Track stars chase that big score

Raleigh-bred music producers work with hip-hop’s elite after taking a leap of faith 

“Plaques line the walls of the Hollywood recording studio where Chris Saleh and Matt Battle work, which they share with the hip-hop radio program “The Wakeup Show.” It’s an impressive array, gold and platinum awards for big-selling albums by Lauryn Hill, Mos Def, Arrested Development and others. 

“Yeah, wish these were ours,” Battle says, seated at the control panel. “But we’re working on it.” 

They’re getting closer, too. 

Raleigh natives Saleh and Battle set up shop three years ago in Los Angeles, as Boom-Batt Productions, a writing and production company. Since then, Nelly, Snoop Dogg, Mams Taylor and Bobby Valentino have been among the acts that have used Boom-Batt tracks. One of their regular collaborators is Sly Jordan, best known as co-writer of Sean Kingston’s major 2008 hit “Beautiful Girls.” 

So far, Boom-Batt’s highest-profile score has been a song on St. Louis rapper Nelly’s 2008 album “Brass Knuckles.” That was a rarefied place to be, alongside Neptunes, Jermain Dupri and Akon, and at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 album sales chart. 

Originally, Nelly’s album was to have two Boom-Batt songs, including the title track. Then the song “Brass Knuckles” was dropped at the last minute, although the title was retained for the album. The other Boom-Batt song, “Who [Expletive] With Me,” did make the cut. 

“Yeah, it’s funny that the most gangsta thing on the album is the song by the white guy and the Lebanese guy,” Battle says, laughing. “That took a long time to make happen. We just went to the studio one night where Nelly was working and dropped off a CD. Didn’t hear anything until three months later, when our manager called at 5 in the morning to say Nelly had done two of our songs.” 

Having a track on “Brass Knuckles” is a nice calling card. It’s also a good introduction to the Boom-Batt sound, which tends to be more guitar-oriented than most hip-hop and R&B. 

“We do have a sound where you know it’s us,” Saleh says, “If you hear a lot of guitar and big drums, nice chord changes in a pop, hip-hop or R&B format, that’s us. …  Another is the epic, cinematic sort of track. We’ll use a sample to an old movie score for writing, then if an artist takes it we have a composer do an orchestration like that. 

Doing it their way 

“We try to avoid samples as much as possible. Like this song we just did with Foreigner’s ‘Urgent.’ We threw the chorus in there to get the vibe while writing, added to it, then took the sample out. It’s a way to get that old ’80s rock thing the artist wanted.” 

Saleh and Battle grew up together in Raleigh, where Saleh’s family runs the Neomonde restaurant chain. Battle’s father, who is now retired, worked as a computer programmer for Progress Energy. The boys met in kindergarten and went all the way through Sanderson High School, graduating in 1996. 

They also roomed together at East Carolina University, leaving after a year to go to music school. They subsequently wound up in Los Angeles working as session players – Saleh on drums and Battle on guitar – while writing songs and arrangements on weekends. 

They also hooked up with a manager, “Big Paul” Tu’ivai, a record executive Saleh met while working as an intern at Universal/Motown. 

Eventually, they decided to launch a full-time recording operation under the Boom-Batt Productions – “Boom” for Saleh’s drums, “Batt” as an abbreviation of Battle’s name. It’s also a nod to rapper KRS-One’s early ’80s production company, Boom-Bap Productions. 

“We collaborate on everything,” Saleh says. “When we’re working with an artist, usually I’ll get on drums on the drum machine while Matt will knock out some chords on guitar for whatever the singer wants to do. That’s how we write.” 

Sounds like success 

It didn’t take long for Boom-Batt to achieve a measure of success. Its first production, a cover of Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” by the vocalist Honore, was a sizeable hit overseas. 

“Number 2 in the Philippines,” Battle says. “Whatever that means.” 

But because it was written by someone else, there were no royalties for Boom-Batt. But it did get their foot in the door to get more work. 

The studio they use is not an ideal setup, especially the cramped drum room. Still, they’ve managed to accommodate fairly large horn sections. Saleh and Battle spend their days in the studio, and they also do mixing and pre-production at separate home studios. 

“Right now it’s working great,” Battle says. “We’re still getting away with it, so we’ll stay here. Most producers have their medium-sized studios, but they’ll go track at Hit Factory or Record Plant, too.” 

Something that takes up almost as much time as writing and recording is networking – trying to work the connections to get songs placed with projects. There are covered lists that circulate among producers and studios, listing artists and what they’re looking for in the way of material.  

One of those lists is on a sheet of paper Battle has by the studio control board, and it’s fascinating (if twisted) reading. 

According to the sheet, “American Idol” finalist Allison Iraheta (the red-haired belter from this past season) is “looking for interesting pop rock songs a la Pink meets Janice [sic] Joplin with a touch of Pat Benetar [sic].” Brittany Speaks seeks, “Unique songs with edge,” while Jennifer Lopez wants “Huge pop song – for greatest hits album.” 

Missy Elliot is “looking for crazy fun dance learning electronic tracks,” and Lupe Fiasco is “Looking for more commercial tracks, not just backpacker/skater conscious rap.” Most succinct is Usher: “Looking for huge hits.” 

Getting a huge hit is very much on Saleh’s and Battle’s minds, too. 

“That list comes through labels, and you have to have connections to get it,” Saleh says. “It’s a pretty tight world; everybody knows each other. The next step for us will be getting a smash single. We’re in the circles to do that now, where artists are contacting us. So getting that hit will be the next level. That’s our target for this year.” 

david.menconi@newsobserver.com or 

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