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Mega-producer Dallas Austin looking for respect


Listen to the TLC song "Unpretty"
[245k MPEG-3] or [340k WAV]

(Courtesy LaFace Records)


By Donna Freydkin
Reporting for CNN Interactive

(CNN) -- He may have launched the careers of Monica and TLC and helmed a hit single for material mom Madonna, but producing wizard Dallas Austin could sure use a watch.

Austin is two hours late for his interview, finally showing up at his Atlanta studio with his significant other, Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas of the trio TLC, in tow. Austin, as his cohorts apologetically report, functions on "Dallas time," meaning that no appointment is sacred.

True to form, the thin, lanky producer, dressed in baggy pants, a T-shirt, flip-flop sandals and sun glasses -- and sporting buffed, manicured nails -- wanders in when it suits him. His tardiness and seemingly laissez faire business attitude notwithstanding, Austin is out to get some respect.

"I wanted to be recognized for what I do," he says, "not as a stylist who makes money off of music. I want to be recognized as much as Eric Clapton or any great producers or musicians, not these overexposed people who just make money off this thing. I want to be known for the music."

That he is. After all, this is the man behind the behemothly successful, multi-platinum Boyz II Men debut "Cooleyhighharmony," the guy who discovered baby diva Monica at age 14 after she performed at a local talent show, the producer now working with Stevie Nicks on her new album, "Trouble in Shangri-La." Oh, and it helps to keep in mind that "Unpretty," the single he penned for his pet project TLC, is now up for three Grammy awards. And the band's third album, "Fanmail," isn't faring too shabbily either.

Thomas at the announcement of the 2000 Grammy Award nominations  

"Dallas brought the future to this project, like he always does," says Thomas, Austin's longtime girlfriend and the mother of their son, Tron. "He always sets us up for the next thing that no one else has done. He's always the one to take us to the next level, and that's divine.

"It's weird because this time, we tried to start the project off with another producer and it just didn't take off. Dallas and TLC -- we just have so much chemistry together. It's no different from Janet Jackson and (her longtime collaborators) Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis."

Fan mail

Austin, who got his start playing keyboards and guitar at age 7, has rapidly advanced to the big leagues. After moving to Atlanta from his birthplace of Columbus, Georgia, in 1986, he played in a few R&B and funk bands before getting into producing. Austin's career hit its stride with the hits "Iesha" and "Playground" for the Motown act Another Bad Creation.

Since then, it's been coming up roses for Dallas Austin. He worked on TLC's breakthrough album "Ooooooohhh! On the TLC Tip" and the single "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg," as well as the trio's Grammy-winning follow-up, "CrazySexyCool. " And he seems to keep running up that musical hill, working with Monica on her debut album "Miss Thang," Madonna on "Secret," and Michael Jackson on "History: Past, Present and Future, Book 1." And he runs his own record label, Freeworld Entertainment.

"I've been able to work with the idols of my time," he says. "I grew up on Madonna, Michael Jackson, Stevie Nicks. Most of the time, by the time producers get successful, most of the people they idolize are dead. So, that's the cool part about it."

Revving up

That's a good thing, given TLC's past financial problems (they filed for bankruptcy in 1995) and internal strife. In 1997, TLC rapper Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes told MTV the trio had been fighting with Austin for nearly a year over what she said were his exorbitant rates for the work he did on "Fanmail."

Lopes continues to air the band's dirty laundry, most recently insinuating in Entertainment Weekly that the band may break up.

Austin, however, hastens to say that he doesn't harbor any ill feelings toward Lopes, or the band.

"From the first song that they ever released to the first album to the second album and now, I get to express myself more through their project, although it's coming through the girls. And we don't really have too many business complications. All of us are on the same side. I'm like a fourth member of the group."

Musically, says Austin, things are just swell. And the collaboration certainly seems fruitful. Take the Grammy-nominated tune "Unpretty," which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard singles charts. The song was inspired by a poem about self-image by TLC vocalist Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins.

"When I read the poem, the title was so bold -- 'Unpretty' -- and I thought I wanted to make a song out of this," he says. "So I wrote the song, came back to her and sung it to her.

"I like a lot of alternative music, and when I saw the title, 'Unpretty' reminded me of a song somebody like (alternative singer) Ani DiFranco would have (written). I just went at it. I thought, 'How do people feel who are in that position, because all of us are at some point.' It's one of those things that comes out of you and you look at when it's done and you're like, 'Oh damn, cool.' A lot of people who see that Tionne's name is on it automatically assume it's hers, but it's a totally different song from the poem."

And for TLC's Thomas, sharing studio time with her significant other and the father of her child isn't exactly unpretty, either.

"It's actually fun, really very pleasant," she says. "It's not anything that's stressful in our relationship. He understands me, because I'm real shy and don't want anyone in the studio, so he clears it out for me. "

TLC certainly needs Austin's brand of tender loving care right now. Grammy nominations aside, the trio's current tour isn't the Ricky Martin-esque sellout it was expected to be. And given Lopes' comments, the band's unity is uncertain.

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September 10, 1999
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April 7, 1999

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