Wednesday, February 8, 2017 at 5:15 a.m.
This Sunday, Ricky Reed will wake up, put on a tuxedo, maybe stuff a couple airplane-sized bottles of Don Julio in his pockets, and head down to Staples Center to discover whether the Grammys named him Producer of the Year.
“It feels a little weird, honestly,” Reed says when asked how it feels to be nominated alongside Greg Kurstin (Adele), Nineteen85 (Drake) and Max Martin (every indelible pop song ever). “I started off making music that made fun of pop; now I’m nominated for helping produce pop songs that aim to be as honest as possible.”
It’s not that Reed doesn’t belong. The 34-year-old, Bay Area–bred multi-instrumentalist and producer born Eric Frederic has accrued an enviable résumé in the last three years. He’s operated as the hidden hand behind Twenty One Pilots and Meghan Trainor, and produced smashes for Pitbull, Fifth Harmony and Jason DeRulo. On the short list of in-demand industry hitmakers, Ricky Reed is near the top. But the sudden velocity of his ascent, after nearly a decade of coming extremely close but falling short, makes the Grammy recognition feel a little bizarre.
Raised on Gilman Street punk and E-40, Reed taught himself Pro Tools and record engineering to make extra cash in high school. After graduation he enrolled at UC Berkeley, but dropped out after two years to tour nationally with his “pimp rock” band Locale A.M. and wait for a major recording contract that never came.
His next swing was a prog-indie band, which scored minor underground notoriety but ultimately disbanded. The future Reed returned to college, studied music and formed Wallpaper, his closest attempt to realizing pop stardom.
“Wallpaper started almost as a joke — a satirical pop-art thing to blow off steam from the prog band,” Reed says in his Elysian Park studio complex, a sprawling, multilevel compound filled with guitars, keyboards, production consoles, platinum plaques, office space for his Atlantic Records–affiliated Nice Life imprint, and a serene garden where Reed and musicians often write.
“When hyphy hit its peak, I realized how much I loved that, and started incorporating that into Wallpaper,” Reed says. “Gradually, everything became less satirical.”
Wallpaper became as big as a local band could get in the Bay Area, which meant that Reed made the cover of SF Weekly but was still broke. Gradually, he began coming down to L.A. to do songwriting and production gigs. The odds seemed bleak until the famed producer and record executive Tricky Stewart discovered Wallpaper and brought them to Epic Records head L.A. Reid, who fell in love with the project and immediately offered a deal.
Fame, fortune and Grammys beckoned — until they didn’t. Wallpaper’s 2013 major-label debut, Ricky Reed Is Real, bombed. The bottom fell out: Reed’s manager died, he and his then-girlfriend broke up, his house was broken into, and he was reduced to couch surfing. Then, almost miraculously, one song changed his life.
That song was Jason DeRulo’s “Talk Dirty,” a quadruple-platinum smash that started with Reed flipping a Balkan Beat Box sample that no one else could figure out how to properly chop. Seizing his opportunity, Reed unleashed a trail of hits that made him one of the most sought-after purveyors of left-center pop. He’s even restarted his solo career with a new single, “Be the 1.” Few have earned the right to be at Staples Center more than Reed.
“I’m really interested in delivering honest stories from myself and the artists that I work with,” Reed says. “I truly believe that you can do that and still have fun, and be fucked up, and be as guilty-pleasure pop as anything else.”