Stargate share the secrets behind their Rihanna hits
You may not know the names Tor Erik Hermansen and Mikkel Storleer Eriksen, but chances are the Norwegian duo better known as Stargate have produced some of your favorite hits. Over the past two decades, they’ve undoubtedly shaped the sound of modern pop. They’ve collaborated with A-list divas, rappers, and rock bands alike. They helped usher dance music into the American mainstream. They guided Rihanna to superstardom with nine Top 10 collaborations. And now, for EW’s new Untold Stories issue, the duo are sharing the origin stories behind 13 of their biggest tracks including four performed by Rihanna.
Hermansen: It was a seminal record in the sense that, prior to that song and Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack,” dance music was basically non-existent in American pop. People would always say, “That four-to-the-floor kick-drum pattern doesn’t work in America, it’s not going to work on radio.” And up until that point, they would’ve been right. But for this particular song, which started with the “mama-say mama-sah” sample that Michael Jackson used on “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” it was the right thing to do. That was our first time making a dance beat, but we tried to keep the melody soulful and the bassline funky and not too cold and techno-y.
Eriksen: Before we met her, before we even saw a picture of her, we could tell Rihanna was going places just by listening to her voice on “Pon de Replay.” We just knew, like, “We have to work with this girl!” There’s something very special about her voice. I remember when we finished “Don’t Stop the Music,” we were like, “Oh my God, this must be the first single! This is the best thing ever!” And then coming out of the studio room next to us was “Umbrella” and when we heard that, we were like, “Oh God, no!”
Hermansen: She was the same person then as she is now. She’s always been real. She’s always generous. She remembers people. She hugs people. She’s just a regular girl who happens to be a superstar.
Hermansen: This was probably the first session we did with Ester Dean [the Pitch Perfect actress who’s written for Nicki Minaj, Mary J. Blige, Britney Spears, and others]. Rihanna came up with the title — she said she wanted to do a song called “Rude Boy” and gave that idea to Ester. We made this beat with a guy called Rob Swire, who used to be in the electronic group Pendulum. This was right when we started experimenting with the combination of trancier EDM sounds and slower hip-hop beats. “Rude Boy” was one of the earliest examples of those sounds coming together. Rihanna left for an hour or two, came back, and then when we played it for her, she was just blown away: “Did you guys just do this?” She was the one who really fought for that record and knew what it was. I don’t think even we knew what it was.
Eriksen: We didn’t believe that it would be the biggest record from the album. We just liked it. We thought it was a hot record.
Hermansen: There are some records everyone believes in, like, “Oh, this is a big single!” But nobody talked about “Rude Boy” until the album came out. We were worried “Rude Boy” wasn’t going to make the cut [because 2009’s Rated R was so dark], but to Rihanna’s credit, she was the one who wanted to keep it.
Hermansen: We had a meeting with L.A. Reid, who said, “Okay, Rated R was great, but now it’s back to the good times.” Those were his exact words. So we were like, “Okay, let’s go make some good times!” We wrote this song with Crystal Nicole and [“Firework” co-producer] Sandy Vee. Rihanna walks in and says, “I want that song.”
Eriksen: Yeah, right away. I think she even said, “Oh, that’s my first single.”
Hermansen: And then a few days later, Katy Perry was in the room and heard it and was like, “I want that song.” We knew just from those two reactions that we had something special, but obviously it was a Rihanna song first, so she got it. It was the easiest process ever with that song because it was brief. Rihanna recorded the song and put it out super fast. I think the secret to that one is the statement it makes in the chorus. This is as close to a diva moment as you’ll get. It’s modern in its sound, but it has that classic diva moment, where she’s really belting and singing it out. You don’t get a lot of those records.
Eriksen: She killed it. And not to be too technical, but what makes the song a little bit different is the key change: The verse is in one key, and then it goes into a different key in the chorus. That’s not a usual thing to do in dance music or pop music in general.
Hermansen: We had been working with [“Diamonds” co-producer] Benny Blanco on a number of Rihanna songs, trying to come up with these big, uptempo, dance-pop records [for 2012’s Unapologetic]. During the last couple of days, we were like, “Let’s just do something completely different — different tempo, different everything.” That’s how the track started. Sia came through and worked on a couple different songs, and the last thing she did before walking out the door was “Diamonds.” The car was waiting outside. She had her coat on, she had her purse in her lap. We just played her the music, and the first thing out of her mouth was, “Shine bright like a diamond.” She put her vocal down in about 12 minutes while the car was waiting and then left.
Eriksen: Those are the best ones — the spontaneous ones where you don’t overthink it.
Hermansen: Rihanna heard it and loved it straight away. Rihanna really went to work on that song because she wanted to capture that character that Sia has in her voice. I think she spent two or three days recording that song, which is very rare. Normally you do it in a day or half a day. It was very important for her to capture that feeling, and she did it so well that Sia thought it was her [own voice on the song]. I think Mikkel opened up the song [file] to prove to Sia that it was Rihanna singing.
Source: Entertainment Weekly