#beacooldad + CoolxFriday with Russel Gonzalez
Whether it’s producing albums for major musicians, partnering with visual artists to find homes for their work, or remaining optimistic through 2021, Russel Gonzalez is focused on rooting out the “good stuff” and amplifying it.
“In 2022, I’m looking for the same thing I’ve always been looking for,” he said. “Great people, great food, great music. It’s actually really simple. We don’t have to move mountains to be happy.”
Houston-born Gonzalez — AKA, The ARE — spent his teens in New York, mingling with DJs and producers. When he realized he needed money to purchase equipment and start making his own music, he returned home to Houston, got a job, and bought his first sampler. In 1992, he founded the hip hop group K-Otix, with whom he toured the world four times.
After branching off from that band to join the legendary hip hop production group Trackmasters, Gonzalez helped produce albums for Keyshia Cole, LL Cool J, Nicki Minaj, Lil’ Kim, and Earth Wind & Fire, among other household names. Recently, he’s broadened his career focus into art advisory in the Houston area.
As this month’s CoolxFriday feature, Gonzalez is dropping a groovy mix and, Suitsupply hooked him up with a fresh, custom suit for a trip to the opera with his daughter Harlow. We caught up with Gonzalez afterwards to talk about his career, why he thinks ideas about fatherhood are outdated, and how he always finds the silver lining.
How did you first get interested in music?
As a kid, I was playing drums, I was performing, I was in plays — I was just always kind of front and center. So, I was around that a lot of my life but to be honest, I don’t ever really think about it as being a huge part of my childhood. It wasn’t until I actually put my hands on the machines — samplers and sequencers and drum machines — to create something, musically, that it clicked.
You went on to work with Trackmasters, producing and writing for some of the biggest names of the ‘90s and early 2000s. What came next?
I think I kind of slowed down and got a little burnt out from the industry. When I decided to stay put here in Houston in 2010/2011, I wanted to branch out. I started doing stuff for commercials and television — intros and outros to documentaries — just anything musically that I could contribute to television through Warner. Then I started to pivot more into the visual art world, working with artists here and helping them place their works in wonderful homes and build new relationships, so that’s kind of where I’m at. I do the music thing, I produce, I write, I help develop artists and I work with visual artists.
With all of these different modes of art-making in your life, there’s no way your daughter isn’t artistic as well.
Yes, her name is Harlow, she’s 16, and she’s amazing. She’s a natural artist; her thing is anime. She draws her own characters, and it blows me away. She’s been creating some really wonderful things from an early age — even at seven or eight, she was drawing really well, like above average.
How does music play a part in connecting the two of you?
She was there for much of my career. From a baby, baby — I’m talking swaddled baby — she was part of this routine. I would wake up in the morning and I would be with her while her mother would go to work. I would be making music, feeding her, then putting her down and going back to the music. There were probably times where she was in my arms while I was putzing around on machines.
Does she think it’s cool that her dad has worked with LL Cool J and all these big names?
I don’t think she really thinks I’m much [laughs], but she has told a few people that I’ve worked with Nicki Minaj. She gets some props off of me.
That’s something I’m really proud of, is leaving a little bit of a legacy. I’m leaving lots of music on records from the ‘90s that I’ve produced.
What would you say inspires you?
I’m inspired by just overall creativity. You put me in a room full of art and I get inspired. I like colorful things. I like anything creative, but there’s this happy place that allows my brain and my soul to function when I’m around cool stuff: Great furniture, great art work, good people, happy people, and people who aren’t afraid to laugh. Those are things that make you feel good and inspired and make you want to be better at what you’re doing.
You made a mix for CoolxFriday. Can you tell us what it’s like?
It’s going to be some really groovy soul and boogie records. Funky stuff from James Brown on up; from Prince to Michael Jackson. When I get booked as a DJ, my main stuff goes from early soul, just very funk-driven James Brown productions to the end of the night when I’m actually into some really deep kind of soulful disco, some Nile Rogers, for example.
What are you most looking forward to in this new year?
Here’s the thing, we all have had some craziness with the pandemic. People have lost their jobs, I know that. But even though we were stuck inside, I still ate some really great food and had some really wonderful conversations, listened to some amazing music on my own, poured a drink, and danced by myself or with a friend. I made the best of it. I want more of the good sh*t. Doesn’t mean I didn’t have any bad stuff, but whatever good stuff I did have, I want more of that.
I’m always like, ‘Bring on another year, let’s have fun.’
What does the CoolxDad mission mean to you?
I was a stay-at-home dad. I was able to make music at home, so I was very much involved in my daughter’s life. I was there with her every day, making beats, changing diapers, feeding her, napping, getting up early, and going to bed. I was doing it all. And when I left, I continued to do that but I felt like I was looked at in a negative way, because I had left.
I did an album around that time, it’s called “Here My Dear,” based on the Marvin Gaye album of the same name, and I used that whole album, sampled it and chopped it up. It’s about my daughter and the whole transition from leaving to going to where I live now. Nothing changed, I just didn’t sleep at the same house. And I didn’t feel like my situation was unique. I saw dads every day picking their children up from school and an overabundance of dads involved and I realized that we’d made a huge change to where fathers can be in their children’s lives more. They start doing stuff at home, rather than going to an office 9 to 5.
I started trying to tell people that and it was like I was speaking another language, so I started being an advocate for fathers in court. The rules based on the 1960s are going against what we’re doing now… Instead of first, third, and fifth and half of Thursday every week, we should be giving dads more. Some of us, you don’t have to make us. We want to do that.
How do you see CoolxDad having an impact on that?
Ultimately, the connection would need to also reach the legal side into the courts, judges, people that actually have the power to make decisions. When it comes to time with the children — as long as there’s no abuse or criminality — nobody should be punished in terms of time with the children.
Sounds like a lofty goal. Let’s end on a few words of advice. What is the top underrated — but totally necessary — dad skill?
I’m a clown. I think dads can be too damn serious. I remember when I was young, I thought all my friends’ dads were mean. They felt like they had to be tough guys in order to get respect. I feel the opposite: I want to be humble and nice and fun, until it’s time to be serious. It allows a truth. It allows your children to be themselves and not be afraid to smile or laugh or say something that they might be uncomfortable about.
Written by Elizabeth Lepro
Photography by Jontrice Murray
Videography by Vinh Luong