The collaborator

Producer/songwriter Bryan-Michael Cox is not as famous as his frequent collaborator Jermaine Dupri. He's almost never mentioned when folks are discussing the success of Usher's hit "Confessions." But check the credits and you'll find Cox's name in the production and writing mix. To date, songs by the Houston native, who took his initial stab at songwriting while in the first grade, have enjoyed more than 280 weeks on the Billboard charts.

"Get in where you fit in" is his mantra and, at 26, it has served him well. "A lot of times I think young producers, who know they have talent and want to get on, go about it the wrong way," he says while relaxing in one of his many working rooms at Doppler Studios, nestled on the Piedmont side of Buckhead. "You have to utilize other talents to get people to notice your main talent."

That was exactly his plan when he came to Atlanta in 1997 to attend Clark Atlanta University. Because he could use studio equipment, he got an internship with the production house, Noontime. Pretty soon, he had a job as an engineer making $200 a week. He saved up some money, then made his boss an offer: "Just stop paying me and give me a key to the studio."

He quickly learned the ropes of the business and earned the respect of burgeoning producers Jazze Pha and Teddy Bishop. He started collaborating with twins Brian and Brandon Casey of R&B quartet Jagged Edge. This led to a fortuitous meeting with Dupri, who had signed Jagged Edge to his So So Def label. Together the team created the R&B smashes "Let's Get Married" and "Promise."

His career has been on the rise ever since. The music publishing organization SESAC has awarded him Songwriter of the Year four years in a row, and he's been tapped to contribute material to some high-profile new projects. One of them found him reuniting with a couple of Houston homegirls whom he went to high school with, Beyonce Knowles and Kelly Rowland of Destiny's Child. Cox contributed the ballad "Bad Habit" to the group's new album, Destiny Fulfilled.

Indeed, Cox, who has recently worked with Mariah Carey, Faith Evans, Lil' Mo and "American Idol's" Fantasia Barrino, is developing a reputation for bringing out something special in female artists. "I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that I grew up around nothing but women," he says. "My mom was a single parent and she had seven sisters and all my cousins are girls. That's part of the insight. Another part of the insight is just being friends with girls and talking to them about their problems."

Each diva poses different challenges, however. Cox is now collaborating with songwriter Johnta Austin (Aaliyah's "I Don't Wanna") on tunes for Whitney Houston's new album. The project, intended to spearhead a career comeback, is being overseen closely by Houston's mentor and the head of her record label, Clive Davis. "Because Clive Davis is such a song-driven, lyric, melody-driven guy," Cox explains, "we are just trying to make records that we know Clive will probably like melodically and [come up with] lyrical content that's kind of similar or familiar to what Whitney's done in the past. With an artist like Whitney Houston, we have to really go back and study, figure out what the history is. [But] an artist like Mariah Carey who writes, we can just deal with her and vibe out. We'll kind of lead her and then she'll lead us. So it differs with each artist."

This unpredictability keeps the process exciting for Cox, who can't imagine doing anything else. "Music," he says, "has always been the cornerstone of my life."