It’s funny that you should mention RZA. I had a lot of fun working with him. RZA is one of the most unique individuals and rap artists that I have worked with. He’s a lot of fun in the studio—let’s just put it that way [Laughs]. Then there’s DJ Quik who is so talented in my book. I think he’s just a genius and is very underrated in the industry. I’ve had the opportunity to meet Tupac. We didn’t spend a lot of time together, but I was in the studio with him on a few occasions. I’ve also had the honor of having the Notorious B.I.G [sample] one of my songs “Stay With Me” for “One More Chance.” I feel like rap artists have [utilized my music] because they feel me. They feel my music and they want to make my music a part of what they are trying to express. I am honored.
In a past interview you talked about jail sobering you up…
It wasn’t jail; it was prison. A lot of people go to jail, but prison is a whole other level, brother [Laughs]. It wasn’t important enough just for me to sober up. It was more important for me to stay sober—body, mind and soul. And that’s something that had to be dealt with in the depths of who I am, not just as El DeBarge, but as a spiritual being. God sent out a rescue crew; in fact, me going to prison was a rescue mission. I was taken away from everything so that I could get my willpower back. I needed to get this willpower back because I didn’t want to be on drugs. That’s clearly not who I am. I wasn’t raised like that. And that wasn’t my environment or my community that I had around me.
What sparked your drug usage?
It was just something that happened. It was an outside situation; an invasion in my life…a drug invasion. I had to be rescued from that so that I could experience this second chance that God has given me.
Let's take you back to your debut album with DeBarge (1981’s The Debarges). What do you remember about that time period?
When I think about that first DeBarge album, I remember being so green…just pristine. Nothing mattered to me but writing songs. I remember staying locked up in a room with my piano and just singing and writing songs all day long. I remember being a perfectionist about it…wanting to change this and fix that. And then from that room, I went straight to the studio. And then I remember just wanting to let people hear my songs. I lived, ate, slept and dreamed music.
That sounds intense.
I loved music! My mom would always tell me, “El, you have to get back to your first love.” All through my drug abuse she would say, “Just get back to your first love…music. Remember how you loved music from seven years old?”
You talk a lot about having a spiritual connection. The DeBarge family also has strong roots in gospel music. Are we ever going to see you record a gospel album?
There’s a little bit of gospel in everything I do. But I don’t know if I will ever do a gospel album. There’s a big universe out here and I don’t want to just sing to the church. I want to sing to the world and bring them a message of love. I love going to church and singing gospel songs, but right now there’s a message that the world needs. And I don’t know if I can reach everyone from a gospel plateau. God is so much bigger than gospel. He’s music and music is a universal language that’s known to all mankind. That’s who God is.
Listening to some of the tracks on Second Chance, there are hallmarks of the classic DeBarge sound that made such songs as “I Like It,” “All This Love,” “Love Me In A Special Way,” and “Who’s Holding Donna Now” such indelible records. Does that just come out naturally?
I can’t do anything but be who I am. The classic DeBarge sound will always be in my songwriting and production. Right now I’m having a hard time choosing the first single, which is good [Laughs]. There are so many new great songs. I’m headed back on tour soon as the album drops. I will be out there singing. I’m just excited.