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.”
is the tabloid personality rumored to have hung out with, dated, shoplifted,
impregnated and God know what else with Britney Spears.
“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
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.”
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
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
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.”
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.”
Rotem calls himself more spiritual than religious, instilled with a strong
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
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
DURING THE interview, Rotem quoted Deepak Chopra to explain dharma
– the ancient Sanskrit idea of living in tune with one’s unique purpose in
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.
rumors of what it became – really that was mostly rumors,” he
“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.
was never like a sexual relationship; there was definitely no
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
“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,
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
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.
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,
“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.”
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