VIDEO: The GodBody (Dawaun Parker and Tre Guevara), "The Fly Butter"
Around this time four years ago, contemporary hip-hop tastemaker Dawaun Parker faced the same dilemma that most soon-to-be music-school grads negotiate: should he become a performer, a songwriter, or a barista?
He majored in business at Boston's Berklee College of Music, which gave him more options than many of his peers. But first and foremost, Parker wanted to compose — which, even for Berklee alums, isn't always an immediately lucrative (or even feasible) career scenario. It was his senior spring, and the about-to-be grad certainly didn't expect to be flown out to Los Angeles, whereupon Dr. Dre — yes, that Dr. Dre — would unroll the red carpet and offer him a recording contract worth millions.
One presidential-election cycle later, Parker is now a key figure at Dre's Aftermath Entertainment label. His fingerprints are all over this season's buzziest disc, Eminem's comeback record Relapse, and since beginning his medical apprenticeship, Parker has also prescribed beats to Dr. Dre's similarly long-awaited Detox, plus earfuls of aural dope to Busta Rhymes, Jay-Z, and 50 Cent. Pretty good for a Rhode Island kid who not too long ago was slinging rhythm from a Mass Ave dorm room. Still — despite being an instrumental force behind two of the most anticipated rap releases of this decade — Parker's name is hardly recognized outside of hip-hop's exalted inner circles. If his story sounds like a boom-bap fairy tale, that's because it is.
First in line
While many rappers get their musical feet wet with turntables and microphones, Parker (who was raised by a working-class single mom in the Hillside section of Providence) had his first jam sessions in fourth grade, on a trumpet. Later, at Rogers High School in Newport, Parker took up drums and piano, and began producing for Ground Floor, a neighborhood hip-hop outfit that provided a lab where this budding scientist could concoct beats.
The Aftermath deal, and its attendant A-list interactions, wasn't Parker's first slice of success. On a significantly smaller scale, he cut a track for the Philly soul duo Zhane during his senior year in high school. But Zhane disbanded and Parker wound up back recording in his friend's basement. After the letdown, he nearly dropped music and enrolled at NYU for business.
An audition in front of Berklee's piano-department chair — which earned him a full ride — changed all that. Once in Boston, he pursued the typical course of countless would-be producers — rocking sessions with his own group, the GodBody, and pushing mixtapes underground. After his collegiate hustle, though, Parker's career skipped the chapter where dudes eat cat food on the road — within weeks of graduation he was nursing loops for Dre.
Whereas the majority of beatmakers rely solely on pilfering samples from previous recordings, Parker was determined to break big with his own organic flavors — which range from ragtime-soul Steinway jabs to condensed trumpet fugues. Shortly after his Berklee commencement, he received a phone call from Shawn Collins, an old Providence friend who, through inside connections, heard that Dre needed a renaissance sidekick who could finesse pianos and much more. The man whom Dre had tapped to handle sounds on his 2001 opus — former Roots keyboardist Scott Storch — had left to form his own production company. Collins thought Parker could be a prime replacement.
"I wasn't the only one who flew out there to audition," remembers Parker, "but I was the first person to meet Dre, and after a few days, they sent everybody else home. One week later, they got me an apartment in LA, and I had a production deal in six months. I'm not an easily excitable person — nobody ever knows if I'm upset or happy — but I can definitely say that I was in a hopeful mood when this was happening."
Since signing on, Parker has earned production credits — mostly for playing keys and strings — on at least a dozen hits, including this year's number-one Slim Shady comeback single "Crack a Bottle." Along with Dre, he cultivated backdrops on Busta's number-one 2006 album, The Big Bang, as well as on Jay-Z's commercially triumphant 2006 disc, Kingdom Come. Most recently, he spent several months at Eminem's Detroit studio contributing to all but one track on Relapse. The day Parker spoke with the Phoenix, he was busy recording Dre's vocals for Detox.
"Dawaun is what's supposed to happen if you've got the chops," says Berklee professor Prince Charles Alexander, a black-music giant who engineered such seminal Bad Boy releases as My Life by Mary J. Blige and Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die. "There are always people at the top who are looking for the next thing, and when they find it, you become the next big thing. Music was in Dawaun's blood even before Berklee, and when you get in front of somebody like Dre, they can smell it on you in seconds."