On September 2, I found myself at the Hollywood Palladium for K-pop sensation Junsu Kim’s concert, invited by music producer Bruce “Automatic” Vanderveer and vocal director Ebony Rae Cunningham. When Kim performed “Uncommitted,” the track the duo produced for Junsu’s English debut single, the two immediately began jamming to the song and singing along.
As the song came to a close, Junsu thanked Automatic for writing and producing the single, and Automatic cheered back from the balcony: “You made it happen, man!”
Automatic is the president and CEO of InRage Entertainment, and Ebony Rae Cunningham is the vice president. She was the vocal stylist for "Uncommitted."
In the midst of some small talk with the duo, Automatic suddenly bellowed a long, hearty note -- and I knew there'd be an interesting interview to come. The two of them then delved deeper into their recording experience and musical relationship.
Ebony, Automatic, Junsu's mother, and Junsu.
APA: Let's start from the beginning. How did you get into music?
Ebony Rae Cunningham (ERC): I started off in church, like a lot of other musicians. I heard someone singing one day, and I was like, “I can do that.” I started singing at choir and then worked my way up to be the leader of the choir. Later, I went on to attend the University of South Florida and transferred to USC, graduating with a degree in Music.
Automatic (A): I started playing when I was 11 years old. When I was living in Brooklyn, there was a kid next door who had a guitar. He would never let me play, and I kept saying, “I would have tried. I would have tried.” So, I beat him up, and I took his guitar. And I started playing it. My mom ran outside, and she was like, “Oh my gosh, how did you just play that?” and I said, “I don’t know!” But I learned how to play a song in about 10-15 minutes, and she got on the phone and said, “My son, Automatic, can play the guitar!” She was amazed and started calling me “Little Automatic, Little Automatic.” And I guess I have this thing where I just pick up an instrument and just start playing it. I can play 11 instruments now.
APA: Did you ever give the kid back his guitar?
A: [laughs] Yeah, I gave it back to him… but I didn’t really want to. By the way, my mom never even cared that I kicked that kid’s butt, so that was interesting. [laughs]
APA: What are the 11 instruments you can play?
A: Drums, trombone, bass guitar, guitar, piano, tuba, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, panpipe, xylophone… and a little bit of accordion, but I’m working on it. Oh, and I can play the berimbau. It’s a Brazilian instrument.
APA: How did even get your hands on all these instruments?
A: After beating up the first kid -- you know, that was my Brooklyn mentality [laughs] -- I decided to go straight. Eventually, my mom bought me a guitar, and when I went to school, I would take it with me, and I’d ask the kids at school, “Can I trade my instrument for yours for a day or two?” So I’d trade my guitar for a tuba, and so on and so on. We bartered, and that’s how I learned how to play a whole bunch of different stuff. I can play them well enough to play on records, but I’m not a master of them or anything.
APA: How did you get into music professionally?
A: Well, I was in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and I had a band. We showcased and played for many different record labels, and I got turned down by 13 record labels, so it was crazy. One gentleman came out to the rough, rough streets of Brooklyn to come see us at our loft. We did a showcase, and they wanted to sign us. So, I was signed to Morgan Creek/Polygram Records and literally went from having no money to having $300,000 in the bank in about a month and a half. I came out to California to record my first album. I saw palm trees, and I thought I was in the tropics, so I said, “I’m staying!!” My first album was titled Auto & Cherokee, titled after me and the person I was working with at that time. We had a track called “Taste” featured in the film, The Crush.
I can play a lot of instruments, and I thought I could record really well. I had my own studio when I was 15 years old, so I was used to recording, but learning how to make records for the radio was on a whole other level. I met Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the guys who are responsible for Janet Jackson and New Edition. I did a production deal with them, and they kind of mentored me in producing records. So, I worked for Michael Jackson for a little while and developed two groups called Brown Stone and Quo. That was more working on vocals, but I was working on building their groups and became great friends with Michael Jackson. And then worked for the WB Television Network and eventually got to Sony, who love what I do. They wanted to sign me as a writer and producer, and I joined them at the end of ’99.
APA: [to Ebony] How about you?
ERC: After I graduated college, I had to figure out what direction I was going to take. I wanted to be an artist and not work for someone else. When I met Automatic and learned everything about what he had going on, I completely agreed with his vision of artistic freedom. I agreed to work with him, and he crowned me as the Vice president.
A: That’s the vision of InRage Entertainment: the fact that there are so many great artists out there who don’t get the chance to express themselves. Sometimes they just do what their record labels tell them to. Some of them can do many different genres and play so many types of music, but they just don’t get that opportunity. And so I was feeling “in rage” that we don’t have enough artistic freedom in this industry, and that’s how this all came about: InRage Entertainment.
APA: As a producer who can play so many instruments, do you have a genre of music you like making most?
A: It’s so funny you ask that. Because I play so many different instruments, I’m what you would call a “hybrid producer.” I produce a variety of different music. Actually, my first Top Ten record was a country song by Bettina Bush from American Idol. So there is no particular genre I would say I’m strongest in. I’m still going through the different phases of recording and producing different genres of music. I’ve done everything from gospel, to rock, to hip-hop and I’m open to more.
APA: Moving on to your latest production “Uncommitted,” how did you get in touch with C-JeS and start working with Junsu?
A: There was a C-JeS executive. His name is Niddy, and he knew a friend of mine, who introduced me as a Sony producer. So Niddy contacted me and said, “You know, we at C-JeS are looking for songs for the group JYJ.” I submitted some songs and actually “Uncommitted” was a song that I wasn’t sure I should submit because it was a little bit softer than the other things I submitted. The other things were stronger, more up-tempo, more hard-hitting, whereas “Uncommitted” was mid-tempo and more like a ballad. What’s amazing was they called me back saying they loved “Uncommitted” and wanted it. I thought to myself “Wow, I almost didn’t submit that song.” [laughs] So that was so crazy.
APA: What made you eventually submit “Uncommitted” after being unsure?
A: I thought it had a good enough storyline in the song. I thought, “Maybe they may want it.” Again, it’s about a man who had a past of being a player and then he meets the girl of his dreams. He decides he doesn’t want to be a player anymore, but the girl says, “I already know about you and your past, and I don’t believe you’re built for this kind of relationship, so let’s have fun and call it, just leave it.” The guy winds up having his heart broken for the first time. So I thought maybe this would be a good submission, and maybe they’ll get it.
APA: When you were working this deal out with C-JeS, did you know K-pop or Junsu?
A: Yeah, my daughter is a big fan of JYJ and she also was a big fan of the original group they were a part of. She was also into Big Bang and Super Junior and has been listening to them for many years. So she told me, “You gotta listen to this new K-pop group,” and I thought it was cool but didn't understand the appeal at the time, because a lot of it just seemed like a lot of pop stuff, like American music to me. But as I started to get into it more, I realized that K-pop artists experiment a lot with different genres, whereas in America, we often stick to what’s happening now. By the time I heard that I was going to work with Junsu, my daughter was so excited: “Dad, do you know who that is??” I was just happy that my daughter was so excited. [laughs]
APA: “Uncommitted” was recorded here in the States, right?
A: Originally, we were supposed to go to Korea and record it there. We were trying to get everything together, coordinating the plane tickets and all of that. Junsu was doing quite a bit of work, touring and recording, so schedules were being switched around often. And at literally the last second, they called us saying, “We’re going to have him fly to America.” So we could go right to work when he arrived.
The greatest thing that happened was when we had a meeting with the C-JeS executives, and they sat us down and said, “Junsu is coming in, and he’s going to record the song. We want to make it a single, and we’re going to do a video for it.” We were so surprised! We just thought it was going to be a single on his record. We quickly got into the studio in a matter of days. And within three days after we finished in the studio, filming for the music video started. Everything moved so quickly. We were still mixing the song the day of the video shoot. [laughs] C-JeS is an incredible record label; they move fast and strong. We have never seen a label work that quickly.
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