By Jewel Wicker
Dallas Austin was once “catfished” — before the phrase had even been coined — by women pretending to be Salt-N-Pepa. The musician and songwriter behind dozens of pop and R&B hits, including Top 10 smashes by TLC, Pink, and more, says he regularly spent hours on the phone with the imposters. He even traveled to New Jersey to meet the person he believed to be Spinderella at a skating rink to no avail. Eventually, he met the real rappers at a basketball game and realized he’d been played. The posers, Austin says, had also been speaking with Jermaine Dupri and helped instigate a beef that was brewing between the two Atlanta creatives. At the time, Austin was producing for the Michael Bivins-discovered group Another Bad Creation and Dupri was masterminding rival Atlanta kid group Kris Kross. It’d take the two men years to reconcile.
The two have certainly come a long way since then. Thursday night (June 13), Dupri will help induct Austin into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, recognizing him for the bevy of hits he’s helped write. Austin said he told the Hall of Fame he wanted Dupri, who entered the hall in 2018, to do the honors immediately once he learned he’d be inducted. “I met him at the car wash in North Clayton [when I was] 17, and me and him [have] been friends back and forth since then,” he says, noting the two are also working on starting a company together.
Austin says being inducted is the “biggest honor I could have” — and it’s certainly well deserved. The Georgia-bred songwriter and producer was the man behind many of the timeless ladies’ anthems of the ’90s and early 2000s. From TLC’s “Creep” to Monica’s “Don’t Take It Personal (Just One of Dem Days)” and Pink’s “Don’t Let Me Get Me,” Austin helped these outspoken young women create the songs that would come to define their lasting legacies. “I would take mostly girl perceptions, look at it from a guy’s standpoint, and write a song. I feel like I got more depth out of women’s songs,” Austin says. Long before Lil Yachty helped write City Girls’s “Act Up,” the women’s anthem of summer 2019, Austin penned Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops),” a song about getting revenge on a cheating ex by spending all of his money.
If you ask Austin about the secret behind his songwriting success, he’ll react with a carefree response that would imply they were somehow easy. Writing for artists is all about getting to know them and understanding how to take one’s own experiences and filter them through another person’s perspective, he’ll say. But capturing the spirit of all the artists Austin has penned for isn’t as effortless as he’s made it look.
Since executive producing Boyz II Men‘s 1991 debut album, including the single “Motownphilly,” Austin has written and produced for JC Chasez, Madonna, Carly Rae Jepsen, and more. TLC’s “Creep” found Austin producing and writing a quintessential R&B song of the ’90s, featuring a jazzy trumpet sample woven throughout a hip-hop beat and controversial lyrics about cheating on a preoccupied boyfriend.
Less than a decade later, he’d trade that sensual R&B sound for the gritty pop stylings of Pink on “Don’t Let Me Get Me,” a song backed by an electric guitar instead of a trumpet. Austin said he wrote the song after arguing with his on-again-off-again girlfriend at the time, TLC’s Chilli, before a session with Pink. “I got back into the studio and I’m just like, ‘I’m a hazard to myself,'” he says. The songwriter says many of the songs her wrote for the singer’s 2001 album Missundaztood were inspired by his own tumultuous relationship, although he’d tweak the lyrics to make them uniquely Pink.
This is how Gwen Stefani‘s synth-pop hit “Cool” was created, too. Austin, says he remembers listening to No Doubt’s “Simple Kind of Life” and wondering how Stefani and bandmate-slash-ex-boyfriend Tony Kanal were able to work together and make such personal songs about their relationship. Inspired by this, he started writing “Cool.” He considered finishing the song with TLC, but says he was miserable in the session. “The last thing I [wanted] to do is sit in a studio with [Chilli] and record this song with her talking about we’re cool,” he says. He wrote “Damaged” for the group instead and held on to “Cool” until he met Stefani a few years later. After explaining how she’d inspired the lyrics and playing it for her, the two finished the song together.
Of course, not all of Austin’s hit songs were inspired by his relationship with Chilli. Years after Austin helped the kids of Another Bad Creation find success with “Iesha” in the early ’90s, he signed Monica, an 11-year-old who sported “Greenbriar [Mall] rings, sweatsuit, and gold glasses” to his record label, Rowdy — a venture Austin hopes to relaunch this year — and executive produced her debut album, Miss Thang. Even as a kid, Monica had experienced a few hardships. So on the project, instead of toning down her attitude, Austin tapped into it. He says he remembers thinking “if Brandy’s attitude is ‘I Wanna Be Down,’ Monica’s attitude is going to be ‘get down.'” He wrote the album’s lead single, “Don’t Take It Personal (Just One of Dem Days)” and eventually co-produced the hit collaboration “The Boy Is Mine” with Brandy. By the time Monica was ready to record her second album, Austin and Dupri had reconciled their previous differences. Dupri produced and co-wrote the hit single “The First Night” for the project.
Now, decades after they first met, Austin and Dupri are hoping to work together on a regular basis. The two are both continuing to grow Atlanta as an entertainment hub, with Austin working in the newly formed Georgia Entertainment Caucus to create a bridge between the music business and government. One of their goals is to ensure the state’s music-tax incentives are effective and to create an entertainment district in the city. The Dallas Austin Foundation, formed by Austin in 2003, also provides him an outlet to teach local kids about the business aspects of the music industry. In doing this, he hopes to help the next wave of creatives avoid the business problems he and his friends went through early in their careers.
Later this year, he’ll also launch a new company, JDA, alongside Dupri. Austin says he hopes the Atlanta-based business firm will eventually encompass music, film and TV production, a management agency, and more. “We want JDA to be the Dreamworks of Atlanta by the time we’re done,” Austin says. “[It will] wrap up our story nicely.”