"There's no cool way to say 'Hey, everybody, I wrote that!' " laughs Tacoma's Clemm Rishad in a now- private recording studio called Platinum Reign that overlooks a piece of Commencement Bay. The 23-year-old is recounting a recent trip to the mall, where a song called "Fly" came on over the public-address system, and the store's staff and customers started singing along while he was in the dressing room. It was a funny moment, considering that he and 22-year-old William Jordan wrote the song; Nicki Minaj and Rihanna took it to the top of the charts.
With "Fly" soaking up a considerable amount of national pop-radio airtime, it's a situation the two are getting used to. Rishad says it makes him feel a bit like Santa. "People never see you, but you're giving gifts all the time," he says. "That's the world of the songwriter, though. That's why they call us ghostwriters: We're there, but we're not there."
Under the moniker The Writers Block, Rishad and Jordan have seen their stock jump over the past year, first by placing "Fly," followed by tracks on albums by pop artists Iyaz, Jason Derülo, and Travis McCoy. Their resume got another bump when Minaj's Pink Friday (on which "Fly" appears) received a Best Rap Album Grammy nomination. And it's looking more and more as if "Fly" is only the start for the duo, which has been hired to work on material that could find its way onto upcoming albums by Minaj, Christina Aguilera, Drake, T.I., and Dr. Dre.
"Placing" songs on high-profile projects is how a songwriter makes a name. For Rishad and Jordan, this entails either sending a song they've written to their label, Los Angeles–based Beluga Heights, to shop around to artists, or being asked to record specifically for a project by the artists themselves. Both approaches have yielded fruitful returns, and The Writers Block's situation could get a lot better very soon. Rishad says that at the moment they have 15 placements pending.
"We knew that this was only the beginning," Jordan says of "Fly." "If this does happen, and things do go the way they're saying it will go, it will just be a door. If you get drafted to the NBA, you're not done; you haven't accomplished anything you need to accomplish. That's your entry, but you still have a lot more work to do."
As two aspiring musicians in Tacoma's developing music scene, Rishad and Jordan were drawn together by necessity. With the help of his older brother, promoter/manager Richard Penton, Rishad had grabbed the ear of the Beluga Heights front office, and the label had expressed interest in his songwriting talents. A rapper by trade, Rishad saw this as an opportunity to get his foot in the music industry's door, but he needed a producer to bring his work to life in the studio. Rishad contacted fellow Tacoma resident Jordan, a versatile producer and smooth-voiced vocalist, with whom he had worked on his first solo record. The two meshed on professional and personal levels immediately, and The Writers Block was formed.
The duo's first placement, a song called "Pretty Girls," was picked up by Iyaz and Travis McCoy, which led to more and more freelance work. But when the label heard "Fly" and landed a big placement with Minaj, they decided to sign The Writers Block to an official deal.
Soon after, Beluga Heights brokered a deal with Universal's publishing branch, Rondor, on behalf of The Writers Block, which put them on the conglomerate's payroll to write music to be used by Universal artists—names like Lady Gaga, Eminem, the Black Eyed Peas, Mariah Carey, and U2—or be placed in films and on TV.
Beluga Heights CEO Zach Katz says the duo is making moves in all the right directions and has the promise to do great things. "With the industry being super-competitive and saturated with up-and-comers, the key for an artist trying to break in is to have as many skill sets as possible, all of which lend to the artist's ultimate identity," he says. "An artist who is also a good writer is perceived much more favorably than an aspiring artist who doesn't write their own music. And an artist who writes their own music and can write hits for outside artists is at the top of the hierarchy. That's what Will and Clemm are."
Label co-founder J.R. Rotem, who produced "Fly"—not to mention hit tracks for everybody from 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg to Britney Spears and J.Lo—is also quick to praise the team's talents: "As a producer, I'm always looking for singer/ songwriters that inspire my creativity and imagination," he says. "I felt an instant connection with the unique quality of Will's voice, as well as an honesty in their songwriting."
Now that their names are finding their way into a fair number of industry conversations, the duo will devote 2012 to brand development and marketing, meaning that they will put their songwriting momentum behind their solo careers and attempt to establish themselves as artists on the national scene. Both have multiple projects in the works and the backing of some heavyweight collaborators: Rishad's new EP is being engineered by three-time Grammy winner Anthony Kilhoffer, who's handled all of Kanye West's albums, while Jordan is working on a project with Rotem.
The two have also taken steps to create their own imprint, a label they named The Sky Movement, and have already signed a number of local artists: DJ Risk One, Tryfe and Luke of Doxology, and D Crews.
"There are things going on that people have no idea about, that we can't even talk about, but it's stuff that is gonna change the world," says Jordan. "It's like being Superman, and you know that your costume's underneath your clothes. You can't always just break out, but if I need to . . . "