Bruno Mars is almost famous. You see, right now the Hawaii native is the guy next to the guy with the No. 2 record on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. Mars is the smooth voice featured on B.o.B’s “Nothin’ On You.” Not only does he croon on the hook, but as one-third of the Smeezingtons (yeah, that’s their name), he produced the pop-rap track, too. He’s also on Travie McCoy’s recent single “Billionaire,” and he has his own EP, It’s Better If You Don’t Understand, on the way as well. Below, the 23-year-old talks about his recent success, how he snuck in a chorus about oral sex on Flo Rida’s 2009 smash “Right Round,” and why he’s annoyed with Rihanna.
The Smeezingtons are your production team. Who are the other two and where did that name come from?
It’s me, Phillip Lawrence, and Ari Levine. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. We used to always say in the studio, “Yo, this is going to be a smash!” And then it turned into, “This is a smeeze!” Then, “This is a Smeezington.” We were just like, “We should just base our whole situation upon this word. How great would it be if record labels were like, ‘We have to get The Smeezingtons involved?’”
What was first big hit you guys produced?
We wrote “Right Round” for Flo Rida. That was a sample, obviously, but we got our name in there and got some publishing. And it was a No. 1 record. That was our first taste of what could really happen with a hit we hundred-percented.
The chorus is about oral sex, right?
A lot of people don’t get it. Was it an inside joke when you all thought of it?
For Flo Rida we just thought that would be the right road to take. It was actually a freestyle. Phil and I came up with that in two minutes. We were in the business after that! [Laughs]
Initially you wanted to be a solo artist, but you became a successful producer first. Why did you sideline your solo plans?
Out of frustration, I decided that I’m going to do everything on my own. When I met Phillip, I was like, “This artist s— ain’t working.” We had the opportunity to sell a song that I wanted for myself. At first I was like, “No way! This is my work. This is my art!” And then they said, “We’ll give you $20,000.” I was like, “Here. You can have it.” [Laughs] I learned the hard way that in this business, you have to do everything yourself. It’s not like in the movies where you sign a record contract and then you’re rubbing shoulders with Timbaland and Pharrell.
Who was that first big money track for?
Oh, I don’t even want to say! It was a song that they took for a boy band. And then they asked me if I had more songs. I ended producing a song for Brandy called “Long Distance.” It just steamrolled into me becoming this producer all of a sudden. Instead of labels calling me up to sign me, they were like, “Can we have some of our artists come in and work with you guys and write some songs?”
I kept doing the demos and singing the songs. And with “Billionaire” and “Nothin’ On You,” that was really the kind of artist I was trying to be, especially with “Nothin’ On You,” with these beautiful melodies. I sang the song and gave it to an A&R at Atlantic. They loved it. And the rest, corny as it sounds, is history.
You’re coming from being relatively unknown to having the second-biggest song in the country. How much momentum does this add to the start of your career as a solo artist?
As long as I’ve been trying to do this, it does feel like overnight success. Although I have been struggling for four years trying to do this music thing, as soon as that song came out, [the label said] “Okay, we have to put your album out!”
So what can we expect from you as the frontman?
I know a lot of artists say this, but it’s hard to put myself in a box. I just write songs that I strongly believe in and that are coming form a special place. There’s no tricks. I don’t have mascara on on one eye. It’s honesty. If you like “Nothin’ On You” and you like “Billionaire,” that’s what you’re going to get. You’re going to get these melodies. And I’m going to be singing the s— out of it.
K’Naan had the song “Waving Flag” for a while. He was performing that hook, “When I get older, I will be stronger…” And he never got into the studio and produced it. He called us and asked if we wanted to take a crack at it. It turned out beautifully and made his album. K’Naan called us later and said, “Hey, I have this opportunity. Coca Cola is really interested in getting ‘Flags.’ I want to get back in the studio with you guys and revamp it.” We got the word that they love it. They’re going for it. The version that they’ll play is real tribal with African drums. It’s a whole stadium kind of thing. Matisyahu’s song “One Day” was NBC’s 2010 Winter Olympic theme song. That’s another song we wrote and produced. Its kind of been the best year of our lives.
When did first you move to L.A. to pursue music?
As soon as I graduated in Hawaii. There’s really not much you can do in the music scene down there. There are no record companies in Waikiki. [Laughs]
In L.A. a lot the bus boys and waitresses are aspiring superstars. Did you have a regular job before you hit it big?
Yeah. I couldn’t pay rent. I’d always been a working musician in Hawaii and never had problems paying rent. And then it’s like, “Now I’m in L.A. and my phone’s getting shut off.” That’s when reality hit. I started DJing. It was something silly. I told this person I could DJ because they said they could pay me $75 cash under the table. I didn’t know how to DJ. I lost that job pretty quick.
Who are some artists that you’ll be producing and writing with for their projects?
Cee-Lo. I’ve got a session with Keri Hilson after that. Mike Posner. Cobra Starship. Endless, man! The list is endless!
For the third week in a row now, “Nothin’ On You” is right behind Rihanna at No. 2.
Damn that Rihanna! [Laughs] Oh man, we’re so close we can taste it!
(Follow the Music Mix on Twitter @EWMusicMix.)
More from EW.com’s Music Mix:
Broadway star Laura Bell Bundy kicks off her ‘crazy’ country career: A Music Mix Q&A
Drake’s new “Over” video: Watch it
Justin Bieber’s performance on ‘SNL’: how did he do?
Actor Alessandro Nivola: His Music Mix playlist
‘Green Day: Rock Band’: We’ve got a preview plus the exclusive 47-song track list!