“I thought Kedar Massenburg (former president of Motown and current head of Kedar Entertainment) was adorable when we first met. We crossed paths [in the mid ‘90s] when I performed at South By Southwest in Texas. I had cassette tapes and a folder with my bio and I gave one to a chick named Tammy Cobbs. She was managing Mobb Deep at the time and I gave her a package and I guess she actually listened to it because she handed it off to Kedar. He was starting off his career managing D’Angelo and Tammy felt something kindred between our spirits and music, although our music sounded nothing alike. The only thing D’Angelo and I had in common was the person who believed in both of us: Kedar.
But I remember when I first heard D. I was working at a coffee shop. Actually, I had three jobs at the time [laughs]. They had D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar CD playing at the coffee shop and when I heard it I was like, ‘Oh, okay…this is it! This is what’s happening!’ Kedar gave me a call and told me that D’Angelo was coming to Dallas to do a show and wanted to know if I could open up for him. At the time, I was in a group called Erykah Free, which consisted of myself and my cousin Free. And most of that demo ended up on Baduizm. It was rough around the edges; the sound was grimy. We were pretty much hip-hop more than soul.
But before I met Kedar, I went to New York and auditioned for Puffy, for Sony and different people, but they all didn’t know what to do with me. I got the, ‘Hold on…let me figure it out’ speech. They didn’t know exactly what I was about because I didn’t fit a particular category or a genre. But Kedar felt it. He called me back after he invited me to open up for D’Angelo. At first he told me, ‘I don’t think the show is going to happen because…’ And I was like, ‘Oh, hell no!’ [laughs] I’m opening from D’Angelo…I’ve already told my mom and grandmamma…I’m doing the show!’ And I did. And I confirmed what Kedar felt and we went forward with a production deal that was used to get Kedar’s job at Universal. One of the first songs we did was [a cover of Marvin Gaye’s and Tammi Terrell’s] “Your Precious Love” with D’Angelo. And we didn’t like it. The singing was cool, but it was the musical aspect…it was too perfect, which to me meant that it lacked an element that wasn’t there; which made it not edgy enough for artists like D and myself.
I really don’t know how it happened but we both got labeled as Neo Soul, which was a term coined by Kedar Massenburg to describe our music. I don’t think he was trying to say that our music sounded alike. But it was a rebirth of something familiar to him. It touched his soul. I didn’t hate the Neo Soul title. But I never really considered myself a singer. I wasn’t the kid in church that made you cry. No one ever said, ‘Oh my God…she’s a great singer!’ But I had something.
The 'On & On' that you hear today did not sound like that originally. It was really grimy. The bass was sinister; the loop was hypnotic. It put me more in the mind of DJ Premier producing D’Angelo’s 'Devil’s Pie.' When we were recording Baduizm, I remember being disappointed sometimes because the demo, in Kedar’s and some of the engineers’ opinion, wasn’t ready. It wasn’t big enough. And I felt like, ‘Wow…but this is my sound…this is who I am.’ I’m really I’m a loop chick. But because I wanted to really make it and I wanted to have an album come out we made the instrumentation a little bigger. I started working with live bands and that expanded my sound. But I still kept elements of that loop-driven sound. Success happened so quickly for me. But I knew 'On & On' was dope though.
I knew that if people heard it there was a great possibility that they would also get it. I had a lot of confidence. I did not know of failure. I didn’t understand that concept. I just knew it was my time. Yes, the headwrap was all me…it was my creation. I don’t have the horror story about a record label that imaged me or taught me dance steps or paired me with producers. Everything that I’ve ever done was because I was given the complete freedom to be who I am. And James Poyser? He’s my studio husband. From the day I met him to today, we complete each other musically. We were instantly lovers, musically, and we still are to this day. If I’m writing a song like 'Out My Mind Just In Time' or when you hear those early ballads like 'Green Eyes,' 'Other Side Of The Game,' and newer songs like “Window Seat,” that’s me and James at the piano.”
“I think it was a culmination between Kedar and myself on the idea of a live album. But really it was at the request of the fans. Because that’s what I am…I’m a live performer. I enjoy being a recording artist, but I shine on the stage. I get my point across onstage. It becomes therapy for me. That’s what I do eight months out of the year whether I sell one record or one million. “Tyrone” came about very impromptu. Actually, it was a joke. I was mocking my aunties and the people around me in the spirit of shit-talking. I didn’t know people took it that seriously until Tavis Smiley had a show with a panel of experts talking about ‘Call Tyrone’ and analyzing it.
On the panel was George Washington Carver, Martin Luther King [laughs]…I’m talking about every black leader imaginable talking about, ‘Is ‘Tyrone’ male bashing or is it feminism?’ You have to understand that everyone has their time. In February 1997 Baduizm came out. And in November of 1997 the live album and “Tyrone” came out. It was my year to be placed amongst the stars. And I had not had another year like that. I won many awards and as a result of the things I did that year, the following years I continued to be rewarded by the fans. But “Tyrone” took on a life of its own. And to this day people still holler it out in the middle of everything I do onstage. It’s my ‘Purple Rain’ [laughs]. I made a joke to my mother once when she asked ‘When are you going to quit touring so much…you’ve been touring for 13 years; you’re never home…’ And I told her, ‘Well, wherever they want to hear ‘Call Tyrone’ that’s where I’m going to be.’ I love it and hate it [laughs].”
“I did a song on the Eve’s Bayou soundtrack called “Child With The Blues,” which was written by Curtis Mayfield. Meeting him was one of the most important experiences of my life. I was beginning to feel very accomplished in my music and in my career. I knew by that time people had a great deal of respect for me as an artist. And Curtis Mayfield invited me to be a part of this soundtrack. I was totally honored, but at the same time I was cocky. Everything was too easy for me. But Mr. Mayfield brought me back down to size [laughs]. By this time, Curtis was paralyzed from the neck down. He moved around by wheel chair by blowing in tube that ran the wheel mechanism. He was able to move around that way, but it was very debilitating for him.
So, I was in the booth about to record the song that he sent me earlier. The music started…it was live instrumentation and there was a trumpet solo at the beginning that was so amazing that I almost literally peed on myself. Then I started singing. I felt like I was warming up and kind of getting used to the feel of the song and I sung one line [she sings] ‘Could have never known’…And Curtis says, ‘Cut…let’s take it from the top.’ I thought maybe it was a technical problem so I’m like, ‘Okay, I gotcha.’ So we started the intro and I started singing that line again, ‘Could have never known…’ And again I hear, ‘Cut!’ And Curtis has this very high pitched voice…he sounds a lot like his music. He goes, ‘Yes…let’s take it from the top, again…let’s try that one more time, Badu.’ And I started the line again and he goes, ‘Okay…now let’s sing…’ [laughs] I’m like, ‘Huh???’ By that time I knew it was me. I felt like, ‘Oh shit…’ Curtis Mayfield was very serious about the way he had written the song and he wanted me to sing it as it was created…no improvisation…It was if he was telling me, You are going to do it over and over again until I feel that you have mastered what I have created.’ I think I sung that intro part 26 times before he let me get to one verse.
After that, Curtis goes, ‘Did you study the song?’ I’m like, ‘No…I didn’t study…I was just going to feel it.’ And that wasn’t the answer he wanted to hear. As a matter of fact, that session created the line when I said on New Amerykah 2, ‘Do you have that number to that other bass player?’ Well, Curtis Mayfield said that to someone in the session while the bass player was actually there [laughs]! Everybody in the studio was quiet. Curtis Mayfield demanded excellence.”
“I did not expect anything from “You Got Me.” Questlove from the Roots called me up and told me that there was a track that they wanted me to sing on. Jill Scott, who was an up-and-coming artist at the time, was on the original track. No one knew who she was. I found out later she wrote the hook! But when I heard her voice on the demo, I called Quest back and said, ‘Uh, what’s wrong with her voice?’ [laughs] She’s fabulous…what’s going on with this?’ It sounded in the spirit of my music, but there was something else that this woman had in her voice. It was beautiful. And the Roots were like, ‘Oh no…that’s just a demo.’ I didn’t know who she was. I never spoke to her until after I recorded the song and the song had come on the radio and we had done the video.’
So one of my best friends in the world—we were dating at the time—Common, he called me and asked, ‘Hey, do you know Jill Scott?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t…who is she?’ And he said, ‘She’s the chick that wrote the hook on “You Got Me.” And I’m like, ‘Oh yeah…what’s up with her?’ And then Common tells me, ‘She’s upset.’ I was shocked. I’m like, ‘Who…with me?’ I felt like I was in the middle of that whole thing. I was just asked to sing on it. But I later found out that someone had unknowingly stripped a moment from her; she should have had that moment that I had. So I could understand the animosity and resentment. But there was nothing I could do. I was angry with Ahmir (Questlove) for a moment because I don’t think he told her that she wasn’t going to be on the song. She didn’t know that until she heard “You Got Me” on the radio.
So here I am, this chick singing her song. And she’s from Philly, too! And that’s the only song I sang on that anyone else has written when it came to my material. But there are several other songs that Jill wrote that I wish I had wrote [laughs]. But Jill and I talked about it. I think after she was recognized for the talent that she is she allowed me into her heart. From there we still talk on the phone at least twice a month. We talk about our children and we formed a company called Sugar Water along with Queen Latifah where we tour for women. As an actress myself, I’m a very big supporter and fan of her acting. I admire her courage in her roles. We cooler than a fan.
But you want to hear something ironic? I had an Icon series come out which included some of my songs and I didn’t know anything about the album. But one of the songs on there was “You Got Me.” I decided to listen to the album one time and it came on. When I heard it I was like, ‘Damn, I sound good.’ But it was Jill Scott singing [laughs]! Motown put the wrong version on there. The label was like, ‘Oh, we didn’t know…’ I’m like, ‘Come on Motown.’ So I called Jill and we both said, ‘Lord have mercy.’ [laughs] It came around full circle. The Gods were saying something.”
“Didn’t Cha Know” doesn’t sound like anything from J. Dilla’s catalogue. And that’s because we collaborated on that one together. And that’s rare because Dilla did not usually collaborate in that manner. He would just do the track and give it to you. But he allowed me to work with him…that’s his sound and my sound together that you hear. I was introduced to him by Common. I was in Detroit at Dilla’s house and that’s where “Didn’t Cha Know” and “Kiss Me On My Neck” were born. I was in his studio basement where Dilla kept thousands of records. I was fascinated looking through these records. I would play one or two of the albums when I ran across a group called Tarika Blue and that’s where the “Didn’t Cha Know” sample came from. I told Dilla, ‘I love this!’ And he says, ‘What part do you love?’ And he showed me how to sample it and he did the drums.
Dilla was special. I love him. He is the most humble person I’ve ever met. I say that because he was very quiet. he didn’t brag and he wasn’t flashy. He was just a-matter-of-factly confident about his sound. He was just an amazing person. “Bag Lady” started when I was in a session with some of my musicians. And one of the keyboard players Shaun Martin started playing the song that was on Dr. Dre’s album. The original “Bag Lady” had a replayed guitar lick over it. And we kept it…I thought it was amazing. The song kept me current…it was great. So Kedar’s idea was, ‘Hey, let’s just do a remix over that track, period.’ And we did…we ended up having two versions. I went to Dr. Dre’s studio and played it for him before it came out. And he was like, ‘That’s dope!’ I think people who say that Mama’s Gun was more organic were just following someone else’s critique.
Once someone says a thing it kind of becomes the truth. And that’s not the truth. “Other Side Of The Game,” “Certainly” and “Sometimes” from Baduizm were all live. So Mama’s Gun followed that live and programmed sound. There was no conscious effort to do anything. I worked with Ahmir and James a little more. I’ve always had that funk. I think what happened was the first track “Penitentiary Philosophy” doesn’t sound like anything else on the record. That’s the funk track that people want to define the album by. Because of the impact that I made early on there were people and critics who wanted to pick me apart. It’s the Jesus Christ thing…you love him, but now it’s time for the crucifixion; then the resurrection; and then it starts all over again. That’s just the nature of journalism to me. And the fans followed suit.”
“Before "Love Of My Life," I appeared in Common’s “The Light” video. And you would have thought I was on the song with the way people would say, ‘Oh…the “The Light” with Common and Erykah Badu…’ But because the imagery was so strong, I think people wanted to see that kind of love and possibility. We were great together. As I said before, he’s one of my best friends in the world…we were best friends before we even started dating. And we gave it a shot because we were so good together. The song came about naturally. I was recording “Love Of My Life” for the Brown Sugar soundtrack. Common had already had the song “I Used To Love,” which was about hip-hop. He described hip-hop as a metaphor before anyone else did. And that’s what “Love Of My Life” is about. I’m describing my love for hip-hop. It was inspired by his song.”
“If I would have done “Danger” with that headwrap on some of the fans would have gotten it. It took them longer to get it because they weren’t looking for a savior…they were looking for someone who looked like one. Once you take that headwrap off you confuse some people. But the same message was there. It wasn’t a [gangster record] like some people were making it out to be. Just listen to lyrics…’Aint no mistaking, the money you making leaves you nervous and shaking/Cause at night you’re awake and thinkin’ about lives that you’ve taken/All the love you’ve forsaken in yo zone, niggaz goin’ get they fucking head blown…Danger…’ It was talking about the dangers of that [drug] life. “Other Side Of The Game” talked about the same thing. Now I will say that “Danger” did not sound like my past records. It sounded like Dallas, which is where I’m from. And I have news…there’s not going to be one song that sounds the same. That’s not going to happen. That’s what creating music is all about to me.”
“I was touring between Worldwide and the first New Amerykah. I was writing as well and I had just had another baby. I was being a mom…I was living…I was procrastinating. Just being alive. I even did a couple of movies. So to the fans that know me musically, I didn’t disappear. I was just in another place. Technology was in another place. There were more opportunities to socially network. People were just sending me tracks and I would receive the tracks on my computer desktop and if I liked them I would put them in GarageBand and write to it. I didn’t have to go anywhere. It was just the next logical step to writing music and being a producer. I did a lot of those songs from New Amerykah 1 and 2 on GarageBand.
Just like Baduizm, I felt like I could just turn in the demos. I sent the songs straight to my engineer and partner Mike Chav. He was very much responsible for the sound effects in my voice and how the music sounded. He stayed true the grooves that I creating because I was creating a moment in time, not just an album. It had to be documented correctly. I wasn’t angry on this record. I have no angry emotion about what’s going on in the world. But I understand what’s going on in the world and again, I had to document it. I would call New Amerykah 1 political/analytical/left brain/patriarchal…any kind of masculine thing you can think of…that part of me is on New Amerykah Part 1.
I recorded all those songs at the same time in no particular order, but because I believe in doing a project and not a 99 cent single here or there, it all had to make sense as a story. I chose those 10 songs for the first part because they all told a story. A song like “Soldier”…that’s us…it’s who we are. It’s the beautiful struggle, which is very much a part of who we are. Out of that struggle is born revolution, change, courage, and bravery. It’s who we are as black African people in America. I was trying to say, This is who you created, America.’”
“Anybody who is a Dilla fan has hundreds of Dilla tracks. Because he did a lot of beat tapes and passed them out. On the first New Amerykah I had a Dilla dedication track called “The Healer” which was done by Madlib. For the Return of The Ankh album I recorded a Dilla track called “Love,” which was from 1998. I’ve always loved it. Because for New Amerykah Part Two, it fit emotionally and melodically. It was a return of the feeling…the emotion of Baduizm. That emotion that I felt during Baduizm is what I felt when I was recording New Amerykah One & Two. I thought it was very fair to attribute the second album to the Ankh—the return to life. It has a very feminine energy. Return of the Ankh is also very much a hint to society that it is time for the woman to return to her seat next to the man.
The reaction to the “Window Seat” video didn’t teach me anything. It confirmed exactly what I said would happen in the video. Once you walk a path and you shed all the things and labels that people put on you—the things they teach you in school and church—you are venerable and naked to an assassination. Whether it’s your character or worst. Once you don’t believe what the group believes they usually group up out of fear to kill your ideas and your thoughts because they don’t understand. How can she not be like us? How dare she have her own identity and ideas? How dare she not wear the latest fashions? How can she mock us like that? That’s what happened in the video and after the video [laughs]. This is what you call group think. Individuals are afraid to go outside the group’s thinking fearing that they will be assassinated.
That’s the biggest crime on humanity. By doing this you are cheating us all out of greatness. Was I happy with the reception of [New Amerykah Two]? I don’t know. I don’t think a lot of people heard it [laughs]. I didn’t know I was going to be in the 6 o’ clock news for the “Window Seat” video. I was just in the mode of a performance artist…in the tradition of Josephine Baker, Nina Simone, Yoko Ono…nudity is often used in performance art to bring attention to an important issue. The whole point of performance art is used to create dialogue. And the dialogue does not have to be something that the people agree or disagree with. It’s about making people think, talk and feel. That’s what art is all about. It’s a very sacred thing to me. I feel music in me, right now. So I’m going to go somewhere and get it out. I’ve had another child and I am having a love affair with a very beautiful man (respected lyricist Jay Electronica). I have something to say; there’s something in me that needs to come out. And that’s what music is for me…its therapy. I don’t know if I’m a role model or any of those things that people want me to be. But I have to be who I am. And I do that best of all.”