Mad Wednesdays: Maria Davis Gave JAY Z A Chance When No One Else Would

Reasonable Doubt may have set the foundation for Jay Z's career, but outside of its spellbinding lyricism and immaculate production, one of the most memorable moments came courtesy of a woman named Maria Davis. On the album's seventh track, titled "22 Two's," Hov incorporates the words "two" and "too" in various fashions and although his precision is to be admired, the main draw is the feisty host featured at the beginning of the song, who introduces herself as Maria Davis of Mad Wednesdays. After assuring the crowd that they're in for a good time, Maria spots Jay in the audience and commands him to "put that champagne down and kick a little freestyle."

But Davis is the one who steals the show, delivering the classic line "Who's smoking reefer" when she apparently smells weed smoke in the air and proceeds to admonish the crowd after Jay's impromptu performance. When the supposed culprit gets vulgar and insults her with a curse, Davis promptly orders the club security to escort the disorderly patron out of the venue before paying homage to Jay Z and continuing on with the show without missing a beat. Two years later, in 1998, Jay Z would release his Hard Knock Life album, sell over five million copies, and ascend to legendary status -- and Reasonable Doubt, which had been a mild success upon release, would be hailed as one of the definitive albums in hip-hop history.

Maria Davis, on the other hand, became somewhat of a mythical character in rap lore and has a fraction of the visibility that Brooklyn mogul has on the mainstream radar. If you were to mention her name to die-hard rap fans, most would instantly spout off about her standout appearance on the LP, and ponder what ever happened to her or if she was even a real person. Ultimately, chalking it up to another instance when the lines between storytelling and reality are blurred and moving along with their life. Many casual rap fans would be vaguely familiar, if at all, and fiend indifference before asking what you think of the latest mixape to hit the 'Net. But what both sets of fans should be well aware of is that Maria Davis and Mad Wednesdays is very much real and has played a pivotal role in the careers of many of your favorite artists of the '90s, including Jay Z.

"Well, you know, nobody knew who the hell he was so he was just a regular Joe Shmo to me, he wasn't Jay Z yet," Maria says when asked of her earliest impressions of The God MC. "But he was on his way 'cause they had they own label and I was a part of all of that." Although she will forever be tied to Jay Z, Davis isn't one to live in the past. These days, Davis still does her Mad Wednesdays sessions and had a massive one on November 11 at The Shrine in Central Harlem, during which she celebrated her 56th birthday, as well as twenty years of living with AIDS. "It's an experience and they never experienced what I bring to the table," says Maria in reference to Mad Wednesdays. Despite sounding a tad bit fatigued after a long day of running around the city, her voice lights up when speaking about the event and after getting to know her story, there's no surprise why Ms. Davis holds moments like this close to her heart. After all, it's in her DNA to be an entertainer.

Born Maria Antonnette Davis on November 13, 1959 in Cincinnati, Ohio, Maria and her mother would move follow her father and move from Cincinnati to New York City in 1962. "Well, my mother was only 15 when she had me so she didn't finish high school, but she wound up being a private nurse and my father was 17-years old and he had many odd jobs," Maria says when asked about her parents' occupation. "My mother followed my father here to New York two years after I was born and that's how we wound up in the Bronx. I grew up South Bronx, in Mott Haven Projects." The eldest of nine children, five girls and three boys, Maria describes her childhood as a bit tumultuous due to her mothers love life and the absence of her father, who split from the family when during the '60s, stating "Some of it was troubling 'cause my mother was a single parent and she was very young and looking for love. And sometimes didn't chose the right relationships and later on it affected us and our relationship"

The departure of her biological father from the household also took a toll on a young Maria. "It affected me a lot," she says in reference to the absence of her father. "I always say it's so very important for young woman to have their fathers in their lives because the father is what really sets precedents for their relationships. Your father's your first date. That's who talks to you about who you should be dating and who's acceptable and who's not acceptable and when you don't have a kind of guide or guidance for that because your mother's a single parent [it's hard]." Maria's mother would later marry her younger brother's father, but the wound left from her father leaving would remain a fresh one. "My mother married my brother's father and they were married for a while and he was a great example, but then they broke up but that was in the later years when I was in Junior High school. So he was definitely a great example [and] he was a hardworking man, but you miss your [biological] father, you know."

Despite Maria's less than storybook household, her younger years were also filled with plenty of memories that she speaks of fondly, most of all her mother's influence on the dynamic personality she would become. "My mother loved to entertain, so that's where I got the partying thing from, my mother," Maria explains. "She would always have parties and friends over and cook, she was always a entertainer. She loved music. We would listen to the Jackson 5 to Marvin Gaye to Nina Simone. Patti Labelle." In terms of interests, Davis mentions partaking in a good old fashioned game of the dozens as her main hobbies as a youth. "I loved to be involved in everything, I was a comedian," Maria reminisces. "I always liked attention. I was what they call the class clown [laughs]. And I did a lot of that to cover up the sadness of me missing my father 'cause we didn't get to see our father a lot so being a clown kind of masked some of the sadness I had inside."

That penchant for wisecracks often landed her in trouble among the faculty at PS 49, but Davis looks at her hijinks without an ounce of regret. "I would always hang out and be in the snapping circle and I was always snapping on people. So my mother was always coming to school ‘cause the teachers said I talked a lot, but never did anybody know that my speaking would be how I make my money today."

After graduating from William Howard Taft High School in 1976, Maria delved deep into the intoxicating portal that was Harlem World. According to Maria, a big proponent for what would prove to be a life-long love affair with Harlem was a friend by the name of Sunny Burke, who now goes by Sana Shabazz. "She was from Harlem, she grew up on 127th Street," Maria says of her longtime confidant. "Her and I became friends when I worked at one of my first jobs in an art firm called Collective Guild. She was just a taste of Harlem for me. It was so amazing because her and I crossed paths in everything we did. She's still doing art, and she works in a prison, and I go visit prisons for her so we're still family." She also began looking for work to make ends meet, eventually landing a job at Record King Audio, which she considers the place where she first got her feet wet in the business of music.

"I worked in Record King Audio on 125th Street from 1978 to 1979 and it was run by two brothers, Curtis and Neil. And my girlfriend, Sunny, she dated Curt." Maria continues to wax poetic about lessons learned during her time spent at Record King Audio, as well as mentioning her loose association with one of Harlem's most beloved and notorious gangsters in passing. "I worked with (Russell Patterson and Stewart) from Black Ivory. Both were my bosses, but me and Russell were very close so I got exposed to a lot of stuff," Maria explains before dropping a major tidbit, stating "One of my good friends was Guy Fisher, his sister Florence Fisher was my good friend [and] at that time they owned the Apollo. So I was involved a little bit in the streets but not that much in the streets, but I [just] had a yearning to wanna know people."

In addition to her sharp tongue and charisma, the almond complected beauty could also make waves with her looks, leading to a lucrative career as a model during the '80s. "I had a modeling career for a long time, I made a lot of money," Davis boasts. "I was one of the first models on the box of a perm called Optimum. I did the ad and everything with a woman named Olive Benson, she passed on, but I was the first Optimum hair girl. I was a Budweiser Superfest girl. They would have posters every year and one year I was the poster person." The MTA, McDonalds, and Ebony were just a few of the many companies she posed for, but what really took her career to the next level was when her first child, Joshua, was born. "I had my son in '82 [and] I made a lot of money when he was born. Before, I was struggling, giving little parties here and there, fashion shows, and then when he was born, I started getting a lot of work."

But aside from modeling, she was also building an interest in a burgeoning sound coming out of her native Bronx called Hip-Hop during those years. "I guess that kind of started when I was modeling and I was bartending," Davis says when asked about the root of her love for the genre. "The Cellar on 95th and Columbus, that's when I started getting into Hip-Hop. I bartended and waitressed there. And then I wound up giving parties there. Rod Strickland's party was my first party. You couldn't even get in."

Maria's answer is simple when asked about the motivation behind her plunge into the party promoting game. "Just getting a group of people together and starting with my friends," she says. "And being at fashion shows and seeing other peoples different parties. I just liked getting people together. I always had functions at my house. I lived in a house in Newark, New Jersey, always had parties there. I always organized family get togethers, liked to cook, and that all stemmed from my mother."

What started off as a way to spend quality time with family and friends soon evolved into a full-blown operation for Maria. "Early '80s I started doing little parties here and there, nothing big though. My big stuff came right before whenI was pregnant with my daughter [at] Terranova. That was kind of toward the end of me deciding I didn't wanna model no more 'cause I started knowing so many people in the music industry and hanging out with them and everything so I would find out when everybody's birthday [was]. It started with birthday parties. I said "oh, what could I do," and I combined peoples birthday parties and I found DJs that nobody was using and I created a whole movement with DJs. I had Funkmaster Flex, Chuck Chill-Out, Luv-Bug Starski, Hollywood, everybody played for me."

"I started looking for venues," Maria says of her subsequent moves. I did a lot of basketball parties at Kilimanjaro. I did a lot of parties at Terranova with Allison Williams, Guy, Russell Simmons, Andre Harrell. All of them were my friends. I did parties for Charles Oakley, I did some Knicks' parties." Her connections from Cellars was paying infinite dividends for Maria, but little did she know that her love for entertaining was about to become her claim to fame and make her one of the hottest party promoters in all of New York.

One of the facilitators of this ascension was Bob Tate, a local impresario and member of the Uptown Chamber Of Commerce, who would take a liking to Maria and become a mentor during this period. "He had all of these business ventures going on and one of them was promoting parties. "Bob Tate kind of spearheaded and pushed me into another realm of partying because I would watch his money for him. He worked with a man named Leo and they ran a club called on 23rd Street. Bob Tate asked me to watch his door and he would give me a ridiculous amount of money to watch his money all night cause he would get half the door."

Another invaluable guide was presented to Maria in the form of a friend named Shelly Brook, who would also play a key role in her development as a force in New York's urban nightlife scene "I was still working at Cellars for a little bit and I was the coat-fit model on 7th Avenue and a good friend of mine, Shelly Brook, she was running the waiters at Mikells Restaurant, came to me one day. She had Whitney Houston [as a client] and was handling a lot of talent and she said to me "Listen, I got a venue, Maria, why don't you put something together?" And I dilly-dallied for months and then finally I said, "Yeah, let me do Mad Wednesdays," and that was in 1994."

According to Maria, the name Mad Wednesdays was partly by chance, as well as actual fate. "I was throwing parties, but I didn't really have no names for the parties; they were just [the] 'Maria Davis Party.' And Mad Wednesday came up because Shelly wanted me to take a Wednesday. So MAD is Maria Antonette Davis, my initials, so that's how I came up with Mad Wednesdays." The first official Mad Wednesdays showcase in March 1994 took place at hot spot called Sweetwaters on Amsterdam Avenue and would be immortalized as a landmark in rap in little more than two years and change by a certain Brooklynite.

But by no means did that occurrence birth the relevance of Mad Wednesday because if you were to ask those that were around at the time to know, Mad Wednesdays immediately became one of the most star studded events in Harlem. And Maria Davis seemed to be going through all the right avenues to make what would be a half-court shot to most seem like a layup. "It was good 'cause I was getting up and coming artists like Horace Brown. Usher was there. I had Quo, Michael Jackson's group. Mary J. [Blige] was there. Soul For Real came there for my birthday party. Keith Murray. Jay Z started out at Sweetwaters. Missy Elliott, Brian McKnight, Case, Mike Epps, Bill Bellamy. The list goes on." With A-List hip-hop and r&b talent in close quarters during a time when New York was known more for crime. "I had Kwame perform there and Biggie Smalls came to beat Kwame up at Sweetwaters," Maria recalls. "That's when the polka dot thing was going on and Biggie snapped on Kwame and then Kwame quoted him back so Biggie came there and found out he was performing. I had to take Kwame out the back door."

She also admits to being nervous at times about throwing her events due to being independent of any major companies, unlike a few of her contemporaries. "Yeah, you had the Tunnel. You had the Red Zone when Puffy decided to do stuff there. You're always nervous trying to get people through the door and back then I was the only black female promoter. There uwas nobody else doing it the way I was doing it, it was just me and Jessica Rosenblum. Puffy, Russell and all them used her [to work their parties]. They used her and God used me." While that assessment can be taken a myriad of ways, but what cannot be ignored is its plausibility due to all three's tight relationships being directly involved at the upper echelon of the '90s New York rap scene. But when prodded, Maria maintains that she feels no ill will towards Jessica, but stands her ground on the fact that she was the underdog out of that particular pack.

"We were cordial. I went to some of her events and she went to some of my events," Maria says of Rosenblum. "I mean, they had the upper-hand on me. They had their hands in the record companies. Jessica Rosenblum was very good friends with Russell Simmons and then Lyor [Cohen], you know. So where I had to fight for Mad Wednesday, they didn't have to fight, you know, they got it easy. They was there already, they could go pick up the phone and call people. I mean, I had great people that was in my corner, too, like OJ Wedlaw and Mark Pitts so I had a machine too, I had God. And that's the best one that you can have. So even with all of the adversity and people not giving me the artists like they gave Jessica, Mad Wednesdays was still very important in the music movement."

The rat race to dominate the NYC urban nightlife landscape was in full swing and Maria was a top contender, but tragedy would alter her course near the end of 1995 when a club patron was killed inside Sweetwaters, the venue that housed Mad Wednesdays.

"Sweetwaters got shut down in 1995 right before Christmas," Davis says, explaining the incident. "A guy got shot in the head at a party. Back then you had the promoters and then you had some of the hustlers that was throwing parties and the hustler's parties made mad money 'cause they sold bottles. That's when champagne - Dom P, Moet and all of that - was famous. And this particular party, the week before that Christmas, they had had a little scuffle in the party and I said 'this is not a good look, you can't take every and anybody's money.' And sure enough, I was bartending that night at Sweetwaters and a guy came in and shot a man in the head right there on the dance-floor." The setback may have put a damper on Maria's streak of good luck, but would prove to be a pivotal moment in the growth of Mad Wednesdays as a brand.

"I went to the Country Club on 86th [after Sweetwaters shut down], which catapulted Mad Wednesdays to a whole 'nother level. [The Country Club] was on 86th [Street], it took up a whole street between 2nd [Avenue] and 3rd [Avenue]. But now it's a pool hall." Maria details the period with the type of awe as if it just occurred yesterday. "I mean, I had lines outside," she says. "That's when the jazz mobile at Grant's Tomb up there on 123rd Street was big and popular because I was doing parties at Perks too. Perks was over there on Manhattan Avenue so I had a little short run of doing parties there; I did some record company parties that I set up in Perks." She also lets me in on how she finagled those parties and other connections she had made into her claim to fame. "How I became famous with getting these artists too was because I had so many friends in the music industry. I knew artists that were trying to get in the music industry so I would say 'well, why don't I put the new unsigned artist together with the record label's signed artist and create a buzz.' So my friends would say 'Maria, we got so-and-so in town, can you put something together' and then the little artist that I knew, I would put them on that same show. So I developed relationships with all my friends that they needed so anybody that had a new artist would give me the new artist to work in."

Mad Wednesdays soon became THE place to be Uptown, eventually finding its way in the raps of the game's hottest stars of the moment. "Mad Wednesdays became famous because The L.O.X. got me in their song [when they said] 'Ask Maria How I Blew It Down Mad Wednesdays,' they got a verse [with me in it]. And then Jay Z put me in his, "22 Twos," Reasonable Doubt, so Mad Wednesdays became very popular."

Which brings us full circle. While Maria Davis would've went down as a legend in Harlem regardless of meeting Jay Z -- we would be lying if "22 Two's" isn't the reason she appeared on many folks outside of New York City's radar. Maria is forthcoming about the whole process that got her on what many rap fans deem as one of the top ten albums of all-time. "Damon had heard of me," Maria says, matter-of-factly. "I didn't particularly know him and one day he came into my life and he never left. Jay Z didn't really know who I was, it was Damon Dash because I had something valuable, I had a venue." And Damon Dash had an artist whose face and music he needed to get out in the world, so the alliance was a match made in heaven. While Maria doesn't speak in mesmerized tones when speaking of Jay, she let's it be known that she was definitely a fan of his. "Well, he was coming to Mad Wednesdays and he did this song and it was "22 Twos" and that was like my favorite song," she says. "And every time he would come I was like 'no, Jay, you gotta do that 22 Twos thing."

Responding to a question about how the actual skit even came about, Maria attributes it to her no-frills shenanigans as a promoter. "I was famous for throwing people out of the club when they didn't act right and they loved that so they wanted that on the record," she recalls of Jay and Dame's reasoning for tapping her to hop on the album. She also takes full ownership of the commentary she spewed on that record, accrediting it to herself and explaining the thought process behind it. "So that whole skit, I adlibbed myself. They didn't write none of that, I wrote it, it came off the top of my head. Cause I would go in bathrooms and they would be like "Oh, Miss Davis is here, Miss Davis is here" and if I found or smelled anybody smoking weed, oh my god, party would get shut down, n----- would have to hear a whole Black History Month speech. So they got used to being like 'yo, don't come in her spot smoking weed' 'cause they was having such a good time and if I smelled weed, shit is shut down. That's why I been in the Shrine for seven years now. I don't even play with people. Go downtown to the white man, go give Bloomberg, the police, and 'em a hard time, don't do it to me."

Despite feeling honored to be asked to appear on one of her Mad Wednesday alum's album, her expectations for what her fifteen minutes of fame in the vocal booth would turn into were lukewarm to say the least. "Yeah, we knew it was gonna be on the album, but we didn't know how successful it would be. Nobody knew." She also makes it a point to digress that her appearance on the record was strictly organic and more of an extension of their relationship outside of the music. "I was a part of their family. We was doing the barbecues in the park and the this and the that and I know all the kids. I know Biggs' family, I'm still friends with his brother, his children, his sisters. Dame's brother Bobby, all of them. I just saw Biggs' brother the other day."

Some fans have claimed to have been present during the recording of "22 Two's," but Ms. Davis' recollection of the events seem to make that theory a farce. "They took me in the studio, but everyone thinks it was done at the club and people be like "I was there, I was there," they was not there. We did it in D&D Studios and I don't even think they exist no more. They asked me to come in and I did the whole skit. And at that time Jay Z was having problems with the law so I threw that up in there, "Jay Z, I heard you've been having problems with the law, but I know you're innocent." I was just adlibbing cause that's what was happening at the time. And I'm like 'put that champagne down and kick a little freestyle.' Who knew that would be so big." She also vouches for Jay Z's street credibility pre-fame, but prefers to shed more light on his present than his past, stating "He was a hustler, but he turned his hustling into something different absolutely."

Admitting she's not going as far as saving press clippings of him, Maria reveals that her and Jay's relationship may not be nearly as hunky dory as it was twenty years ago, but his team has taken the time to keep in touch with Maria over the years. "I just had his little nephews and all of them, they come to my shows, perform and bring artists. His secretary, Shaka, gave my daughter 10,000 to go to school from the Shawn Carter Foundation. And when they had the B-Sides concert, I was invited to come. They played the whole skit and then when they opened up the Barclays, everybody was calling me saying "Jay just gave you mad shoutouts, oh my god, Maria!" And Jay Z said that he's traveled all over the world and he started saying all the foreign countries that gave him love and then stopped and said, "You know what, I do have to say, next to the foreign countries was Maria Davis Mad Wednesdays."

"22 Two's" may have been a major coup, albeit unknowingly -- for Maria Davis' legacy in the greater hip-hop conversation, but she kept on trucking and conducted business as usual, continuing to put on dope showcases that included everyone that was hot on the streets at the time. Comparing the climate then to the game now, Maria seems to think that the decreased interaction between the fans and the artists at parties today is disheartening.

"It was different [back then]. You didn't have to be roped off [and] there was no such thing as bottle service," Maria laments. "You know, the Spanish people were doing it, but we weren't doing it, that was not popular. When you came to my parties, you was partying right with Jodeci and everybody. I didn't have no special section where I took them to seat and rope them off. Nah. These are your fans. These are people that made you, these are the people that you gotta have connections with them. That's the difference between the music industry now and back then." Davis continues, even pointing out the disparity between how people behind the scenes were accessible during different eras. "Back then [you could go to labels]. I had friends at MCA so I was always up at MCA Records. Cold Chillin' Records with Fly Ty. Nobody was like 'I'm this, I'm that,' everybody was struggling, trying to make it."

The struggle of trying to stay afloat amidst the murky waters of the music industry may have been a grind, but Maria Davis was about to stare in the face of the kind of adversity that many fail to survive. And the opponent would be AIDS, which she was diagnosed with in 1994. Soon, the dream that Maria Davis was living in quickly transformed into a nightmare.

"Absolutely. Definitely a shocker," Maria says of her reaction to the news. "Nobody takes being diagnosed with HIV in stride. That changes your entire life, your dating life, your life period. That's like a life altering disease. I took it like anybody else would take it if they found out they had HIV, devastated." The revelation must have been even more of a crushing blow given the manner in which she was delivered the news. "In the Post Office opening up a letter, that's how I found out," she says as she relives that fateful moment.

Suddenly, the same people that had once wanted a piece of everything she was doing slowly strayed away from Davis and acted as if she was a modern day lepper. "Absolutely, nobody knew what HIV was when I was diagnosed in '94," Maria says while reliving that trying time. "They kept a distance [from me], they was calling it The Monster. There was a stigma around anybody that had HIV or AIDS. And back then they didn't even know that it was HIV. HIV as a word didn't come around until '96." She continues taking me through the chain of events, stating "I remember the first person I told was my sister, Brenda and then my spiritual sister named Deidra Fisher," she reveals. So they were the first two that I told." Her emotions were a wreck prior to delivering the news. "I was absolutely afraid." She tells these tales wearing her poker face and without any subtle attempts of a pity party, fore those are not the celebrations she tolerates, in turn leading me to become a tad bit taken aback by her frankness.

But those that are familiar with Maria Davis wouldn't expect anything different. She's always been one to take the bull by the horns and give the sassiest sneer known to man while overcoming the odds. So after wiping her tears, she got to work. Maria's first step to adjusting her lifestyle was "getting educated and knowing what you're suffering with." She drives home her point about being responsible as someone spreading awareness. "I can't talk to anybody about anything until I'm educated about it. Because that's how misinformation is given. So I was working at Harlem United as a pre-educator. I had a phenomenal doctor, Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, that was on the cutting edge side of AIDS and HIV when it first started."

Mad Wednesdays would continue through the late '90s, until a series of violent at The Country Club and Essos would impede Mad Wednesdays' potential progress.

"I did Monday Night Madness because I became very ill and I was hospitalized in '99 and one week stay turned into twelve and I never thought that I would give parties again. And then my good old friend Shelly, who started me out at Sweetwaters who is now at Soul Cafe came to me and said 'Maria, please, would you just host my show once a week' and I was like "nah, people are already talking bad about me, saying I'm strung out on drugs 'cause I'm so skinny and then one day she convinced me, in 2000, so I started hosting for her once a month with her son. So Monday Night Madness was like my introduction back to a life that I never thought that I would never see again. And I was still skinny and very fragile" And then from there, I threw a party and I did one party, two party, three parties and I was there for four years."

Maria looks back at her decision as one that was essential to truly begin living her life in the public again. "It helped my healing process, getting back to what I knew and what I love to do and every time that I came to host, I felt myself getting stronger and stronger. And then I was able to incorporate my story cause in 2000, I wound up being in a book called Souls Of My Sisters: Black Women Break Their Silence, Tell Their Stories And Heal Their Spirit. So being in Souls of My Sisters is what kind of took Mad Wednesdays from being just a musical showcase and an event to a movement 'cause now I was incorporating HIV Awareness along with Mad Wednesdays. And the same young people that would come through my doors to showcase their artistry would also leave out educated about a disease that's killing our people. For a long time, I wasn't gonna change it back to Mad Wednesdays, I said Mad Wednesdays is dead, it's old. But one day when I wasn't in the Sugar Bar no more (Between Broadway and West End), that's when I renamed Mad Wednesdays."

"I had to get my strength back, so by May 2007, I was at the Sugar Bar," Maria says in regards to her second comeback following a bout with PCP Pneumonia. "I was at the Sugar Bar for about three years. But just when it looked like Mad Wednesdays was regaining its stride, another setback appeared unexpectedly, leaving the showcase without a home yet again. They wanted to change and do something different," Maria says of The Sugar Bar's decision to break ties with Mad Wednesdays. After inquiring on The Sugar Bar's reasoning behind their change of heart, Maria points to differences in philosophy and approach rather than anything malicious. "Well, mainly because Valerie Simpson's brother didn't wanna do tracks and some of the artists had tracks. Not because it was no trouble or nothing," she continues. "R&B artists had tracks and everybody doesn't know how to work the band and he wanted everybody to because Sugar bar is Val Simpson [and] it's Ashford & Simpson, they wrote a lot of hits."

After splitting with the Simpsons, Davis was left without a venue to house Mad Wednesdays. But a helping hand appeared again in the nick of time, saving Mad Wednesdays from going on an extended hiatus. "Well, one of my girlfriends, Rain Torae, she was doing showcases there, open mic, on Tuesdays. And I let her know that I didn't have a place to go and Sugar Bar didn't want me no more and she said 'well, let me talk to the owner of The Shrine, Abdel Ouedraogo, and she spoke to him and they agreed and I'm here several years later."

Mad Wednesdays is back in effect and after several years without a glitch in the system, seems to have found a permanent home at The Shrine, giving a whole new generation of fans the chance to experience what drew artists and audiences of past to frequent Maria Davis' shindigs. She remains a proponent of young talent, but has her disagreements with the way some of the current artists on top of the game operate, particularly the females. "It's interesting because people always think that Nicki Minaj is the end all of end all. I mean, I like her and all that, but [back then], you had Yo-Yo, you had Da Brat, I mean, you had so many different styles. Nicki Minaj is great, but she's very very commercial. I mean, she's got it easy compared to what these women had to go through." When asked why she thinks this generation doesn't make a better effort to reach back to the old guard for guidance, Maria pegs it simply as a sign of the times we're in.

"You have to remember what this generation is about. What do they call it, selfie, everything is about self, so the next man ain't trying to be humble or give the next man recognition. These young people been sampling all of these r&b artists forever and they never - not many of 'em - look back and say 'well this is where the music comes from. They just sample the music and then they get hit later with a lawsuit and they really think they made that song." With social injustice being a hot topic these days, Maria Davis' believes the artists and fans of today need to put the onus on themselves more. "A little bit, but more still needs to be done," she assesses when asked if the two groups are doing enough to raise awareness on issues affecting the urban community. "All of them songs about strippers and throwing money in the air and disrespecting young women. Disrespecting men towards each other and [concentrating on] all of the unnecessary shit that don't even matter 'cause at the end of the day, if you're not educated, you're going nowhere. How do you obtain your information if you're not around things to inspire you and inform you?"

The question is one that has been asked for centuries, but in the meantime, Maria Davis is content with living in the moment. With more than thirty years of experience in New York's nightlife scene, Maria is as exuberant as those half her age and continues to tend to the artists and causes that often go unsung. When asked if she ever feels she gets lost in the shuffle in comparison to her contemporaries from her heyday, her response is one that is seeped in the type of wisdom and clarity that you can only get by traveling this weathered road called life. "You know what I learned and I learned this from being diagnosed with HIV and AIDS. The world is a stage and everybody's an actor and everybody has a different role to play and you're as good as your last scene. So if you're last scene was ten years ago, nobody know about your. But if you keep yourself relevant and you keep yourself in the community, everybody doesn't have to know your name."

She continues with her sermon. "Let me tell you something, when you die, life goes on and it's unfortunate, but the way you live your life will speak for you after the death. So if you lived your live doing nothing for no one but yourself, no one will remember you. But if you lived your life trying to help people and give back to the community, those people that you touched and you reached, even if it's ten or fifteen of them, those fifteen people, you're in their hearts and that's the most important thing. We're not put on this earth for everyone to say our name because that's selfish. I want people to say my name because 'Maria helped me. Not Maria Davis because she's the baddest promoter and she was on Jay Z's album. I don't look for man to glorify me because if you wait for man to glorify you, you'll never be glorified."

The words hit you like a ton of bricks, much like the letter that Maria read at that Post Office some twenty years ago. When asked how she continues to cope and live with AIDS, Maria's response let's you know exactly where her mind is these days. "I have a regular life with medication for the rest of my life. I graduated from college at the age of 56 from the College of New Rochelle, I'm being honored on November 24. as a servant of the community. I started taking swimming lessons, so I swim now, whereas I used to be afraid of the water. I'm doing HIV/AIDS awareness, just [being] more community involved. A little politics. I'm the County Committee leader for the district here. They put me on the ballot and people voted for me. And a little TV because I've said I've always wanted to be an actress. I wanna go back to school to perfect myself even more. So I lead an exceptional life. And someone asked me the other day 'now that you're living with AIDS, how has your life been' and I said 'my life is better than it's ever been."

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August Moon (@slutaugust)

Faze Clan, 100 Thieves, And How Hip-Hop And Video Games Collide With Esports

“I got game like Genesis.” – Lord Finesse, “Yes You May (Remix)” (1992)

Smugly sophisticated, succinct but vivid, Lord Finesse managed more in five words than this author ever could. Then there’s The Fresh Prince, who gave us, simply, “Ever since I was younger, I was into video games” on 1988’s “Human Video Game,” complete with Ready Rock C’s beatboxed rendition of the Donkey Kong theme. Of course, Biggie immortalized the poshness of a multiple console array on “Juicy,” a lyric inevitably recited at the mere mention.

Prescient though these men were, none could have predicted that Rockstar Games’ 2013 offering Grand Theft Auto V, itself emblematic of this marriage of worlds, would become the most profitable entertainment title in history. It raced to $1B in sales in just three days and has since surpassed $6B. Or that video games would out-earn all of Hollywood’s offerings and all record label projects, combined—now eight years and counting. Or that, according to the Wall Street Journal, more people watched other people play video games than they did the entirety of the 2017 NFL season.

The math is mind-bending. And few are as qualified to unlock it as Kevin Mitchell, who launched an esports program within the Sports Communications Department at Emerson College and also a pre-college initiative for high schoolers interested in esports careers. Last year, Mitchell founded the College Esports Expo (CEX), the first of its kind; year two saw 300% growth. CEX panels discussed ESPN’s first-ever Collegiate Esports Championship (CEC), a March Madness-esque national championship for gaming set to premiere this May; the fledgling Evergreen Conference, an esports league comprising the eight Ivy League schools; a Learfield IMG merger that Mitchell claims “will reshape the college esports landscape” by elevating merchandising, sponsorships and media rights to the level of D1 athletics. Meanwhile, more than 200 national institutions offer scholarships for varsity esports. And major schools like NYU, Syracuse, George Washington, and UC Irvine–“the Harvard of esports,” says Mitchell, with 400+ members in its esports club and an on-campus gaming arena–are diversifying their esports curricula.

Mitchell boasts not just game but guile and grit as a veteran of the music industry, hired by Bobbito Garcia at Def Jam and mentored by Lyor Cohen. Along the way, he earned several Grammy nominations and created a Washington, DC-based internship program that counted Young Guru, Delante Murphy, and Kevin Liles as participants. He also singlehandedly pressed up the white labels for ‘90s anthem “Déjà Vu (Uptown Baby)” by Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz. But it was his oversight of Shaquille O'Neal’s record label TWIsM that bore fruit.

“It was ’96. I was on set at a video shoot for ‘Man of Steel,’ off the Steel soundtrack, and I beat Shaq at Tekken in front of Ice Cube and B-Real,” Mitchell grins. “Shaq got pissed and joked that he didn’t want to pay me. That’s my earliest recollection of hip-hop and gaming—that and playing Madden with Snoop in the ‘G Thang’ era.”

Long removed from boyish bravado, Mitchell, who acknowledges that he’s “more of a practitioner than an academic,” serves as director of business development and strategic intelligence for theater company National Amusements—looking for opportunities between seemingly disparate worlds. When he first started placing songs into the Madden and NBA Live franchises on behalf of EA Sports, he knew he’d found his lane – it turns out that hip-hop and gaming aren't as different as they may seem.

“There’s a high level of authenticity required with gaming; it’s not anyone trying to be something they’re not. That was always a staple of hip-hop. Also, the power of both seemingly came out of nowhere, driven by a fringe component of society: Latinos and African Americans from the streets who didn’t have an outlet and gamers holed up in their basements with nobody paying attention to them," Mitchell explained. "...Now, both disciplines have become borderless and diverse, and they leverage the internet—streaming for gamers and SoundCloud for rappers. They also share management inefficiency. Think about all those regional record labels that emerged then imploded; a few people did well while a lot of the talent suffered. Esports is no different. ... Those in the gaming space are not equipped to lead others because they’re used to thriving independently.”

Speaking of thriving, one needn’t look much farther than Drake, Travis Scott, and gaming phenom Ninja, the most followed–and most profitable, cresting half a million dollars a month–user on all of streaming platform Twitch. Those three, plus gaming aficionado JuJu Smith-Schuster of the Pittsburgh Steelers, lifted the virtual roof off Twitch in March of 2018 when they teamed up for a game of Fortnite.

“That was the ‘man on the moon, shot-heard-round-the-world’ moment in esports,” attests Mitchell. “It’s akin to hip-hop’s moving from the uptown clubs to the downtown clubs. That day, hip-hop went to Union Square. I’d always anticipated that moment because of my exposure to hip-hop, but I couldn’t exactly predict how or when it would take place. If you could write a script of how these worlds would intersect, it would be that.”

The threesome would prove no one-night stand. Later in 2018, Drake would join Scooter Braun as co-owners of esports team 100 Thieves, along with Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert. And the NBA affiliation doesn’t stop there. Incredibly, there is a full-blown, sanctioned NBA 2K League: 21 NBA franchises drafted teams from among the world’s best NBA 2K players. It’s the first official esports league operated by an American professional sports association.

The synergy isn’t lost on the ballers. Says Andre Drummond of the Detroit Pistons, himself an avid gamer: “The overlap between hip-hop and esports is so dynamic because a lot of these artists are still in their teens and mid-twenties. So the crossover is easy to see: when they aren’t making music in the studio or performing in front of thousands of people, hip-hop artists are locked in playing a video game. And, from the other side, esports is a good way for gamers to meet their favorite artists or athletes; not only are they fans of our work, most of us know gamers by name and we are fans of their work as well!”

One such famous fan is Lil Yachty, now a member of the mighty FaZe Clan, far and away the world’s most successful esports brand. FaZe is a fascinating case study, for it combines 24/7 pro gamers with online personalities dedicated to creating content. Consider the work of FaZe Blaze, who as a preteen created and uploaded Call of Duty montages and now, via his FaZe affiliation, speaks of how blessed he is to have played GTA with Mac Miller and to call Schoolboy Q a friend. Fittingly, Blaze is releasing a wholly self-produced and performed hip-hop album called Playing Games. Blaze’s words ring true to any artist: “My best friends today are people that I met playing online; we all have the same passion to create. All of us are open books; we understood from very young ages that, if we were going to do this YouTube thing, anything in our lives can and will be made public. And because we’re so open with our audience, they connect with us on a much deeper level. It’s the sort of connection you make with real friends, close friends, even siblings. On the other hand, critical feedback can be hard. You’re not going to make your best stuff every time. But somebody else’s opinions shouldn’t change what you do, how you do it, or, ultimately, who you are.”

Whatever FaZe Clan is doing, it’s working: FaZe tallies a combined social reach of 210M, 21 times larger than that of the aforementioned 100 Thieves. In fact, FaZe was ranked #2 on Bleacher Report’s 2018 Power 50 Shake it Up list—two spots ahead of Drake. And FaZe’s social engagement numbers trump the Kardashians’. Not convinced? Prior to his induction and totally unsolicited, Lil’ Yachty was habitually tweeting, “FaZe Clan or no clan.”

Yachty reflects on those no-clan days. “I got my first Xbox in kindergarten. I was 5 years old. Faze Clan is the best gaming group in the world, plus I had been a fan since high school. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of it? Esports is going to the top. Major. It’s getting much more respect and I’m all for it. And hip-hop and gaming will continue to intersect because artists are younger and younger these days. There’s always a need for games and music.”

Yachty and the aforementioned Smith-Schuster, who in the offseason actually lives in the FaZe house in the Hollywood Hills, are among the group’s more visible assets. So too is FaZe streamer Tfue, who boasts the most-watched Fortnite channel on Twitch and whose 6M+ monthly viewer hours actually outpace Ninja’s. But the machine behind FaZe is no less impressive. CEO Lee Trink once helmed Capitol Records and Virgin Records. And the director of business development is none other than Clinton Sparks, the Grammy-nominated producer, songwriter, and DJ. Known best for his forward-facing ventures–writing and producing for everyone to Lady Gaga to Pitbull, winning ASCAP Awards with DJ Snake–Clinton has long pushed the culture from a number of leverage points, e.g. his stint as director of marketing at Karmaloop. There, under the purview of founder and CEO Greg Selkoe, he helped turn Karmaloop into the biggest streetwear E-commerce website. So, when Selkoe sold out of the ‘loop and assumed presidency of FaZe, he insisted that Clinton leave his native Boston and bring his magic dust to La-La Land.

Indeed, if looks like the Planters Super Bowl commercial, brand deals with Nike, HTC, and Nissan and collabs with Supreme and Champion are aftershocks of FaZe’s clout, then the L.A. house marks its epicenter. “At any given time, you will find guys like Post Malone, Trippie Redd, Logic, and Roddy Ricch just hanging out at the FaZe house,” notes Clinton. “The FaZe house is a thing; the Hollywood house tours actually stop now and point it out.” The irony shouldn’t be lost on anyone. The home, once the sanctuary of the reclusive gamer, has become a tourist attraction.

Clinton, whose legendary Vegas parties brought worlds together, revels in the apparent dichotomy. “There's a really blurry line between what's cool and what's not cool anymore. You don’t necessarily have to run in rap circles to exist in each other’s lanes. But this move isn’t an accident; we strategically recruit and bring in people that make sense to the lifestyle that FaZe represents," he said. "It's not strictly ‘Can you game well?’ It's also ‘Do you understand culture? Maybe you're great at fashion? Maybe you're a model? Maybe you're an artist?’ So we seek out people with keen understandings of culture and lifestyle. Ultimately, my goal is to enhance and amplify the existing business and to make the FaZe brand bigger than any one player on the team, to the point of sustainability—not just in esports, but in music, fashion, business development, and new products. And I want to familiarize people not otherwise familiar with esports and get them involved.”

Clinton has stayed busy assembling what he calls a “hip-hop syndicate.” He’s currently in talks with everyone from French Montana to DJ Paul to Trey Smith to Travis Scott. On the content and business development levels, he’s dialoguing with Mark Wahlberg and Apple Music Head of Content Larry Jackson. And he’s secured investments from music executive Troy Carter–formerly of Spotify–and Yo Gotti.

“My experience with esports has been with Faze because they are in touch with the culture,” Gotti states emphatically. “My kids are big fans. The youth cares about music, fashion, and gaming and they’re all connected. I see what they are doing business-wise and I wanted to be involved. I know what it is to build a brand and FaZe not just a team; it’s a brand and a lifestyle. I’m all in!”

Indeed, the monetary aspect speaks to another unique parallel between the rap and gaming worlds—the hustle. Says FaZe Blaze: “The beautiful thing about our world today is that we have the resources not just to create, but to create revenue. We can literally generate cash, while living at home, through the internet.” The corner has been replaced with a gaming chair and a LAN line; the product, once physical, is now virtual. The end result is the same.

“Gamers are the new rock stars,” Clinton Sparks attests. “They're the new leading actor. They're the new leader of the band. They're the new major DJ. And it's only going to get better. To consider yourself cool but not see where esports is going is to be the guy who didn’t see what the internet was going to be when it was first introduced.”

Others are jumping onto the trend as well. Meek Mill announced in February that he was founding an esports team, and personality DJ Akademiks now hosts a Complex show called On The Sticks where he plays video games with celebrities (guests so far have included artists like Yachty and A Boogie, comedian Chris Redd, and baller Iman Shumpert) while speaking to them about music, gaming and more.

“Esports is Vegas when it was still a desert,” concludes Kevin Mitchell. “I see esports having the same appeal that owning a basketball team had in the Rucker Park or Above the Rim era. I see Floyd Mayweather’s team facing LeBron’s team and bets being placed on mobile phones. I see esports leagues being as prevalent as Little League and AAU. And I want to help athletes create a new model, similar to a ‘Déjà Vu’—make that impact that the industry really needs without getting permission. Just kicking in the door.”

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Then & Now: The O'Jays Highlight Their Rich Discography, Trump And New Album 'The Last Word'

Soul legends The O'Jays have seen a lot throughout their time in the game and displayed the state of the world through 31 albums. Their latest and final album The Last Word is no different as the trio dedicates tracks like "Above the Law" towards social injustice and callings of a love movement on "Enjoy Yourself."

For this session of VIBE's Then & Now series, group co-founders Gerald Levert and Walter Williams take a trip down memory lane with their biggest hits. It wasn't easy as the group has a slew of Top 20 Billboard hits like "Love Train," "Used Ta Be My Girl" and the stirring "Backstabbers," but the duo made sure to share how the tracks were made with spiritual undertones thanks to Philadelphia songwriting icons Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.

"That song had a big fat message of love, the bible speaks of love throughout it," Williams says about their 1974 hit "Love Train." "It was an idea when we went in the studio. They had the track and we recorded the background but no verses. But [Kenny] Gamble wrote the first and second verses and we went in the studio and tried it out and went on to do the adlibs. Because of the lyrical content, you can feel where it was going."

The two also showed love for those who have sampled their work like Angie Stone and Drake. The rapper cleverly interpolated 1972's "Backstabbers" in his 2016 hit, "Fake Love" while Stone lifted the track for her 2002 single "Wish I Didn't Miss You."

"I like him, I like his message and I liked his delivery," Levert said about Drake's approach to the sample. "I like where he's going in his music. There's not a lot of profanity and cursing and saying a lot of negative words. There's a message in his music."

Often praised for their political undertones, Williams and Levert say their ability to stay consistent allowed them to make some of the most timeless music in R&B.

"It's tough to get around but you have to be persistent," Williams said. "You have to go after what you want today. You have to stay relentless and then you get action."

Levert notes that today's artists are holding back when it comes to speaking up against the political machine. "I think the younger artists are too afraid to hurt their fanbase by taking a stand," he said. "They're too afraid to offend or think, 'It's not my fight. Things have changed, we don't need to address that.' Things are not gonna change as long as you don't speak out on it. If you just keep letting things go on and you never have anything to say, they will continue to go that way."

Watch Then & Now with The O'Jays up top.

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Scott Harrison

Music Sermon: The Divinity Of Luther Vandross

“There are voices in this world and once they sing, it’s a stamp on everybody.” Bravo producer and personality Andy Cohen was asking Patti Labelle about her dear friend Luther Vandross on talk show Watch What Happens Live. “Luther’s done that.”

Luther Ronzoni Vandross, Jr. was the preeminent urban pop singer; the essence of ‘80s quiet storm R&B. He was called “the velvet voice” and “the Black Pavarotti,” but there’s not really a male predecessor he compares to because he didn’t pattern himself after the soul men like Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, or Teddy Pendergrass. He studied the divas. Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and Patti Labelle were the voices that fascinated and inspired a young Luther. Seeing Dionne Warwick live at the Brooklyn Fox Theater made him realize he wanted to sing. “She came on stage and just killed me; the music was more serious, the song value was more serious. 'Anyone Who Has a Heart' was a masterpiece,” he told The Washington Post. “I decided at that point that I wanted to do something in music."

The difference informs the distinction between him and most other men of R&B. Luther sang from a softer space, topically and tonally. He usually sang from a gentle, easy place. Not urgent. Not aggressive. Never suggestive. His first greatest hits compilation was titled The Best of Luther, The Best of Love because his entire catalog was love. Romantic and devoted love, not sex or lust. Adoration. And while his voice is appreciated–he’s featured on every greatest vocalist list of note–the full range and depth of Luther’s vocal craftsmanship are not. He was a writer, producer, and one of the greatest vocal manipulators in the game, as well-known and sought-after from early in his career for his vocal arrangements as his singing. The New York Times once described Luther as having an “obsession with the human voice, bordering on clinical.” Some people’s gifts are leagues beyond the old talent-plus-preparation-equals-opportunity equation. Some are truly called, anointed even. Luther was divinely appointed.

The world was officially introduced to Luther in 1981, but he was already an established singer’s singer on the professional circuit. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, teenaged Luther was part of youth performing arts group sponsored by the Apollo Theater called Listen My Brother. Their music was largely social commentary, and they performed in and around New York, including on the very first episode of Sesame Street.

In 1974, Luther accidentally landed a gig as a background singer and arranger for David Bowie. He visiting a friend in Bowie’s band at the studio, and talking about an idea to improve the hook for “Young Americans,” unaware that the singer was standing within earshot. Bowie loved the idea, hired Luther, and quickly became a champion for the young singer’s budding career. Luther handled vocal arrangements for the entire Young Americans album, and additionally wrote the album cut “Infatuation.” He also performed a 45-minute opening set of his own material each night on tour, at Bowie’s insistence.

Luther’s singing here on the far left.

Bowie then introduced the crooner to Bette Midler, who took him on tour, and Luther’s career as an in-demand background singer and arranger was underway. His study of great female vocalists helped him develop an ear that set him apart. “One of the contexts you have to understand was that the background singing has always been a female-dominated area,” Luther explained in an early interview. “I was bringing stuff on my own to the sessions that was kind of unique in terms of how to do background vocals. And later I learned never to give away anything you can sell, so I started charging for this extra bit of approach, which was fine, because by this time everyone wanted it so bad that they were willing to pay for it.”

Over the years, Luther sang with Carley Simon, Chic (“Everybody Dance”), Average White Band, Chaka Khan, and Roberta Flack, who chided him for getting too comfortable as a background singer and encouraged him to finally put a demo together. Due to his own intimate relationship with excellence in backing vocals, Luther was famously known to always use the top talent in the business for his albums. A read through the personnel of his catalogue will reveal names including Cissy Houston, James Ingram, Darlene Love, Tawatha Agee (lead singer of Mtume), premiere professional backing vocalists like Fonzi Thornton, and Lisa Fischer, who Luther pushed to get out of her comfort zone and record as Flack did with him.

During a recording session for Quincy Jones, Luther was introduced to a commercial producer, who then helped him break into the jingle-writing business. He’s always been credited with his ability to write an infectious hook–that talent was honed with jingles.

Before Luther took the solo leap, he tried the group route. He briefly had a deal as part of a group called, appropriately, Luther. They recorded two albums, but neither made any noise. Then, he joined disco group Change as their frontman and had two hits, including one of my favorite mood-boosting, make everything right anthems.

Luther had a little money in his pocket from commercials and background singing, and from writing and producing a song for the Broadway musical-turned-major motion picture The Wiz.

Oh, you didn’t know Luther wrote “A Brand New Day (Everybody Rejoice)”?

He had the means to record and produce his demo himself, and assembled what became his career dream team. While in the group Listen My Brother, Luther met pianist Nat Adderly, Jr., son of jazz trumpeter Nat Adderley and nephew of saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. As a session singer, he met bassist Marcus Miller and recommended him to Gladys Knight, and the two bonded while on tour. He recruited them both to put together the songs that eventually became Never Too Much, and they were key contributing architects to Luther’s signature sound.

Miller is responsible for those slappin’ basslines that were prevalent in Luther’s early work, and for most of Luther’s uptempo cuts. “I never had any official responsibilities with Luther because we used to just work,“ Marcus shared in an interview, “but I felt like one of my (unspoken) responsibilities was to make sure Luther had tracks on his album that could be played on the radio during the day time.”

Adderley’s genius came through in Luther’s trademark covers. In Luther’s case, “remake” is a more apt description than “cover,” because he and Nat would take the original songs apart, stretch them out, invert them, slow parts down, add sections, reverse some sh*t… it was a whole different composition when they were done. The lush string and woodwind arrangements in Luther ballads are Nat’s handiwork. Incredible piano flourishes and solos, also Nat.

When both Miller and Adderley worked on the track, magic ensued, starting with Luther’s forever-a-bop solo debut “Never Too Much.” Coming out of the funk band driven ‘70s landscape, labels were doubtful of Luther’s smooth solo style. Epic finally took a chance, and it hit just as popular urban music went through its next evolution, which happened to be right in Luther’s sonic pocket.

“Luther, Marcus Miller and I had a real musical connection,” Nat has said. “We saw stuff the same way. We thought of things in the same way. When we came together, we really learned about each other and fed off of each other.”

Luther knew who he was as a singer and an artist. He wrote and produced the majority of his early material, and continued to co-write and co-produce through most of his career. He was clear on what worked for him both vocally and formulaically. Marcus Miller shared, “One of the things I used to hear him say was ‘I don’t need to compete with any other singers. Other singers sing hard, high, and with a lot of riffs. That’s not me. That’s not my thing. I’m just going to style these people to death.’” And he styled us to death, honey. Luther was the king of melisma and dramatic effect, but without oversinging. Where most vocalists would build towards a climax in the song, Luther’s structure was often reversed. He’d start easy, build during the middle, and come back to a soft, light, but emotional close.

This careful, deliberate singing was part of his genius. There’s a reason Black folks yell “Take your time,” to soloists when they’re in their bag–mastery isn’t rushed.

As I mentioned before, Luther was also a transformative cover artist. Would straight Deebo your song – that was his song, now. And artists didn’t even mind, because he elevated it so incredibly. Some of Luther’s biggest hits are covers: “Superstar/Until You Come Back to Me” (The Carpenters and Aretha Franklin), “Anyone Who Had a Heart” (Dionne Warwick), “Since I Lost My Baby” (The Temptations), “Bad Boy/Having a Party” (an interpolation of Sam Cooke’s “Having a Party”), “If Only for One Night” (Brenda Russell), “Creepin’” (Stevie Wonder). He was a repeat offender with Dionne Warwick’s material from Burt Bacharach and Hal David, jacking not just “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” the song that blew him away at a young age, but also “A House is Not a Home”–on the same album. And she didn’t even care, look at her.

Luther’s capabilities as Mr. Steal-Your-Song also translated to his strength as a duet partner. He knew how to blend voices so perfectly, he was outstanding when paired with another strong vocalist. Luther produced Cheryl Lynn’s 1982 album Instant Love, and took the opportunity to use a Tammi and Marvin classic to showcase the singer’s strength beyond uptempo dance hits.

One of my favorite Luther duets and covers is an album cut with the tragically uncelebrated Martha Wash. Their version of the torch song standard “I Who Have Nothing,” is a little heavy on production in some places, especially the early ‘90s R&B sax, but their voices are perfect together. And the breakdown at the end? Whew. All the feels. All of them.

But Luther could also do very sweet and simple arrangements, like his duet with Gregory Hines. This song always makes me wish Gregory had done more professional singing after he left musical theater.

Don’t get it twisted, though, Luther specialized in controlled vocals, but he could act a fool when he wanted to. Especially when playing off the energy of another singer, like his dear friend and my favorite Auntie, queen of extra just because she can, Patti Labelle.

Jenifer Holliday and Luther messed around and pushed poor Paul Simon out of his own damn song.

Luther was a balladeer of elite caliber, but he’ll also get an uptempo jumpin’, literally. When Aretha’s career was in a lengthy lull and facing the challenges of a new musical era, Clive Davis called Luther to write and produce for her. Luther, who once called himself an "Arethacologist," was thrilled to work with one of his biggest idols and inspirations. But Luther was a very exacting producer; he would tell vocalists specifically what and how to sing. Auntie Re wasn’t playing that at first, and even stormed out of the studio at one point, but the end result was her biggest hit in seven years.

Luther himself has several cookout and red cup party classics. Tunes that me, you, your mama and your cousin can dance to. That’s part of the beauty in Luther’s music; there’s no content too mature–or too immature–for anyone. While recalling Luther, Marcus Miller remarked, “There is no greater feeling in the world than walking down the street in New York City and hearing a Luther song blasting in the street.” I can personally confirm, as someone who’s heard Luther blasting while in these New York City streets.

What I don’t believe is acknowledged enough is Luther’s longevity. A 20-year career is a rare feat for any artist, but especially for a core R&B singer who started in the ‘80s. Luther did have pop hits–“Here and Now” was one of the biggest wedding songs of the ‘90s–but he was always a core R&B artist, and always stayed on brand and on topic. He was somewhat inactive in the latter ‘90s after ending his contract with Epic Records; he released one album with Virgin records in 1996, but it’s not usually included in his definitive material. Whispers and speculation about his health began, as he’d spent much of the ‘90s going up and down dramatically with his weight. But he made a fierce return in the early aughts. His final two albums, with Clive Davis’ J. Records, were two of the biggest in his career, with material that was relevant and contemporary without sounding contrived.

This song makes me want to put on some white linen and go on somebody’s boat ride.

As secure as Luther had always been in his artistry, he still felt overlooked as a writer and producer and longed for critical recognition beyond R&B. Out of 33 career Grammy nominations with eight wins, only two were in the Pop category. It wasn’t until his final album, 2003’s Dance With my Father, that Luther earned the elusive Song of the Year nomination and subsequent win he’d been longing for, for the album’s title track. But he also suffered a debilitating stroke in April 2003, before the project’s release. Since he was unable to shoot a video, artists who loved him stepped in with their children or parents as a tribute. Warning: this video may cause severe allergy flareups.

I have no doubt that barring health issues, Luther would at minimum still be touring. He was one of the most thorough live performers I’ve ever seen, with production simple enough to keep the vocals as the centerpiece, but extra enough so you were visually entertained as well (lots of sequins). Luther was touring in 2003 until his stroke (do yourself a favor and listen to his Live at Radio City Music Hall album, his last live appearance), and was scheduled to perform at Essence Festival that year. Can you imagine Luther at Essence Fest?

When news of Luther’s death broke, my mother and I–both huge fans–were driving to a family reunion, and we played and sang along to his music for about four states. I still play Luther when I need a boost, or when I want to burrow deep down into my feelings. When I want to go into chill mode, or when I want to dance around the house. Luther is all-purpose. He is all-emotion. He is everything. He was a gift.


#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.

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