Faheem Najm is one of the biggest stars in the music world, but he could check into a hotel or order a pizza using that name and few would take notice. Once he hits the stage as his alias T-Pain, though, everybody with a radio or iPod knows this rising hip-hop superstar.
Over the past three years, the Tallahassee native (and current Atlanta resident) has seen meteoric success not only with his own songs and albums, but as a highly coveted guest star; just ask Chris Brown, Flo Rida, Kanye West or Lil Wayne, who have all enjoyed top 10 hits with a little help from Pain. His catchy songs pull sytlistically from rap and R&B, and are buoyed by a robotic vocal effect created in a computer program called Auto-Tune, a technique that West recently used for his “808s & Heartbreak” album.
On the eve of setting out on the I Am Music tour (with Wayne, Keyshia Cole, Gym Class Heroes and Keri Hilson), we spoke with T-Pain about his new album, “Thr33 Ringz,” his famously filched vocal effect, and his surprising lack of future plans.
Can people expect a real circus when they come to see your show?
It’s very circus-y. I have 20 acts from a real circus, so I feel that should be pretty good.
I’ve heard you explain that the concept for “Thr33 Ringz” comes from you feeling like you are the ringleader of the music business. Did you have an interest in circuses before that?
Not at all, not one bit.
It does seem to be a popular theme right now since we have Britney Spears with her “Circus” album as well.
Yeah, different things seem to become popular once I did it, so I don’t know.
What’s the difference between a Britney circus and a T-Pain circus?
Britney circus is a little pop circus. T-Pain circus don’t give a bullcrap about anything that happens. [My people] are a little more hardcore than hers.
I don’t think you get a lot of credit for being a producer as well as an artist. But you conceptualize everything, don’t you?
Yeah, I produce everything that I do; 100 percent of my albums are produced by me. A lot of people don’t figure that out until the end. I think I’m about to go into the studio with some different producers now because I won “Producer of the Year” and “Writer of the Year” at the BMI Awards and I figure that proves my point.
Did you start producing out of necessity?
Yeah, that’s exactly what it was. I couldn’t pay for somebody else to do it, so when I started, I had to do it myself. I had to learn how to hit some keys.
Now that everybody has taken to the Auto-Tune sound and ripped you off, so to speak, does that make you want to reinvent your sound and your style?
Oh, not at all. I mean...they’re going to have to redo what they’re doing because after a while, people are going to be like, “OK, I’m tired of you doing T-Pain now. Get off of the T-Pain stuff.” It’s always going to be a T-Pain effect. Ain’t nobody been able to change that. It’s the T-Pain sound until people start calling it another guy’s sound; I’m gonna keep running with it.
So you’re not tired of it, then?
It makes me money—can’t be tired of that!
Why did you start using the Auto-Tune in the first place?
I had to use it for a mixtape I was doing. We were redoing a bunch of peoples’ songs and I had to redo Blackstreet’s “Deep” and I didn’t have a real vocoder so I had to find the Auto-Tune. Once I did that, it was kind of fun to do so I just kept doing it. After I did “Deep,” I did “I’m Sprung,” and that was my first Auto-Tuned release.
Does it kind of give you some freedom that you don’t really have with your own voice?
Not at all; you’ve still got to sing. You still have to be a singer. As you can see, when Kanye, Wayne and Ron Browz do it, they’ve still got to really sing. It doesn’t help you out too much. If you hit a wrong note, it’s going to hit a wrong note with you. It will actually magnify it more.
Do you have other sounds you’d like to explore?
Just my natural voice, which I do on every album, but it’s not Auto-Tune that’s making the hits. You still gotta write the song. If I do let the Auto-Tune go, it’ll just be the natural voice then and I’ll just keep writing the same songs.
I don’t mean to imply that it is selling your songs at all, that’d be absurd.
Everybody thinks it is, so that’s why they’re using it.
One of your funny aliases that you use is Teddy Penderazdoun— has Teddy Pendergrass said anything to you? Does he know about it?
I don’t think he knows about it. I don’t think he gives a crap.
What’s your immediate future after your tour? You have your label [Nappy Boy]; are you working on some of your artists’ releases?
Actually, I have no idea what’s going on after the tour. It’s kind of hard to figure out.
So you’re not really one of those master planners that could say what they’ll be doing in five or 10 years?
Not at all—if I try to do something and God doesn’t want that to happen, it ain’t gonna happen, no way. So I’m just letting God take the wheels and let it go wherever it’s gonna go.