L.A-based Dontae Winslow is a composer, songwriter and music producer whose long list of collaborations make him one of the most sought after people in the music industry.
He's toured globally with Justin Timberlake and is a member of his TNKids Band, collaborated with Dr. Dre on his record, Compton, from the hit film, Straight Outta Compton, and is heavily involved with institutions such as The Berklee School, The Los Angeles Unified School District and more. Most recently, Dontae has kept busy by performing and arranging Still I Rise from Big Sean’s newest album Detroit 2 as well as arranging horns on Lady A’s Wonderful Christmas Time with scheduled performances on CMA and IHeartradio.
Why the trumpet?
I originally wanted to play flute because that’s what the cute girls played. My best friend in school said to play the trumpet, and I found out it was one of the hardest instruments to play! It is so physically demanding, so unforgiving. You have to practice the trumpet everyday. You take 2 or 3 days off and you literally start sucking at it, you have to be married to it. So in that way, the trumpet teaches you to be humble, because to be arrogant, the instrument will kick your ass any day of the week. You cannot force it. You have to coerce it and coax it into working. You have to be tenacious and persistent. You have to warm it up everyday. It’s so temperamental and so challenging physically, that most people feel it really hard to maintain in their older age like sports. Anytime you meet an old trumpet player, or ex-players while traveling they all say they used to play trumpet! Ha!
The trumpets magic can soar over an entire orchestra, It makes you dance in Pop Music, it crosses all genres and it’s usually the main feature. Nobody can sample the variations of the attacks and the frequency overtones because the lip vibrations vary and the air fluctuates constantly. The sound created by the excitement that happens in a lead pipe not solely air, and The psycho~acoustics are so unpredictable I doubt that there are enough gigabytes to sample that sound or physically model it like you can a string...The trumpet embodies everything that I feel I am as a person. I play the trumpet not just for musical reasons, but for spiritual reasons.
I would put out my own record on my own independent label since 1996. I would sell them out of the trunk of my car like the rappers, except with jazz records.
Can you share how you came to work in the music industry?
I guess my first attraction to music in general was watching and listening to Michael Jackson perform on television on Motown 25. I remember coming home from school and waiting to see him perform with his brothers which would later to our surprise be a show stopping historic moon-walk during the Billie Jean selection.. I was jumping up and down and had goose-bumps. The magic and transformational energy that came through the screen just touched me and I knew I wanted to be a part of something that powerful. The second time was in church while hearing a gospel song. I got the goosebumps, just like when I heard Michael Jackson. The third time was when I started playing trumpet in the middle school band. We played The Water is Wide, a beautiful old english folk song. Hearing all of my friends playing that melody and making music together also gave me those goosebumps. Because the goosebumps kept coming every time I witnessed live music, I realised there was something to it. Music and its incomprehensible magic is what attracted and instigated my life long pursuit. How is the beauty created and why does the magic happen when I hear these sounds at these frequencies.
After playing music through middle school and getting private lessons and attending a performing arts high school, I later went to college for music and graduated with a Masters degree in classical music performance and music composition from from The Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University and USC respectively. After moving to Los Angeles and studying with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Terence Blanchard at USC, I was hired on my first major gig with Queen Latifah and I’ve worked with her for the last 16 years.
Even before I left Baltimore, since I was 14 years old I’ve had professional gigs working in nightclubs as a trumpet player. I would put out my own records and release them my independent label since 1996. Selling them out of the trunk of my car like the rappers, except with jazz records. So while I was going through the training of learning music, production, and the business of hiring musicians and booking shows. I also performed and recorded because I felt like I had a voice that needed to be heard. I’ve always had something to say.
How do you navigate between songwriter, composer and producer?
I feel as though a songwriter and composer are the same thing. I think Mozart is a songwriter, because he writes melodies, and melodies are engulfed in harmonies. A songwriter comes up with melody and sometimes a lyric.
A producer doesn’t have to be a songwriter. The producer can hear a song that’s already written and just make it sound good. At the end of the day, a producer knows how a product should be presented to the consumer or the audience. The producer is like the arranger, the person who puts the final necessary touches to a creation for public consumption. They know about the frequencies, the mixer, studio, musicians, arrangers, programming of samples and beats, and sound FX...the overall vision. How thick, how big, how small, how loud? Should there be a break here? When should the drums come in? Horns or no horns? What key is that? Should there be a background vocal track? The producer knows what it should sound like. Quincy with Michael or Phil Spectre with the Ronettes, Dr. Dre (Snoop), Charles Stepney Earth Wind & Fire..The producer crafts and carves the black coal into a diamond and at the end of the day, when it sounds terrific, the credit goes to the producer, in most cases more so than the songwriter.
For me, a good producer has open ears but is also patient and doesn’t rush the process. He is not trying to make a hit but is following an “inner compass” that leads to joy, bliss and pleasure and gets the people’s asses dancing on the floor. The producer knows how this song should be communicated. I love producing but I also love being produced because I like to put my body and voice in the hands of someone else’s vision. Getting a new perspective, outside of your own, on what you have birthed is exhilarating.
If you are inundated with the importance of what you created then you are not a film composer. You have to be ready to throw away an idea at any moment based on what the director says.
What was it like having composer Terence Blanchard as a teacher whilst you were studying? Are there any words of wisdom you could share to our readers?
He was my mentor. He taught me so many great things about playing the trumpet and being a strong player. He’s had a strong work ethic of doing hundreds of movies while still keeping his chops up. He had jazz gigs (outside of his films) to make sure he kept his playing up and kept his band working. So I got to see how he balanced the lifestyle of musician/composer/player.
One of the main things he taught me while I was learning and working on composing cues for film is to always know that your music is to “serve the picture”. When you work with a director, you never try to write for yourself and you never get attached to it. Throw away an idea and come up with a different version or a new melody and just go with the film’s intended message. Know that the music is not ‘for you’ it only serves to help tell “the story”.
If you are inundated with the importance of what you created then you are not a film composer. You have to be ready to throw away an idea at any moment based on what the director says and what serves the truth telling of the story. The story rules, not your melody. It’s very serendipitous that John Williams gets away with so many beautiful melodies that also tells the story for you, which is genius. His melodies are unforgettable, like pop songs, you can sing them, but they don’t get in the way of the story or the dialogue. Though he borrows from the orchestrations of Mussorsky, Holst, Mahler and others...he also brings something new to the table. From Terence, I learned that even if you’re writing and trying to put forth an idea, it’s still subservient to the dialogue and to the story and notes that the director is giving you.
You've worked with a huge selection of artists, it's incredible! Could you talk in-depth about your work on the film and album, "Straight Outta Compton" with Dr Dre?
Man, it was my dream to work with Dr. Dre ever since I was a little kid and lived in Baltimore, but I never thought it would happen. So having Dr. Dre, arguably the greatest producer to ever walk the planet (outside of Quincy Jones) call you on the phone and ask you to play on a song called Talking To My Diary for Compton, a movie about his life, it felt like a dream, so surreal. It was a blissful moment. He invites me to his home and is telling me his whole life story. I told him, I know your story, I’ve been a fan of yours since 1986, with World Class Wrecking Crew, NWA, Death Row, Aftermath, and every album that’s ever come out. I would walk the streets in Baltimore in pure poverty, with a mother on drugs, living in a crack house and listening to Dr. Dre records like man, I wish this miracle could happen one day with me in a studio with him. And it just goes to show that if you hold on to a dream long enough, favour can come your way.
After telling me his story, he says to me, “I want you to play your trumpet, play what you feel after hearing everything that I’ve told you.” I play a 2 minute trumpet solo, and trumpets rarely played on rap songs, let alone get a solo. Normally it’s sax. After I played the solo he said “Wow, just what I was thinking, that’s HARD!” (In his west coast accent). Because I normally play with a lot of complex harmonic content and I take rhythmic chances, I asked to play a second take that wouldn’t get scrapped for being “too jazzy” or “too complicated,” which is something we deal with as studio musicians. So after the second take, he said “that was good, but I’m gonna go with the first one.” I asked why and he said “Because I like the risk you took on the first recording. Sound like you was clownin’ on them fools.” I said, “you got it.” I just loved being with him in the studio and “seeing” how his mind worked. Seeing his decision making. That taught me A LOT about his ears. Because after all, he influenced me growing up, and everything I love about him, The tri-tone bass line of Deep Cover, The mini Moog lead sounds of The Chronic, the hard boom bap drums of 2001 Chronic, the incredible mixing of Snoop’s Doggystyle, and all the soundtracks in between.
I very much appreciated that his ears were that open to take my solo just as it came out. And that’s what you hear, the first take on that Compton track is the end of the album. I also produced the opening Overture on the album, with orchestral fanfare which was a take down of the first thing I sang into my iPhone after one night in the studio he said…”hmmmm I need an album opener.” I said I got something, and sang into the phone. I said give me until the morning to send a mock up. I went home and transcribed my phone’s “poopity scoops” (improvisations) and laid down some trumpets, plugins, Moog synths, stacked it real big and sent it to Dre. He said, “THAT’S IT!…send me the WAV 2 Track.” I solo’d and/or played on about six other songs on that record including the amazing Deep Water Ft. Kendrick Lamar..I would later work with him on many sessions but the most memorable was I Made It by Jay-Z. This song came about with me making a crafted sample and sending it to Dre for his project. I later received a call from producer DJ Khalil that they wanted my publishing info because a song was already coming out, and I said “ on whom” he said Jay-Z. It’s done and it’s mastered; he stopped the pressing of the album just to add this one at the last minute. I got the phone call landing in Baltimore, in the car with my wife MaShica and we all screamed, jumped out the car. It was a kiss from God to me because of all I had gone through with my mother, and the name of the song started with Mama I Made It, a song to Jay-Z’s mother...yet spiritually and vicariously It was me singing to my mother.
Man, it was my dream to work with Dr. Dre ever since I was a little kid and lived in Baltimore, but I never thought it would happen.
What was life like touring with Justin Timberlake and being part of the TNKids Band?
He was great to work for! Playing with one of the best pop bands in the world on the road helped me make so many connections. And I was able to compose scores on the road as well. We went to so many places, played in every country, engaged with every religion and every type of person around the globe. When we talk about the lack of diversity in America and people's thinking, seeing the whole planet and every walk of life makes you so wise, open, and so appreciative of diversity. There is a Netflix special about the Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids show for anyone who wants to check it out.
It would be great to hear about your own compositions, how do you approach writing a new piece of music?
My Most powerful instrument is my brain. I trust my thoughts, and my instincts, and I trust that my heart and my emotions will lead me in the right musical direction in any given situation.
The first thing I like to do is pull up the voice recording on my phone and sing anything into it. Whatever is coming into my brain, it doesn’t have to make sense. As Kanye West says, it can be what we call a “poopity scoop”, any kind of improvisation, and for me, that is always gold. When I try to re-do it and make it slick, it’s never as good. I liken music to receiving messages from the ether.
Terence taught me about being responsive as a jazz musician. When playing in a band, you have to be able to respond. Don’t come with a preconceived notion. Respond to what is going on around you, respond to the piano player, listen to the bass and drums interaction. As a composer and a songwriter, you gotta respond to your life, your heart, and your feelings. The amount of material that you can write about is endless. Our job as composers is grabbing the material that suits you best and will be most authentic coming off your skin, authentic to your soul and ‘your’ vibration. How the divine is moving through you is what other people want to hear because we all have a voice and something special to say. That’s what makes it transcendental and timeless, the individuality of each souls’ expression.
Do you have a favourite place to record?
Hotel rooms! I’m always on tour and I always have to record so I bring my set up with me. I can do a score or a trumpet recording in 5 minutes in any hotel room, any lounge in the world. For pop songs and my trumpet, it can literally be anywhere as long as I have a good ribbon mic and my Lewitt condenser. For a live string session for pop songs, my favourite room is in Capital Records in Los Angeles. I just did a session with Stevie Wonder and we used that room. I like a room with high ceilings.
Can you share your favourite pieces of gear in your studio?
There are so many favourite pieces! I’ve been stuck on ribbon mics. It’s killing on my trumpet! It sounds so wonderfully warm and amazing. I can scream and play my trumpet so hard and it just says “nope, I’m gonna give you a lush sound, and then when I multitrack on my Lewitt Mics it never gets harsh or metallic. They also can accept a lot of eq, and the SPL (sound pressure level) doesn’t distort.
My trumpet is my own custom design model by Adams Brass, and I modelled it after the one Miles Davis played. Miles is the epitome of pure beauty in a trumpet sound. It sounds musical no matter how you play it. It’s rich and warm and can cut and bite at the same time. I also have so many analog machines! Korg Minilogue is my new toy, mini Moog, Juno 106, Juno 60, Rhodes, Mellotron, and so many plugins.
Photographs by Hodges Usry