A Conversation with Rob Grimaldi, one of the Masterminds Behind BTS’ Global Billboard Hit, Butter.
What was on your New Year’s resolution this year? Was it to eat better? Consistently go to the gym? Be a better friend? Or maybe it was to pen one of the year’s most commercially successful songs for one of the most prominent groups in the world? That last bit wasn’t actively on Rob Grimaldi’s mind and yet here is, celebrating history. A multi-talented songwriter and producer, Grimaldi is known for his camouflage-like musical prowess; adapting to any genre, vibe, or groove, the New Jersey native houses an array of musical knowledge and ability that would make even the most skilled musician blush. With a staggering amount of hits in his discography, Grimaldi can be best described as the music industry’s best-kept secret, penning hits for BLACKPINK, Jimmie Allen, JoJo, Queen Naija, and others—his resume speaks for itself.
But, even with the spotlight shining so intensely on the ambitious songwriter’s pen these days, Grimaldi is as humble as he’s ever been. As we gather around the digital conference room known as Zoom, he’s relaxed, eyes laser-focused yet kind, his body language speaks soft but full conviction. He exudes a type of bro next door energy that he couldn’t wash off in the limelight, even if he truly tried. “Everything that I do, I am aware of how blessed I am, you know?” assured Grimaldi as he adjusted his baseball bag on his head for max comfort. “I get to tell a new story every time I work with another artist, regardless of genre, and it’s honestly one of the coolest things ever.”
Together with the humble hitmaker, we spoke about his time working with BTS, the importance of playing your role in the studio, building connections with artists, and the underrated sector of sync-licensing.
As I was gushing about all of your accomplishments and the amazing work that you’ve been doing just this year alone, the question that kept reappearing in my mind is “who is Rob Grimaldi” so can you explain who you are and when this musical journey began for you?
Yeah, absolutely. At the core, I’m just a dude who loves, lives and breathes music; it’s been a forever thing for me, and I’m so thankful for my parents, who always surrounded me with music growing up. Looking back at it, I was always listening for as long as I can remember to everything and every genre. So I’m grateful for my parents getting me piano lessons when I was three or four years old and allowing me to choose music instead of choosing it for me. And I think that was the biggest blessing, I had such a love for [music] that it became second nature for me, and then I just grew into the talents that I built it, but it all started there super early.
I know that based on the artists you worked with, you have a very eclectic taste in music, which I can wholeheartedly relate to. I could be listening to Nas’ Illmatic then jump directly into Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles without batting an eye. So, was this the same for you in your household growing up?
Definitely. Everything was playing all the time, and whenever people ask me today about working in multiple genres, I always have loved all of it. I think at the very core of being a music producer, who has such a focus on the strength of the song I think coming to New York for whenever it was for about eight years and coming from doing more LA stuff, it was so urban-focused here, and I got amazing chops within that genre. Still, I always wanted to make outstanding records. And I think great records can be produced one way or another, but it’s a great song and growing up was the same way; we were heavy on the big band stuff, heavy on the classic rock, and then my parents infused a lot of rap and pop music very early. So, when I went to school and listened to what everybody else was listening to, I was like, “cool, this is just fun.” I knew I had a background in a big band, jazz and other classics; it became just a maturation process of now, I have my hands on everything, and it’s helping me use a new side of my brain. All of this music helps in what I’m creating today because I’m able to study that stuff and take it to sessions that I’m doing today, which is exciting.
How did all of this translate to your time working with BTS’ “Butter”? It has been featured in Fortnite, commercials, cleaning up awards; how did your love for the art of music, your appreciation for sound influence the creation and production of BTS’ hit single, “Butter”?
I think it was hugely influential to the creation of “Butter” because the song is a prime example of merging multiple genres; it has the cool factor and the drum factor of current music with the bottom of it just slaps because we needed it to exist in the current market place. But it has those references to Michael, Bruno, and Justin that make you feel like you heard this song before, and I felt like I fell in love with it years before, but it’s back now, and I think we were really intentional in how we shaped that. The musicality and the changes were done so strategically with all of that in mind and thinking, “how do we take the best that we love as listeners and create something new and exciting for the biggest group in the world right now?” And that was the goal; you could listen for however long the song is and wants to go back and play it again because you might have missed something.
The crazy thing is you mentioned Michael Jackson, there was an MJ reference maybe 20 or 30 seconds into the song and the song itself functions as a tornado of popular hits. When I picked up the other references to other artists throughout the song, I began to think there was a secret ingredient to this song, the Butter, if you will. Is that usually how hit songs are made? Is there a secret formula, a secret sauce to how these hit records are made? Like adding references to other hit songs, or was that just the game plan for this particular song?
I think every song is super unique, and every story for every song will be different. For us, we had such a great experience because we knew we were tailoring something for probably the biggest group out right now, so every decision we made [BTS] was an integral part of that. But every decision we made was magnified by 100 because you’re shooting for the biggest pop song in the world when you’re making one for them. And I think from starting the record with just the drums and then using the drums and bass in the first verse then the Smooth Criminal to the references to Usher in the second verse. All this culture was infused into the record, and my job with Steven and Ron was to match this energy; if we’re going to make those references, then this has to go crazy from a production standpoint. Some of those decisions are for musicality, and we’re bringing things in and out. We have to remember that they are incredible dancers, so tempo and choreo play hand in hand in this, and I think it couldn’t have turned out better.
As a Black person, when I heard that song, it felt like I was sifting through records, digging in the crates at my granddad’s music but just repurposed for the modern market. It was kind of paying homage to the successes of many Black artists that helped shape the sound of pop music as we know it today, such a great treat. With that “Butter” session and everything, though, I am aware that BTS has a language barrier, so how was that experience of being in the studio with them and creating this piece of history?
Everything was done online, and I think that’s another part of how unique this moment truly was; we were dealing with barriers that were usually not up and obstacles that we normally don’t face. Communication was so important between our two camps, and [BTS’] team was so over the moon professional about any changes, and it was, with the writing process being about three months long of how can we make this perfect, such a great time. But we weren’t in the studio with them; everything was back and forth online discussing things like “hey, let’s try this” or “yeah, lets craft this better” and when you’re in the trenches and not to mention the time difference of being up all night when they’re up all day. But when you think about the journey, it makes the result so much better because I had such an incredible time in the trenches, man, it was great.
How did that make you feel? What you’re describing seems like such a critical moment for you and the other writers where you have to get this song done and done right, especially with a group like BTS’ on the other side of that. It’s almost a Michael Jordan Flu Game moment for you; it seems like I have to get this done no matter what we’re faced with. Did that make you feel like you were under pressure?
Yeah, it was pressure for sure, but everyone had such a belief in the song that once you got it to a certain point, it’s then about how we can be a perfectionist about this. From the moment I demoed the song, I knew inside of myself that this song was a smash; I DJed 15 years of my life and was in tune with what’s working, so I knew this song had massive potential very early. Once we got to the finish line and heard them on it and we were working on it, I knew this was special. And there is always that pressure, even in you referencing those Jordan games, they relish that; this what you prepare for. So it’s not necessarily that we felt that, but we had a responsibility to BTS to make it as brilliant as possible.
I’m curious about something about hit records, actually; when these hit songs win awards, do the songwriters, and the producers get that award as well?
How has that been for you? Just a rainfall of awards and accolades, what has that experience been like for you? Overwhelming?
No, it’s been amazing. I think more so than anything else when you work for something, and you see that creation has a positive impact on somebody’s life… that’s more important than an award, to be honest. I remember there were maybe 10 of us that heard the song. I remember that it was such a blessing to just work on it. But, still, now seeing messages or comments online from like fans saying, “yo, this song changed my life, I’m such a huge fan of BTS,” that’s so powerful to me more than any accolade because that’s global reach, that’s the true power of music. Writing “Butter” allowed us to be a light for so many people, especially in these uncertain times; we wanted to create something danceable, uptempo and happy because we are going through it. It hasn’t been an easy two years. And it came out at the perfect time to go crazy; that’s an award in itself.
Yeah, man, and it’s still going up, holding the record on the Billboard charts as the number one song, dropping to number two, and then rising back to number one is nothing short of iconic. So, this feeling you had with BTS, though, was it a moment attributed explicitly to working with them? Because I know you also did some work with BLACKPINK as well, and the single you worked on is on the album of theirs called The Album—which sold about 5 million copies. Did you have a similar feeling working with BTS that you did with BLACKPINK? Any similarities working with the two groups, or was it a unique experience all on its own regarding the musicality of the structural arrangement of the songs?
I think every experience is different; I’ve done a lot of work in K-Pop, and I really love the space because of how much they pay attention to detail and how much the details matter over there. And for a very detail-oriented guy like myself in pop, urban, and R&B, for me to go over there, it was simply second nature because they have a sense of musicality that I appreciate and respect. So I think BLACKPINK was the same process; we had a tempo record that we loved, it was seamless, curated for the group’s strengths, and it was an immediate connection for the group. And I feel when you’re working with groups in general, I’m working with NCT right now, you have to focus on people’s strengths and know the group. So when you’re writing songs for them or working with them in any fashion, it’s essential to know their personnel because you have to give each member a moment to shine. I think that’s what makes the big songs happen, and if you can help capture that in your composition, the group will be more excited about it, and so will the listeners because each person has their shine which is so essential for me.
It’s like the Bulls—here we are back at the Michal Jordan reference—but everyone has to play their part, and we will get to that championship; I love it. But how are you making this happen? You’re American; these groups are Korean, it seems like the two countries are leaps and worlds apart, but with the collaboration, you all unconsciously worked to bridge a cultural gap. How did your relationship start with K-pop? Did you approach BTS? Or did BLACKPINK approach you?
It’s a mixed bag; to be honest, it all stems from the music. Whether it’s America, Latin America, or Korea, great songs usually translate. For me, it wasn’t me reaching out type thing; it was more of a “cool, they like some things that have heard of mine, and now we can build this relationship.” The relationship stemmed from the art and not from the people. Because of that, it has evolved into a relationship with the people about the art so having that bond started from hearing some music sent to them from me or someone on my team and then them reacting to this music. And when you begin to build a bond with someone, it becomes a matter of “oh, we recognize that he can do this, and that is what we need,” and couple that with the fact that I have now worked with about five other groups over Korea consistently with excellent results, people get interested. I’m hoping that I can do more work over there, I’ve enjoyed the process, and it’s cool to me because it’s so different than what I’m doing over here, and that’s refreshing.
You have done work with Queen Naija, JoJo, Ayzha Nyree, which is all very different from K-Pop, and I know you did some work in country music. So, basically, your portfolio is my iPhone on shuffle [both laugh] and I love that! So, how does that play a part in what jobs you’ll pick up regarding who you will work with and write for?
I think the different genres keep me so inspired. The music, for me, is such an energy and a vibe thing, and understanding the artist and the music and music is super feeling invoking to me. If I feel something, I immediately gravitate towards that project. Outside of the fact that these genres are different, there is something about the records that worked for me or something about the artist that spoke to me because there are a million projects out there as a creator. At a certain point, you have to pick and choose what you want to work on and what you don’t. The thing for me is being able to go to Nashville and do two weeks of country and then do a Flo Milli session or an A Boogie thing is such an inspiring thing because I get to take a break from a specific skill set, do something else, and then come back to it later. It forces me to be fresh and keep my creativity constantly moving because you don’t want to get stale, and the way you get stale is by doing the same thing repeatedly. That’s why I never want to restrict myself from any genre because it’s about the song at the end of the day.
How will you keep it fresh on Ayzha’s next album? There are so many different routes that can be taken; she has that No Guidance remix that she did and went crazy. The momentum is there, she’s super talented, so can you talk about that new album?
Yeah, we’re probably going to put new music out at the top of the year, and Ayzha is in a unique situation; I’m co-managing and executive producing her, so it’s a situation that is family to me, and I love her to death, and she came out of an interesting story. I was developing a rapper—the first artist I ever worked with—and I met him. I was a junior in college, and he was 13/14 at the time; we had been working together at this time, and I was just about to sign him to a record deal, and then he, unfortunately, passed away very tragically. So what happened was that I ended up meeting Ayzha at his funeral. She came to me very honestly and said, “I want to continue his legacy that you guys had been building over the last ten years, and I want to be that for him,” and it touched my heart, very inspiring to me. So I promised her that we would do this journey together, and my partner has been an incredible co-manager to her, and we are putting out new music on Republic Records next year with her.
So, to answer your question, full circle, this is a hybrid between a creative and an executive where we could make outstanding records, but we’re also going to know what to do with them; positioning her with Republic and in the right hands was very cool to make records knowing that this is our project and it’s something that we believe in. It’s very personal to me.
That’s amazing. And if you don’t mind, could you say homeboy’s name? I want him to get his shine even though he is no longer with us.
Sure, yeah, his name was Siege, and he was an incredible rapper from upstate NY, and he was the reason I wanted to work with artists. He was the first artist I had worked with, and I was writing songs for about 4 or 5 years on my own, but I remember after that first session with him, I told myself I wanted to do this for the rest of my life. So, it was that click moment.
Damn, man, Rest In Peace to Siege. You got your interview, bro. So, going back to Ayzha, what can we expect from her album sonically?
It’s tempo-based, and Ayzha is much like me in that she takes inspiration from a multitude of different things; her style is very different, she has great vocal chops, she dances, but she also raps. So, we tried to find a lane in the middle of all of that, trying to find out how you can take all of these skills and incorporate all of them into a 3-minute song. She has some tendencies that you can hear right away that are cool and different, but I think sonically it was about the catchiness that I’m doing in pop records and the street bang and extensive sonic records. They’re hard-hitting, and they show her off, which is priority number 1 give the artist their due.
Aye, man, I am down to interview Ayzha at the top of the year; if you need someone, I am here!
We’ll do one together! [Both laugh]
I can’t wait to hear what this project will sound like. So, with how music is going with streaming, we’re entering a less travelled road. Do you have any sort of Ill takeaways on this topic? Bit of a hot topic these days. Do you miss the days of vinyl and CDs, or are you hopeful especially being a songwriter/producer, as it could potentially put the industry in an exciting position?
I have mixed feelings about it, but I am 1000% hopeful because positivity is so important, and at the root of all of this, you want creators to feel whole. Whether the algorithms are treated this way or that way, these artists just want their art to be appreciated. And from an artist’s standpoint, because I manage Ayzha and one other artist, I feel streaming is a beautiful thing through giving people an opportunity that they didn’t have before; it’s allowing artists to shine where they have been overlooked and never heard. There are pros and cons to every situation, but I try to see it from an upside rather than a downside because I love an underdog story that makes great art, and if this is going to spotlight that, then awesome. Is there work to be done regarding streaming accounting and all things that go on on the business side that need to improve? Yes. But I see it as a bit of a shining light because it introduces you to someone new who you can be a fan of forever. I think that’s special.
Speaking of the background, you’re an essential player in the star’s background. Songwriting and producing, you’re willingly playing the background and someone like myself who is a writer. I love the stories of the background information and history a bit more than the hyper focalization of the star, especially in this main character-culture we’re in. And it seems like many artists just want to be a star, or it’s nothing; everyone wants to be Jordan and Curry, but nobody seems to understand that we need Pippens and Draymond Greens. What would you say to producers and writers, rappers, and singers who maybe are super talented but maybe their stuff isn’t popping?
At the end of the day, I agree with you, every Michael Jordan needs their Scottie Pippen to work, and music, in particular, is such a team game. But that gets overlooked sometimes because you see all these stars in the spotlight, and they should be, but you have a choice; you choose when you wake up in the morning what role you want to play on the team. And this choice that I made is a role that I embrace, and I wouldn’t have it any other way because it’s my job to make those stars shine brighter. Being in the background does get overlooked, but it’s not meant to be this “shine,” that’s not my role. My role is to create long-lasting artists and songs that we can play in 20 years and still think they’re great. So, with up-and-coming artists that I consult with all the time, there’s this focus on “what do I need to do to make it?”
It’s centred around building a team that you can trust. There’s a humanness to this business that gets lost because of how star-focused it is but at the end of the day like in any other job, you want to surround yourself with people who are massively talented in what they do but more so who you can trust and believe in. There has to be this mutual respect, or nothing works, so in building with artists, that’s one of the first things that I look at; can I help you creatively first and foremost? Is there a connection here that we can explore? Because honestly, if you all can’t have a conversation, let alone believe in each other as a team, then this will not work. I always tell artists on the come up that this is so much beyond a full-time job; it’s a commitment to yourself and the people around you. But, if you surround yourself with motivating people around you and people that give you belief in yourself, then that is a great start.
Well said. What are some of the future projects, future bangers that we can look forward to? What are some other artists that’ll be benefitting from your magical pen?
Well, my goal is not to spread myself too thin, but I want my hands in different pots. So, on the lookout, I’ll just say be prepared for many different things that you maybe you didn’t expect—I won’t name any names before I get fired (they both laugh). Just be on the lookout for some stuff that’ll make you go, “damn, really?” Because that is the reaction that we’re trying to create with this collaboration.
I love the background stuff and learning how our favourite art becomes so iconic; this has been such a vibe, man and I apologize if I am gushing over your work, but you’re like a Jordan to me, so this is super dope.
Thanks, dude, and no problems at all!
Recently I saw an interview with Vince Staples on the Drink Champs podcast with Noreaga, and he brought up this idea of in-sync licensing deals and the like. He mentioned that this was a wildly underrated faction of the music industry and that many people should be hip to it. And he is right. A lot of people don’t get to see that side of music, and I just wanted to use this time to shed light on it, so how did you get into the sync-licensing game, what are some of the pros and cons of it, and what would you say to writers who wouldn’t work with My Little Pony, Samsung, McDonald’s, etc.?
I would say that it’s essential to approach even your creativity as a business and expand your portfolio. Many people are interested in growing their careers and brands, but sometimes growing their brands is about outreach and expanding that maybe you didn’t plan on. And sync-licensing is an incredible exposure opportunity for new artists and producers outside of the bag, which is excellent, but those relationships are so valuable. People keep coming back to me because we delivered them something they needed, and they can trust us moving forward with their brand and projects. Although you don’t necessarily say that this year I want to do this or this when it comes to sync, but maybe a lot more artists should. As I look back on my year, I am super blessed and grateful that “Butter” happened, but many other things happened this year that will turn into other things in 2022 and 2023. And I feel it’s all about those relationships and a lot of shows that you can do the work professionally and efficiently. When it comes to sync, it’s a different area that many people sleep on, but I would highly recommend you don’t [both laugh]. That’s all I’ll say.
Follow Rob Grimaldi at @robgrimaldi27.
Interview by Marc Griffin