Following the release of his sophomore EP, Supernatural Selection, Saint Audio caught up with Ben Dragon for a quick chat about his creative process and musical influences.
There’s a significant stylistic change between your debut EP and your sophomore EP; how did the creative process differ for these two works?
With the first EP, I wanted to see what kind of boundaries that I could cross between pop and underground music– two very opposite worlds. I understood both sides and wanted to challenge myself to create a cohesive body of work that would attract both people who like pop music and also those who like house music. I came up with the idea for the EP after watching an episode of “Fresh off the Boat” where Eddie makes a mix of slow jams on a cassette tape for a girl he liked at school. Classic 90’s right there.
As I started to DJ more frequently and play more shows, I started to realize that what works on the radio or car doesn’t necessarily work in a dark room with house and techno heads. So I started trying to think of completely out the box and make groovy records designed for the club that are just fun and weird enough to be memorable—both on the dancefloor and at home.
I’ve been fortunate to work with some amazing people in the music industry that have been a big influence on my writing and my ability to create music that reaches a wider audience.
One of my closest friends and early mentors is Mack McKinney. He’s been nominated for a Grammy (Album of the Year) for Ne-Yo‘s album Year of the Gentleman, Juno nominated (Album of the Year) for Cody Simpson & Victoria Duffield‘s record on “Shut Up and Dance,” and is a recipient of the SESAC Songwriter of the Year award. I met him back when he started the Stereotypes who have gone on to produce records for Far East Movement, Bruno Mars, and Justin Bieber. I’ve also been lucky to work with Mack’s father, Mike McKinney, who played bass and wrote songs for Michael Jackson.
One of my favorite songwriters that I’ve worked with is Atozzio Towns. He is amazing raw talent who was nominated for a Grammy (Best R&B Performance) for Tamar Braxton on “Calling All Lovers”, and has written for Chris Brown, SWV, Monica, Mario, Boyz II Men, Jesse McCartney, and Keke Palmer just to name a few.
Your bio says you have origins in Chicago, LA and London- did you move around a lot at a young age? How have these three locations influenced your music and your worldview?
Yes! I moved around a lot because my dad worked in the airline industry and it took him to a lot of places. Looking back, I’m very grateful that I got to experience so much of the world starting at a young age. However, it wasn’t easy making new friends every time you moved to a new city or country. Music was the one thing that kept me sane and grounded no matter where I was.
Born in Chicago, I was introduced to house music very early on. I would hear legends like Bad Boy Bill and Julian “Jumpin” Perez on B96 playing dope Chicago house on the radio and thought that was a normal thing. I really thought everyone was listening to the same music around the world. Apparently, that wasn’t the case!
When I moved to London, I was completely blown away. Within a matter of a few weeks, I was already exposed to Jungle, Drum & Bass, UK Garage, House Music, Grime, and Dance Music that was topping the mainstream charts! It was pretty common that I would hear massive records blow up in London that people in the US wouldn’t even find out about until even a year later.
Once I got to LA, I started to realize that house and other electronic music was far more underground. Pop and hip-hop rule supreme in Los Angeles. I was definitely influenced by west-coast hip hop, gangster rap, and all the pop music that was killing the radio here. For a while, I saw house and techno music as something I enjoyed on the side because none of my friends at the time were into it and the scene here was still in its early stages. I thought that the best way to become successful in music was through pop music, so that’s what I was doing for a while before discovering that house music is my real passion.
Can you describe your traditional framework for your songwriting?
I love writing music with vocals, so for me the best records happen when I have a cool vocal idea already in mind. From there, the rest usually follows and I can tailor the sounds and mood to fit the concept. Honestly, though, it just takes one idea to spark a fire. It can be a sound, a vocal, a kick drum, or a melody.
Once I have something to work with, I put in a lot of work to make sure that the beat slams. After you got that, the key to a good song is a solid song structure that takes you on the perfect journey from beginning to end. I typically like to take effective structures from pop music and combine them with dance music structures.
How did you push yourself to come up with these “weird cool unusual ideas” for this EP?
When you try to master the art of writing pop music, it can feel like you’re in a very small box. There’s a formula and boundaries that you have to work within to create a commercially successful record. Lately, I’ve been loving the freedom of the underground where you can pretty much do anything you want.
During the time that I was working on these records for this EP, I wanted to do something completely different than what I was used to writing and interpret things in a fun weird way that would stick in your head. For example, re-imagining a long distance relationship as meeting a “Girl From Outer Space” or calling out people who aren’t dancing in the club with alien police in “Pump & Shake”.
Who are your music role models? Who do you look up to, who inspires your music?
I’d say my biggest musical hero is Michael Jackson. He reached so many people with his charisma, and his amazing music continues to stand the test of time. In house music, some of my musical role models include Kerri Chandler, Larry Heard, Frankie Knuckles, Green Velvet, DJ Funk, DJ Deeon, Masters at Work, Todd Terry, Claude VonStroke and Justin Martin. I’m heavily influenced by 90’s music in general and if I was stuck on an island with only one genre of music, it would probably be 90’s R&B!
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