Producer Rob Fusari: Lady Gaga’s Big Break

Rob Fusari, a pop music producer from Livingston, helped launch the careers of big-name acts like Destiny’s Child and discovered the talent of Stefani Germanotta – now known worldwide as Lady Gaga.

Rob Fusari with Stefani Germanotta in the early days, before she became pop icon Lady Gaga.

It’s been a month since Rob Fusari, the producer/song-writer who discovered Lady Gaga, revealed his new music persona is 8-Bit. It’s an exiciting time for Fusari, whose successes were overshadowed a few years ago by his legal tanglings with protege Gaga.

Livingston native Fusari co-wrote many of the chart-topping pop hits of the late 90s and early 2000s, like “Bootylicious” by Destiny’s Child and “Wild Wild West” by Will Smith, to name a few. His greatest accomplishment to date was kick-starting the multi-million dollar career of Stefani Germanotta, writing six songs on her debut album including the hit single “Paparazzi.”

But as the saying goes, fame (the ironic title of Gaga’s debut album) comes with a price. Fusari filed a $30.5 million lawsuit against the pop star in 2010, claiming he was denied an agreed-upon 20 percent compensation after her career took off (and allegedly, after mixing business with pleasure). Gaga followed with a counter-suit, asserting their contract was an “unlawful arrangement” because Fusari was not a licensed talent agent.

Since then, both suits have been dropped and Fusari has turned to the expanding EDM scene (electronic dance music for the ill-informed) under a project called Cary Nokey, which describes its sound as “David Bowie on acid.” The leader behind Cary Nokey is 8-Bit, also known as Rob Fusari, if you’re still following.

Entertainment editor Joanna Buffum spoke with Fusari about growing up in New Jersey and how a piano teacher from West Orange helped him get where he is today.

New Jersey Monthly: Tell me about growing up in Livingston and how you became involved in music.

Rob Fusari: When I was about seven years old, a friend of my mother’s came over and her son played some music on our piano, and something just clicked for me. It was life changing. I started taking lessons that year with a woman from West Orange.

NJM: How quickly did things take off after you started your lessons?

RF: I just got thrown into it; I just started winning all these competitions across the country. I played my first concert at Carnegie Hall when I was eight years old; I played the first-place winning set when I was 12.

NJM: Were you in any music programs at Livingston High School?

RF: No, I didn’t take any music programs but they kept pulling me into playing piano for choir shows. I couldn’t get away from it!

After about six years of lessons, I grew out of that and started playing in bands and was into rock and roll. Took the knowledge I had and played with blues and jazz, kept playing piano but not classically. Music haunted me, I played piano at bars and did whatever I could to make money doing it.

I got accepted to Berklee College of Music on a scholarship, but I just didn’t see music going anywhere for me and decided to go to business school at William Paterson.  After college, I got a job at EMI Records doing promotions, but then I got a good-paying job doing computer work at another company.

But long story short, they basically fired me after finding all these music-related things on my desk, like printed-out lyrics; things I shouldn’t have been doing at work.

I was still living at home with my mother in Livingston at the time, so I asked for one year to keep staying at home and pursue music. But I could see it in her eyes, she tried to be a singer herself and it didn’t really work out, so she knew the game.

NJM: So what happened in that year?

RF: Well a year goes by, and I just stayed quiet. I didn’t point it out to my mom that the year was up. [Laughs]

About five months went by after that, and I was working on this song called “No, No, No.” Another producer friend came over and he brought a guy I didn’t know [producer Vincent Herbert], and they asked me to play what I was working on. Herbert asked for a copy, saying he was working with a group that might like it. Sure enough, he called me that same night, saying they loved it and wanted it for their first album.

NJM: And that group was Destiny’s Child.

RF: Yeah, they call me into their studio the next day and ask me to step in, so here I am telling Beyoncé how to sing for the track, which now seems so absurd. Then Wyclef Jean got involved, it just went to number one on the charts. It was the first single off their first album.

NJM: From there it’s no wonder you became sought-after in the music industry.

RF: All of these big urban acts were interested in working with me, groups like Bone Thugz-n-Harmony and other artists in the R&B world. That’s how I became connected with Will Smith and produced “Wild, Wild West.”

NJM: How did you connect with Lady Gaga?

RF: I had heard about her through a friend, and she seemed really bubbly and personable on the phone so I decided to meet with her. I’ll never forget; it was her birthday, March 26, 2006, so I didn’t think she was going to show up. She took a bus to Route 46 in Parsippany where my studio was, and she didn’t look like what I was expecting. A little overweight even. But when she spoke you could tell she was very intelligent.

I asked her to play something, so she played a song she wrote called “Hollywood.” I had never had that feeling before, listening to her play. It was electrifying. I thought, “This is everything I’d been waiting for.” My vision and her vision just connected in one instant. All the searching and all the songs I wrote; I knew exactly what I should do with this girl. I needed this in my life creatively and emotionally, I needed that outlet.

We wrote a song together called “Wonderful,” and I had never heard anything come through the speakers in my studio like that before. Her voice was so in-your-face. Compared to every other singer who had been in that studio – I was almost starting to think there was something wrong with the microphone, I would even ask them to step closer. But her voice sounded like it was right in the room with me.

NJM: How did you decide what direction to take her in?

RF: We wrote about 15 songs together, which were very Blondie and Led Zeppelin sounding. We both loved it but after getting some feedback, I realized she had no future in rock radio. I suggested trying out some dance and funk, and she thought I doubted her potential and was thinking about dropping her. She was frustrated; that was not the sound she wanted.

So we took a couple days off from recording, and then she tried doing this riff on the piano, and I added some drums and some synth, and she started singing lines to what became “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich.” I played it for a couple people in the music business and everyone was like, “I gotta meet this girl!” We had maybe 30 meetings in two weeks.

NJM: Was it your decision to dye her hair blonde?

RF: No, she dyed her hair because she was at a show at Lollapalooza (before her first record came out) and someone asked her for her autograph thinking she was Amy Winehouse.

NJM: Though you live in New York City now, do you see yourself back in New Jersey one day, raising a family?

RF: I don’t know if that’s in the cards. Music has really been the kid, I think I made that choice when I decided to devote every minute to it.

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