If you’ve ever turned up to a catchy R&B song at the club or family BBQ, there’s a good chance that Makeba Riddick-Woods was behind it. The Grammy-winning songwriter and vocal producer has been crafting hits for A-list stars like Beyoncé and Rihannasince her big break 16 years ago.
The Baltimore native grew up listening to Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Tears For Fears and Richard Marx. As she got older, her love for R&B blossomed as she became a massive Jodeci fan. “I’ve been trying to meet DeVante Swing literally since I was 13 years old, and I finally ran into him after running into someone who knew him at my Los Angeles hair salon,” she tells Billboard. “It was surreal, because I was trying to meet him for so long — like, my mom would write letters to the Jodeci fan club for me. I was so enamored by his musical ability.”
Riddick-Woods’ career kicked off after she signed her first publishing deal to Diddy’s Bad Boy/EMI Music Publishing at the age of 20. She was later managed by JAY-Z’s Roc Nation for 10 years and has since penned tunes for artists such as Toni Braxton, Kelis, Mariah Carey, the Sugababesand, most recently, gospel singer Koryn Hawthorne. Riddick-Woods has also written music for TV shows — including Fox’s Starand Empire— and wants to do the same for film.
“Writing for scenes and particular characters is a process that I’ve always wanted to challenge myself to get into,” she explains. “I look at someone like Pharrell, and what he did with the Despicable Me soundtrack was genius. So film is the next step for me. I’d love to do animation. I have two little girls who are six and three. That’s definitely been a big influence on me, because cartoons are always playing in the background .”
2002: Jennifer Lopez, “All I Have”
Her A&R at the time first reached out to me. I was playing all these demos for the label, and I guess as a joke the then-president [at Epic] said, “Well, if she’s really that dope, then she can write me a hit record for Jennifer Lopez. That should be easy for her!”
So I came with “All I Have,” which I wrote with my friend Curtis Richardson. [Another co-writer] Dave McPherson loved it and sent it to Cory Rooney, who was the executive producer of [Lopez’s This Is Me…Thenalbum]. Cory called me and said; “We want you to come to the Hit Factory because J. Lo heard it and wants to use it as her single.”
I was really young and fresh out of college and had just moved to New York. So this was surreal. I got to the Hit Factory and was like, “Wow, this is the biggest studio I’ve ever seen!” Jennifer was so sweet and down to earth — it wasn’t even like you were in the studio with this big superstar. Everyone made it feel so comfortable.
When the song hit No. 1, honestly I didn’t even know what that meant at that time! I was just so excited that I had a record with Jennifer Lopez that was on the radio. But I didn’t understand the ramifications of being at the top of (the Billboard Hot 100).
2005: Rihanna, “If It’s Lovin’ That You Want”
At the time I was managed by her A&R, [current Roc Nation CEO] Jay Brown. He called me and said, “We just signed this girl from Barbados, and we’re bringing her to New York. I want you to meet her and see if you guys can vibe.” She was young — about 15 or 16 years old — and we were just two girls having fun in the studio.
Brown then brought in [production duo] The Trackmasters, and they had this Jamaican-sounding record. So I just wrote to it, and they loved it! I didn’t know she already had “Pon De Replay” out — that was already doing crazy numbers. As a songwriter, I never know what’s gonna be a hit. I just have to go in, write the song and give it to the universe.
We didn’t know that Rihanna was going to be the biggest artist and become a rock star — we were just having a really good time. I never go into the studio thinking an artist is [going to be the next big thing], because that stifles me. If I knew what she was gonnabecome, “If It’s Lovin’ That You Want” may have never happened — I’d get nervous. I need to be levelheaded about what I’m doing.
2006: Rihanna, “Unfaithful”
“Unfaithful” really established me as a vocal producer. Ne-Yo had written “Unfaithful,” and [her team] took me out to Las Vegas so I could cut the vocals with her. Most artists have an awareness that they can sing, but they don’t know how to go into the studio and deliver the vocals and the emotion that grabs people out in radio land.
There are a lot of people who can tear a stage down, but recording? Not everyone has a grasp on that. With Rihanna, she didn’t even know she had such an incredible tone. I helped her find her confidence with that. Lyrically, it’s a pretty heavy song, and it was a big transition for her. Because it was written so brilliantly, I think we all knew it was going to be massive.
2007: Beyoncé’s B’Dayalbum
We worked on “Deja Vu” in a writing camp about eight months before Max Gousse [who oversaw A&R for B’Daywith Mathew Knowles] called me and said, “Beyoncé loves it and wants to cut it.” My whole world just went silent for a second! I was like, “No way. You are notserious!” I don’t think moments like those will ever stop being surreal to me.
Beyoncé is a perfectionist and had a clear vision, but no one was taking anybody too seriously. We were just having fun: myself, Sean Garrett, Rich Harrison, Solange and Beyoncé’s cousin Angie. Every night felt like a party. I remember when we were writing “Get Me Bodied” and started making up dances. We used to always order so much Chipotle in the studio, to the point that Beyoncé was like, “What is this food y’all eating?” She wasn’t eating like that at the time (after working on Dreamgirls), but she finally gave in and said, “Get me one of them Chipotle bowls!”
With “Upgrade U,” the process actually went smoothly. It doesn’t always work like that when you have so many writers working on one song. Me, Beyoncé, Sean, Solange, Angie and Swizz Beatz were all in a room together. Beyoncé and Sean started joking around and talking about first-class flights and diamonds. And those became the lyrics for “Upgrade U.” Solange and I wrote the bridge, Sean and Beyoncé wrote the hook and Angie wrote some verses.
We were in such a team head space, and I think that’s why the B’Dayalbum is so cohesive. Before you knew it, three weeks had gone by and we had made an entire album, with international cuts included. We came out with a classic body of work that went on to sell millions copies around the world.
2007: Rihanna, “Disturbia”
We’ve done so many songs together, and I would see the growth in every song, every performance, every time we went into the studio. We went to Toronto to cut this record — I think she was having a concert there. Chris Brown was also there, and he co-wrote the song with Andre Merritt. I think Brown introduced Rihanna to a more intricate sound.
And “Disturbia” was a record that Rihanna found; there wasn’t an A&R that brought it to her. So even that showed she was learning how to pick a hit herself. It’s always fun to see an artist evolve; she was able to jump from one genre to another and still be successful.
“During this point [with the release of Good Girl Gone Bad], she had found herself. That became one of the biggest albums she’s ever done. Jay Brown told me this album was going to be monumental for her career and was going to sell millions — and he was right!
2009: Rihanna, “Rude Boy”
So this is an interesting story. We were recording the Rated R album everywhere: Paris, Hawaii, Los Angeles. We also had a writing camp in London and [people like] Pharrell, will.i.am and Drake came through to see Rihanna play her records and see what the vibe was. We were in London for about a month, and by the end of it, everyone was exhausted and creatively stumped. We asked Jay Brown if we could go home and recharge our batteries. He told me individually, “We have just one more record from [producers] Stargate that [songwriter] Ester Dean started!” She had the idea but we needed to revisit the hook and rewrite a verse, so there was still a lot of stuff to be done. Brown said, “Just one more day. We believe this record could be really big.” So I sat with Rihanna to figure out how to make the record better and finally finish it.
I was so tired, but I’m glad that I stayed, because “Rude Boy” became the biggest song off that album and stayed at No. 1 [on the Billboard Hot 100] for five weeks straight. I’d love to work on her next dancehall album, so I’m ready whenever they call me! We’ve worked together for so many years and have shared so much success. I’m always open to working with her because we became genuine friends, and that magic oozes into the records.