The Next Big Thing

A middle-aged couple with a million dollars and a big dream: To make St. Louis a pop-music hub

But it was luck that brought the Butterfields into Melina's orbit. From her days on the pageant circuit, Karrie was acquainted with a pop arranger named Jeremy Lubbock, who'd won a Grammy for arranging Chicago's soft-rock classic, "Hard Habit to Break." When Karrie told Lubbock of her vision for a music company to capitalize on the St. Louis sound, she recalls, "He said, 'You need to meet Alan Melina.'"

And when Karrie Butterfield flew out to the coast and played some demos cut by St. Louis singers and rappers, Melina was hooked. "I've always felt that a lot of talent in the Midwest really just needed opportunity and thought this could be a great one for St. Louis," says Melina, who signed on as a consultant through New Heights Entertainment, which he co-owns.

Neither party will provide details of the partnership, though Todd Butterfield says his company is "not paying [Melina] a large amount." In addition to a monthly fee, New Heights will receive a percentage of the sales of any song Melina can pair with an artist.

Da Banggaz314: Iklips, Nonna and Looney (left to right).
Jennifer Silverberg
Da Banggaz314: Iklips, Nonna and Looney (left to right).
7Fourteen's pint-size rapper: "Roll with Lil Roge and you know you're having fun."
Jennifer Silverberg
7Fourteen's pint-size rapper: "Roll with Lil Roge and you know you're having fun."

Melina says he wants to help shape 7Fourteen into a one-stop song-building entity. "I like to think of it as the Brill Building meets Motown meets LaFace," says Melina, who also likes to compare the creative process of songwriting to the manufacture of automobiles: "Where you have all the components, where you can build a car in-house if you need to, where the sum of the whole is greater than its parts.

"MCs, producers, songwriters, lyricists — those are the component parts of making records," he explains. "David [Bowie] needed a producer. Sade writes incredible lyrics, but she has help with the music. It's a miracle when you meet a Marvin Gaye, who can do everything."

The Butterfields were flush with singing and rapping talent but lacked a solid songwriter when Melina flew to St. Louis last summer. He arranged a sit-down with entertainment lawyer R. Emmett McAuliffe, who sold him on one of his clients: Carla Carter.

Although she was only 22 at the time, Carter had already written tracks with members of Philadelphia hip-hop collective the Roots and platinum track-maker Scott Storch, who produced 50 Cent's massive hit "Candy Shop."

McAuliffe remembers the meeting well. "I said, 'I'm going to be perfectly honest with you: She is my client, and I'm going to tell you that she is the best. You can believe it or not. But she is the best.'"

Carter signed on last summer. Under the arrangement, she's required to write a certain number of songs, and 7Fourteen (through New Heights) is expected to sell them. Copyrights — and profits — are to be split between Carter and 7Fourteen.

As part of the agreement, Melina and Laurent Besencon, his New York-based partner in New Heights, pair Carter with top producers and songwriters. "We want her to become a name in those circles so that we can really get her on the map," explains Carter's manager, Chris Hansen of St. Louis-based Hazel Music Syndicate. "And that's what's been happening."

Melina envisions a time when Carter is writing hard-edged ballads for Beyoncé, dance-floor stompers for Ciara, bitter break-up songs for Fantasia. But now, as her driver heads down Sunset Boulevard, she's still trying to crack the code of that eight-bar rhythm. The beat was created by Soulshock and Karlin, a production team responsible for hits by, among many others, Tupac, JoJo, Whitney Houston and Toni Braxton. Melina's got a lot staked on this session, as does Carter, who sees it as an opportunity to prove to investors — and to herself — that she's the real deal.

Her cell phone rings: a sample of Napoleon Dynamite saying, "You guys are retarded." On the other end is fellow songwriter Kevin Randolph, calling on the road from Atlanta, where he's playing keyboards on tour for Toni Braxton. Though Randolph and Carter have only known each other a few months, they've quickly bonded over their shared profession. When Carter fills him in on what she's up against, Randolph, at age 31 a songwriting veteran, tries to allay her doubts. "Sometimes it clicks and sometimes it doesn't," he tells her. "When it doesn't, it's nobody's fault."

Carter sits at an Apple monitor at 7Fourteen's loft headquarters with the company's in-house producer, Steve T, replaying the chorus of "Tender," a song-in-progress that has caught the fancy of Randy Jackson. One of the most respected and influential names in pop, Jackson has performed, produced and/or toured with artists from Jerry Garcia to Herbie Hancock to Celine Dion. He was an executive at both Columbia and MCA, and for the past five years has been one of three judges on American Idol. He sees "Tender" as a match for Idol winner Fantasia's new CD.

But Alan Melina thinks the song's hook needs work.

A bass-heavy romp with a scattershot rhythm, Roland 808 handclaps and a recurrent chime that tings along as Alisha Rene' sings Carla's ode to a forbidden thug.

Everybody in the hood is telling me you're that dude

And now I'm really feeling you

The way your grill shines when you bite your lip

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