turn the music up

An Oral History of Rihanna’s ‘Pon de Replay’

Fifteen years ago, a dancehall riddim and a Bajan teenager launched a pop icon.

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photo by Youtube
Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photo by Youtube
Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photo by Youtube

It’s hard to picture Rihanna in 2020 without her multiple crowns: wealthiest female musician, one of the world’s best-selling artists, a multi-hyphenate businesswoman, the first woman of color to lead a luxury fashion house under LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. But in 2005, she was just a tenacious, unknown 17-year-old named Robyn Rihanna Fenty from the left side of a Caribbean destination island who demanded the attention of the international music scene with a simple request: “Turn the music UP!” “Pon de Replay,” the first single from Rihanna’s debut album, Music of the Sun, was a product of its musical environment that meshed together bubbling dancehall rhythms with a pop approach. It starts off boastful, with a handclap-heavy drum line that quickly ushers the body to the middle of the club. Before you can grab a drink, it shifts into fifth gear as Rihanna coos in her lilting Bajan accent: “Come Mr. DJ song pon de replay / Come Mr. DJ won’t you turn the music up.”

While it was a familiar sound to dancehall fans throughout the Caribbean and the New York tristate area, most critics at the time didn’t know what to make of it. Rolling Stone compared Rihanna to a “young Mariah Carey minus the birdcalls, and the generic vocal hiccups and frills clearly learned from American R&B often overwhelm her Caribbean charm.” Entertainment Weekly said, “The Barbadian belle’s ‘Pon de Replay’ rode a beat reminiscent of Lou Bega’s ‘Mambo No. 5’ to the top of the charts. Thanks to support from Jay-Z and Def Jam, Rihanna’s fame will likely last longer than Bega’s, but it shouldn’t.” On the opposite end, the New York Times commended Rihanna for being “the latest singer to discover how versatile [dancehall’s] spring-loaded electronic rhythms can be.”

Fifteen years later, while now a distant 2000s relic, “Pon de Replay” deserves recognition as the anchor of her entire career. Sure, the artist has a Fenty-monogrammed suitcase stuffed with career-defining blockbusters like “What’s My Name,” “We Found Love,” “Diamonds,” and “Umbrella,” and in the shadow of its successors and her image overhaul, “Pon de Replay” reads timid. But the song remains indispensable. Listen closely to Rihanna’s discography, and her Caribbean background has never faltered: from 2009’s flirtatious “Rude Boy” and 2010’s haunting “Man Down” to 2012’s Unapologetic deep cut “No Love Allowed” and the sweltering “Work” team-up with Drake on 2016’s ANTI. Rihanna also hasn’t forgotten, celebrating the May 24 anniversary of her debut single on Instagram.

Below, four of the song’s main players — including its songwriter and producer, the music video’s director, and the person who discovered Rihanna — share memories about 3 a.m. contract signings, Def Jam’s leap of faith, and a beach vacation that led to stumbling on this generation’s most prolific pop star.

A Girl Called Robyn: ‘Listen, You’ve Got Something Special’

Dancehall, reggae’s rugged younger sibling, rushed back and forth in waves since it’s birth in the ’70s. And in the early aughts, the genre found yet another audience with the millennial masses. Jamaican artists like Elephant Man, Sean Paul, and Beenie Man dominated airwaves, clubs, and even the Billboard Hot 100 with singles that urged people to shake off their troubles on the dance floor. “Pon de Replay” and Rihanna entered at just the right time. 

Evan Rogers, songwriter-producer and co-founder of Syndicated Rhythm Productions: Carl [Sturken, Rogers’s longtime business partner and SRP co-founder] and I went to Barbados [in the ’80s] and we both met women that we ended up marrying a year later. I was 19 and he was like 18 or 20. It was 20-something years before this all happened with Rihanna. My wife is much more connected with Barbados, so we go there all the time. [When we were vacationing there in 2003] one of her best friends who she grew up with there had a daughter who was in a girl group with Rihanna. They were all 15. And because I’m there so much, people know I’m a songwriter-producer; everybody always has someone that wants to audition.

My wife’s goddaughter asked if the girl group could come by our villa. Rihanna was the last one to show up, she was late. [Laughs.] She drew all the attention and I was almost thinking maybe she’s just in the group because she’s so striking [to look at]. Sometimes it works that way. I had each one of them sing for me individually and then they did a little bit together. But Rihanna sang “Dangerously in Love” by Beyoncé.

She just had something really unique. She was doing some of the really complicated Beyoncé runs and hitting some of them — not all of them — but there was something about her tone that really, really stuck out to me, combined with the fact that I just thought she had an amazing presence, even in her school uniform with her acne and little plaits. After the audition, I got all of their parents’ numbers, and my wife called Rihanna’s mom to ask if they could come back the next day.

I told her, “Listen, I think you’ve got something special. I live in Connecticut and our studio is in Westchester, New York. On your school break or something, maybe we could fly you both up and just experiment if you’d like to take a shot at this.” Then we ended up signing her to our production company [SRP].

Vada Nobles, producer and songwriter: I first met the late Andre Harrell [in 2001, following a lawsuit against Lauryn Hill for credit for Nobles’s work on The Miseducation] in his Bentley. He said, “You working with Lauryn Hill don’t make you a super-producer. She was already a big artist. What makes you a super-producer is when you can break a new artist’s career.” So that became my mission.

I left New Jersey and moved to Orlando, Florida, in 2002. Dancehall was really dominating at this point. I started learning about Jamaican sounds. I ended up making one riddim called the “Jennah riddim,” which is named after my daughter who had just been born. “Pon de Replay” came from that; it was highly influenced by the Indian Diwali sound.

I cut the record with a local female artist called Malica who was actually Jamaican. She grew up in America, but her patois was really, really good. I pressed it up, did some promo, and sent it out to some DJs and it started getting buzz. I thought, I need to get these verses cleared. So I started reaching out, and for one verse, they said [it would cost] $7,500 upfront and a third of the publishing. I just assumed that the next person was going to want $7,000. I’m going to spend $20,000 and then they’re going to take all the rights. No, I’m a businessman. So what I needed to do was make an original song to [the riddim]. At the time, there was a young guy who I was mentoring from New Jersey to get into the music business. He became an A&R named Chris Anokute.

One day Chris calls me and says, “I got this girl that I’m managing. She’s working with some producers and [they’re] not really treating her right. She’s sitting in a studio. They don’t pay for food for her. They’re not sharing their weed.” [Laughs.] I sent him the record and then he sent the message back asking if I can take some of the sounds out. Alisha wrote “Pon de Replay” and sent it back — I never met her.

Alisha “M’Jestie” Brooks, songwriter: In 2004, I worked with Diddy for a song called “Freak” [for his artist] Cheri Dennis that kind of flopped. By the time “Pon de Replay” [was sent to me], I was just getting over that scar. I was still working regular jobs and I was a teen parent. I had to get out of New Jersey. So the song was a dream.

The way [the credits] were listed to the public, I was [given] a co-write. But, just for the record, I wrote the lyrics and melody. The production was done by Vada Nobles, Carl Sturken, and Evan Rogers. [SRP] was looking for a hit record, and I had already written one that prior April. My manager, Chris Anokute, played Vada’s track for me in the driveway of Kool & the Gang’s Robert Bell. But it had a weird bass line. I said, “If you take that out I’m pretty sure I can write something to it,” because I liked the vibe right away. It took them four months to get that bass line out, but they finally booked me for a studio session.

We were in West Orange, New Jersey, in this basement studio from about 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Vada Nobles had a vision. He wanted a song that was catchy [in the vein of Louchie Lou & Michie One’s 1993 song] “Rich Girl.”

Remember the movie Beetlejuice? The scene where they sing “Come, mister tally man, tally me banana” [from Harry Belafonte’s 1956 song “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)”], I used to rewind it all the time because it was so dope. That song came into my head when I heard the track after a few hours of sitting there with the beat just repeating over and over again. Zhané had a song called “Hey Mr. DJ” [in 1993] and it had this vibe. I don’t really write songs like that, where I picture another dope song and try to put it all together, but that’s how “Pon de Replay” came about.

Nobles: Marc Jordan was the former head of Urban Music Columbia Records [and Rihanna’s first manager]. He called me and said, “I have this girl you need to check out. She’s signed to these producers Sturken and Rogers. They don’t know what to do with her. I know you’re doing the dancehall and you understand the Caribbean sound. Check her out.” I never heard of them.

I said, “I got to go to Cannes the next day. I don’t want to get stuck in a snowstorm and don’t go to France. Have them send a car [to take to me SRP]. I’ll do it out of my relationship with you.” I told my friend Nicole, “Don’t even come upstairs. Keep the car running.” Me and my assistant Alex meet the guys and they’re giving me their background.

‘She Needs to Break R&B, This Is Too Pop’

The glory days of acts like Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, and Tina Turner achieving coveted crossovers were dwindling once the new millennium arrived. Black artists were finding success in the confines of R&B and hip-hop. As Evan Rogers and Carl Sturken began to shop around “Pon de Replay” to various record labels, they quickly ran into unexpected roadblocks.

Rogers: It was one of those beats that comes along every few years that you just hear and can’t even define it. It grabbed everyone the minute it came on. Carl filled in the track with bass, chords, and synth lines and gave it some more structure. And then we had Rihanna sing it and we gave it a little bit more melody to what M’Jestie had done.

I played it for Rihanna over the phone. She was like [mimicking Rihanna’s Bajan accent]: “Uncle Ev, it sounds like a nursery rhyme. I like it, but I don’t know.” She had just gone back to Barbados. We said, “Well, we’re gonna fly you back up because we think this could be huge.” She was like, “Okay, I trust you.” She has a way of owning a song. And even at the very beginning, there was just something about that tone that she had. It was a perfect match for her too, because it had a Caribbean attitude to it.

M’Jestie: I didn’t know what song pon de replay meant [“play it again”], but at the time there were all these dope records that were so big: Sean Paul and Beyoncé’s “Baby Boy,” Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina,” and Elephant Man’s “Pon de River.” It just sounded cool, but I didn’t want to be fake about it. I’m from the same [north New Jersey] area as Lauryn Hill, Queen Latifah, and Naughty by Nature, so in the ’90s everything culturally was happening in my backyard. Lauryn Hill played a major part in making it okay: You don’t have to be from somewhere else to respect and understand the culture and be able to add it in your music. I’m not Jamaican or Caribbean at all, but I felt very comfortable and understood what [that music] was doing at the time.

Nobles: When I went to go mix it, Rihanna came by the studio. In the session, as we’re playing the mixdown versions, all she thought about at that time was hooking up with [singer] Mario she was a big fan. I told her: “Don’t worry. When this record drops, all the boys will be feeding you grapes like you’re Cleopatra.”

Rogers: Our lawyer, Scott Felcher, was lining up meetings with labels. We were telling people we got a hot new artist from Barbados and we’re flying her up next week. We played it for some label people that we were really tight with just to get some initial feedback. There were a few people that said, “She’s kind of pitchy, she sounds a little tinny in her voice.” The first label we went to was [the now-defunct] J Records. We wanted to meet with Clive Davis because we had done a lot of work with him around that time on American Idol with Kelly Clarkson and Ruben Studdard.

Turns out, Clive was just flown in overnight and was tied up in a meeting when we walked in with Rihanna, so we were actually only meeting with the A&R guy, Steve Ferrera. He said, “She needs to break R&B, this is too pop.” Rihanna kind of sat there and I felt so bad for her.

Nobles: Back in the day, black artists did not skip over black radio and go straight pop. If that happened, then they would get alienated and have problems backtracking at black radio. “Pon de Replay” crossed over right away. She wasn’t really getting the initial respect and support from black radio. She’s an international pop star because she was introduced as a pop artist. Now, when they did the “Umbrella” record, they were grabbing urban [radio]. And the great thing about it is she did so well at pop that her urban records went pop. I think “Pon de Replay” is an international classic record.

Rogers: At the time we were saying, “I don’t see why she can’t sit next to someone like P!nk.” In Barbados, there’s not an R&B scene especially back then. When we first met Rihanna and asked what she listens to, it was Celine Dion, Michael Bolton, and Mariah Carey. It wasn’t like, Oh, because you’re black, you only listened to R&B. She was also a big hip-hop fan, of course. but she loved all kinds of music. We saw her as an artist that could break down walls. (Years later, when we wrote “Shut Up and Drive” for her, that was a whole nother big story where we were told she couldn’t do a rock song.)

Then right before we left, Ferrera said, “Well, you can go have her perform the song for the promotion team.” So we went into this conference room with the regional radio promo people and we put on the boom box. She performed the song, and then she did another ballad on acoustic guitar called “The Last Time.”

It was just dead … crickets. Nobody responded, nothing. And I started thinking, If I have to send her back to Barbados empty-handed without a record deal after all this excitement, it would be so awful. In the next meeting with Def Jam, though, they were all aware of her. They had a big picture that I sent of her that they blew up in [former Def Jam executive VP and current Roc Nation co-founder, Tyran Smith] Ty Ty’s office. It’s just how this business goes, from feeling like you suck and then the next minute you walk in and we have superpowers. You know the legendary story: She auditioned for Jay-Z.

*Rihanna:  When I went to [Jay-Z’s] office, I was so nervous — I was a mess. But the minute I met him, the atmosphere was so warm and welcoming. I was able to audition comfortably. He was impressed by it.

Rogers: Then [former Def Jam chairman/CEO] L.A. Reid came in. Jay-Z said, “What do we have to do to cancel all the rest of your meetings?” They negotiated the long-form contract that day.

*Rihanna: He didn’t let me leave until 3 in the morning to sign the deal.

M’Jestie: I heard nothing for a long time about the song. Then nine months later, I was working at Olive Garden on my lunch break, and boom, I got a call from Chris that they found a girl named Robyn. He said, “Are you sitting down?” Pretty much the classic moment. “Jay-Z just signed a girl last night. Her first single is ‘Pon de Replay.’ That’s your song. It was the fastest deal in history.”

Rogers: Normally those kinds of deals would take six, seven weeks of negotiating. But our lawyers, Scott Felcher and Keith Culter, got in there. L.A. Reid stayed until the thing was done. There’s actual footage of us signing the contract that’s going to be in this upcoming documentary that Rihanna’s releasing on Amazon Prime. We canceled the rest of the meetings, and all the other labels were very angry when they heard “Pon de Replay” on the radio.

M’Jestie: I was at my godmother’s house [listening to Hot 97’s] Funkmaster Flex spinning at night. For anybody from this era, he was the god of DJ-ing. My godfather called and said, “Are you still there? The song is about to come on, he’s mixing it in.” My godmother jumps up, turns the radio on, and I hear the beat in the background. It was low and on half-time, so I was thinking, No, they ruined my record! Then Flex runs it back, dropping bombs [sound effects]. To [hear] Funkmaster Flex drop a bomb on your record … you only dream of it! He starts screaming: “Shout out to Rihanna, you did it baby! She’s probably sleeping right now because she’s like 16 years old!” It was surreal.

‘Oh Shit, We Made the Wrong Video’

Rihanna’s star power was immediate. Despite being a newcomer to the music business, the teen was hungry for fame. Music video auteur Director X, who’d already made waves with multiple Sean Paul collaborations (“Gimmie the Light,” “Get Busy,” “I’m Still in Love With You”) as well as Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” and Usher’s “U Don’t Have to Call,” instantly realized her spark on the set of “Pon de Replay”.

Director X, music video director: I wanted to shoot the video in Toronto. Nowadays people really understand how Toronto is a big West Indian town. But back then it wasn’t so well known. I wanted to put that flavor around her with kids who came from the culture and understood it. I think her and Drake met around that time.

[Star power] is just something that people have when it’s just you and the camera. There’s a level of confidence. There’s a way of controlling the body that’s more than just practice. There’s the “It” factor: I see what’s up kid. Got it.

M’Jestie: When I met her, she was a kid! Carl and Evan invited me to their studio to write a few more songs with her. She was wearing some pink pants and a little yellow cut-off shirt. They promised me it would go on the album, so there was this romanticized energy about where this was going. I remember when she first got introduced to Chinese food. It was really fun: They asked her what she wanted to eat and she’s like, “Uhh, the thing with the chicken and the broccoli.” [Laughs.] She was in a new country with a lot of things happening. Her energy was very meditative. I remember asking her, “What do you think is gonna happen next?” She said, “I don’t know.”

Rogers: She would just learn [in the studio] and she would have you do it again and again. You’d say, “Rihanna, you want to take a break?” She just wanted to keep going until we thought it was right. She always had that work ethic. When she puts her mind to something … she’s a perfectionist and so focused. From day one, she never complained about being homesick. She was on a mission.

Photo: YouTube

Director X: She was a little joker but always a pro. In the video, she has a blue dress on and it’s a solo cutaway performance shot. We shot that at the end of the night. And when I saw her dancing on her own, I was like, “Oh shit, we made the wrong video.” She had this “my performance carries the video” type vibe. That’s when I saw it in her. She’s got something, she’s rocking this. But it was the right video for her to start her career, being this teenage act.

‘There Was a Lot of Chatter About If She Was Gonna Make It’

The executives at Def Jam and Rogers may have recognized Rihanna’s talents, but the world at large wasn’t quick to pick up on it. The singer was still an unknown face and got caught up in a cloud of comparisons to Beyoncé and Ciara. In fact, she wasn’t even meant to be the big star at the record label — that title was reserved for then-rising R&B star Teairra Mari. “We spent more time on her, did more work on her, paid more attention to her,” L.A. Reid revealed in his 2016 memoir Sing to Me: My Story of Making Music, Finding Magic, and Searching for Who’s Next. “A bell went off for me, however, when, after the showcase, Beyoncé came up to me. ‘That Rihanna girl,’ she said, ‘she’s a beast.’”

*Jay Brown, former Def Jam A&R and Roc Nation co-founder: When I first met Rihanna, I knew that she was special. She was 16, but she was poised. You just knew that she was there. We didn’t want her to be seen as a novelty. So as we put the first record out, we started on the second one. It was Jay-Z’s idea originally: “I think we should start making the first album, and we shouldn’t stop.” We wanted people to know she’s here to stay; she’s not going anywhere.

Rogers: Around “Pon de Replay” people used to tell me, “She’s so cute, but you know, can’t really sing but you don’t care ’cause she’s just so cute.” I would get so angry because I always knew she would be that girl that would eventually be doing songs like “Stay” and “Diamonds.” But I think the first time I felt like other people got it was “Umbrella.”

*Rihanna: I remember the first time out with “Pon de Replay,” I got that a lot. A lot of people said I was going to be a one-hit wonder. But I worked my hardest to prove them wrong. And when we came out with the second album, “SOS” and “Unfaithful,” both blew up!

M’Jestie: People didn’t know Rihanna; it would’ve been different if I wrote “Pon de Replay” today. [The song] didn’t pick up in the urban market as much as it did in pop. So it was a lukewarm reception in my surroundings, but something bigger was happening in the world.

Rogers: There are a lot of people, even within the inner circle, that did not really take her seriously. You know how people are when things start to roll everybody jumps on the bandwagon. Rihanna was the perfect vehicle to lift it all off the ground. Without that song, it’s possible that nothing ever happens and she goes back to Barbados.

Nobles: By that time, I had done so many records, so [her success] wasn’t a thought. She was still unknown. If she wasn’t Caribbean, then I would have said hell no. It didn’t have to be Rihanna. “Pon de Replay” could’ve worked with anyone who can do the flow. It was a premeditated smash record. But it was destiny for Rihanna to have it. I actually signed one of the letters to the judge so she could get a working permit to come [to the States].

Rogers: She lived in our house for the first three albums in Stanford, Connecticut. She would come up here when she was unsigned. We’d go in the studio for a week, then she’d go home and wouldn’t know if she was coming back.

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photo by Youtube

M’Jestie: There were no fans there for Rihanna in 2005. It was more of, “Who’s this girl with the big forehead?” [Her music] was overshadowed by people trying to pick her apart and trying to understand where she came from and how long she’ll last and comparing her to Beyoncé. There was a lot of chatter about if she was gonna make it. I don’t think that really stopped until “Umbrella.”

Rogers: “Pon de Replay” was looked at as a novelty hit, and when the album came out it did not sell well in the first week. There were moments when the second single, “If It’s Lovin’ That You Want,” wasn’t really popping. I remember we had a meeting with Jay-Z at his Four Seasons hotel suite out in Beverly Hills. He called us because Rihanna had been acting up a little bit. He brought her back down to earth and pointed out this could all be over in a minute. She teared up; it was some real tough love.

We were sitting in a parking lot in New York after a dance rehearsal and reassuring her. She was like, “But what would happen? Will they drop me?” We went through a very scary period [putting together her next album]. But Jay Brown and L.A. Reid called up and said, “We want Rihanna to record this song ‘SOS’ [the lead single from 2006’s A Girl Like Me]. We were like, “Well that’s pop. But what about her Caribbean sound?” L.A.’s words were: “Fuck that. Make them dance. She’s Madonna.”

First it was going to be a duet with [label mate] Christina Milian. I remember I had my ticket booked to fly to Miami to cut the vocals on both of them. And I guess Christina didn’t want to do it with Rihanna. So she came right back with the song. Then after that, “Unfaithful” and working with [Grammy-winning Norwegian production duo] Stargate, it was off to the races.

15 Years Later: ‘Her West Indianness Was Always the Foundation’

Despite the initial hiccups, “Pon de Replay” soon proved to be a hit. It debuted at No. 97 on the Billboard Hot 100 that June, and later soared to its No. 2 peak a month later. The song that blocked it from snatching the top spot? Mariah Carey’s comeback single, “We Belong Together,” which spent a total of 14 nonconsecutive weeks at No. 1. While Rihanna went on to experiment across genres — from dubstep to doo-wop — the Caribbean influence of “Pon de Replay” hasn’t waned. The star is a mainstay at Barbados’s Crop Over Festival, incorporates Bajan culture into her brands, reintroduced dancehall to a mainstream audience with 2016’s “Work,” and is set to release her first-ever reggae album.

M’Jestie: I don’t hear [the song] as often now. But when I go on YouTube, I always see people who say they miss that Rihanna. I don’t know what that means, but I think it’s just the nostalgia of it. What the song did to her career as a whole was set the tone for her personality and attitude. All the songwriters that came after, they couldn’t follow the lyrical tone that “Pon de Replay” set. It had a lot of swagger before “swagger” was a thing, and that was my style. I haven’t had placements since then, really. But I’m proud of what it’s done, and I love the fact that she could still perform it today and it’ll still make sense for her. It’s not some bubblegum thing from when she was a kid that was cool then but not now. When she came to the States, she stayed in the tristate area. And I think the songwriters have kept that vibe.

Nobles: I still hear it when I travel and it still makes me want to move. I think the standing power is tremendous. Everybody believed the record was bigger than her at the time. But Rihanna just proved that she’s bigger.

Director X: I thought it was always interesting that Rihanna really took off when she actually put the West Indianness to the background. It’s always been who she was. It was always the foundation. But at the same time, being West Indian doesn’t mean you got to do West Indian music. She proves that. She was 17 when we did the first video and now she’s in her 30s. She’s grown not even as an artist, but as a woman and businesswoman. She’s this very mature, secure, good, intelligent person a real natural leader.

Also if you watch the “Work” video, there’s a guy that Rihanna walks over and starts dancing with. That’s the same kid from “Pon de Replay.” That’s not set up; he was just dancing around. That’s Toronto video dancer history right there.

Rogers: Every time I hear that song come on, that beat always sounds cool to me. It’s obviously Rihanna as a little girl so I’m sure for her, hearing her vocals back then, it’s probably like, “Ooh, that sounds young.” But she sounds as edgy, cool, and undeniable as ever. And that’s what it takes to launch a career, something that distinctive. Every time it comes on, I kind of smile and just say, “Yep, it still sounds like a smash!” That one is just always going to be magical.

M’Jestie: I remember talking to Carl and he said, “Without you writing ‘Pon De Replay’ we don’t know if there would’ve been a Rihanna.” That was huge for me, especially because I was just sitting home and on the outskirts of this [process].

Nobles: I don’t think anyone can say they knew Rihanna was going to be as big as what she is today. They might say that now because she’s so profound, but it’s not true. This was her destiny. It’s come to a point where she done cut so many records that I don’t even care about little “Pon de Replay.” Like, “Pon de Replay” what? [Laughs.] I made the record for that time and it actually worked. The genius of her legacy is that she has an ear and keeps the right creative people around her.

Rogers: Our original deal [with Def Jam] was for a five-album deal. After that, she could have said, “I don’t need my production company,” because it’s sort of like a middleman. But she actually extended our deal for two additional albums, which is pretty unheard of. We’re very much Uncle Evan and Uncle Carl to this day. We don’t see her as often, maybe a couple of times a year at her birthday party, or Carl had dinner with her in London four or five months ago. We keep in touch. It’s always a family thing. That song was the thing that kicked it all off it changed all of our lives.

In fact, ironically, the room I’m sitting in right now in my house used to be her bedroom for her first three albums. There’s a big plaque above the bed with her first platinum album. To see her go from that to becoming an icon, you just have to ask: “Did this all really happen?”

*Rihanna: I can’t tell you where I’ll see myself in five years, but I can tell you I will work my best to be the most successful artist that I can be. [I want to be] remembered as Rihanna. Remembered as being the artist from the Caribbean who came here and made it internationally. Just remembered as me, ’cause I’m true to my music, and I just want people to realize that and appreciate me for that.

These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

A demo is a rough recording of an artist’s music that is later sent to record labels and radio stations in hopes of getting signed. Reference tracks are professionally mixed and are used as a standard to compare to the artist’s own mixed version. To get permission from the owners of the original song in order to legally utilize it in your music, whether it be the artist, publisher, or the record label. A mixdown recording is the final step before a song is officially mastered for an album. During Drake’s speech while presenting Rihanna with the 2016 MTV VMA Video Vanguard award, he mentioned being introduced to her at the “Pon de Replay” shoot when he “played background music at the restaurant as people ate their dinner.” Music of the Sun sold 69,000 copies in its first week and debuted at No. 10 on the Billboard 200. In John Seabrook’s 2015 book The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, Rodgers recalled Jay-Z telling Rihanna she needed to “step up her game” and that the “artist needed to be bigger than the song.”
An Oral History of Rihanna’s Debut Song, ‘Pon de Replay’