Behind the Song of the Year 2018: Bruno Mars, “That’s What I Like.”

Here in this week preceding the Grammy Awards this Sunday, we’re happy to bring you this first installation in a series on songs which won the Grammy for Best Song, which is the preeminent songwriter award given each year. In 2018, it went to Bruno Mars and his co-writers (Phillip Lawrence, Christopher Brody Brown, James Fauntleroy, Johnathan Yip, Ray Romulus, Jeremy Reeves, and Ray McCullough II) for the song, “That’s What I Like.”

Bruno also won several other Grammys that night, every one for which he was nominated, including Best Record (for the single, “24K Magic”) , and Best Album ( 24K Magic). 

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The album and its songs also won several other Grammys, including that for Best Engineering, awarded to engineers Charles Moniz, Serban Ghenea and John Hanes, as well as the late Tom Coyne, who mastered the album (as he did for many other Grammy awarded albums.) 

The 2018 Grammys, which was held in New York City for the first time in 15 years to celebrate their 60th year, featured powerful performances from a host of artists and bands, including U2 (who performed outside, with the Statue of Liberty visible behind them), as well as Lady Gaga, Elton John (with Miley Cyrus), Sting, Kesha, and more.

Bruno brought down the house with a joyfully chromatic and high-energy performance of “Finesse,” evoking his beloved spirits of ’90s music and his own remarkable onstage moves. A songwriter and musician who has long honored his roots, his acceptance speeches were remarkable for their gracious recognition of those musical heroes who shaped his life.

“First off,” he began upon accepting the Grammy for Best Album, “to the other nominees in this category —  Lorde, Kung Fu Kenny, Jay-Z, Gambino — you guys are the reason why I’m in the studio pulling my hair out, man, because I know you’re gonna only come with top-shelf artistry and music. Thank you guys for blessing the world with your music.”

Then, in another show of genuine gratitude for his own musical heroes, he urged the producers first to let him finish (“Don’t cut me off, Grammys, please!”), before relating a story of being a 15-year old in Hawaii entertaining big crowds of tourists. With no false humility, and to much laughter he said, “I’ll be honest; I was incredible at 15.”

But, as he explained, it was all about the timeless power of those songs he chose to perform then, songs which inspired him to become an artist and have sustained him to this day: 

“Later in life.” he said, “I found out that those songs were written either by Babyface, Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis or Teddy Riley. And with those songs, I remember seeing it first-hand: people dancing that had never met each other from two sides of the globe, people toasting each other, celebrating together. All I wanted to do with this album was that.”

By that, Bruno means capturing the spirit of genuine joy in the studio – and in the writing of the song – something which, as all songwriters know, cannot be faked. 

“Those songs,” he said of the classic ’90s records on which he was raised, “were written with nothing but joy and for one reason and one reason only: love. And hopefully I could feel that again, and see everybody dancing and everybody moving. I’d like to dedicate this award to them. They are my heroes, they are my teachers. They laid the foundation. This album wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for these guys that  had written these songs. Sure, I had to sprinkle a little Mars sauce on them. This is for them.”

His love of ’90s hip-hop and gratitude for those artists who made it has been a constant through the few interviews he gave about 24 K Magic

“Obviously, you hear these ’90s influences in the whole album,” he said to Beats 1. “That’s because of West Coast Hip-Hop. That’s because of Dr. Dre and DJ Quik and Suga Free. This is what we grew up on. It was at a time when it was okay to party. It was okay to be flashy.”

To capture that celebratory vibe in the studio and inject it directly into the heart of his tracks, he brought together two teams of writer-producers, and like Michael Jackson in the studio, showed exactly the dynamics and groove he required by dancing. Merging his own songwriting-production team the Smeezingtons (Bruno, Brody Brown, James Fauntleroy and Philip Lawrence) with old friends the Stereotypes (Ray Charles “Charm” McCullough II, Jeremy Reeves, Ray Romulus and Jonathan Yip) he crafted this joyful, dimensional album.

Even after completing the writing and production of a song, as he had with Song of the Year winner “That’s What I Like,” he’d invite his pals to focus completely on the groove, shifting and fine-tuning it until it had that precise ingredient of danceable joy that Bruno wanted.  

“Bruno would have the  general outline of the song,” said Jonathan Yip of The Stereotypes, “and said ‘I need to get that bounce.’”  

As Charm explained, “That’s What I Like” has a slow tempo, but is in danceable double-time, so that “you bounce twice to it. We love slower tempos. You can body-roll to it. We didn’t change the tempo at all, but we added those in between beats, which made it modern.  These days the drums lead.” 

As musical joy can be captured but not contrived, Bruno and the gang made the recording process, and the studio set-up itself, as conducive as possible to musical fun. “We were like kids on a playground,” said Yip, “with all these instruments laying around. It took all of us. None of us could have done it by ourselves. Everything we did we did together. It’s the result of friends having a great time in the studio.”

To get the party started, Bruno played everyone the songs he had already recorded.”It was very nostalgic,” said Yip, “and heavily drenched with ’90s influence, which is my favorite era. [Bruno] said he wanted to make an album that people could dance to, with music that made him feel like when he was back at school dances. He told us he wanted something with the New Jack Swing feel, so we started vibing out until we all felt we had something.

To connect with the authentic sound they wanted, Bruno and his engineer Charles Moniz filled the studio with those instruments used back in the day.

“We were all transported back,” said Ray Romulus. “They got the actual keyboards from the era we all loved.  Bruno’s no less hands-on than MJ. He’ll be dancing, and then the next second he’s on the keyboard. To me, he is almost the reincarnation of Michael Jackson, and he made us feel like Quincy.” 

As Moniz recalled, Bruno was always receptive to any ideas about how to improve the music, never clinging to ideas that went nowhere. “He has the ability to look at his own work objectively,” Moniz said, “and that plays a huge role in it all.  If you’re trying to get people on the dance floor, but the song doesn’t make you want to dance, you’re going to have to make some changes. He’s never afraid to make changes and no idea is ever too precious.”

The lyrics came from Bruno. “All that about the Cadillacs and champagne,” Romulus said, “that’s how Bruno is. He’s giving you a day in the life.”   

In the end, Bruno said to Beats 1, it’s all about the music. All this attention on him and his own life is fine. But without the authentic joy of music at the center of everything, none of it matters.  

“I hope that my music does the talking,” he said. “I just want to do music. I don’t want to be known for any …. scandals or controversy. I want to be the guy that brings joy to your life through his music. That’s it. And I want to go home. 

In addition to winning the three major awards, Bruno also received Grammys for Best R&B Song, for “That’s What I Like,” given to all of its songwriters, Bruno, Christopher Brody Brown, James Fauntleroy, Philip Lawrence, Ray Charles McCullough II, Jeremy Reeves, Ray Romulus & Jonathan Yip. He also won for Best R&B Performance and Best R&B Album.

The Grammy Awards are being held this Sunday, January 26 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, and broadcast on CBS. American Songwriter will be bringing you live coverage from backstage throughout the show, talking to winners and presenters, as well as the pre-televised part of the show in which countless Grammys are awarded prior to the TV show.

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