We didn’t plan it this way, but I happened to be on the phone with Englewood music producer Allen George minutes after the Grammy nominations came in. Turns out Beyoncé’s “Break My Soul” got a nod for best song. “Break My Soul” uses the production of George’s “Show Me Love,” which he wrote with longtime collaborator Fred McFarlane and which was performed by Robin S. and released in 1990.
George has spent a career producing, writing and recording music—in fact he’s sold millions of records through his and McFarlane’s Terrible Two Productions. His Digital Dump Recording studio recently opened in Englewood, and he’s currently working with Def Jam’s “lady of soul” Alyson Williams for an upcoming soundtrack.
But this Beyoncé business. This Grammy business. That’s… kind of big. Needless to say, it was a no-brainer to pass the song along to Beyoncé.
“I’m with Sony and she’s with Sony,” George says. “Sony called me and said Beyoncé’s using your song. We made the deal and that was it. Simple as that. Nothing strange about it.”
I mean, you’re not gonna put up a fight when she wants to use your song, right? As it turned out, Grammy notwithstanding, George liked what Beyoncé did with it.
“I wrote the lyrics to ‘Show Me Love,’ so when I’m listening to a song, I’m listening to what you’re saying. When I heard ‘Break My Soul,’ I was like, OK, you’re smart, you did something that’s inspirational. We all need to understand the political climate, I really think her song is an inspiration to people. You know, it’s a lot of these false things going around, false things and people cheating and people taking rights away, and Beyoncé is saying, ‘They’re trying to break your soul.’
“Some records categorize where we are in our history. This record captures that. It was excellent how they put it together.”
As a producer and songwriter, George is used to artists elevating his music. In fact, that’s exactly what he’s looking for when deciding who to work with.
“What you try to do as a lyricist and a musician, what I try to do, is make sure my message is clear and people understand what I’m saying,” George says. “It’s gonna resonate with people if they understand and hear what you’re saying. It’s very important that the singer translates that.”
And if a song is emotional—as George says songs ought to be—then the singer needs to bring that emotion into their performance and the producer needs to capture it on record. You can hear that happen on “Somebody Else’s Guy,” which George and McFarlane wrote and which Joceyln Brown sings the absolute shit out of. Brown has an innate ability to emote through song, George says.
“When Jocelyn Brown sings… I heard her sing the blues one day, no instruments. I said man, if I could have one-third of that voice, I’d be super famous. She could just make you feel her pain. Some singers are gifted like that.”
He first, or at least most viscerally, noticed that ability to emote through song in an absolutely epic way.
“I went to Luther Vandross’ funeral. I was sitting in the back row, almost in the middle. Wasn’t paying attention, lo and behold, somebody gets up on the side of me and starts getting ready to sing, so I look up and it’s Aretha Franklin. So of course I’m like, ‘Oh shit, that’s Aretha Franklin, and she starts singing Amazing Grace and I kid you not I start seeing spirits moving. I don’t know what words this woman is singing, … all I know is when she was singing it was transcendental. I’m sitting next to a friend of mine and said, ‘Do you see what I’m seeing?’ She goes, ‘What you talking about?’ I’m like, ‘Nevermind.’”
Marrying a raw, explosive, talented voice to music requires some thought as a producer in ways the average listener doesn’t necessarily notice. In Jocelyn Brown’s case, George made the decision to let her play piano on the record, even though it wasn’t perfect, because it matched the exposed, untethered power of Brown’s voice.
And capturing the essence of Brown’s singing paid dividends—the record did well and gained some fans in both high and unexpected places.
“I was telling someone else that when the record was finished, I said, ‘This record is so black nobody gonna buy it. You can’t get more dirt than this shit,’” he says. “But it became such a big crossover record. Z100 was playing ‘Somebody Else’s Guy.’ I was in with Mick Jagger, and I asked him, I said, ‘How’d you like ‘Somebody Else’s Guy,’ abd he said, ‘That’s one of my favorite records. It’s really gritty and funky; I like that.’ It felt so good because he knew it and really liked it. As the years got by, it became a record that should’ve gotten a lot more accolades than it did, because it’s such a big crossover record and it lasted over 30 years. Sometimes you get a record like that.”
Sometimes you don’t. George has found himself in a situation where the artist can’t tap into something deep within them to create art that feels real. I won’t bury this band by naming them, but suffice it to say you’ve never heard of them and they didn’t come with the energy Goerge and McFarlane had become accustomed to working with—they were “pulling teeth” with these “lifeless English girls,” he says, with a laugh.
So George now only works with artists he wants to work with. And, given the landscape of music nowadays, where decent recording software is ubiquitous, it’s also a matter of artists wanting to work with a producer. But George has been doing it so long he understands the benefits of working with professionals.
“The technology has made it so that these kids can buy these Pro Tools rigs and Logic rigs and record their own music. They turn it into an Atari game, almost,” George says. “But the problem is they don’t understand the influence of being in a community of music and understanding how other music influenced their music. They don’t understand Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox, they don’t understand the influences on music, so they’re trying to do their own things. And most of the time they don’t understand how to record, because they’ve taken the engineer out of the process. It took us a while to learn how to produce a record. We made a lot of mistakes producing records, but once we learned, we had a formula. Once you learn it, you never forget it.
As a result, George says, “The highway is so crowded with garbage.”
Because a viral song on TikTok can make an artist overnight, and because of success stories like Olivia Rodrigo recording in her bedroom, young musicians might be disinclined to do it the “hard” way. Which is fine, but George posits that they lose something by not working with professional musicians, producers, engineers and the like.
And, George says, the current method of consuming music via streaming often prevents young musicians from exploring full albums and music they otherwise wouldn’t have heard (and thus might be inspired by).
“There’s no more radio, no more records, everything’s on the internet. They’re getting so much info and they don’t have to listen to daddy’s music no more,” George says. “They could be writing a record and not understand what they’re doing or why they like it.”
To be clear, George isn’t dunking on “kids today,” he’s just observing trends from his unique vantage point. And for all the issues with music creation today, there are plenty of success stories, big and small. On the big scale, he points to Ed Sheeran.
“When I heard him on stage sing ‘Drunk in Love’ I was like, ‘Wow, he took that song somewhere else.’ That’s the kind of kid I want work with. I don’t give a shit if they’re black, white, green, orange or from Mars, those are the kids I want to work with.”
And on the small scale, George remembers a young musician who came to work with him and started singing “like Trey Songz.” When George asked him if he had anything else, the musician said, “Why? I thought that’s what you wanted.”
“Right then, I realized we’re teaching people the wrong message. It’s called copying. You gotta stop that. Great arts start with originality,” George says.
The kid eventually played old R&B songs on a guitar—songs he wanted to play—and George recognized the authenticity of his musicianship. And that’s really what it comes down to for Goerge: authenticity, originality and soul. And though the Grammy accolades are of course a great honor, his focus is, still, on making great music.
“I think our records always did well because we never thought about money when we were in the studio,” George says. “I can never remember a time when I said, ‘Oh this record is gonna make a lot of money.’ We never thought of the record in those terms. We always said, ‘We’re gonna make the best record we can make.’”