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Byrd/@byrdfilms

Views From The Studio: Meet Producer Sonny Digital

On a warm, late October afternoon in Atlanta, Georgia, Sonny Digital is quietly tilted back in a swivel chair, greenery in hand ready to light a spliff and get back to work after a pit stop to Smoothie King for a banana-tasting concoction.

The 24-year-old Grammy-nominated music producer is reflecting on all of his accomplishments to date and even some of his mistakes along the way that all worked out for the better in his case. To his right, a guitarist named Josh sits on a futon, as he plays back a recording brimming with just the right amount of bass.  This same small, carpeted room in Sonny's humble abode quietly nestled in the heart of the city housed numerous hits like "Tuesday," Makonnen's 2014 breakout that took him from virtual unknown to OVO Sound's starting five roster. Today, like many others, Sonny clocks countless hours behind production equipment cooking up dope beats. However, instead of supplying the perfect tempo to capture the mood of Future or Wiz Khalifa's latest club banger or deep cut, he's perfecting his own soon-to-be hit.

"It needs to be heard," he says contently nodding to the beat. "I need to get out that [trap] box. I ain’t motherf*****g regular. This sh*t is old news, I been making crazy sh*t for a minute and been to every damn spectrum. I just want people to f**k with the talent and stop holding a n***a back because I didn’t show y'all everywhere I could go with it."

Here, the music producer dishes on his grand foray onto Atlanta's then bubbling music scene, broadening his horizons beyond trap beats, and his thoughts on being underrated in the game for the latest installment of Views From The Studio.

How'd you get your start in producing?
Sonny Digital: The initial reason was that my friends and I rapped and there weren’t enough beats for everybody. So I just started making beats myself.

Who were some of your musical influences?
SD: Production-wise, I was listening to Shawty Redd. That n***a was getting it man. He changed the whole sound. I also was big on getting my hands on anything that wasn’t necessarily mainstream in Atlanta. People always forget about André 3000's importance too. Everything we have in the city is real diverse. You can go in so many directions. I was just the first to go in all those directions and kind of check it all out. If it wasn’t for Shawty Redd, I could guarantee there would be no me, no anybody. Those guys influenced a whole new sound, which turned into something else, which turned into something else, which is what it is today.

What was the first song of yours you heard on the radio?
SD: YC feat. Future “Racks on Racks.” That’s when my name kind of went industry. It was already moving around in Atlanta. You know, when you go to every city you got that one guy who’s on the brink of making it out, but ain’t made it out yet. That would’ve been me if I had never got “Racks.” If you think about it for real, we did shift the whole Atlanta music scene, took the steering wheel and just turned it.

True. “Racks” was a big hit for Atlanta, it was like a resurgence of the city's dance and trap roots combined, and it introduced a lot of people to Future too. How did it come about?
SD: I just emailed them beats. I used to hang with Gorilla Zoe and he used to be at Block ENT, and YC was signed over there. I just happened to send YC a beat and a couple of months later he started emailing me from some weird email asking about the beat. I honestly ain’t know who it was. I don’t respond to nobody I don’t know. He kept on hitting me though so one day I just hit him back because if someone is persistently hitting me then I know it’s serious. I hit him back and I found out who it was and that was that. I sold that bih for $300 though.

Wow, that’s crazy.
SD: Yeah, I mean, technically, they gave me my credit. See where I messed up was that I didn’t put my tag in there. People didn’t hear Sonny Digital so they didn’t identify me with the song. A lot of people today are just now finding out that I go back that far and I produced that song. It’s the same thing with “Same Damn Time” because my tag wasn’t in there. So it’s been like a catch up game with everybody. They’re just so far behind when it comes to me. People honestly just don’t know, although I feel like they should know. 

A lot of people stamp producers with a certain sound, but would you say that there is a specific Sonny Digital sound?
SD: No. You know, that’s a gift and a curse though because every time I put something out people can’t identify it quickly. The way people are, they lazy, they don’t want to go do the work and find out where it came from. But then again, it’s a good thing too because there are some people that do, do that and go look and then they’re like ‘aw sh*t, I f**k with this n***a’ and check out your entire catalog. At the same time though you have a lot of people whining, saying you've got to do something different, but as soon as you do something different, they say, ‘what the f**k is this, where the other sh*t at?’ It’s like dang man, what the f**k do y’all want?

Since there isn’t a consistent sound, would you say that there’s a formula to your creative process?
SD: I just be chilling and really going off of vibes. I just go in and f**k around and might find a cool ass sound that I personally like. It’s interesting the way I look at vocals because I don’t necessarily look at vocals as f***ing vocals. I look at it as an instrument and I’m just finding that one thing that’s missing to make it all sound good. It could be the difference between a beat sounding good and great. That’s just how I look at it, as far as when I’m making beats and stuff.

I heard you made Makonnen’s “Tuesday” in your house.
SD: Yeah, we made it in this room. I’m still here [laughs]. It’s more cost-efficient and it just makes more sense, especially if your neighbors ain’t tripping and you don't require a lot of people around, which I feel like if you’re working then you shouldn’t have a gang of people around anyway. Then again, you got to think about it, I’m young too. I don’t have a girlfriend, no family, nobody to really answer to so I can stay at home and really just get all my work done. We’re in two-thousand-fu****g-fifteen, going on 2016, all you need is some head phones and your laptop now. We don’t need no major studio, let’s be for real. You can record it here, in numerous places. It ain’t no place where you can’t record it. 

One of your biggest placements to date has to be Beyoncé ‘s "Bow Down / I Been On." What was that experience like?
SD: That all came about when I linked with Polow Da Don after hearing that he was interested in what I was doing. It always shocked me though because I was never like this big producer, so I was wondering why’d he be worried about what I got going on when he’s like one of my favorite producers. But when I went down there and met him, he was cool. The first day we met we worked on that “Bow Down” track, which was supposed to be for Rihanna but she had a deadline for her album and we didn’t meet the cut. So then he told me that Beyoncé had picked it, the song came out, and that was the song that came out and that was that. It was just a quick little play; it ain’t anything that I really glorify. Hit Boy actually did the “Bow Down” part, and I did the “I Been On” part where it’s the slowed down Texas sh*t.

Do you feel like people fully understand the importance of the producer today and respect their influence? Or do you feel the term is used loosely, although everyone has to start from somewhere?
SD: That is true but I think people should look into what they’re doing before they actually start initiating a name and taking it and running off with it. Because a lot of n****s, they not producers. A lot of n****s be temporary producers, taking up room. N****s be hot today and be gone tomorrow. So it’s like man, make sure you want to do this before you call yourself that. You can be a beat maker first. I ain’t going to downplay it, nothing like that, but I feel like before you actually hop in, you need to figure out and make sure you want to do this. Are you going to innovate this? What’s going to make you a producer? You sounding like me ain’t going to make you any better my n***a. Do your own sh*t.

So tell me about your friendship and working relationship with Metro Boomin. It unfortunately seems rare these days to have two producers who are killing the scene constantly collaborating. 
SD: That’s the bro, that ain’t no friendship. That’s all it really is and we just make beats together from time to time that just happen to be fly. We first linked when he hit me up a long time ago. Then he ended up going to school down here at Morehouse. We ended up linking after that and we just became real cool. It’s always been love. Ain’t nothing like he wanted something or I wanted something from him. He looks out for me and I look out for him. I look at him kind of just like my little brother. I really f**k with what Metro doing right now. He really pushing the culture.

Speaking of the culture, I feel like there's a definite void of female producers in the game. Man, what's good? 
SD: I don’t know. I be stressing that too. I be telling people, like if there was a female producer(s) that came through right now with some hard ass, crazy beats right now,  that sh*t would go crazy! WondaGurl is really holding down that lane right now and doing her thing. She’s extremely crazy and amazing on the beats. A few of us stayed with her for a month or two when we worked on Rodeo and she just stayed in the room all day just make beats all f****g day. She just be cranking new b*****s out all day like on crazy. And she young too. She getting it in though. But if there were more female producers, not saying taking her spot or anything, but just to really solidify the female lane, it would be crazy. You know history repeats itself for real though. It ain’t no Missy Elliott of our time though. I'm waiting.

Do you feel that you are underrated at all? What do you think is going to be able to change that in your mind?
SD: The problem right now is that people got me boxed in. They want to put all of us like Metro, TM88, Southside, and Zaytoven in the same category. It’s crazy because that’s really all of the producers in Atlanta, but everybody got they own box, they own indefinite sound. You can’t compare Zay’s beat to a Sonny Digital beat or a Metro beat; it’s that different. But we are placed on the same projects though, so people hear it on the same frequency. I understand why it happens. With me personally, I been on so many different spectrums. I don’t know if people underrate me though. I think it’s more of people not knowing. If they knew. A lot of my records, I just caught the short end of the sticks of all my records and stuff. But right now, I’m starting to get a little more recognition for all the work that I’m doing. If I can tell every single person right now, all the records that I’ve done, from way back when, letting them know I been had y'all rocking. Like when I do my shows and I run through my hits, I see all these people eyes light up like damn, this that n***a that we've been looking for. 

You DJ'ed during Makonnen's "Loudest Of The Loud" Tour, did that help your producing skills at all or make you think of producing in a different way?
SD: I’m not going to lie, it did. It gives you an idea of how crowds move, how to move a crowd, and what specific songs always move a crowd. It opened up my eyes. It’s like making a beat live, testing it out in front of the people and seeing how they react to it. And it helps you put together songs and stuff too. You just got to analyze a lot of things as you play songs. I don’t know. It teaches you a lot though.

Has your production style changed since you first started?
SD: It ain’t really changed, it just elevated. I’m real open minded. You see my boy in here with the guitar, and I’m supposed to be a trap producer, right? Come on now [laughs]. We just going up. I still got the same outlook and I stay true to the trap sh*t too. I mean, I make that stuff, but at this point it’s second nature, it’s something I’m never going to forget how to do. Right now I’m dibbling and dabbling into new, next level stuff.

Which I'd assume as getting back to rapping since you've been putting out songs here and there lately...
SD: Yeah. Something lately has me thinking that I want to do this artist sh*t all the way. When I put it out, I didn't even really know how to describe it or what to even call it. Off top, when you hear Sonny Digital or anything affiliated with that, it just affiliates with trap automatically. And as soon as the song comes on, you hear something that reminds you of some guitars or some electric guitars or something rock. So the general public just been putting stuff together and calling trap rock or trap metal or whatever. It's actually kind of hard. And it makes sense though and it’s really a open lane. My boy Josh brought up a good idea that the music I'm making doesn't sound like something you just go and rap on stage. I think it might require a band or something like that and we put on a real show. So that might be in the works, something like that, some crazy sh*t like that.

Did you have any reservations of stepping in the booth because people have this thing against producers-turned-rappers?
SD: Yeah, man, that's weird as hell and f***ing backwards. It don't make no sense though because if a rapper is making beats they get praise for that, but if a producer is rapping on his own beats, it’s like ‘why you doing that?’ It's funny because most of these producers be telling these artists what to do. Basically, a lot of these songs you hear today are products of the producers so people self consciously already be liking them. I don’t care though, it’s a community for this though now. It’s a whole other realm for that sh*t. When music is good, you can’t deny that, period. I’ve been making music for a long time now, and now I feel like it needs to be heard. Like I told you already, people been f*****g with what I been making for the last couple of years, knowingly or unknowingly. And that’s the good thing about it. A lot of people f**k with me and they don’t even know it.

SEE ALSO: 

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Views From The Studio: Meet Producer Tommy Brown

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Views From The Studio: Meet Songwriter Bobby Brackins

Views From The Studio: Meet Producer Frequency

Views From The Studio: Meet Producer WLPWR

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Views From The Studio: Meet Songwriters R. City

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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.

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#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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