that he says formed him musically and gave him the attitude of an underdog.

“A lot of people from the Bay, especially musicians, feel like northern California is not the place where everything’s poppin’ off and not quite on the cutting edge artistically as New York or LA,” Reed explains.

Novena Carmel and Ricky Reed of Wallpaper
Novena Carmel and Ricky Reed of Wallpaper perform on the BMI Stage during 2014 Lollapalooza at Grant Park in Chicago. Photograph: Erika Goldring/FilmMagic

“People from the Bay feel like they have something to prove, and I always love feeling like I have something to prove.”

With zero connections to anyone in show business, Reed built his career on a bedrock of rejection until Wallpaper – a solo project he started initially as a joke. Complete with wild beats, exaggerated Auto-Tuned and frat-boy lyrics – the solo act soon became locally, then nationally well known. Reed quickly honed his voice with Wallpaper, which lyrically bridged the gap between songs that extol the virtues of partying while also having a heart.

As a result of fostering that quirky knowhow – and not to mention all the recent hits – Reed’s manic brand of pop is in high demand at the moment. Today’s artists would kill for a chance to head to Reed’s sleepy studio house and concoct the next big smash. Whether it’s from already established artists on the charts (Janelle Monáe is penciled in for a session this month) or up-and-comers looking for a break – Reed fields requests with a keen sense of discernment. “We had a choice after Talk Dirty went big – make the big money by immediately producing 10 more similar tracks for other artists and then be forgotten about, or move on to the next.”

Reed wisely chose the latter route and painstakingly chooses his follow-up projects, all of which run the gamut musically. He’s producing the next single for Swedish girl duo Icona Pop (best known for their 2013 hit I Love it), but Reed is most excited about collaborating with the less-known Colombian band Bomba Estéreo (a project he recently spent two weeks in Bogotá for, the outcome of which is “insane”). In addition, he’s the executive producer of Twenty One Pilots’s next album, is gearing up for Derulo’s follow-up album to Talk Dirty, Everything is 4, and he’s also the mastermind behind Lunchmoney Lewis, an artist that could best be described as CeeLo Green crossed with a southern preacher.

It is with Lunchmoney’s quirky debut single Bills that Reed could see his next big success, as it’s quickly scaling the charts, buoyed by its inherent potential to go viral – it’s an insanely catchy track about the simple downsides of paying bills, after all. “I became kind of obsessed with doing a modern-day spin on gospel rag,” says Reed of the impetus of Lunchmoney’s sound. “When I played Lunch a beat I made, he randomly jumped up and was like, ‘I … got … bills!’ It was so hooky and so odd. He went into the booth for an hour and a half rolling with those lyrics. By the end of the day we knew it was a thing.”

By now, Reed knows how to navigate the delicate process of working with a variety of artists: “Collaborating with someone on music is the same way you’d go about hanging out.”

“You have to listen more than you talk. Everybody that I’ve worked with I’m already in love with from afar, so when I get in a room with them I’m like, ‘What do you want to do? What do you want to try?’

“Every collaboration with a new person is like when you take a bin of Legos and dump them on the floor. All of the pieces to work with are right there. A floor full of Legos is full of possibilities.” Sadly, there aren’t any Legos around to make this analogy come to life, but despite that fact, Reed is attempting to lend that basic vibe full of possibilities to his house, including applying a wall full of moss imported from Italy in the vocals room (it’s supposedly great for acoustics), as well as installing an indoor, vertical living wall of succulents (he’s not sure how they’re going to water it yet). It’s all in an effort to keep up with the supreme goal of making quality pop he can be proud of.

“I had a session with Andrew WK once,” he explains, while sitting in his hammock and sipping a bottle of water. “He said, ‘Some people say that alcohol clouds your mind and blurs your vision. In my opinion, partying actually strips all of the barriers between people.’ And he’s right. When you’re in that headspace where everything is great and you’re with your favorite people, that’s when you’re most connected. Whether it’s love and sex or friendship, that’s at the core of [the music]. It’s an idea as old as time but ever-changing, and I find it endlessly fascinating.”

Speaking of, how much does the purveyor of party music party himself? “Not very often,” he notes. “To keep up the work output, I can’t be showing up to the studio hungover. But if I’m on tour and it’s time to go … I really go.”

Sounds like the perfect sentiment for his next hit.


Rob LeDonne

The GuardianTramp

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