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10 Questions With Grammy-Winning Philly Music Producers Keith Pelzer and Darren “Limitless” Henson

From Will Smith, to Patti LaBelle to Jill Scott(with whom they won a Grammy), Philly producers Keith Pelzer and Darren “Limitless” Henson have worked with some of the biggest names in music. The duo was recently nominated for a Grammy again, this time for Traditional R&B Performance for their work on the Faith Evans’ song “He Is.” Fresh off their latest nomination, the duo spoke with NBC10 about their career, their creative process and their thoughts on the current state of R&B. Check out what they had to say in our latest installment of 10 Questions:

1.   Who were some of your early musical influences growing up?

Keith: I had quite a few from Quincy Jones to Herbie Hancock to Teddy Riley, especially Teddy because he was that bridge to me with the New Jack Swing. It was “churchy and clubby” at the same time. Gospel music in general and Michael Jackson.

Darren: Rick Rubin, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Larry Smith, Quincy Jones, The Bomb Squad, Pete Rock and Burt Bacharach.

2. How did you guys get into the music business?

Keith: I was a preacher’s kid who played in church every Sunday from the age of about 9.  I got some equipment in my late teens and started making dance records and produced and released my first recording with a Reggae artist named Amazhan. I ended up running into DJ Jazzy Jeff at the 8th Street Music Store in Philly in my early 20s and got with him and his company A Touch of Jazz. From there it’s History!

Darren: I was an aspiring artist in Hip-Hop's nascent form. I pulled double duty as a producer within my group's self-contained unit, so I became familiar with working in a professional studio environment. We used to look at album liner notes and covers to see where our favorite artists recorded. We'd pool our money from our day jobs and book studio time there. Places like Sigma Sound in Philly, Chung King and Calliope in New York were some of the spots we'd frequent. We used to do shows with some of the luminaries back then like Heavy D, Public Enemy, and BDP. At one of those shows I met a childhood friend of Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince named Joe Rhoden who liked what we were doing and asked for a demo of our music. He played it for Jeff who liked it and wanted to meet us. Jeff and I connected on both a musical and friendship level which would eventually lead to me joining him in Philly at A Touch of Jazz after my group disbanded.

3.    How did you guys end up working together?

Keith: A Touch of Jazz had many producers and finally narrowed down to what I call the Chosen 6: Ivan Barias, Vidal Davis, Carvin Haggins, Andre Harris, Darren Henson and myself.  Space was limited and some talents clashed so we all ended up in groups of two’s.  We all had an area of weakness and we ended up pairing with the one who could bring out the best in the other, hence the partnering of Darren and Keith, Vidal and Dre, Carvin and Ivan.  Although we were great independently, together we were better.  I’m more of a Keys and Melody guy and Darren is more of a Beats and Lyricist guy. 

Darren: We clicked almost immediately. Back then, there were more aspiring songwriters, artists and producers than rooms to work in and since available studio time was at a premium, we decided to try and collaborate. We both had different musical influences and approaches to creating so we didn't get in each other's way. It was a seamless process from the jump. Our first collaboration, "He Loves Me", ended up getting placed on Tatyana Ali's "Kiss The Sky" album. We were off and running from there.

4. Both of you previously worked with Jill Scott and Floetry. What was that like and what impact have they had on modern R&B?

Keith: Amazing, Real, Fun and Priceless.  We never had to change for them and they never had to change for us.  The songs were never work, they were all an experience.  The songs were Life in Lyrics, Moments in Melody, Trials to Tracks, Reality in Rhythm.  We were working with artists from the major labels when we met Jill Scott and Floetry,  that felt like Work, but when we started with Jill and Floetry we didn't have to be what the labels thought we had to be, we felt accepted for who we are and we allowed each other to be authentic and the World felt it!  “Floetic” told you who the girls are, the intro to Words and Sounds by Darren Henson told you who Jill Scott is. Here’s the impact, give the World- you and you’ll never be duplicated or replaced. 

Darren: Working with Jill was special because it made the industry take notice and showed what we could do with an entire project in our hands creatively. It put us on the map as producers and in the process introduced the world to an amazing artist in Jill that defied industry stereotypes. The music mattered the most and that really resonated with people. Over 2 million to be exact. Prior to that we were fighting to get on the big projects that were out, but having little success. It felt like people weren't taking us seriously at times. An occasional remix here and there was it. We didn't know that album would perform as well as it did. We had no expectations really so the success of it caught us off guard. We went from relative obscurity to having people like Puff and Babyface coming to Philly to check us out and see what all the fuss was about. We didn't stop there. Our production on Jill's second album earned her her first Grammy for the single "Cross My Mind.”

Floetry was unique in that there was no template of any kind for a group like that. Creatively we just did whatever felt right to us. And like Jill's situation, the album was finished before there was even a record deal in place so we were very free in that sense to create without outside input to change the hue or texture of the project. Keith and I were the first in our unit to record with Floetry and set the tone for their sound since they didn't have one at the time. Our very first time working with them, we recorded their first single Floetic in about three hours. Both acts have had an incredible impact on modern R&B. You only need to attend one of their shows to realize that fact. The fans really connect with both artists. Floetry haven't had an album out since 2005, but played to sold-out, packed houses all summer long in 2015 since reuniting to tour. You can't do that without having an impact on the consciousness of a fanbase or without music that stands up against time. Keith and I have produced on every Floetry project so it feels great to know that we played a part launching the careers of two gifted artists in their own right.

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5. How did you end up working with Faith Evans?

Keith: We worked with Faith years before this song was recorded.  We had a room in Sigma Sound in Philly.  We cut a few amazing songs which didn't make the cut for her album at that time.  Darren ran into her some years later and found out that she was working on another album and submitted this song we did with Jazmine Sullivan.

Darren: For the record, since her debut album I've always had Faith on my dream list of artists to work with. Her songwriting and vocals are beyond crazy, still to this day. We actually worked with Faith some years before on one of her earlier albums, but the song never made the cut.  My cousin Brandon had a friend who was promoting a show in Baltimore that featured Faith. He went to soundcheck and mentioned me to Faith and we reconnected from there. I began sending her music and sent her a demo version of the song we recorded with Philly vocal powerhouse Jazmine Sullivan. Faith hit me back and said: "Yooooo, I love this song! I wanna cut it!" It was on from there.

6. What was the creative process of making the song “He Is?” 

Keith: This song was created at our studio above the Electric Factory on 7th street.  We originally did this for Jazmine Sullivan and of course with vocals like hers we wanted to do something Soulful but we wanted to keep it raw. Piano, bass, drums and somebody who can really sing, good combination.  After not making the cut for Jazmine we revisited the piano performance, let Faith cut it, added some brass, strings, went through a few mixes and the song was done.  We were picky, because every singer can’t capture and bless what Jasmine does on a record, but Faith, oh yeah perfect!

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Darren: We sketched the basic skeleton of it out in the studio with Jazmine Sullivan for her project at the time. However, her label said they thought it was "too churchy". Somewhere, Aretha Franklin just sucked her teeth. No matter. We still believed in it and to us, if we record a song it doesn't die. It just awaits the right vessel to bring it to its full potential. Faith was perfect for the song because not everyone can do what Jazmine does in a vocal booth and Jazmine killed the vocals on the demo. But Faith went in and took the groundwork Jazmine laid to new heights. It was a thing of beauty to experience and be a part of. After her vocals were done, we beefed up the track. We added some live strings with Nyke Van Wyk. Keith got in his 5th and Venango bag and layered organs over the original piano parts he played. I made the drums bang. We added horns courtesy of our long time brass collaborator Mr. Trombone a.k.a Jeff Bradshaw and trumpet player Christopher Stevens.

7. What was your reaction when you found out about the Grammy nomination?

Keith: A little shocked but I called it.  Let me explain.  We've been here before.  “Cross My Mind” a song that Darren and I produced and wrote with Jill Scott, received a Grammy in 2005 for Best Urban/Alternative Performance.  We’ve been nominated quite a few times, you kind of get used to it.  We have a reputation for not “Compressing” the Artist.  We make the sacrifice and take the risk of doing “the song” that the labels don't want the artist to do.  “He Is” didn't get picked for Jazmine’s album because the label said the song was too “Churchy” as another way of saying it wasn't commercial enough.

Darren: I was completely taken by surprise and I honestly can't say I saw it coming. But I'm extremely grateful for the recognition and attention the song is getting. I felt like it was a special record from day one. I just didn't know how special.

8. How do you feel about the current state of R&B?

Keith: Not sure what to call it now.  It’s confusing but promising. Amazing when Billboard has to create a chart called “Adult” R&B, kinda feels like the regular R&B gets the tag “Children” R&B??? Compared to the Etymology of the term R&B or RnB, I believe we, the 6 from A Touch of Jazz along with the debut Albums of Jill Scott, Floetry, and Musiq, and many others have kept close to what R&B stood for in these days of current.  The outlook is promising but its still gonna take some time. 

Darren: There's a lot of love missing from a lot of the mainstream music on the radio today. But there are still artists making good music, you may have to search in different places to find it though.

9. Tell us about some upcoming projects that you’re both working on.

Keith: Hopefully the Floetry return/reunion (laughs). 

Darren: TOP SECRET. BUT, I heard there may be a new Floetry album in the works. I'm always looking for new writers to build great relationships and songs with.

10. What advice would you give to young, up and coming writers, producers and musicians?

Keith: Avoid being a copycat. Influence is a great thing but copycats are dangerous.  When there are a bunch of copies on the table, it’s hard to find “The Original” or the “Unique.”  Research the successful Philly musicians, writers  and producers, check their grind, their hard work.  Always remember not to compare the inside of you to the outside of others.

Darren: Educate yourself because it is a business and very easy to get taken advantage of if you're not up on things. Be open to adapting because the business of music, how it's created and consumed is constantly changing. Be respectful of all you meet. Today's intern may be tomorrow's CEO. People remember who treat them bad. Network, network, network. Fill voids creatively. But above all, be true to yourself. Be the first YOU, not the second somebody else.

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