Corte Ellis: He is a local guy going big
Missy Elliott, music superstar and Portsmouth native, returns to music in August with “Block Party,” her seventh album. Among her guests are Timbaland, Norfolk native Danja and The Neptunes.
Yet there is a name on her contributors list that will make all but the most seasoned of liner-note watchers pause: Soul Diggaz. Missy did not have to go far to recruit them. One of the team’s members was plucked, almost literally, from her own backyard.
His name is Corte Ellis, and he is becoming a hot songwriter in pop and R&B. He is from Portsmouth, though he now resides in the metro New York area.
Actually, he lives in East Orange, N.J., just a short commute to Manhattan, where, on one warm day, he goes to work at Daddy’s House, the recording studios owned and operated by Sean “Diddy” Combs in Times Square.
Combs is not here at 2 p.m. when Ellis and his co-workers arrive in “the studio” – an expansive cluster of several rooms, some full of equipment and others set up for lounging. With the boss away, Ellis and his partners, Karriem Mack, known as K-Mack, and Lashaun Owens, who goes by the name Bless, bide their time by cracking jokes, reading magazines and playing the song they’ve created for Diddy’s artist Donnie Klang over and over, scrutinizing every second and sound as if their lives, or at least livelihoods, depend on it.
A track like this can net as much as $20,000, and if it’s a big hit the royalties can push it into the range of $100,000 to $800,000 or even more.
They’re finishing Klang’s song “Take You There,” a fun, bass-heavy call to the dance floor with elements not unlike Justin Timberlake’s “Sexy Back.”
Two hours after their appointed time, a call comes through: Diddy is on the line. Ellis, his co-workers and Klang rush to cluster around the phone. Everyone looks intense and slightly nervous. It is clear they do not want the mogul to have to repeat himself.
Diddy barks his orders. “Cut the chorus in half. Get to the second verse quicker. The bridge should come after that. We need an eight-bar rap. Pull up some different sounds for the overdubs – maybe some girl parts. Make it a little more soulful, a little more Bad Boy. I’ll be there in three hours.”
Essentially, they have been told their first draft is OK, but get started on the second. Rewriting is a struggle for many people, but Ellis takes it in stride, K-Mack says.
“He is able to take constructive criticism. A lot of writers, if you say you don’t like it, they’re looking at you crazy, but you can’t be stubborn in the music industry.”
Three, four, five hours pass. At 10 p.m., Diddy has still not arrived. The guys have consumed takeout and, politely forced to surrender the studio for another Bad Boy group, they are now squished into a tiny lounge where they stare at a flat screen watching some dreadful “Worst Accident Footage Ever” TV show. Eight hours, and they haven’t even technically started yet. Still, they can’t leave; they’re waiting on Diddy to grade their work.
“People think what we do is easy,” Ellis says. “There are all these stages. Nobody is going to come to you and say, ‘It’s perfect.’ In this game, you have no choice but to be patient. If you’re not, then you might as well go and get a 9-to-5.”
Certainly, a man whom Diddy calls to get a hit song could live in the heart of the city. But Ellis, who was determined to use music as a means of getting out of Portsmouth, likes it in East Orange, whose refurbished downtown looks, somewhat ironically, like Olde Towne Portsmouth.
“It still feels Southern to me. There are trees. … I can’t understand coming home from work and not finding a place to park.” He guides his black Escalade through town and stops across from a short, squat building on a dim and dull block. You’d never guess that inside this humdrum building three guys are writing and arranging songs for some of the biggest names in music.
The proof is on the walls. The Soul Diggaz’ small but welcoming studio features gold and platinum plaques from songs they’ve put together for Elliott, Destiny’s Child, Fantasia, Ashlee Simpson and more. In one room, which features a mixing board the size of a sedan door, their to-do list is scribbled in blue ink on a dry-erase board: Janet Jackson, Pussy Cat Dolls, Missy Elliott, Mariah Carey.
“I’ve never let it get to me that I was working with these people,” Ellis says. “It never overwhelmed me. I just wanted to create music that they love. I’m from Academy Park. You were either playing sports or hustling. I did both. I got tired of playing football, and I’d seen everyone I know get locked up. It was like, ‘How many times will you do this before you get snatched up?’ I had to leave. I said I wasn’t coming back until I could bring it back for my family.”
He had a stellar role model in his family to show him how to do it.
Corte Ellis was a standout football player at Woodrow Wilson High school.
His neighborhood wasn’t bad, but there were temptations when his mother, a nurse, and stepfather, a construction worker, were away. Mostly, he stayed out of trouble.
“You would think he was the oldest child,” says his mother, Valerie Battle. Corte has three sisters and three brothers. “He is family-oriented. He loves church and he loves God. He seems to be grounded a lot more than my other children. All of them are law-abiding and hard-working, but Corte has always been very business-minded.”
He had been singing – around the house, at church – since he was 2. “I think all moms think their child is a star,” says Battle, “but he just loved to perform.”
Around 15, Corte formed a group with friends called High Impact. “We used to sing at all the high school functions,” he says, laughing heartily. Ellis is a bit of a hulk –he carries about 195 pounds on his medium frame – but he tells stories with the timing and irony of a comedian. He has a gap between his two front teeth that a cartoonist would exaggerate to make him look even more friendly than he is.
“One time, we did this Motown talent search. We all had left school for a couple days. We drove all the way to South Carolina in this little chitty-chitty bang-bang hooptie. They let us sing for 10 seconds, and were like, ‘Next!'”
He fathered a daughter, Ny’Quasia, when he was 16, a situation that forced him to grow up fast. “I worked odd jobs – I was a telemarketer, a printer technician for Canon. I just had to do something to keep income because I wanted to make sure she was OK.” He could have played football in college, he reasoned, but foresaw a future of bruises and bandages. He decided to keep singing.
After high school in 1997, he linked with Monty Marshall, who used to run the Pizazz nightclub, and they made music together. It was slow going for a while, until he met Talia Coles, who used to work with Teddy Riley. He met and worked with more people locally – Pick Conley, who lives in Newport News and once sang with the popular R&B group Surface, and writer Jack Knight – until in 1999 he got an offer to work with Knight on a song for R&B singer Olivia, who was once on 50 Cent’s roster.
By the end of 2000, buzz about this new songwriting phenom in Virginia had reached New York. An industry executive named Derrick Thompson, credited with discovering and signing the rapper Nelly, shuttled young Corte to Manhattan, sequestered him in a Doubletree hotel and cut him a check for $2,500 to write more songs.
“Coming from where we are from,” Ellis says, “you’re not exposed to stuff like that. It took a while to kick in. It wasn’t a big thing to me. I didn’t look at it like a career. I was very naive at that point.”
Thompson spotted rare talent in Ellis, he said, and jumped on it immediately.
“It is so easy to do a beat,” says Thompson, most recently the vice president of songs for BMG Songs & RCA Records before the labels went through reconstruction. “Everyone does beats, but when you get a person who can write really incredible lyrics and really effective, simple melodies, it’s a winning combination. All he really needed was someone to get him that first meeting, and that opens a lot of doors.”
And so it did. Bad Boy, P. Diddy’s record label, rang. Could you come write for us? Ellis didn’t have a manager – he was still working as a printer technician in Portsmouth.
“They put me in a room. People were coming into the room, like, ‘Let me hear what you got.’ The pressure was on. I was like, this is the MUSIC industry now. If these people are giving me this chance, let me turn it up a little bit.”
His name started to spread among the big boys: Warner, Capitol, BMI. There was no turning back. He told his bosses at Canon he wasn’t returning. He remembers a sweet supervisor warning him, “Baby, if you don’t put in your two weeks notice, you know they won’t let you come back.”
By early 2001, Ellis had partnered with K-Mack and Bless to form Soul Diggaz, and they got a steady stream of work. Checks ebbed and flowed. “I just felt like the more work I did … if I did 10 songs, one will get accepted. I never lived beyond my means. I didn’t go buy a lavish car and jewelry. I was working to pay my bills.”
In September, though, the terrorist attacks not only changed the political landscape but the entertainment world, too. Budgets dried up. Some labels folded. Work was becoming scarce, and Ellis and his new partners were getting worried. It was time to pull out the big guns. He called his first cousin, Missy Elliott.
“She said, ‘What’s going on?’ I said, ‘I need a favor from you right now.’ ”
He’d never pulled the Missy card because he wanted to know that whatever he got, he earned himself. Bless and K-Mack knew he had a line to Elliott, but he had never revealed that he was actually related to the five-time Grammy winner.
Around the time Elliott was working on “Under Construction” – from which her hit song “Work It” sprang – Ellis managed to get a meeting with her. Ellis and his partners visited Missy in the studio as she was finishing a song with Jay-Z around 2002.
“They were all in the studio. It was quiet, and she’s like, ‘Yeah, y’all ain’t know, this is my cousin right here!’ ”
Air sucked out of the room; his partners were surprised.
“I had to explain to them, there was never anything wrong,” Ellis says. “She was busy; she was doing her own thing. And I never wanted to come into the game on anyone’s back.”
Because of their nearly 10-year age gap, Ellis and Elliott didn’t really grow up together. He remembers seeing her at family gatherings, but by the time she was 17, she’d begun traveling to New Jersey frequently to work with Jodeci. Ellis was 9.
“I always looked up to her and valued everything she did. That wasn’t a family thing, more a music thing. She was from the hometown and made it. That’s all that mattered to me.”
After the studio session, and another meeting with Elliott – Soul Diggaz waited 13 hours outside her tour bus because her people bungled her schedule – Ellis and his friends finally got a deal with Elliott. She signed him on as a songwriter for her company; he was taking the work she couldn’t do.
But the opportunity didn’t come without a cost. At the time, Elliott had injured her foot, and so Ellis moved into her basement for a year, doing grunt chores like taking out her trash and going to the store for her, all the while soaking up her expertise.
He is maturing as a songwriter, the executive Thompson says.
In recent years, “I have heard his name a lot. He’s kind of like a go-to person. Everybody can’t get (songwriter) Ne-Yo now, because Ne-Yo is busy, and expensive. Corte is like a Ne-Yo in waiting.” One blockbuster hit will make him a household name, he says.
“He has an incredible voice and is a great vocal producer,” says Kara DioGuardi, an award-winning songwriter who has written for hundreds of artists, including Christina Aguilera, for whom she wrote “Ain’t No Other Man.”
DioGuardi met Ellis in Virginia Beach when she, Danja and Ellis were here working with “American Idol” star Katharine McPhee.
“He loves making music and it shows in his work, and he is very inspiring to be around.”
Soon after Ellis had joined Elliott’s production company, a friend at Columbia records sneaked Ellis and his friends through a proverbial back door to get a song on Beyoncé’s debut album, “Dangerously in Love.”
They were recording a song in late 2003 when cameras from “Entertainment Tonight” caught Ellis alongside Beyoncé.
“Then,” says Ellis, “the phone started ringing off the hook. From that point on, I just stopped keeping track.”
Malcolm Venable, (757) 446-2662, firstname.lastname@example.org