MIAMI – Just a few years ago, Scott Storch was one of the top producers in pop music, living in a $10.5 million mansion on an exclusive Miami island, driving a phalanx of luxury cars and dating the likes of Paris Hilton and Lil Kim.
Nowadays, Scott Storch, 34, is missing in action. He owes over $500,000 in real estate taxes and had a warrant out for his arrest when he failed to show up in court in a child-support case last month. He has not had a top 10 hit in three years. He still has his waterfront marble mansion, but his lawyer, Guy Spiegelman, says Storch is attempting to refinance it after a "catastrophic occurrence this year" resulting from "mismanagement." Storch no longer works with his old manager or publicist. He hasn't talked to either of his children in months.
Replete with tragic details and bad behavior, the ballad of Scott Storch may be the swan song of the bling era, a riches-to-rags tale of excess, poor decisions and a hobbled music industry.
Raised in South Florida and the Philadelphia area, Storch is a high-school dropout from a broken, middle-class family who turned serious musician chops and intense ambition into a high-flying career. Vanessa Bellido met him when they were both in high school and he was a talented keyboardist.
"He always knew what he wanted to be," she says. "He would play the piano unbelievably. He was like, 'I'm going to make it, I'm going to make it.' Even at 15 he was an old soul. Real smart, real different."
While still a teen, Storch was a founding member of the Roots. He produced their breakthrough single "You Got Me," which helped Philly's acclaimed live hip-hop band win a Grammy, and gave the sandy-haired Jewish producer serious hip-hop credentials. Deciding he preferred studios to touring, Storch moved to Los Angeles to work with Dr. Dre. There his keyboard loops helped form the basis of such hits as "Still D.R.E." He produced seven tracks on Christina Aguilera's "Stripped" album, including "Can't Hold Us Down," which featured Lil Kim.
Storch decided to return to his Florida roots to, as he has said, build his empire. Beginning in 2003, the hits rolled in: Beyonce's "Naughty Girl," Terror Squad's "Lean Back," 50 Cent's "Candy Shop," and Chris Brown's "Run It."
Storch had the quintessential producer's talent for coaxing career-making performances out of both veteran and new artists.
"When we created that 'Baby Boy' record, Sean had only worked with Jamaican producers," says Atlantic Records chairman and CEO Craig Kallman, referring to the 2003 single by Sean Paul and Beyonce that Storch produced and that helped to make Paul an American recording star. "Scott was able to adapt himself to the sound of Jamaica but also to contemporary R&B and hip-hop. He was able to straddle both lines."
And yet there are similarities in many of Storch's records: sinuous keyboard riffs that reveal Storch's interest in Middle Eastern melodies coupled with thumping, staccato beats. In 2004, everyone wanted the Storch sound, and he reportedly commanded $100,000 per beat. An extensive Rolling Stone profile called him "hip-hop's Liberace" and said he had earned $70 million.
"The people who have always been on top of the production game — Timbaland, Neptunes, Swizz Beatz, Scott Storch — they all had their own sound," says the Miami-based producer Infamous, whose own recent work on the Lil Wayne and Jay-Z track "Mr. Carter" has made him the producer of the moment. "When their one record took off, everybody wanted a record that sounded like that."
Fame brought added responsibilities: In 2004, Storch reunited with the child he had fathered 12 years earlier with Bellido. He moved Bellido and their son Steven to South Florida: Bellido calls it "one of the happiest times in our lives."
Three years later, the producer began paying for another son, the now 2-year-old Jalen Daniel. Bellido and Jason Setchen, the lawyer for Jalen's mother, Dalene Jennifer Daniel, both say Storch was inconsistent but not a deadbeat dad. "Once able to get his attention, he stepped up to the plate and did the right thing across the board," says Setchen.
Other producers were as hot as Storch in 2003 to 2005. But dating movie stars and heiresses, and conspicuously consuming, Storch flaunted his multimillionaire status like a hip-hop Gatsby. Many say the fame went to his head. He had a public flare-up with Aguilera over the cost of a private jet to fly him out to produce her '06 album "Back to Basics." He also traded insults with fellow hitmaker Timbaland, who called Storch "just the piano man" in one track.
Storch's career had some serious stumbles: He was supposed to help his then-girlfriend Paris Hilton become a music star, but he said his songs for her were deemed too sexual and not released as singles. He signed reality TV show star Brooke Hogan to his Storch Music Company label and produced eight of 12 tracks on her album "Undiscovered," but the record flopped.
Storch has continued to work with top-name artists, including producing tracks on recent albums by Mariah Carey and Fat Joe. But he has not been able to crack Billboard's Top 10 since 2005.
Storch has paid neither his 2006 nor 2007 real estate taxes. At the start of this year, he stopped paying child support for both his kids and fell into several months of arrears before being sued by both mothers in separate cases.
It's unclear just why Storch fell so far so fast. (The producer did not return repeated requests for an interview.) "There was some mismanagement and some other errors. He got jammed," Spiegelman, his lawyer in the child support cases, says. "I don't think he's going down, I just think he's having difficulty. It's a cash flow problem."
But both outside observers and people who know Storch see other factors at play besides mismanagement. When Storch has been sighted recently in public, he has looked gaunt and unhealthy. The producer was a flamboyant smoker of marijuana; in 2004, he was fined for possession of marijuana and paraphernalia.
"If he's got managers and accountants and various investors looking out for his interests, it would be hard not to notice that money wasn't coming through," says Debbi Gibbs, president of Just Managing, a company that manages producers.
Career-wise, Storch may be a victim of his own success. The public is known to grow tired of the same old sound. "Most producers outside of a small number who focus on trying to be hit makers try to focus on new creative collaboration with whatever artists they're working on," says Gibbs. "That's when that magic happens and hits you didn't see coming come. Anyone who tries to create a hit formula is doomed to very short term success given the fast pace of musical taste."
But Storch built his name on numbers as much as on skills. He may not have adapted to the changing economy and the downsized music industry.
"Costs have come down because it's an absolute necessity. We're certainly not able to spend beyond what our budgets are for making records," said Kallman. "If a producer's out of our price range, we've gotta move to another producer. There's always new people." The executive says Storch has not produced any recent Atlantic tracks but that they have "been talking."
Storch seems also not to have saved for a rainy day — a fatal mistake in pop music. "There's no 401k plan in the music industry," says Infamous. "You can't be stupid and just throw your money away."
Those who have worked with Storch and those who have only heard his music think he can have a comeback. Infamous theorizes Storch may be purposely cooling things down in order to come out strong with something new: "Scott is definitely talented enough to say all right, it's time for a new Scott. His track record alone speaks volumes."
The producer has left a trail of debt and bad feelings behind him. The big spender developed a reputation for arrogance; many see his failure to care for his offspring, while still tooling around in a Ferrari, as particularly reprehensible. Yet the people who have personal reasons to hate the player don't.
"Scott's not a bad person," says Bellido. "I know he loves his son. He's been irresponsible."
Storch hasn't shown up for his court cases, but his lawyer has said he will meet his financial obligations. He paid the money he owed Daniel and the arrest warrant was vacated. "I'd like to see him do the right thing so we can move on," Setchen says.
Bellido sees Storch's lifelong materialism as his Shakespearean flaw. His identity is so wrapped up in his riches, she fears, that he is ashamed to appear publicly and clean up his mess.
"I think he's embarrassed," Bellido says. "I don't think he's going to be right until he has his money."