Throughout his career, Bryan-Michael Cox has become one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful songwriters and producers in the history of contemporary R&B music. He’s worked with superstars such as Usher, Mariah Carey, Diddy, Aaliyah, Chris Brown, Toni Braxton, Trey Songz, and Jagged Edge, among others, solidifying him as a mainstay in the world of popular culture.
With over a 100 million record sales, nine Grammy Awards, nine “SESAC Songwriter Of The Year” awards, an induction to the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, and co-writing Billboard’s Top R&B Song of All Time – Mary J. Blige’s “Be Without You” – he shows no signs of slowing down, as he is currently in the studio with an entire new generation of artists that define the new urban landscape like dvsn, Robert Glasper, Lil TJ, Ari Lennox, Lehla, Ayanna, and Alex Vaughn, to name a few.
He recently launched Illustrate New Ideas, a creative content that is the embodiment of records and publishing. In addition to being the Founder/CEO of his creative company, he also serves as the SVP of A&R & Executive Producer at LVRN. In addition, Cox is gearing up for the release of Usher’s upcoming album and Muni Long’s new single “Made for Me,” co-written by Grammy Award-winning producer and songwriter Jermaine Dupri.
Bryan Michael-Cox sat down with ESSENCE to talk about his career thus far, additional endeavors, and the future that he sees for himself.
ESSENCE: I just wanted to start off with your company, illustrate new ideas. What inspired you to create the company and what’s your overall vision for it?
Bryan-Michael Cox: What inspired me to create a company was I feel like most of these startup companies that we used to call production companies back in the day when they were coming back in the nineties and two thousands, these startup companies now are content companies. So I wanted to create something that represented where I am in my life right now and where I’m trying to move forward to. And I just wanted to build a brand that wasn’t self-serving, a brand that was actually servicing the people that I work with. The model is still being created as we speak. You have to just basically learn as you go. But it’s definitely been a great experience with putting this whole thing together.
Speaking of not being self-serving, congratulations on becoming the senior VP of A&R at LVRN Records. Can you talk to me about how that partnership came about and what did you see in LVRN that I guess made you want to attach yourself to them and vice versa?
Well, Jermaine Dupri and myself executive produced dvsn’s last project. They were being managed by LVRN, and Justice was the point person for it. We built a really beautiful relationship with Justice over that span of time. And me and Justice were having a conversation one day about just music in general. He wanted to shake up the business a bit from an A&R perspective, and we were having a conversation. I asked him, “Why don’t you do something?” And he was like, “I love that. Let’s put it together.”
What I admire and what I respect about LVRN as a company is their approach to strategy, their approach to consistency, and the level of youth. It’s a very young company, but they’re very prosperous and their commitment to the music. So for me, I was like, “I’d rather do that than go into a major label building.” In fact, I had an opportunity to do something at a major label at the same time. I feel like sometimes that could get a little too corporate, a little too rigid. What I like about LVRN is that they’re a creative, corporate company. I think that they’re a perfect hybrid of creativity and structure, and I’ve learned a lot the past 9 or 10 months, and I’m going to go on to year two and really, really knock things out of the park.
I also wanted to talk about your Ladies Love R&B party in Atlanta. What was the impetus for that and why’d you decide to add that as another feather in your hat?
Well, interestingly enough, that party started almost seven years ago. It was called R&B Wednesdays initially. It was something that my partner, Keith Thomas and I, would just go out to different clubs in the city and we would complain about what was being played. Trap was heavy, trap music was super heavy in the clubs; the mainstream clubs. And I was doing parties on the other side of Atlanta at Sound Table and El Bar.
I was over there doing parties and DJing and getting what I needed from a soul perspective in those spaces. And then I would come back on my side, and go to clubs, whether it’s Compound or whether it was Rain and Vanquish, all the mainstream clubs, they were just playing trap all night. And what would happen was in the middle of the night, let’s say around one o’clock in the morning, the DJ would start playing. He would do a 30-minute R&B set, or a 45-minute R&B set, and you could see the energy of the party completely change. And me and Keith would go out night after night and see the energy of the party change.
So I was like, “We have to do a party that bridges the gap with R&B and this mainstream nightlife in Atlanta.” That’s how R&B Wednesdays came to be. Started at SL lounge with the Rugs, and he gave us an opportunity early on and with me and Keith influencing the city, Rugs influencing the city, we grew the party fairly quickly.
And then from there, we moved the party around to places like Medusa and then ended up moving it to Red Martini. There’s not been a party in Atlanta that’s moved as much as we’ve moved and retained the amount of success we’ve had and that we’re having. So for me, when we were trying to figure out a brand, because R&B Wednesdays was really generic and as our party got popular, we started seeing people come up with these different R&B days. So I was like, “We have to come up with a brand. We have to come up with a name that’s not adjacent to a day. What can we put on a sweatshirt? What can he put on a hat? What can we put on a flyer that will attract people?”
And as I’m talking to Keith, he just says it. He’s like, “Oh, well, let’s do Ladies Love R&B. What about Ladies of R&B?” And I was like, “That’s it. I love that. Let’s go with that particular thing.” And we’ve just been rolling with it. And now, we’re a fully functional thing. We’re a company. We’ve got our own. We’re doubling up, we’re branching off into merch soon. We are an official after party for Usher’s Vegas residency at the Park MGM. We have a lot of things on deck that we’ve got coming up.
Got you – you spoke about Usher earlier. I heard you’re working on his new album, which is set for release during the Super Bowl. But outside of that, how has it been for you seeing him grow as a man as well as an artist with you being so close to him?
I’ve been with Usher for 20 plus years now, and it is amazing to watch. It’s amazing to watch his maturation as a person. Make no mistake about it, Usher’s always been wise beyond his years. He’s always been a person that worked harder than everybody I knew around him. He’s always been a person that over-rehearsed. He’s always been a stickler for perfection.
I think now with all the years of just training and just being so great at it for so long, now he’s in Super Saiyan mode. He’s just on a whole ‘nother level right now. I think that we’re going to see something in the next few years that I don’t think we’ve seen an artist do. I think he and Beyoncé are going to do things in the next few years that are going to be outstanding.
I feel that you’re a master of your craft. So I want to ask you, what do you think makes for a great songwriter and why do you think the lyrics that you’ve penned have resonated with so many people throughout the years?
Well, I would say this. I have to give it up to my collaborators. Johntá Austin is a masterful songwriter. Adonis Shropshire is a masterful songwriter. Bryan and Brandon Casey are masterful songwriters. Jermaine Dupri is a masterful storyteller. I think the common denominator for all of us is that we want to tell stories that connect, that can conjure up certain emotions within our community, with our language, with our – I hate this word – our swag, if you will. I think that that is the key.
I think melodically, we all know what we want to do melodically, but I think the key to all of these records that I’ve been a part of – that I’ve written and I’ve co-written – I think that the key is the storylines. You look at “Let’s Get Married,” that has stood the test of time. How many people have gone through the, “we ain’t getting no younger, we might as well do it” phase? It resonated with a lot of people.
Same with “Let It Burn,” how many times have you been there, gone through a breakup and you’ve got to let it go? You don’t want to let it go, but you know you have to let it go. It’s just the way that you tell the story. I feel like we have found a pocket to tell the story in a way where our people get it and they gravitate to it and they understand and acknowledge it immediately. And then that’s what makes it spread at that point.
I’m hearing the passion in your voice when you talk about these things. I wanted to know, being that you’ve done so much, man, what is it that motivates you to create?
Me and Jermaine were talking about this the other day. We just enjoy the process, man. We really enjoy the studio. We will spend countless hours in the studio either talking or going through samples or going through drum sounds or going through synth sounds. The process of making music is still fun. It’s not something that ever gets old, which I’m truly thankful for because a lot of people who started with me 25 years ago, a lot of people who started with Jermaine 30 years ago that aren’t on the phone with you right now, that whatever happened, if they allowed life to happen or whatever happened, that fire just went out or the light dimmed, where I feel like we’re operating on all cylinders still.
These things are the things that motivate me. Ari Lennox’s “Pressure” comes out and goes number one and sells almost platinum. “Don’t Waste My Time” from Usher comes out, goes number one, and sells platinum. For us to still be doing it at this level, it just, how can I say it? – I just want to stay sharp.
So going to the studio, it’s like going to the gym. It’s like LeBron. People look at LeBron James. He’s the oldest person in the NBA, but he’s still the top-notch person that people think is going to bring a championship to your team. I look at what I do and what Jermaine Dupri does. We are equivalent to a LeBron game in this music business.