Songwriter or star? The-Dream, Muni Long and two paths to the Grammys.
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Songwriter or star? The-Dream, Muni Long and two paths to the Grammys.
Priscilla Hamilton, the R&B singer known as Muni Long, in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 2023. Long has been both a songwriter behind the scenes, and an artist releasing her own music. (Daniel Dorsa/The New York Times)

by Joe Coscarelli

NEW YORK, NY.- Although Adele, Beyoncé and Harry Styles may soak up the most attention at Sunday’s Grammy Awards, other musicians often relegated to the fine print of superstar albums will celebrate one extra chance at recognition this year. For the first time, the Recording Academy will present an award for songwriter of the year, nonclassical, making background figures the focus, at least for a moment.

But although the five nominees in the inaugural category may be best understood as collaborators toiling in the studio shadows, each has performed and released their own music, too, pointing to an enduring industry reality: The line between headliner and behind-the-scenes hand is porous and ever fluctuating, especially in a social media era that has demystified much of the pop-music machine, casting the spotlight in unlikely places.

Terius Gesteelde-Diamant, or The-Dream (formerly Terius Nash), knows the delicate dance between secret weapon and star performer better than most. Credited as a writer on blockbuster hits such as Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” The-Dream has also released five solo albums across a varied 15-year career.

Nominated six times this year for his contributions to Beyoncé’s “Renaissance,” plus as a songwriter for work with Pusha T and Brent Faiyaz, The-Dream will face off for the songwriting honors against Amy Allen (Lizzo, King Princess); Nija Charles (Beyoncé, Summer Walker); Tobias Jesso Jr. (Styles, Adele); and Laura Veltz (Maren Morris, Demi Lovato).

If the award had existed earlier, that list may very well have included Priscilla Hamilton.

Now known as R&B singer Muni Long, Hamilton worked more than a decade as a songwriter on tracks such as Pitbull and Kesha’s “Timber,” Rihanna’s “California King Bed” and Fifth Harmony’s “Worth It.” This year, after breaking through with the TikTok hit “Hrs and Hrs,” she earned a Grammy nomination for best new artist, along with best R&B performance and best R&B song.

In a joint interview, Muni Long, 34, and The-Dream, 45, discussed their unique industry vantage point; their intertwining paths to Grammys recognition; and how to best be a vessel for another artist and your own work. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: Having alternated between forward-facing artist and behind-the-scenes writer, your nominations this year could easily have been swapped at another point in time. Were you in a background role?

MUNI LONG: I’ve always wanted to perform and never even really knew that songwriting was a profession. I got my start on the internet in 2004 — YouTube, writing my own stuff, doing covers. I went viral a couple times, back before that was a word, and I got a deal with Capitol Records. I had no idea what I was doing and was just trusting the leadership of those around me. When you come from the dirt-road country and you get thrown into Hollywood, you just think, “Oh, these people know.” And now, in hindsight, I realize nobody knows.

I was an NPC — a nonplayable character — literally just going through the motions and trying to be what I thought people wanted me to be. I did an album under the name Priscilla, but I was very unhappy. I was never my full self in those moments. Then everything came to a grinding halt.

Q: Did transitioning to songwriting feel like Plan B? Or did it feel right?

MUNI LONG: It was off to the races. I was doing five sessions a day, writing two songs in every session. I did it to eat, No. 1. And No. 2, it was constantly the carrot on the end of the stick: “If you get a Top 10, that will help you in your artist career. If you get a No. 1 … If you get two No. 1s.”

I kept reaching the milestones and the finish line kept moving. I was making lots of money, had a lot of success, and I was still just very unhappy. So, I decided to pause. I sat down for like eight months, trying to decide what I wanted out of this. That’s when Muni Long was born.

Q: Dream, did you start with visions of stardom?

THE-DREAM: It’s such a contrast, for me, being from Atlanta, Georgia, because everything was about the band — and it always was. The HBCUs, the Florida [A&M University] Marching 100, Grambling, Jackson. We studied those VCR tapes. And in third grade, I started playing trumpet. Everything was the culture of being in the band and being a part of something, knowing all these things have to come together to make a piece of music. That designed what my flight was.

Q: How did you make it a career?

THE-DREAM: Being a kid in the ’90s, everything was about hustling the music game to get out — no different than going to play basketball or football. If there’s a dope dealer over here who’s trying to put out a rap record, you go over and write the hook. At that time, like stars colliding in space, there was L.A. Reid starting LaFace, So So Def, Dallas Austin writing these incredible songs. These are people that we know! “You seen Dallas in that new Ferrari? You know how he got it?” “Nah …” “He wrote these records!” Once we knew, voila.

Q: Muni, did those people pave the way for how your career unfolded?

MUNI LONG: I grew up on my grandparents’ farm, and I would be in the room watching “106 and Park,” never realizing that one day I would know these people and be brushing shoulders with them. It took a minute for me to feel like I was supposed to be there and not like I was intruding. Until maybe about five or six years ago.

After all the ways that I attempted to break through as an artist, I decided to take advantage of TikTok and social media. It’s so much easier now to break through, especially if your music is good. It only took six days for my song to go from nothing to No. 1.

Q: Dream, you’ve said you made your solo records reluctantly.

THE-DREAM: My first album, “Love/Hate,” was showcasing things that people wouldn’t take a chance on. Take a song like “I Love Your Girl” — however sweet it may sound from a tone and texture standpoint, it was saying a super-menacing thing. What R&B artist at the time would’ve sung that? No one. Now there’s a whole genre based on that feeling and idea.

Hits, they go up fast, but they come down fast. When a record goes No. 1, I cringe. If something is that wide, that means it can’t really be first. It can’t be that unique. Like “Break My Soul” vs. “Cuff It.” “Cuff It” is this growing thing that’s not on a conveyor belt.

MUNI LONG: When things tip over into the mainstream, it’s like, “OK, that’s corny, we can’t do that anymore.” People take the slang and start using it wrong. The lyric is slapped on the side of a coffee cup — that’s not cool. Once something becomes huge, it loses its quirkiness and the thing that made it —

THE-DREAM: Special.

Q: Recently someone on social media posted the instrumental for “Single Ladies” and was like how did someone sing over this?

THE-DREAM: I was sitting on the sofa that day listening to this track Tricky [Stewart] was doing. He was about to go on to the next idea. He had no idea that in my head, I’ve written the whole thing.

I went, basically, from the top of that song all the way down, and we knew exactly what it was. We knew it was a smash. You’re hearing this thing that sounds from outer space — I don’t understand where the melody’s going to come from. But back to this idea of the South, Baptist church — some place in Hawkinsville, Georgia.

MUNI LONG [clapping and singing]: We don’t need no music! We don’t need no music!

THE-DREAM: That’s where I am in my head. All I see is big hats, fans in the summertime, hot sweat, gnats — all that stuff you don’t want to be a part of in the South in the middle of June at some church homecoming. Then the business of it is “What’s broad about this?” Broad is the topic: a woman who says you didn’t catch me when I was down and now I’m up. It’s the ugly duckling — we know that story. You just put it in a different way.

MUNI LONG: One of the biggest things about being a hit songwriter, or an artist who writes these incredible songs, is being able to A&R — what music is great and what isn’t, knowing when not to write on something, knowing when to pass. It’s that feeling. You were talking about freestyling a song from top to bottom — every song I’ve ever done that on has been huge: “California King Bed,” “Timber,” “Hrs and Hrs,” “Don’t Wake Me Up.” You don’t get in the way of what the song wants to be.

Q: What are your other strategies as a writer when you sit down with a big artist?

THE-DREAM: For me to jump in with a Bey and Rihanna, to be them, I was them all day before I got to the studio. I was them five years ago. The gift is being able to communicate a certain emotion.

MUNI LONG: I love co-creation. I love being the least-talented person in a room. I like to see inside of people’s brains. How do you talk? How do you view the world? If I’m writing for another artist, I’m becoming this channel, this vessel for how you speak. I’m in complete service mode.

Q: When did you realize you could be that chameleon?

MUNI LONG: I grew up, like I said, watching countdowns — “TRL,” VH1. Very similar to a Max Martin or a lot of my friends from Sweden, where they only get the hits, so that’s how they think of songs. It’s harder for me to do something niche, like a SZA or a Tyler, the Creator, that cool thing. I’m thinking structure — “I have to catch them in the first 15 seconds!” I really want to make something that touches as many people as possible.

Q: Muni, what else did you bring from your time as a songwriter into the headliner you’ve become?

MUNI LONG: I didn’t really receive the best treatment as a songwriter. I’m not the only one who feels like this. The spaces that I was in — being a Black woman, being young — I just knew that I didn’t want to continue those toxic cycles of treating people poorly.

Q: What does it mean to see the Grammys acknowledge songwriters with their own category after all these years?

THE-DREAM: Nobody knew who The-Dream was in that space until “Single Ladies.” That means we missed 24 months of the most special part of my existence. That’s why this category is so important. If there’s not a person who brings you to the table early on, we have to close that gap. We have to go into that dungeon to find that person. It’s the only way we can grow.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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