The Clutch Talks How To Write a Hit Song

If you were to make a list of your favorite songs from recent years, it would almost be a guarantee that one of them was written by the Clutch. A genius songwriting collective comprised of Keri Hilson, Ezekiel “Zeke” Lewis, Patrick “J. Que” Smith, Candice “Gg” Nelson, and Belewa Muhammad, the Clutch has penned songs […]

If you were to make a list of your favorite songs from recent years, it would almost be a guarantee that one of them was written by the Clutch. A genius songwriting collective comprised of Keri Hilson, Ezekiel “Zeke” Lewis, Patrick “J. Que” Smith, Candice “Gg” Nelson, and Belewa Muhammad, the Clutch has penned songs for the likes of Ciara, Chris Brown, Omarion, Usher, Mary J. Blige, Kelly Rowland, and even Britney Spears.In speaking with J. Que and Ezekiel prior to their BMI panel at Emory College, they tell the stories behind three of their infamous projects and what it takes to write a hit song.On writing a hit song…J. Que: I would say one of the biggest things – and I hate to sound super simplistic so I apologize – is to have fun…like that s**t comes across. When you’re creating it actually comes across in the song, you can talk about things that sound a little more technical in the process. When you’re writing, make sure it’s something that’s very personal, but at the same time universal so it touches everybody on some level. I know for us, we go in there and we kind of just act a fool and then an hour or two later we come out with a song we like.Ezekiel:  From my perspective – this is probably what people don’t want to hear, but – a big part of writing a hit song is also persistence and just hard work; having a work ethic. Understanding that it is a creative process, but at the same time you do have to show up for work and you have to work.J.Que: And write a lot of songs that aren’t hits…Ezekiel: Exactly, to get the hits. You write a lot of songs that don’t end up being hits that don’t even end up getting placed let alone before you get the hits, so it’s about persistence and having a great work ethic.J. Que: I think somewhere along the way there we all have that streak that comes and goes, you kind of call it a groove.  For awhile it feels like you can do no wrong when you’re writing. It’s like everything you’re writing feels like it’s coming out magical.On working with Britney Spears for her song, “Radar”…Ezekiel: Honestly, I know me personally, I’ve wanted to work with Britney Spears forever to be honest. So honestly, I don’t think for any of us it was hard. I think we all wanted to work with Britney and we were motivated to give her something that was great that was going to help her project become a great project to come back with.J.Que: Exactly. And also when we went in to create the record – and stop me if I’m wrong in this one, Zeke – I think the one thing we were all trying to make sure is that we didn’t touch on anything that was really dealing with all the stuff that she was dealing with. Just something that all things are equal and all things are great. Some things you really just like to hear her talking about. We went in and sat down to create a record for the Britney Spears that we know and love.Ezekiel: That we know and love, exactly. We didn’t want to touch any of that personal stuff. We really thought it was supposed to be the third single but now we’re hearing that it’s the definite fourth single so we’re excited.J.Que: I definitely think they need to go ahead and put it out.Ezekiel: That was a fun song to work on though.J.Que: When I tell you she was the best – minus she got there a little late. She did show up a little late. But when she showed up, I think it caught both of us off guard ‘cause Zeke and I flew to New York to record the record on this. And I think it caught both of us off guard because, when I tell you when she walked in the booth she stayed in the booth until the sun came up. Ezekiel: Yeah she was there. She almost outlasted me, I don’t know.J. Que: It was absolutely nuts, and she took directions very well. I agree like I don’t know what I was expecting because we went in to cut that record the day after she filed divorce from Kevin. Ezekiel: Right.J.Que: So we were expecting all kind of nonsense and she was super professional and when she got in the booth, she was super-efficient. On working with Omarion for his song “Ice Box”…Ezekiel: Man, that record was so fun to make.J.Que: That one was fun and easy.Ezekiel: That was easy, yeah.J.Que: That record was written…I would say all in all that record was written probably in about 20 minutes. It was very easy. It just flowed.Ezekiel: Yeah it was very fun, very very fun. Omarion’s a complete professional. He’s dope, he was coming up with dance routines while he was recording [in the booth]. Yeah, it was fun; it was really fun. That’s the only word for me to describe that day for me personally that’s the first word I think of…“Icebox” equals fun.J.Que: I know we’d been trying to get in to record with O on the project and just because of our schedule and his recording schedule, we never could put it together. So then the album was done and they put out “Entourage” and then all of sudden we get a call saying, “We need another single,” and it was really just like one day. We said, “Come in; if you nail it you nail it” And…Ezekiel: …nailed it.On working with Ciara for her song “Like a Boy”…Ezekiel: That was dope. That record was fun, because we were sitting around talking about like what would a girl…what would  the ultimate girl want to say as it relates to male/female relationships? She probably would say she wishes she could act like a boy in certain ways to just see…like how would you feel if the shoe were on the other foot? Even though the song was saying, “I wish I could be like a boy,” it was really in a sarcastic way. Like, “I wish I could get away with that crap.” Like, “You’ve got to be kidding me” type of thing. It was another really fun record to make. We had a good time doing it.J.Que: It goes all the way back to having fun when you’re recording and creating your record.On stealing publishing rights…Ezekiel: I gotta be honest – [Stealing publishing rights] doesn’t happen as much as people think.J.Que: As you deal with more professional people that doesn’t happen.Ezekiel: Yeah because people are not willing to risk their reputation in that way. There are some crooks in every situation, and every type of business of course there is that occasional idiot crook, but typically that doesn’t happen. I don’t think you’ll hear a lot of those stories of people just literally taking your song and putting it on the radio not addressing you without addressing you or anything like that. That’s not typical.J.Que: Definitely not so much. I think at least when it comes to publishing, I find what we have to talk to more young writers, young artists, young producers about is sampling. I don’t think they really understand what sampling is. At the end of the day, when you sample a record, for the most part you’re giving up your rights to publishing. There’s nothing there for you because you’re collecting someone else’s work.Ezekiel: Unless someone grants you some type of rights. J.Que: And they definitely don’t have to, so that’s where most of the conversation ends up going.