It's impossible to discuss Andre Cymone without discussing family - both the kind you are born into, and the kind you forge through chance and experience. Andre Simon Anderson was the youngest of six kids raised in the projects by a single mom who overcame her circumstances through education and went on to become a beloved community activist in Minneapolis. Bernadette Anderson’s generosity famously extended to her home, often filled with Andre's friends, including Prince and members of the Time. Creatively, his extended musical family also includes artists as diverse as Adam Ant, and Jody Watley (with whom he was married and shares a son). Politically, Cymone's sense of community echoes throughout his music, particularly in "America" and "Trayvon," songs he wrote to raise funds and awareness for Obama's reelection and Trayvon Martin's family. After years of working in the industry and producing others, Andre Cymone is back with a new album The Stone and taking the indie route, self-releasing it on February 18, 2014. We caught up with Cymone to discuss how Scooby Doo and a beggar inspired his first album in 29 years, the state of "black rock music" and celebrity activism, using social media to connect with artists like Peanut Butter Wolf, and, inevitably, to ask what Prince's pancakes taste like. Stream the first track "Rock and Roll" from The Stone below, premiering exclusively on VIBE today. Check the link to support the album release through Cymone's Pledge Music campaign.
VIBE: After almost 30 years of being a producer and songwriter, why jump back into the spotlight as an artist and release a new album now?
Andre Cymone: There were actually several reasons. I had always planned to make another album, but It just seemed like the time wasn't right at least not for the kind of music I wanted to make. Music was in a weird kinda space, it wasn't about art or artists and record companies were trying to fit and package all these naive entertainers and performers into one simple easy to digest package, Personally I wasn't interested so I sat it out. But I think now for the most part people have grown out of the cookie cutter entertainment model. They seem hungry and open for change, they want more from their music, they want depth, they want content, they want art.
My kids would see me playin' guitar and they started asking me to play theme songs like Spider-Man, Batman and Scooby Doo. That inspired me to write and what came out was so personal, I really couldn't imagine anyone else doing these songs.
Fans, when they would recognize me would always ask when I was gonna make another album but one fan in particular made a serious impression. I was pumpin’ gas in L.A. and this brother came up to me and asked if I could spare some cash for him and his girl, I went reachin in my pocket and he said "Hey, don't I know you… you're Andre Cymone" He went on for a minute and then said, "Man, I believed in you, all my friends we're into Prince but I was like, just wait till Cymone comes out with his next album, you'll see… then nothin". Then he asked for an autograph and brought his girl over and introduce her to me. When I pulled out the cash he said "No man I can't take your money. Just go out and make a record and make me proud". That kinda did it...
You're going the indie route with this album. What are some of the perks and drawbacks of not having a major label in your corner?
The perks are to simply be an artists, a storyteller and a songwriter with the freedom to look however you want and do whatever you want and not be told to fit into a chart. I get the whole pop music Billboard chart game, it's cool, I played it and won but music is so much more powerful than that, for me music is about touching souls. The drawback is getting people to know that you exist, and you have something worth listening to. For independent artists it not all that easy getting visibility from cable outlets and daytime and late night Television maybe gettin' a little love from radio but like anything else you gotta put the work in and if your good you will rise...
What are some of the key moments, details or messages that you hope people will appreciate about this album?
I hope people can relate to the passion, the heart and soul that I put into this record, it's raw and it's real. No sequences, no loops just real musicians doing what musicians do. I put a band together we rehearsed for two or three days and pressed record and let me tell you, it was a blast!
Adam Ant, Jody Watley, Prince, Wendy & Lisa, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are all still active and successful. Did you think back then that all of you would still be making music now?
Adam was one of the most fun and uniquely creative artists I had ever worked with. I learned a ton working with him and watching his process. He would say, " A song had to hold up with just acoustic guitar and vocals" and to this day I have adapted that philosophy. Jody has a voice like an angel and could nail a song in the first two or three takes. And Prince, I am so proud of him and what he has accomplished because I feel I played a part, a small part in helping someone realize their dreams and personally that feels good. I don't really see any of those guys very often these days but growing up, It was a great time and place for a hustler like me who loved music more than anything to find other kids who shared that same level of passion for music, that was a dream. So I'm not surprised at all that they're doin' their thing, I would be more surprised if they weren't.
How do you keep grounded and not let the celebrity factor go to your head?
A strong, no-nonsense family that supported me and my friends or bands when nobody gave a shit. Being the youngest of six kids raised in the projects, that made me pretty humble. They say you can take blood out of the project but you can't the project out of the blood. I loved growin' up in what we used to call Bedrock, it made me a hustler, and I brought that hustler mentality to Grand Central [his first band with Prince]. I thought if you can make it out of the projects you could almost do anything.
Like your mom, you have a history of being involved with causes and giving back. Two examples are your songs for Obama and Travyon. What is your feeling about those songs now? And what do you think of Harry Belafonte's statement that today’s celebrities don't do enough socially anymore?
Well, the President was re-elected thank God. George Zimmerman is doing everything he can to show the world they let a guilty man go free and that we obviously need stronger smarter gun laws. I personally think they should ban all assault rifles and rapid firing magazines capable of firing more the 10 rounds and Raise the GPEA (Gun purchasing eligibility age 23). Everybody has a gift, it's up to the individual to identify it and use it for its greater purpose. I found mine and I think the timing couldn't be more perfect. My mother was very involved in the community. One of the last things we did together before she passed was we did a poor people's march in St. Paul where we marched to the state capital building and I actually made a speech. That's real, recognizing that there are issues worth pursuing that are larger than yourself.
I think Harry Belafonte is spot on. He stood up at a time when it was not just unpopular but unsafe. At any moment he could have lost his livelihood or his life, many did but he did what had to be done and broke ground, he made a difference in my life and the life of so many people like me. He made it easier for us black dreamers who once thought the life we now take for granted could only be a dream. He and committed artists and entertainers like him made that dream come true and I owe him a debt of gratitude. He should be embraced and honored not scoffed and ridiculed but that's what you get from those who forget from whence they came. So many have the power to make life better for those less fortunate yet they sit on that power afraid to use it. Afraid it might threaten their life or financial bottom line. I understand but don't respect.
It's 2013 why do you think some people are still "surprised" by black artists recording rock, and not rap, R&B, or dance music?
If they are, they need to check their history. Blacks artists were arguably the creators of Rock and Roll. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jackie Wilson and Jimi Hendrix, they started a powerful artistic expression with their brand of music. It was fiery and had an edge, it still does. I haven't forgotten where rock came from, and I refuse to abandon it. For me it's personal. It's who I am by nature. Throughout history there have been many art forms in music that were originated by innovative black musicians. There was Big Band, Jazz, Rock and Roll, R & B, Boy Bands, Hip hop and Rap. A couple of the most popular rappers out now are Eminem and Macklemore and Lewis. [People being surprised by black rock artists] would be like 20 years from now people being surprised that black artists are recording rap. While I am certain that the history of innovation and trailblazing will continue, we as artists cannot always abandon all that we create.
Prince recently had a bunch of people over to his house and apparently even made them pancakes. Did you make it to this performance? What are Prince’s pancakes like?
That is funny. Growin' up we used to iron each others clothes, try to steal each others girls, eat that government cheese, and yes, make pancakes. It was Bisquick back then and they were delicious, but no, I would have loved to have been there cause I still love pancakes and I'm sure if he made ‘em they were delicious.