LOS ANGELES – Jonathan “JR” Rotem’s Israeli background was no secret as he burst onto the pop music scene in 2006 as a hip-hop producing icon, with Rihanna’s chart-topping “S.O.S.” and later building the careers of Jason Derulo, Sean Kingston, and IYAZ.
One way of understanding Rotem’s achievements is to split him into two personalities.
There’s “J.R.”, the acronym for “Jonathan Rotem,” the fast-tracking beat-maker who likes to make cameos in his protégés’ videos wearing designer sunglasses, gangsta-style chains and other bling that suggests he rose from the inner-city projects.
He’s the one who wants to tell the world he’s made it, with “J…J…J…R!” broadcast in funky reverb at the start of the hits churned out by his record label, Beluga Heights – from Sean Kingston’s “Beautiful Girls” to Derulo’s “In My Head.”
This is the tabloid personality rumored to have hung out with, dated, shoplifted, impregnated and God know what else with Britney Spears.
Then there’s “Jonathan Reuven Rotem,” the Jewish kid from Northern California who studied jazz at the Berklee School of Music in Boston and who worked diligently at transitioning his classical training towards danceable hip-hop beats and catchy pop melodies.
He’s the son of Israeli, Jerusalem-born parents – a computer science professor father and therapist mother. He’s the one who fondly remembers visiting Israel as a child but who hasn’t been there since the 1990s because he doesn’t like traveling.
Rotem proudly broadcasts his roots through stylish Jewish star pendants. He’s smart enough to market himself with coolsounding initials but wouldn’t dare change his Israeli last name, no matter how many mean boys in school made fun of him with “Rotem scrotum.”
This personality poses in sexy pictures not for paparazzi, but for good Jewish girls on Jdate, with an “About Me” that says: “I would never cheat or lie to anyone I’m with as I believe in treating others as you would want to be treated.”
At the famous Chalice Studios in Hollywood, where he is one of two resident producers, he sits in the corner of a sleek red sofa in a pimped-out artist lounge. The walls are plastered with posters and albums of stars he’s worked with: Rihanna, Destiny’s Child, Snoop Dog, and Dr. Dre, to name a few. He wears a black T-shirt and black slacks, and his shoulders sink into his chest as he folds his hands in his lap like a modest schoolboy.
Maybe because it’s an interview with the Israeli press, the good Jewish boy has come to fore.
He describes his envious career as a battle between the heart and mind, or to continue the introductory theme, between JR and Jonathan. JR is preoccupied with the outer trappings of success; Jonathan Reuven just wants to touch people through music.
“Fame and money and success are symbols of saying, hey, you’ve done a good job,” Rotem said, “but when you chase the symbols, you’re going backwards.”
Sounds like advice coming straight out of the Talmud’s Ethics of the Fathers, as it says: “One who chases after honor will find honor running away from him.”
But Rotem calls himself more spiritual than religious, instilled with a strong Jewish identity.
His mother, a former Hebrew school teacher, wasn’t Orthodox, but Rotem said, “if her fries were cooked on a griddle next to bacon, it would be an emotional reaction to the point it would be a hysterical thing.”
The closest he gets to a tight Jewish community are his Russian Jewish manager and business partner, Zach Katz, and his younger brother, Tommy, a birthright alumni and A&R manager at Beluga Heights. Tommy was responsible for mining MySpace for the tribe of Caribbean islanders – Kingston, Derulo, IYAZ – who have given the label a formidable reputation and a string of radio hits.
DURING THE interview, Rotem quoted Deepak Chopra to explain dharma – the ancient Sanskrit idea of living in tune with one’s unique purpose in life.
But he threw himself off purpose back in 2007 when he chased a friendship with Britney Spears, herself chased by the honor-less paparazzi. After a music production session, the then raven-haired, recently divorced Spears texted him with a “hey, let’s hang out.”
Having arrived six years earlier to Los Angeles, Rotem couldn’t resist her star power. It ended up with front-page tabloid rumors that he fathered her love child.
“All the rumors of what it became – really that was mostly rumors,” he said.
“Really all it ever was with me and her was we started by making music. We hung out a couple times. It was never like a relationship.
It was never like a sexual relationship; there was definitely no impregnating.”
Yet he confessed the affair with a grueling, regretful kind of introspection that makes one want to usher him into a really stark shul for a hard-hitting Yom Kippur beating.
They recorded several songs, but only one made the Blackout album – as a bonus track – “Everybody,” a dark dance tune embedded with Eurythmic’s “Everybody” through a clever kind of sampling utilized in his two mega-hits, Rihanna’s “SOS” (ala “Tainted Love”) and Kingston’s “Beautiful Girls” (ala “Stand By Me”).
But his dalliance with Spears, which he admits to fueling in the press, undermined his musical accomplishments.
“It just became more exciting to be around Britney Spears than to produce songs for Britney Spears. That’s when I really lost sight of my path, which is to create music, and it was more about, ‘whoa, this is exciting. I’m hanging out socially and being seen with such a celebrity, and that whole world of paparazzi.’” He repented that same year by letting his brother put up a JDate profile–as a joke – seeking a “hot Jewish girl with good values” as opposed to “the wrong girls (golddiggers, cheap chicks, wannabe artists looking to use a guy like me for a music career, money, fame, etc).”
Nothing came out of JDate, and at 35, Rotem is single (gossip columns have linked him with a slew of starlets). These days, instead of prowling nightclubs with starlets, he’s prowling clubs with his first love – a piano.
Maybe it’s because Jonathan Reuven wants some spotlight, too, that he’s going back to the pure joy of low-profile live jazz playing, with a gig every Saturday night at Ivan Kane’s Cafe Was in Hollywood.
That doesn’t mean he’s neglected the ambitious, hip-hopping JR. Sometimes he still worries about the competition, about where his singles rank on the charts. Rotem says you’d have to be an “enlightened Buddhist” to conquer the ego completely. His dharma involves a holy balance between Jonathan Reuven and his driven, unrelenting alter-ego.
“Of course I appreciate the blessings of what I’ve been able to achieve,” he said, “but it is ultimately an ongoing quest to accomplish as much as possible, but at the root of it is having my music reach people, and having an emotional impact to a wide audience.”