Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2009

Jeremih Talks "Birthday Sex" and His Meteoric Rise

By Evan Rytlewski
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Def Jam signed R&B upstart Jeremih on March 9, and had released his debut album by the end of June, a remarkable turn around time for a major label. By comparison, this summer’s other breakout radio star, Drake, won’t release his debut until next year.

Def Jam had good reason for the rush, though. Jeremih’s debut single, “Birthday Sex,” had ignited with a speed rare even in an era of overnight Internet sensations, and the label needed to strike while the iron was hot.

Clearly, the singer was doing alright for himself without the label’s backing. While Jeremih was still an unsigned Chicago singer this winter, his manager begged local stations to give the singer’s squirrelly slow jam about “the best day of the year” a shot; finally one DJ relented and played the song as part of a drive-time local music hour. It was an instant hit.

“There were immediate sirens, explosions and horns,” Jeremih recalls. “They began playing it back to back, and it was the most requested song on Chicago radio. The song got so much attention—to go one week from just chilling in Chicago to the next fielding calls from every label you can think of, then finally flying out to New York to meet with Def Jam, it was just amazing.”

Jeremih and his similarly untested producer, Mick Schultz, met just a year ago, as students at Columbia College, where they cut about 15 songs together. Typically, urban labels market test new talent to death—Keri Hilson’s debut record, for instance, was padded over three years with literally dozens of songwriters and producers, including star power like Timbaland, Justin Timberlake, Kanye West and Ne-Yo—but Jeremih’s recordings with Schultz were left more or less untouched. In the rush to capitalize on “Birthday Sex,” a future karaoke staple that stormed the charts in no small part because of radio requests from partying birthday girls, Def Jam released Jeremih’s debut record with little outside input, forgoing the usual outside songwriters, producers and guest singers.

“Once we went to Def Jam, I was sure they’d put me with these big-time writers,” Jeremih recalls, “but they just accepted my work, and allowed me to put out my first album with me as the only writer, which is rare.”

Though the record won’t win any points for innovation—both Jeremih and Schultz are unabashed chameleons, crafting each song around the different Top 40 flavors of the month)—its craftsmanship is remarkable. With little experience and barely any budget, two students from Chicago made a hit record every bit as slick, polished and irresistibly catchy as most anything else on the radio.

“The reaction to “Birthday Sex” has been unbelievable,” Jeremih says. “It’s taken over number one spots over a lot of greats, like the Beyoncés and the Kanyes, and even on hood radio, it’s taking out Young Jeezy and Jadakiss. It’s rare for a young guy with a slow jam to be taking over those guys on hood radio.”

It’s especially impressive considering how squeaky-clean the record is. It's generally a PG, kid-friendly affair, and even the ostensibly risqué “Birthday Sex" is pretty tame.

“I was able to write that song without saying a lot of things that people might have expected,” Jeremih says. “Really, the nastiest part of the song is just the word sex, in the hook.”

Jeremih performs at the Marcus Amphitheater on Wednesday, Sept. 2 as part of the America's Most Wanted Tour with Lil Wayne, Young Jeezy, Soulja Boy and Pleasure P.

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