The 100 Years of Radio – 100 Years of Hit Makers limited series podcast gives music fans a front-row seat for conversations with songwriters behind some of the biggest hits of yesterday and today. You’ll learn the stories behind the songs from the people who wrote them. Each episode will focus on one writer: sometimes, they’ll just talk about one song, other times, they’ll talk about a number of hits.
New episodes will be released each Monday through November of 2020.
100 Years of Radio – 100 Years of Hit Makers special podcast series is produced in partnership with Beasley Media Group, XPERI (HD Radio), and BMI in celebration of the 100-year anniversary of the first commercial radio broadcast.
One of the most topical songs to come out of the quarantine era has been H.E.R.’s “I Can’t Breathe,” written in the wake of the death of George Floyd. Like some of H.E.R.’s biggest songs — including “Slide” — it was co-written with another singer/guitarist, Tiara Thomas.
We spoke to Thomas about that song, as well as her other collaborations with H.E.R. and the Wale song that kick-started her career.
Tell us about writing “Slide” with H.E.R.
We were in New York when we did that song. And it was kind of funny cause it was me, H.E.R. and another artist songwriter that goes by the name of Loner. And then the producer is Cardo. But we were looking for kind of like a more upbeat song. You know, with a bounce because a lot of H.E.R. songs are very chilled out and mellow. So we really wanted to try to get something that had kind of like this West Coast bounce to it.
Cardo created the track and we all agreed that we loved the track. And so me, Loner and H.E.R. kind of sat in a circle and we’re just piecing together the song, literally, lyric by lyric, like somebody comes up with a dope, fly line. It kind of took us a long time, actually.
We’re all kind of used to writing mellow songs. You know, we wanted it to be cool and hip and everything. So, yeah, we just kind of pieced our brains together. And we all came up with different cool lines and melodies and stuff like that. I’m not really sure how long it took us, like eight hours or something like that. But we were really happy with the way it came out. And so, yeah, was a fun process.
Is eight hours a long time by your standards?
I did a song with H.E.R. called “Lost Souls.” It’s a rap song, and it’s the only song that she has where she’s rapping on, so that song took a really long time just because we just wanted the lyrics to be perfect and we wanted it to make sense. You know, we didn’t just want to be seeing a bunch of stuff that rhymed. We wanted it to be, you know, making sense and like, spitting a lot of truth. So that song took a lot longer than eight hours. I’ve written a song in an hour before and I’ve written song, you know, in 30 minutes before, and I know it’s taken me several times, eight hours to write a song, which I really don’t mind that because, I mean, I try not to rush the songwriting process. You know, I think a lot of people feel like especially when they’re in the studio, like a nice studio where you booked out studio time, you feel like you a lot of pressure to get something done really quickly. And for me, I like to really take my. time with words, with my lyrics, because that’s a big thing for me, I’m really big on lyrics and how they make people feel.
And, you know, I’m trying to figure out a way to say something that I haven’t heard, you know, a bunch of other people say. And so, you know, I’m trying to be really creative with my words. So sometimes it just takes a little bit longer. So, eight hours, I don’t think that’s like an incredibly long time, Actually, I think that’s pretty regular.
Some songwriters are like, “If I can’t finish in three hours, it’s not good.” Others take months or even years. And they just keep going back to that song.
I do it all the time.
A lot of songwriters, particularly the ones who write on guitars and pianos, might keep a recording of a riff for a line or something. And if it doesn’t work for this album, maybe they’ll go back to the next album.
Yeah, I’ve got so many unreleased songs. And I think every artist and songwriter alive does this. We have like a bunch of songs that’s like a first verse and a hook and like then you move on to the next thing because it kind of kills your vibe when you’re when you feel like, “I have to do this, I have to get this song done. I have to come up with this idea,” because [it takes away from] the creativity and the fun of it all. And then it starts to feel like a chore.
So I think that’s why you say some people are like, “Yo, if I don’t get it, then in three hours it’s not good,” because then, you feel like you’re thinking really hard about it. I don’t feel like for me personally, I don’t get the best result, working on a song like I’m doing homework.
I’m sure if a director of a film said, “Hey, we need you to do a theme song for us. And we need it by Thursday…”
Oh, I’ll figure it out! I’ll do that like homework. Yeah, I do that. Like, I’ll definitely do that like homework. I can’t remember what song it was. But Kanye… I can’t remember what verse it was. It was a song that had other rappers on it. But he said he he said he took them three months to write that verse. A lot of rappers, they write a verse. They don’t like the verse and they’ll rewrite the verse so many times, you know?
I wonder if that was “Monster,” just because he had to go up against Jay-Z and that Nicki Minaj verse.
I know it was a song that had other rappers on there. But yeah, he said it took them like three months to write
When you’re writing with H.E.R., is it you two guys sitting in a room with acoustic guitars? Do you write melodies? Do you write chords? Do you write lyrics?
Well, for instance, the last thing I work with on with her was actually during quarantine. I had actually done a live performance for Universal [Muisc] via Zoom. And she was on the call. I had some people from my team on the call. And so afterward, she texted me and she’s like, “Hey, T, I’ve been working on this song. I want to write a song about what’s going on in the world and wondering if you will help me write the song. I’m like, “Cool, call me around three” or whatever. So we FaceTime and we’re just talking about… this was when the whole George Floyd thing first started…
So, this is how you wrote “I Can’t Breathe.”
It totally took me out of my element. And H.E.R., you know, we had this kind of consumed with this and not really able to even concentrate on anything else. So we were just sitting down and just talking about like what’s going on in the world, like how it makes us feel, how, you know, we’re dealing with it. What can we do? And she had a guitar with her and she started playing these chords and I thought, “Oh, I really love those chords those sound really powerful.” And then we just started doing what we do, going line by line, throwing lines off of each other, throwing ideas off of each other. It really just came from a conversation that we were having about what’s going on in the world. And I think we wrote that pretty quickly. I want to say, like, you know, an hour and a half, two hours maybe. And so then I was like, “OK, sing it.”
So she sang it, [and played it] on the guitar. And I was like,”Wow, that’s fire.” And I remember at some point when we were writing the verses, she just started singing, “I can’t breathe…” And I was like, “That’s fire. That’s it right there. That’s the hook.” And she goes, “Cool, I’m going to record it.” So I didn’t really think much else about it. I thought I was a great song. But, you know, she went home and I know she recorded it herself out of her house. So then it came out a few weeks later. So that was kind of how that process went, you know, just kind of bouncing ideas off of each other.
Sometimes it’s just sitting in the studio and we’re listening to beats. We did a song with Hit-Boy. I’m honestly not sure if that song is on the album are not, but it’s a really dope song. We just went in with Hit-Boy, he played us a bunch of beats We found a beat that we liked, and we just started bouncing line by line, melody by melody off of each other. And it always comes super easy, [it’s] super easy working with each other.
It almost sounds like you guys could be a group, or a duo.
I would definitely love to do some some sort of EP with her because I really feel like we could put it together so quickly. Because I’ve known her for a really long time. I met her when she was 14. before the whole “H.E.R.” concept was even thought of. And I just thought she was so dope. I was like, wow, this 14-year-old kid sings like a baby Jasmine Sullivan. And she can play instruments.
And we have the same manager. So I told my manager at the time, “I want to write some songs for her.” He’s like, “Go ahead.” So I really started working with her, like writing with her pretty early on. Now it’s just something that’s just kind of, you know, comes very naturally.
I caught her last summer. I live in New Jersey, but I went to Philly for the Roots Picnic, and she played, I think, right before the Roots or two groups before the Roots. And her last song was [Prince’s] “Purple Rain.” Playing guitar is one thing. But playing that specific guitar solo is like: you can’t just strap on a guitar and sort of strum some chords. That’s a pretty specific solo. And I was blown away by how good she is.
It’s not regular.
She was on that Prince tribute on TV a couple of months ago, before the pandemic. She’s going toe to toe with Gary Clark Jr. He’s one of the best guitar players of the current era. She’s really talented.
Yeah. And I’m happy that people see that, you know, I feel like listening to her songs is a different thing than actually like seeing her live. Yeah. Her songs. are amazing. And she’s really great.
Back to “Slide”: was that the first time you heard yourself on the radio?
I feel like it was a long time after “Slide” had come out. I was in L.A. and I think sadly, I was having a moment of weakness and I was leaving the studio and I stopped by McDonald’s: [that’s] not a regular thing I do. Nothing else was open. So I was leaving the studio, and I was in the McDonald’s drive-through and the song came on. I hadn’t heard it on the radio. And so I heard it and I was like, “Oh, that’s dope.” And so then, you know, after that then I started hearing it a lot.
My first hit [“Bad”], with Wale, that was really crazy because I was, you know, still living in Indiana at the time, I hadn’t even moved. And I never had any type of success, really. And so that was really huge. I was like, “Wow, I’m on the radio and they’re playing my song on the radio, like, a lot of times a day, several times a day and really wearing the song out.” That was crazy and cool. But since then, I’ve kind of gotten in the habit of when I write on a song, or record a song, I just kind of… not forget about it. But I’m just like, “OK, onto the next song.” And, you know, so then several months later, a year later, when you hear the song on the radio, it’s like, “Oh s—!” Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to say that. Oh, shoot. Like, “That’s really dope!”
Have you had the experience of being somewhere, whether it’s a party, or in the supermarket or whatever, and a song you wrote is playing and you could see people grooving to it and they have no idea they’re standing next to the person who wrote or co-wrote it?
Yeah. Yeah. I pulled up on two people in the car, playing “Slide.” And I’m, like, nodding my head. I like it. I think that’s so cool. And a lot of time I don’t even say anything. I don’t say anything. But, you know, I’ve been in Ubers before where they’re like playing a H.E.R. song that I wrote on or at a party or whatever. I think it’s pretty cool.
You make your own records as well. What is the next thing that you have coming up?
Well, I’m actually getting ready to drop a project. I’ve been recording a lot of music. With the whole quarantine thing, I didn’t really know it was going to end. And now I’m seeing that there’s really no end date. So I’m just like, let me just do my thing and, you know, put this music out or whatever and just make some more and drop it. So I’m getting ready to put out not a project that I’m I’m excited about.
So I’m trying to get those songs mixed the masculine stuff and get some fire visuals.
I’m guessing if there is no pandemic, you’d be putting this music out, getting out there and playing.
Definitely. And that was the goal. That’s kind of like, you know, why I hadn’t dropped music? Because I’m like, “All right. I’m gonna put some music out and then tour around it. I just figure I’d rather put it out now, but I definitely do miss touring. I miss being on the road. So I’ve been trying to do stuff to get myself prepared for next year. Hopefully when they start having shows again and hopefully I won’t be like rusty and nervous from having not been on the stage forever. I don’t even know how it’s kind of crazy cause, you know, the BET Awards, they were the first to do the whole virtual awards. They did a good job.
There are so many people doing livestream shows from home and all that stuff. And I think that’s probably good for everybody to keep their chops up. But I still think, if you get on a stage in front of a lot of people, it’s a different vibe.
Absolutely. Oh, the live experience is always going to be a different vibe. Everyone is kind of going to be stepping in, stepping back into it. The people who are going to shows because they’ve been watching all this stuff, livestreamed. I think it’ll be like a cool connection moment, because you’re right. There’s nothing like actually seeing someone live and being there and, you know, the whole energy and everything.
When they were doing the Saturday Night Live episodes that were quarantined. It’s weird watching comedy when you can’t hear anybody laughing.
That’s so funny, because I’ve been I’m a really big basketball fan, and the setup is pretty interesting for the NBA restart. There are actual fans out there. They’re selling like virtual tickets so basically you can be at home on your computer and you’ll show up on the virtual audience. So these dudes will be balling and like, dunking on each other, all kinds of crazy stuff, and you just hear these little bitty cheers. It’s not the same energy.
So, obviously you work on H.E.R. songs and your own stuff and you worked with Wale early on. Do you put your name out there as somebody who wants to collaborate with people on R&B songs, on hip-hop songs, on pop songs or any kind of songs.
Well, I want to that’s my next step. And actually, over quarantine, I’ve been writing country songs just because, you know, growing up, I wasn’t allowed to listen to explicit music. MTV was blocked on the TV. I grew up on gospel music and some country, some ’80s, ’90s R&B, but my roots came a lot from… I listened to a lot of contemporary Christian music and gospel music in pop like ’90s pop. I love ’90s pop and all that pop songs from the ’90s. You know, the alternative bands, Nickelback. And so that’s the kind of music that I genuinely, really like. And it’s it’s kind of hard to put out that type of music as the artist that I am. So I’ve just been making songs that I like. I’m just going to send out these pop songs, country songs and see if I can land them with anybody. So I definitely wouldn’t mind doing that.
Nashville songwriters are probably more open-minded than people may think… and the newer ones are probably more open-minded than Nashville songwriters were 10 or 15 years ago.
Those Nashville writers, they’re just different. My friend, Ant Clemons, he’s written on a lot of the new Kanye stuff, he wrote on the new Beyonce He he told me that he wrote a song with a guy from Nashville over the phone without a melody. They just wrote down words, they wrote down all the lyrics and then they came up with a melody afterwards. And I’m like, “That’s crazy.”
Nashville is like what Motown was, in a weird way. The musicians and the songwriters show up, and it’s: “We’re gonna knock out a song before lunch and then a song after lunch and then we go home.”
Yeah. You know, I play guitar. And I started off playing church songs on the guitar. I play things that sound R&B, but I’ll play things that sound country or very pop on guitar. I just appreciate so many different kinds of music. Sometimes I’ll get a beat pack and it’ll be just like some really ratchet stuff in there. And I’ll write like a rap song, you know, like a ratchet rap song that I may never put out. But, you know, somebody may want it, right?
Yeah, but everybody has all those different moods. Nobody is like one thing all the time anyway. It’s just. Some musicians put themselves in a lane where it’s “This is the thing that I do.” But, you know, even someone like Kanye West, some of his songs are really different. He wrote he wrote “Four Five Seconds” with Paul McCartney. That didn’t sound like any other Kanye song. It’s just an acoustic guitar. I forgot what other instruments are, but it’s mostly just acoustic guitar. Yes. It’s just like I feel like this is an era where people. I feel like most musicians in the past ten and fifteen years have been so much more open to different genres and I think that’s a good thing for music.
Kanye is my favorite rapper. By the way, I’m not voting for him for president. But 808s and Heartbreaks, I didn’t like that album when it first came out. And then a couple years later I listened to it. I was just like, “This album is actually really genius.” I thought it was really genius. I mean, for what he was going through at the time: his mom had just passed around that time. I went back and I kind of understood him more.
But one artist I want to say that felt like has really can really tackle a bunch of different lanes is Drake. He’s really fire. And it all works and it all sounds great. I never heard a Drake song where I said “This totally sucks.”
The producer that Kanye worked with on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy [editor’s note: it was actually Yeezus] was Rick Rubin. Yeezus knocked the heavy metal band Black Sabbath’s album out of the number one spot on Billboard. Rick Rubin produced that too. He’s worked with everyone from LL Cool J and Run-DMC to Johnny Cash. He’s not bound by genres either. Of course, it’s not his face on the album cover.
Yeah, and I appreciate the diversity it is different when you’re a producer and you’re able to cover that many different genres and when you’re an artist. And I’m just going to say it because I feel like this is the true, especially if you’re like a black artist. People are expecting you to do some type of urban music for sure.
You know, R&B or hip hop or, you know, they’re not expecting you to do rock. And that’s why I appreciate these little guys. You know, people call it mumble, rap or whatever, you know. I appreciate that the kids are coming out and doing the whole, you know, the Juice WRLD world and the XXXTentacion– R.I.P. — hand like they’re coming out and they’re doing, you know, just whatever they want to do. These dudes sound like they’re doing like Sum-41, you know. And so I appreciate that they’re like, you know, stepping into that lane. But I know particularly with Black artists, you’re expected to do some type of urban music.
With urban, with Black artists, you kind of have to start off… you have to serve your urban fanbase first before you can sell to the pop world like, you know, Nicki Minaj, for example.You kind of have to, like, work your way into the pop world. Versus somebody like Post Malone. I love Post Malone. I think he’s dope. I think he’s super dope. He’s fire right now. He can come out the gate with, you know, a hip-hop song and then it flips back over a rock or whatever genre. But it’s dope, whatever he’s doing. But, you know, that’s just an example.
Gary Clark Jr. or even Trombone Shorty, they’re not specifically aimed in an urban audience. So it seems like sometimes the industry doesn’t know what to do with them.
That’s true. That is one hundred percent fact, what you’re saying, 100 percent.
I think that with H.E.R., they see her with the guitar, and they’re like, “We don’t know what to do with this.”
With H.E.R. is because I worked with her so much. Yeah. She can sing literally like any type of song, any type of song, a country song. She has a song “Hard Place,” and that’s more of a pop song. And, you know, but then she’s got like these all the songs from her [2016 EP] Volume One that are like these super R&B type, you know, dark vibes. And I know she’s planning on putting out a reggae EP, you know. So, yeah. So I think she’s one of those artists… not not all artists can do this, but I think she’s one of those artists that can [do everything]. She can really cover a lot of different genres. If you go to our shows, you just see like a huge mixed crowd of people, you see the young black girls, they the young, white, young, white boys, couples, lesbians, everybody.
I wasn’t sure if you wanted to talk about the Wale song [“Bad”].
Yeah. You could ask me about that. That was a very interesting experience that happened. I feel like it happened pretty fast. I was actually in college when I wrote that and I was living in the dorms and I used to go to the stairway in the dorms and record, play my guitar, and post YouTube videos of covers and stuff. And I managed to get noise complaints because people would be trying to study and I’d be like, you know, really loud in the stairways, so. I still love to do this. When I was younger, like I said, I couldn’t listen to explicit music like that. My older brother, he’s 10 years older than me. But he used to listen to rap, like Tupac and Biggie and Bone Thugz N Harmony, and everything like that.
And he used to have like CDs and stuff. And I would get CDs from my friends at school. And I’d be listening to all this music on the back of the bus. And there was this song that I heard by Trillville called “Some Cut,” and it’s like that song as it goes, “What it is hoe, what’s up/Can a n—- get in them guts?” It’s like super ratchet, super provocative. It was just hittin’ so hard for me. I’m like, “Girl, this is crazy.” So I used to like to take rap songs and then teach myself rap songs on the guitar and then sing them, sing the lyrics instead of rap them to make it sound like, you know, pretty like more acceptable, I guess.
And so I was singing that song on the guitar one day and I was like, “Man, I need to come up with, like, something on my own on this song that’s like catchy.” And then I just started and I just said, “Is it bad that I never made love, no I never did it.” And I just came up with that, like, just off the top of my head. And I was like, “That’s tight.” I wanted to, like, get it on a recording.
So I reached out to this kid that I found on Facebook. And he said that he lived in Anderson, Indiana, which is like, you know, 20 minutes from where I went to college. And he was an engineer/producer. And his name’s Kelson. Like, we’re really good friends after this day. But he had never done any R&B music. He’s a kid. White boy from Indiana. Plays, guitar, bass, drums, you know, rock music, country music, that kind stuff. So I hit him up and I was like, hey, I have this song that I want to record. And he’s like, OK. So I went over to his house and we record this song. Well, we recorded another song before that was the first R&B song he’d ever produced.
But then I brought him “Bad.” I kind of told him how I wanted the song to be. You know, these kind of drums, this type of feel, you know. And so we did that. We recorded it that night. And we listened to the song like 40 times. And we were just looking at each other, like laughing and like, “Yo, this is fire.”
So I put it on YouTube. I had known Wale at the time. I’d been working with him. I worked with them on a previous mixtape called More About Nothing, on a song called “The Cloud.” And that’s the first song I ever did with him. I met Wale sophomore year in college, so I’d maybe known him for like a year, two years. And so I sent him this song, “Bad” and I used to send him s—. And like, he wouldn’t listen to or maybe like he just didn’t know if it was dope or not.
‘Cause it was me and I wasn’t anybody in that happens a lot. People look over it or whatever. So I put it on YouTube and it’s picking up some views on YouTube The guy that was managing me at the time, said to Wale — Wale was putting his mixtape together — “Yo, you should really put a verse on this song that Tiara has.”
He finally put a verse on there and he just put it on his mixtape, had like thirty-three songs on there or something like that. And I remember when he dropped it. The song, it was like number six and he had Jhene Aiko on there, too. And the song was like number six. It started it was trending on Twitter. And my name was trending on Twitter.
And people were tweeting, “This is the best song I’ve ever heard in my life!” And they’re like, who is this Tiara Thomas person?And people have heard my voice before. And then one day they do hear like this kind of very raunchy, not raunchy, but the provocative hook with this kind of like rusty voice they’ve never heard before. And, you know, they loved it. And I remember before the song came out, I know they were trying to replace me on the song. I heard maybe Kelly Roland, maybe Cassie. Because, you know, I wasn’t a “name” and it wasn’t really popular at the time to have a song on the radio and people didn’t know who you were.
I was like, “Hold on. this is my song.” So, yeah, that’s what happened with that. And then they decided to use it as a single. It was so popular on the mixtape. They used it as a single.
Meanwhile, me and Wale were falling out around that time. Like even before that we fell out a few times, you know. And in the course of knowing each other. We weren’t talkin. I ended up signing with Rico Love. And Wale and I were not speaking, and one day I had heard that, there was gonna be a “Bad” remix with Rhianna. I know Wale called me after the remakes came out.
I think someone told me that there was going to be a “Bad” remix. And that same day it came out. And it had Rihanna on it. When I first heard it, like my heart dropped, because of the me and Wale situation. I was just this regular person, I just came out of college and then I had this beef with Wale. People really don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes and all of a sudden everyone’s like saying how I’m disloyal because I didn’t sign with Wale and all this other stuff and blah, blah, blah, and it affected me.
I don’t think it was necessarily the Rihanna thing that affected me. I think I was just like, I’m nobody, and then one day everyone’s talking about me.
That is a weird way to enter the public conversation.
It was very weird. Like I’m just like somebody from Indiana. And then all of a sudden strangers are like acting like they know my life and they’re telling me what to do.
So anyway, so my heart dropped when I heard the Rihanna version. And then I thought to myself: “I love Rihanna, I listen to all of her albums.” I thought to myself, “Wait a minute, Rihanna is singing my song. Rihanna, whose albums I would listen to when I was going through breakups and all this other stuff. And now she’s singing my song.” And so I was like, “OK, OK. That’s actually like really badass.” So, yeah, I was like, so yeah, that’s actually really bad ass.
And that’s when I realized like “What the heck?” So then Wale called me like after the remix came out. I think maybe part of him felt a little bad that he didn’t tell me about the remix. We had been cool for a long time. And so he calls me and he says, “What’s up TT? You want to know how it came about? I was in the club and the song came on in the club and Rihanna was in the club too. And she looked and she said, “I want to sing the song.”
And I was like I was like, “For real?” He’s like, “Yeah.”
I was like, “Wow. Wow.”
People say stuff like, “Rihanna stole your song.” I own that; that is my song. I wrote that song and I have publishing on that song. So the fact that Rihanna even got on that song… Rihanna made me a lot of money off that song. She made it go double platinum and made it do what it do. Wow, Rihanna was jamming into my s—. She heard the song like, “Yo, I feel this s—.”
I hope you get to work with her again, and you get to collaborate in the same room.
I want to. That’s actually one of my goals. Actually, on her last album that came out, I wrote a song and she ended up [recording] it. Me and my manager were like really hyped up because we thought the song was gonna be on the album. She had so many songs, she be working on her albums for a long time. And so, you know, the songs that she made in year one, they’re probably not going to make the cut after she’d been recording for a few more years. That’s what I feel like. So, yeah. So I wrote the song and I know she recorded it, it didn’t make the album. I was really bummed about that, cause that’s that’s one of my goals. I really, really want to write some s— for Rihanna and Beyonce.