To put it simply, music director Ray Chew makes magic. From American Idol to Sunday's "BET Awards", Chew is the person making sure that the performances sound damn good, that technical issues remain avoided, and that audiences come away with lifelong memories. For Chew, his main role as music director is to make music events, both live and televised, seem as though they had no direction to begin with. “My role is to look after the music product and to deliver,” Chew said of his job.
An inconspicuous puppeteer, Chew’s next magic trick will be serving as music director of the 2012 "BET Awards" airing this Sunday on BET and Centric.
“At this level, there is no not making it happen,” Chew said when asked how he manages to make everything come together. “It has to be terrific. There’s nothing below that.”
To paint a better picture of what Chew will be spearheading at the awards show—remember that this year’s performances include Usher, Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown, 2 Chainz, and Big Sean. And that’s not even counting the composition for the show’s theme (those tracks you hear between sets) and any surprise performances, which there always are.
Chew first served as music director for the "BET Awards" in 2009, then again in 2010 and 2011. Still, he has no intention of sleeping on the job—especially considering the high esteem in which he holds this particular awards show.
“It’s not just an important show for BET, but an important show for Black music, and for music,” said Chew. “Some of the cats of other shows don’t fulfill the musical scope of what we have to offer. The "BET Awards" does that.”
Chew’s clear consideration and caring for musical artists reveal his motivation for the many late nights and early mornings on the job, a demanding, yet necessary time frame he has as the music director for "American Idol". Having been chosen for the position in 2010 after the departure of Ricky Minor, Chew has been responsible for directing and coordinating those jaw-dropping performances on the show.
In addition to working directly with the singers, which includes mentoring them and collaborating with them on music production, he oversees the song arrangements, rehearsals, stage mixes and a host of other tasks. Chew was also in charge of producing all of the music for "Idol’s" iTunes download—a whopping 129 songs. Despite the glamorous appearance of the high-profile show, crafting the seamless illusion demands a seven-day work week for sixth months.
In regards to the most recent "Idol" season that just wrapped, Chew said, “This was a marathon and a sprint.”
A rigorous workout that Chew insists was worth helping the show’s contestants to reach their full potential. “I get to see young artists, burgeoning talent, and get to apply some of the things we worked on in front of a huge audience and see them really make it work,” he said. “They all grew during the course of the season.”
While Chew has an arsenal of music experience ranging across the major music networks and boasting the world’s top artists, his name will be cemented in time as the person who orchestrated President Barack Obama’s history-making Inaugural Ball in 2009. In preparation for the Ball, he worked directly with the president, who had his personal pick of artist and the final say in the night’s events.
“I know that they had their choice of anyone in the entire country, the best of the best. So it was an honor to be chosen,” said Chew.
The performance roster was composed of the best and brightest performers of the past several decades, such as Beyonce, Sting, Faith Hill, Jay-Z, Mary J. Blige, Black Eyed Peas and Alicia Keys. Chew was responsible for them all—a duty that would intimidate even the most seasoned of professionals. But for Chew, that event was just business as usual. Yet, he did manage to take a step back for a moment and contemplate the enormity of the occasion.
“During the course of the production, while we were rehearsing, our producer did have the foresight to say, ‘Listen, this is a historic moment here,” Chew said. “As he was taking the oath everyone just stopped and watched.”
As Chew continues to make music magic behind the scene, he also touts the importance of reaching back to the upcoming generation of musicians. When approached by younger folks interested in following in his footsteps, however, Chew says informs them that there are a few things to keep in mind—like one’s work ethic, personal artistry, drive, and achievement. Then again, there’s always that special ingredient that separates the good from the great.
“It’s about finding your own formula,” said Chew.
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Patrice Peck is a writer and journalist whose work explores the intersection of race, culture, and identity. Her work lives at www.patricepeck.com.