Sebastian-Kole-interview
Photo by: Karl Ferguson Jr. (www.karlfergusonjr.com) and Katie Piper (www.katiepiper.com)
Photos by Katie Piper / Karl Ferguson Jr. for Vibe

Views From The Studio: Meet Songwriter Sebastian Kole

Get to know the songwriter/co-producer behind Alessia Cara's EP, 'Four Pink Walls.'

For Sebastian Kole, growing up in an easy-going part of Birmingham, Ala. allowed him to take time in perfecting his writing skill. Kole found a space to create at his own free will, telling VIBE in a phone interview that, "There’s no one there to guide what you should be doing, so it gives you a whole lot of 'find yourself time' and you don’t have any industry people saying you’re too young, or you’re too old, or you should sing it like this. There’s a lot of open space to think your own thoughts and find your own self."

Not only was Kole's southern upbringing an influence on his career, but the church also served as his sacred ground to explore different sounds. He played various instruments from the guitar to the piano, and would fuse certain songs he heard on the radio with Sunday's selected hymns. Now, his new musical sanctuary is the studio. Kole has penned songs for legends like J.Lo to rising singer Alessia Cara, and served as co-producer alongside his songwriting credits for the Canadian artist's widely-successful EP, Four Pink Walls and full length album Know-It-All. The pair instantly connected in the studio, and their partnership eventually led to the double platinum track, "Here."

Below, the singer-songwriter discusses how Cara's hit single was created, finding a surprising success with his cover of Adele's powerful melody "Hello," and his plans to share his personal music with listeners across the world.

VIBE: How'd you get your start in the industry?
Sebastian Kole: About four years ago I was just landing from Paris. I had gone to Paris to sing in this little small rinky-dink casino tour with some people from here. It was a horrible trip. The person who organized the trip and I just cursed each other to the high heavens when we got back home. I’m getting off the plane and my phone rings. It was my friend Mike. He and I had written some hooks that previous summer and one of them had gotten selected by an A&R at Interscope to go on a J.Lo record. They put that hook on a J.Lo record and she put that record on a movie [Step Up Revolution]. I got my first little check from writing songs, and it wasn’t much of a check, but it was nice to me. I paid off a few bills, bought myself a car and drove to California. I was just going to try it out like, ‘I don’t have anything to lose. I’m not stuck with nothing here.’

I drove to L.A. and when I first got there I shipped my clothes out because I had a cousin that lives two hours south of L.A., but when you’re from Alabama you think everything is close to L.A. I get to L.A. and I cannot contact him. I know why I couldn’t contact him now, but that’s a different story, but I couldn’t find him so I had no clothes. Just the clothes on my back and the clothes that I put in the car with me because it was a four-day trip from Alabama to L.A. and these were lounge wear clothes because I’m driving. I was like, ‘Okay, I’m here I have a couple of dollars left, I got a little time left.’

I had about three months worth of rent saved and I was going to try to make it in those three months. The guy who invited me to move out there I couldn’t find him, I couldn’t find my cousin so I did find this one girl who I met when I first came out to visit L.A. when we first got the song pinned. She was a songwriter [Heidi Rojas] who said, ‘When you come back here just call me. I’m going to take you to some sessions.’ I said, ‘Okay’ and I called her and she actually answered the phone and she said, ‘I’m so glad you called, come to this session with me.’ We went to this session and there was this unsigned artist and I started writing. The girl said, ‘You can really write, you should come back tomorrow and work with blasé blasé blah.’ I did that the next day. The guy I was working with that day said, ‘You can really write, you should come back tomorrow.’ I did that for three straight weeks, bouncing from session to session with people saying, ‘You can really write, you should meet this person.’ I moved to L.A. on October 9, and October 31 I did that same thing and this girl [Tish Hyman] said, ‘You can really write, do you have a publishing deal?’ I said, ‘Nope.’ She took me to meet this guy named Rob Eleazer, he’s the CEO of EP Entertainment and I played some stuff for him. The very next day he took me to Motown and they offered me a record deal and a publishing deal. I had been in L.A. for three weeks and that’s how I ended up getting signed.

 

Did you always know that you'd be a songwriter or artist or did you have a different plan for a career?
I knew I would be one of the two. By the time I moved to L.A. I was over being an artist. I thought ‘I’m too old for that. I’ll try to see if I can write some songs.’ I was just trying to write songs and it was really like a last heave like, ‘I’ll try this one time and if it doesn’t work I’ll just go home and work at a bank.’ But it happened to work.

How'd you connect with Alessia Cara?
EP Entertainment/Motown is the label that I’m signed to so Tony who is the “P” of EP Entertainment, Tony Perez, and his daughter Korinne Perez is like the A&R. [Korinne] found Alessia on YouTube and flew her to meet me at a show in Manhattan. After the show, we sat down and talked for a second and she sang for me, and Tony and Rob were like, ‘We should link you guys up and do some work together.’ I said ‘Okay, I think she has a nice voice, let’s try it out, let’s see what works out.’ I fly to Toronto maybe a week after that and it was basically the engineers, me, her, and her dad and sometimes her mom would come, and we’re in a room for hours.

I like to know people that I write for. I mean I can write for somebody like just sending them a song, but I don’t really like to do that because songs are like tattoos. You’re going to be stuck with that song for the rest of your life. It never goes away and if you hate that song, somebody is going to request that you sing that song 90 years from now. That’s horrible, so I like to get to know the person because if they’re going to get a tattoo I want it to be something they like. Everyday I would ask her, ‘What’s on your mind today?’ She would tell me whatever’s on her mind that day and I would start writing it no matter what it was. It could be something serious, it could be something not so serious, it doesn’t matter, just whatever it is that’s on your mind we’re going to write about it. We developed a friendship out of that and a good working musical relationship. We figured out the spaces that we would occupy in that balance. She’s like a little sister to me now.

What was that process like behind penning "Here?"
It was pretty early in the process. We were in Toronto and I asked her what’s on her mind. She said, ‘Well really nothing.’ I was like ‘Okay, nothing at all?’ She said no, so I asked, ‘What’d you do this weekend?’ She said, ‘I went to this party.’ I said, ‘How’d you like it?’ She said, ‘I hated it.’ I said, ‘Say no more! I know the feeling.’ That’s what sparked it. I’ve been to a ton of parties in my life and I’ve said, ‘Why am I here? What is this about?’ So that was the conversation that sparked that. When I write a song, whatever the concept is, I try to peel it in layers. If you listen to her whole album, you’ll see there are a lot of concepts but every concept is layered. I try to start and dig the layer until I feel like, ‘Oh, that’s what that feels like.’ That’s what I tried to do on that song, like ‘Okay the concept is I’m not interested in being here.’ So I started with the line, ‘I’m sorry if I seem uninterested,’ and just peel away the layers of why I’m so disinterested in this event.

It's such a relatable song so it makes sense that the brainstorming session behind it was kind of smooth.
I think everyone has actually been there and no one has sung about it. I was really nervous about putting that song out because it was like everybody sings about how much they like to party, maybe this won’t work out, maybe people will say, ‘You should just go home if you don’t want to party.’ I was really nervous about it, but now I’m realizing that more people felt like that than I thought.

"Here" has also gone double platinum. What was your reaction or feeling when you learned that?
Literally unbelievable. This is my first major placement, I mean the J.Lo placement was major, but it was more like a soundtrack placement. This was a major radio single and I didn’t even know it had gone platinum one time so to hear that it was double platinum was like, ‘Oh, I guess I missed a couple million things.’ It was such an unbelievable feeling. I’m so proud of her and I’m proud of everybody that was involved. I’m not really much of a dreamer. I always say I don’t have dreams, I make plans. I didn’t even really imagine this. I didn’t think, ‘This is going to be big.’ I never thought that, I just thought we were writing a song for the day. To go from writing a song for the day to her being on a tour and being in the Top 10 on Billboard, selling two million copies, that’s crazy.

How long was the process in writing her EP?
Most of that stuff was written before we met Def Jam. It took a while to put out, but it did not take a long time to write. I write fairly quickly. Anybody who has been in the studio with me, I have this weird writing process, but it works and it works fast. I don’t take a lot of time to write a song, I wrote “Here” in probably 25 minutes, maybe. We probably spent about four weeks to write the whole album, just over separate little trips. We would do a week here and a couple of days here, and it took us a month to record the album and about two weeks to write it. It wasn’t a long process at all. It was just about putting together the amount of songs that we wanted to put out and figuring out how to get the songs out in the world. But the writing process wasn’t long at all. It was more like the recording process that took most of the time and finding producers because most of the songs were written originally over guitar or piano. We had to produce it up which is why I’m listed as a co-producer on most of these songs. Most of them I just wrote without music, like here’s a piano idea, we’ll write over this. That was the bulk of the process.

Are there any cool studio stories with Alessia?
All of our stories are cool, she’s Alessia, she’s amazing. I remember her dad, he’s a welder, a short, little Italian guy and the nicest guy you’ll ever want to meet. I remember we were in L.A. trying to finish the album and I would always tell Alessia in the studio, ‘You don’t even know what you’re doing right now. You have no idea what this is going to do. This is so good, I promise you, you don’t even know how good it is.’ We were in L.A. finishing up and her dad says, ‘Sebastian, do you think this is going to do anything?’ He had quit his job by this point. Her mom was still in Toronto, she’s a hairdresser so he’s just following her [Alessia] around. She’s been signed, but that advance money isn’t a lot and it doesn’t last long. He has a family to feed, so he said, ‘You think this is really going to do something?’ I said, ‘Vinny, I don’t know the future, but I got a really good feeling about this.’ And he said, ‘Okay Sebastian, I trust you.’ The very next time I saw him, I said, ‘I told you so!’ He was like, ‘You were right!’ (Laughs).

 

Have you ever hit writer’s block?
I hit writer’s block every single day. I hit more like writer’s burnout. I wrote about 200 songs this summer. I write songs all the time, everyday, all day, that’s all I do. It’s not that I cannot write a song, it’s that I’m tired of writing songs and I don’t really get block because everything is a song. My first car, I had a 1984 Toyota Corolla. I called it the Grey Ghost and it didn’t have a radio. I got the radio fixed, but the speakers were so bad, it just wasn’t worth trying to listen to the radio. I used to play this game from the time I got in my car to the time I got out my car I had to write a song. I would write a song about every single thing I saw and I would try to make it rhyme, create a hook in the middle of that, second verse and I did that for like three years before I got a car with a radio. What that taught me was there’s a song in everything. You can write about anything, you can always write a song and then when I started performing, I brought that with me. I had this thing where I would ask people to yell out words from the audience and I would make a song about whatever they yelled out to me. There’s a song in anything. There’s no such thing as necessarily writer’s block, but there’s not being inspired.

When writing a song, do you have to listen to the melody first or select a topic then go from there?
Here’s my weird writing process and I forget that it’s so strange and I offend people with it at first. Sometimes I’m working with a producer and sometimes I work alone or with artists, just however that works out. What I do is, they’ll play me the track, maybe like the first 10 seconds of the track. Once I understand ‘Okay the track drops here,’ then I walk out and I forget that not everybody knows that I’m going to do that. Normally the producer is like, ‘You didn’t like my music or something? Why’d he leave?’ But I can’t listen to the music and write the song. I have to hear the music and then walk away from it. I’m used to writing in the car in silence. I hear the music and I go outside and I just let the song happen. I come in and I sing the song and they’re like, ‘How’d you do that?’ I just have to step outside, listen to the music and when I come back in I’ll sing you the song. I can’t sit there with the music. I know some people just sit there and let the music play but I couldn’t do that. When I’m writing with people, I like to always ask them what’s the thing that’s on their mind because that’s really what I want to talk about. Most of the times it’s similar stuff but everybody has their own personal spin on that similar stuff unless you’re writing for somebody who doesn’t really know themselves. There are lots of artists who don’t know themselves, but as long as they have a good concept of self I think you can really take those concepts and build on them.

Do you find it harder to write for yourself than for other people?
It has become harder for me to write for myself than other people because now I’m known as a writer and when you’re known as a writer, they expect your own personal stuff to be mind-blowing. But when you’re writing for somebody else, it’s ‘Oh, you wrote a great song for someone else,' but people want to really know the songwriter’s mind. When the songwriter sits down and writes a song, it better be really good. The pressure of it is hard, there’s more of a pressure of ‘This is my chance to say something,’ but with my own personal project I didn’t lyrically over do it, but I really tried to say something. When people hear it, I wanted them to hear that I really care about things. I don’t write songs for the fun of it, I write it because there are some things on my mind.

What are your plans for your personal music?
I should have an album coming out this year, working on a few things. That’s all label politicking and things, but I should have an album coming out this year called S.O.U.P., which stands for Southern Urban Pop. Just a big conglomerate of music that I like that I put together and I tried to make this one big long love story so hopefully it’ll be out this year. I think that people will like it. It’s like singer-songwriter meets urban meets the south. Just a bunch of random stuff I threw together. I think it worked out well.

I saw that you covered Adele's "Hello." It's gotten over 2 million plays on SoundCloud too.
The weird thing about that is the day it came out, I happened to be in the same studio where Adele does her scratch records. It’s a little small studio on Santa Monica Boulevard. You wouldn’t know it was there unless you knew it was there. The address is like something, something and a half. That’s how small of a studio it is, it’s not even a whole address. It’s in the back of a store, but this is where Adele cuts her stuff. You walk in and there’s one plaque on the wall and it’s Adele. I happened to be in that studio that day writing with another person and my A&R called and said, ‘You should cover this new song, “Hello.’” I said, ‘Let me listen to it,’ and I liked it. I didn’t even know that’s where she recorded it at the time. I finished cutting it and the guy was like, ‘You know that’s the same piano she actually cut that on?’ I said, ‘Wow, that’s crazy!’ Everybody loves Adele so to get that kind of attention with my rendition of it was weird because I didn’t go to blogs with it. I just put it on SoundCloud and it literally went viral. I guess because people were already looking for the song, but for people to select my version of the song time and time again was very nice. I really appreciated that.

What makes a song stand the test of time?
You ever heard the song by Mumford & Sons “I Will Wait For You?” That song literally could have come out in 1765 and it still would’ve went hard. It literally is a timeless song, it just sounds like forever. But there are a couple ways to make that. When I think of timeless songs, I think of songs that captured the essence of the feeling, not necessarily the details of the feeling. The best songs in the world are the songs that leave you, the listener, the space to attach to what the artist feels. Sometimes you hear a song and it’s so very specific, and this happens a lot in hip-hop. They tell me exactly what they’re wearing, drinking, where they’re going, who they’re with, how much time they’re going to spend there, how much money they’re going to spend there. But that won’t last forever because that didn’t happen to me. I wasn’t there, I didn’t have that, I don’t know that girl. But if you leave me the space to just feel the feeling, like “It was all a dream, I used to read Word Up magazine,’ I did too Biggie! I was there. I had those posters on my wall too, Biggie. Those things last forever because I can attach myself to them. To me that’s what makes a song timeless. Hip-hop, of course, is very time sensitive because now a child wouldn’t even know what Word Up magazine was but because their parents were so attached to it, they’ll keep playing it. The more you leave space for people to have that feeling with you, the longer that song will last.

 

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J.Lo’s ‘World of Dance’ Proves To Be A World of Opportunity

For two years, Jennifer Lopez, Ne-Yo, and Derek Hough have introduced some of the world’s best dancers to viewers across America. Their NBC weekly competition series, World Of Dance, fills living room television sets with high-flying stunts and out-of-this-world routines. The show’s multicultural acts each bring a distinct flavor to their every step, tracing back to their native homelands.

Now in its third season, the dance tournament is divided into various categories befit for each act’s demographic. The brackets are divided into levels: Upper, Junior, Upper Team, and Junior Team and they’re all in the race for a hefty $1 million. Yet with all that talent in one room, you can bet the competition is stiff. It’s also nerve-wracking trying to impress superstars like Lopez, Ne-Yo, and Hough for a qualifying score.

There’s The Kings, a group from India that flies across the stage in lightning bolt speed. Their precision is just as massive as their dash, everything is carefully coordinated into perfection. Then there’s The Heima from Seoul, South Korea that offers an incredible fusion of Asian culture paired with beautiful choreography.

Surprisingly, if J.Lo would’ve had the chance to compete in a show like her own at the beginning of her career in the early ‘90s, she admits she would’ve passed on it.

“If I was on In Living Color, I probably wouldn’t try out for World Of Dance,” she says seated on a leather couch at a private party room at Los Angeles’ NeueHouse Hollywood. “I probably would more be watching World of Dance and cheering on my friends. The level of tricks and technical skills is not something that I had when I was coming up. Even though I know my flips and tricks just a little bit, I’m in awe of what they are able to do.”

It’s also exciting to learn from the contestants, some of which she says end up working with her after the show is over.

“I’m from The Bronx. I’m a hip-hop girl at heart so I’m always looking at what the young kids are doing, and trying to do that too,” she notes.  “Let’s get some young kids here so they could teach us the new steps.”

While the new generation of dancers are exciting, it also isn’t taken lightly by the judges—especially for Ne-Yo. The award-winning R&B artist is known for his tough criticism, and he isn’t generous when it comes to scoring. His methodology is earnest yet simple: show and prove.

“If I’m going to give you a million dollars you’re going to earn it,” the 39-year-old says flatly. “Whether you’re an eight-year-old or a 38-year-old, your skill level is what makes me go, ‘I’m going to talk to you like a person who wants a million dollars from me.’ It is what it is.”

Hough adds that the judges often disagree when it comes to scoring.

“We’ve had full-blown arguments after a performance where we’re behind the desk and I just straight-out disagree with some of their things, and with their opinions,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “But that’s what makes us judges. We’re going to have different opinions, and we’re going to have conflicting ideas. I think ’cause we’re so passionate about it, we’re so invested, and we love dance. We’re all fans of dance, and we want to make this the best we can possibly make it.”

Amid Ne-Yo’s tough rubric, there’s no denying that working alongside Lopez has a positive effect on his work ethic.

“J.Lo is over here killing the game,” he says. “It makes you go up because she’s the ultimate. She comes in sharp, alert, charismatic, every single time,” despite having a million other things to do the second the show is done taping.

World Of Dance is something Lopez also enjoys with her family. She watches it with her children and says her son Max wants a chance to compete to win the million dollars. “They love the show and they love the electricity of the show. It’s powerful, it’s young, it’s fun,” J.lo says.

What gives the show its power is the exposure that it grants contestants whether or not they win the grand prize. “Getting on that stage in itself is a victory,” Ne-Yo says. “You’re in people’s houses every week. If you can’t parlay that into something whether you win a million dollars or not, you’re not hustling right.”

World Of Dance airs on Sundays at 8 p.m. EST on NBC.

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Courtesy of Rialto Pictures

The Ying and Yang of ‘Yardie’ Star Aml Ameen

There’s a scar above Aml Ameen’s right eyebrow that he got when he was three years old. Thirty years later, the British actor can laugh at running face first so ferociously he split his head open. The victim he was charging at, his cousin, walked away without a scratch.

Cracking himself open is what Ameen did in order to embody the role of D, the lead in Idris Elba’s directorial debut Yardie. Adapted into a screenplay from the 1992 Victor Headley novel of the same name, viewers see Ameen take on a character who’s more morally ambidextrous than he is ethically ambiguous. The film spans two decades and locations—Jamaica and London—as D grapples with his brother’s murder and enacting revenge while diving deeper into a treacherous drug world.

To become a true yardie, Ameen who’s British-Jamaican and Vincentian, went full method acting. After living in Bob Marley’s homeland for three months, when Ameen returned to London, friends, family or whoever met him anew.

“People met me as D, they met me as the part. The mindset, I was only speaking patois. All the cast and crew met me as D. And so, by the time I came back I had gotten out of my own way to a large degree in terms of any trepidation I might have,” he says. “When you immerse yourself fully into a world and you give over to a part often you start by feeling like you’re faking it. But after a while, your body doesn’t know you’re telling it something. It just starts to believe it. So let’s just say you’re telling yourself every morning ‘I’m ugly! I’m ugly! I’m ugly!’ Your body will start feeling that. It can be a bit traumatic, but you don’t have to do as much work. So that foundation of playing D gave me a lot of confidence.”

Ameen isn’t unattractive. In fact, he’s handsome. Standing a hair above 5’6” his tall personality supersedes his actual height. His toasted almond skin is clear. His lips full. He smiles often but there’s a resting smirk that gives way to slight mischief or an undetected superpower. It could be his ability to transform to a spliff smoking badmon, or maybe it’s the courage he mustered the night before this interview to perform at New York’s famed Nuyorican Poetry Cafe. Either way, something’s there.

D and Ameen however, couldn’t be any more different. Ameen is measured, deliberate with his words and tidy. His Ray-Ban sunglasses accent his blue striped button-down and his tan wool coat. D is unpredictable, shaggy; his locs an orchestra of controlled chaos. D also isn’t opposed to shooting first and to channel his character’s demeanor, Ameen channeled his Uncle Kirk.

“My Uncle Kirk is one of them stoic, handsome, men from his time in the 80s. There are loads of pictures I have of him and he’s just one of them men who didn’t really smile but when he smiled it was like is he smiling because he’s happy with what you’re saying or not?” he says. “I’ve got a lot of British in me and we tend to be polite by default. You see Jamaicans, they’ll look you in your eye and talk to you like this [with a straight face] for all of the interview and it’s fine with them. There’s an intensity.”

As a first-generation Jamaican, I can attest to the seriousness that runs through the island. Despite the sun, the rum and the savory oxtail gravy, Jamaicans don’t joke around, or as we say: we nuh romp.

Serendipity was at play when Ameen and Elba first met in an elevator both heading to the same Los Angeles-bound flight. They discussed the book and Elba’s script. Ameen’s verbiage of choice is “sanitized” when describing the difference in the brutality of D on screen compared to the novel. Over time, the young rebel develops a coke habit and to bait Clancy, his brother’s killer, D rapes the mother of his children. In the movie, however, after breaking into their home and points a gun at Clancy’s girlfriend, D grants privacy when she pretends to breastfeed her child.

And while D doesn’t explicitly say it, he has a death wish. If you watch the film properly as Ameen suggests, you can see moments in which D is chasing after his own demise. Ameen’s only desire is to live his life fully, a reality he better understands isn’t a luxury afforded to many.

“I’ve experienced people who died who were my age, and not died from like the usual gangs or that sort, but like a heart attack, 33 years old, dead. Another friend pushed off a balcony by his girlfriend. Uncle died three days ago, my dad’s brother,” Ameen says. “When my two bredins died, it was a certain feeling, but with my uncle dying I had more of an understanding of D’s journey, which I had to imagine now, than 18 months two years ago during filming. It’s very hard to fill the void of a family member dying. You never know when your card is going to get pulled, so you want enough time to do stuff, but at the same time once real people die in your life that you love you fear it less.”

D also never worked with The Sexiest Man Alive. Ameen describes Elba’s directorial hand as less controlling and more freeing. Elba would later invite Ameen to his home while filming The Mountain Between Us where the two shaped the character. Once the two-time Golden Globe winner yelled “action!” Ameen said he was granted the autonomy to do what he wanted.

“[Elba] wanted me to method act and we discussed the general mindset of D, the look that he wanted to achieve. He wanted a uniform accent, things like that. And then he just set those parameters and left me to go in and do it,” he says. “He knows the type of actor I am. He wasn’t like, ‘All right, this is how I want you to do it.’ I’ve worked with first-time directors before. I never worked with an actor-director and he gave a lot of space. There were only so many moments when he was like, ‘This is what I want’ and he allowed me to create this world where I lived.”

While going full method was the approach that made for the best performance, it wasn’t always easy for some on set. Ameen rarely broke character and admittedly held others “hostage to his process.” He was so intrinsically D, it took him roughly eight months to let go of him once the film wrapped.

“Not like talking patois all the time, but the state of being. Every morning as D I’m waking up to gunshots as my alarm clock. Every morning I’m sitting in bed for an hour or two imagining the murder of my brother. If you’re a person with a conscious, that’ll run on your mind. It took me a while, definitely.”

I forget my follow up question and the room gets quiet. We’ve been talking for close to 40 minutes. Ameen uses this chance to turn the tables and question me. We discuss zodiac signs and Miles Davis. There’s a younger version of the late jazz legend Ameen believes is equally complex and intriguing. He admits he’d love to portray him. Instead, he’ll have to settle for Netflix’s forthcoming Inside Man 2, a departure from the Spike Lee-directed crime-drama which starred Clive Owen and Denzel Washington.

“Those are some big shoes to fill,” I tell him.

“I ain’t tryna fill em. That’s the goat,” Ameen says of Washington as he chuckles. “I could be the ram if they want. I can be the little lamb.”

He opens his Spotify app and plays “Blue In Green.”

“What’s your star sign?” he questions.

Every man I’ve ever loved (whether reciprocal or not) is a Leo, so when I learned of his July 30th birthday, I was...annoyed.

VIBE: We don’t get along.

Ameen: Who don’t?

VIBE: We don’t.

Ameen: Why do you say that?

VIBE: I looked it up. We don’t get along.

Ameen: Is that the attitude you came to the interview with? That’s terrible. What’s your sign?

VIBE: I’m a Gemini. I find Leo men are, it’s almost astonishing, how confident they are, and like unjustifiably so sometimes.

Ameen: And that’s what I remind you of?

He takes a sip of water and leans back. He crosses his legs and continues to listen to Miles while scrolling through social media on his phone. A smile emerges on his face. Like his Uncle Kirk, I’m not sure if he’s smiling because he finds our banter fun and playful, or if his unknown superpower is bubbling at the surface.

“Interesting,” Ameen says.

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American musician Millie Jackson performs onstage at the Park West Auditorium, Chicago, Illinois, May 30, 1980.
Photo by Paul Natkin

Music Sermon: Millie Jackson - The Original Bad Girl

You know that auntie who you were nervous to bring your young male friends around back in the day because she might proposition them in the kitchen when nobody was looking? Or the auntie liable to cuss out a family member or two after dinner for something that happened 12 years ago? The one that women in your family whispered about, warning not to leave men around alone? Who your mama didn’t want you to spend too much time with, but you were always excited to see because she was entertaining and was gonna slip you a little pocket change?

That auntie listens to Millie Jackson.

Millie Jackson is not just an R&B singer. She’s a Rhythm & Blues singer. She’s card party music. Your parents having people over and you’re not allowed to come downstairs music. Working class black folks hanging out down at the VFW after a long week with some well liquor music.

She’s been called “the queen of raunchy soul” and “the Godmother of rap,” because of her signature, no-holds-barred lyrical content and her long “raps” – profanity-laced, sexually explicit stories and jokes – interwoven through her songs and live sets. Auntie Millie is part singer and part outrageous comedienne – but don’t take her as a joke. She’s a deceptively serious artist, with career highlights that went largely unnoticed because of the raunch.

In our continued celebration of bad-ass women in music for the month of March, we present 11 essential Auntie Millie facts.

1. Her Singing Career Was an Accident

One Thursday night, Millie Jackson was hanging with friends at the Psalms Café on 125th Street in Harlem. The restaurant hosted an open mic on Thursdays, and Millie was clowning a young woman for her terrible singing. Her friends bet her $5 to get up herself and sing, and she did it – even though she had no training as a singer. A club promoter in the audience offered her a gig the following week, someone saw her there and offered her more gigs, and that continued. She sung around New York and New Jersey for a couple of years while still working full time, and eventually landed a spot touring with Sam Cooke’s brother, LC. After one short-lived recording contract, she signed with funk and soul label Spring Records (co-founded by the father and uncle of Loud Records founder Steve Rifkind). She was so unsure her career would stick, she asked for a leave of absence from her job instead of quitting. It became an extremely extended leave.

Her trademark “rapping,” the long intros, interludes and dialogue breaks Millie masterfully blends into her songs and live sets, was also an accident. Millie had no formal vocal training, so she wasn’t a strong singer at the beginning of her career. When people in supper clubs and lounges would start talking to each other and turning their attention away from the performance, she started talking to them to keep them engaged. It became a key part of her artistry. Millie doesn’t just sing you a song, she tells you a story.

2. She Developed Her Raw and Raunchy Style Because of Gladys Knight

Millie and Gladys sound alike. It’s hard to hear in Jackson’s grittier songs; in those, she sounds more like Teddy Pendergrass’s voice and Tina Turner’s voice had a vocal baby. In her ballads, though, you can close your eyes and imagine Gladys. Or at least Gladys after some brown liquor. Comparisons started almost immediately in Millie’s career. It was potentially a problem– the label held back a single because they thought people would hear it and ask for a new Gladys album – so she began to separate herself from Knight with her raw sound and lyrical content.

Over time, that separation also included cursing. “Gladys started rappin’ on (“Help Me Make It Through the Night”) and I’m like ‘Ok, now she’s gonna rap? I guess I’ll just cuss,’” Millie once explained. “She’s too much of a lady to curse.”

Jackson leaned all the way into the explicit language and topics - the Washington Post called her “a veteran virtuoso of vulgarity” in 1986 - until those two factors nearly overshadowed not only her raw talent, but the fact that her songs were also technically fantastic, complete with incredible arrangements and expert live instrumentation provided by the Muscle Shoals Swampers, one of the best rhythm sections in music history.

3. She Flipped the Concept of the Concept Album

Caught Up is the concept album "Trapped in the Closet" wanted to be when it grew up.

While Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye were creating cohesive bodies of work that reflected community, racial and environmental turmoil, Millie focused on what was happening in the home. Spring Records paired the singer with producer Brad Shapiro, whose credits include Wilson Pickett and James Brown, and he took her to the famed Muscle Shoals to record with the studio’s legendary session musicians, the Swampers.

Millie knew she wanted to make an album where “one song keeps going into the next song,” like a long story. Caught Up is a narrative about an affair, but from two perspectives: the first half of the album is from the mistresses point of view, the second half is the wife’s.

“We knew we were onto something (after “If Loving You Is Wrong”),” Jackson explained in an interview. “Then somebody in the studio asked ‘what now?’ And I said, ‘we finish the story. We’ve heard from the girlfriend, but what about the wife?'”

Concept albums were still new, and Spring Records didn’t know what to do with a project featuring nine-minute songs and no clear radio tracks. They brought in one of the most influential black radio DJs in New York, WBLS’s Frankie Crocker, and played it for him. He left the label with the only pressed copy of the LP so he could play “If Loving You Is Wrong I Don’t Want to be Right” immediately.

Jackson has admitted to being the other woman multiple times in her own life, but wanted the representation on the album to be “fair,” and include the wife’s experience. Her interpretation of the betrayed wife wasn’t a broken-down woman crying into a pillow, either. The songs cycled through a full range of emotions, from shock and anger to sadness, defeat, defiance and pettiness.

The label’s skepticism was unfounded; Caught Up reached No. 4 on the Billboard R&B album chart and No. 21 on the Pop chart. The success prompted a follow-up album, Still Caught Up, but the original is considered Jackson’s definitive work.

4. She Helped Turn Cheating Into an R&B Genre

Torrid affairs and adultery weren’t new topics in music, but they were relatively new to R&B. In the early ‘70s, songs about cheating – not about the aftermath, but basically celebrating cheating - were mostly found in juke joint blues and country western music, and were rarely from the woman’s perspective. “These were conversations that women had with each other on the laundromat. You didn’t hear them on records,” Millie explained in a recent interview about Caught Up. “You especially didn’t hear them on the radio.” Billy Paul, Luke Ingram, Johnny Taylor, and Millie – all singers who straddled the line between blues and soul - helped change that. By the mid-70s, adultery R&B was a full-blown subgenre, with songs like “Woman to Woman” and “From His Woman to You” (because “Woman to Woman” apparently required a reply), then later came “As We Lay,” “Secret Lovers,” and a long list of others. Songs about the wife calling the side, the side responding to the wife (the temerity!), the husband talking to the side, the wife proclaiming love to her side. It was a mess. But the songs were hits, so you might need to ask your parents and grandparents some honest questions about exactly what the hell was going on in the ‘70s and early ‘80s.

Millie’s unfiltered and uncensored take on cheating was the centerpiece of her career. “(Infidelity is) my whole repertoire,” she explained once when asked about crafting the stories for her songs. “Do you decide whether or not you want to talk about a certain part of an infidelity? Is it a man? Is it a woman? Is it both of them? Or do you want to go and start talking about what infidelity calls to life, or how it ruins a relationship, and not pertaining to anybody in particular. But, see, just like that you can write 25 songs on infidelity.”

5. Millie Was a Women’s Advocate

The primary topic of Millie’s music, after infidelity, was sex. Not making love. Sex. As in, “you got to handle this.” Like infidelity, sexual demands from the woman’s point of view was topical fare for dirty blues, not R&B.

Don’t start something you can’t finish Frustration ain’t no fun Half way lovin’ just don’t get it Stay there ‘til the job is done.

I would be remiss to not point out the breakdown in “All the Way Lover,” wherein Auntie Millie plants seeds that bore fruit for future generations, advocating for enthusiastic participation in oral sex, or what she called “parteè.”

We thank you for your service and advocacy, Millie.

With the songs hitting close to home about husbands cheating, wives kicking those husbands out, side chicks getting fed up, and calling men out to get focused in the bedroom, Millie believed she turned the male demographic off. “Men did not want my records in their house,” she claimed in an interview. “They wouldn’t come to see me live. Because I spoke truth to women, I got a reputation for being rough on men.”

But Miss Jackson would get at women sometimes, too. She took time, often, in her live show to address “saditty b**ches” who were being too lazy or too uptight to take care of business at home. This was also a form of advocacy, though, in the form of “Sis, stop bullsh*ttin.’”

Millie was a new kind of voice for women’s independence and agency. “Women loved it. I was speaking to them,” Jackson explained to her hometown Atlanta Magazine. But she was talking to women in a way some didn’t consider proper or respectable. She didn’t care. “I didn’t sell record to bougies. It was the poor people who bought my music. The women who bought Diana Ross did not buy Millie Jackson. The people in the projects understood me. I was down and dirty. I told you like it was.”

She once compared men to bad credit, which I’m laughing about even as I type this because it’s so genius and perfect that I can’t even. It’s an analogy all women understand too well – and we also understand the plot twist on the end when she gives it up anyway (Kanye shrug). She kept it real.

6. Low Key, She’s a Hip-Hop OG

Millie had already established a reputation for her “rapping,” which in the ‘70s meant long dialogue during song breaks, a style made popular in soul music with Isaac Hayes. Millie expanded the technique, telling full narratives that connected her songs. After “Rapper’s Delight” became a hit, her label wanted her to give the new style of rap a shot. In 1980, she recorded a track called “I Had to Say It” that she meant as a spoof of “Rapper’s Delight,” but she was spitting bars on the low. The subject: black men who start dating white women once they’re successful. It would set the timeline on fire today.

She told Song Facts in a frank 2010 interview that the song’s inspiration came unexpectedly. “I was thinking of what the next album (was) gonna be, and I had run out of things to talk about,” she shared, “So we’re on the tour bus and I’m going through Jet Magazine, and I’m saying ‘Okay. There’s Arthur Ashe – with a white woman. There’s the guy that plays Shaft on TV with a white woman. Damn, there’s O.J. Simpson – with a white woman… Somebody needs to say this. Why don’t I say this? I have to say this.” And she said it with her signature IDGAF delivery and candor.

Now I got your attention again I wanna speak to you about white girls On the arms of our black men

Millie was just playing around, but Coca Cola explained to her, when they reached out for Sprite's 1999 Obey Your Thirst campaign, that she technically held the distinction of being the first woman to cut a rap song. The campaign, “5 Deadly Women,” featured rappers Eve, Amil, Angie Martinez (remember when Angie was a rapper?), Mia X and Roxanne Shante.

Jackson makes a surprise appearance at the end of the series as The Master, and I applaud Sprite for doing their homework and including her. She was kind of an easter egg, because not many people in the spot’s target audience knew who she was on sight.

Her hipping and hopping on “I Had To Say It” aside, Millie’s been credited as the foremother of Salt-n-Pepa, Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, and all female rappers who didn’t take no sh*t from the boys and unabashedly harnessed the power of sexuality in their music. She’s also been heavily sampled in hip-hop for decades: J. Cole, Prodigy, EPMD, Too Short, Poor Righteous Teachers, 50 Cent, Memphis Bleek, Lil’ B, Boogie Down Productions, Young Jeezy, Trick Daddy, Blacksheep, Cam’ron, Geto Boys, Yo Gotti, and Fat Joe have all cut Millie a publishing check.

At least three rap acts have sampled/covered her “Phuck You Symphony” alone, which I understand because it’s perfect for hip-hop – just like she is.

7. Her Live Show is Off the Chain

Millie doesn’t just give you a stage with a spotlight and some crooning (and I say “doesn’t” because Auntie still performs). No ma’am, no sir. There’s a full band, including a tight ass horn section, background singers, the whole nine. Also, she doesn’t just sing, it’s part comedy act. She’s a cross between Richard Pryor and popular ‘90s comedian Adele Givens (I truly believe Adele studied Millie).

Millie Jackson’s Live and Outrageous album is essential listening. The show’s energy is palpable even through audio. At her peak, Jackson’s concerts were regularly sold-out. She served costumes, flair, choreography, dramatics, and powerful vocals. Even as her stage show scaled down in later years, Millie Jackson live was no less of an experience. She’s also known for audience participation - if you’re sitting in her line of sight you might become part of the show. Be ready.

8. She’s a Boss

Millie Jackson is absolutely not a contrived artist. Her image is all hers, her musical choices are hers, her career path is hers. There are no Svengali stories, no tales of the label pushing her in a direction she didn’t feel comfortable with. None of that. Millie did what she wanted. Her label did try, in the beginning, to change her sound. They sped her vocals up on records so her voice would be in a higher pitch than her deep, earthy alto. But after “Hurts So Good,” they let her fly.

Millie has been self-managed her entire career. Her one marriage, at the beginning of her success, lasted only eight months because her husband tried to control Jackson and her business. “He thought we were gonna be the next Ike and Tina Turner. He thought that he was gonna tell me what to do with my life, and I decided that was not gonna happen. Case closed.”

Millie has also always maintained a large degree of creative control. She co-wrote most her songs from the beginning, and starting with Caught Up, she also co-produced her albums. And she fought when her record label tried to minimize her contribution. “I went down to Muscle Shoals to show (Brad Shapiro) how I do what I do, and co-produced the album. And when the album came out, it said ‘Album concept by Millie Jackson,’ and I hit the ceiling,” she shared in an interview. “I stood up in the middle of the floor and cussed like a banshee. And finally (Spring Records co-head) Roy Rifkind said, ‘Can we please go to lunch? You gonna be the death of me yet.’ And (Spring Records co-head) Bill Spitowski said, ‘We’ll put it on your tombstone: Produced by Millie Jackson.’”

Self-management is a choice Millie realizes probably held her back from big deals and moves that would elevate her to a higher level of stardom, but it as one that allowed her to follow her career on her own terms. In the same interview just mentioned, she explained her unconventional decision. “I write a lot of songs, and I publish them, and I go to work when I feel like it. That’s why I never had a manager; I don’t need anyone to tell me when to go to work. I know if I want to work or not.” She’s also enjoyed a normalcy that her peers who reached higher heights of fame had to sacrifice. “I like being able to go shopping for myself. I go to the supermarket and nobody bothers me. I don’t have a bodyguard. I like that. I think I live a very decent life. I’m a long way from starving, and I’m still me.”

9. She Can Sing Anything

Jackson has half-joked often in her later interviews that people don’t pay attention to the more diverse aspects of her catalog.

“If you listen to Millie Jackson on the radio, you ain’t gonna hear nothing but ‘Back in Love By Monday,’ ‘Hurts So Good,’ and ‘If Loving You is Wrong.’ Like I haven’t made any more songs,” she once complained. “I’ve got thirtysomething albums, only got three songs to be played!” Well, a lot of her songs aren’t exactly radio-friendly, but she’s right. With the expansive discography she has (Millie kept recording until 2001), the cheating songs and the raunchy songs are most popular and well-known. Ironically, while critics bemoaned her resistance to growth over the years, she quietly released two country-inspired albums and a rock-inspired album, in addition to more weighted material. “I write a lot of meaningful songs, but nobody ever heard them,” she’s said. “Because in my case most people would rather only listen to infidelity.”

Her very first single, in fact, leaned more towards the social commentary that ‘important’ soul artists were embracing at the time.

Millie has always said she didn’t want to be a crossover artist, but she didn’t want to stay in an R&B lane sonically, either. Millie always wanted to explore rock and country. “Rock and roll is my spirit, really, but nobody cares,” she shared in a conversation about her lesser-known music. “Tina Turner came through and (everyone) forgot about that.” We’ll get to Millie and Tina in a minute.

Because of her willingness to explore a wide range of music, Jackson’s cover song game rivals that of Luther Vandross. Starting with Luther Ingram’s “If Loving You is Wrong, I Don’t Wanna Be Right,” Millie has put her stamp on hits from Prince, Toto, The Stylistics, even country artist Merle Haggerd. Jackson released her version of his hit “If We’re Not Back in Love on Monday” less than a year after its release, changing the title to “If You’re Not Back in Love by Monday,” and switching up the song from a story about a husband wanting to work it out with his wife, to a mistress encouraging a husband and his wife to try and reconcile.

10. She Intentionally Didn’t Seek Crossover Success

One of the reasons Millie is damn near an obscure artist given her long career and tremendous output is her is because she stayed in a blues and R&B pocket – on purpose. “I was never looking to become that crossover pop star,” she once explained. “Let white folks cross over to me.”

Critics searched for explanations over the years why such a talented singer with Muscle Shoals production wasn’t reaching the pop stardom soul singers like Gladys, Aretha and Tina had achieved, and they usually blamed her language and lyrical content. In 1977, the New York Times opined “…with just a bit more attention to hooks, she could have consistent hits. That wouldn’t constitute selling out, if she’s worried about that, and it would help convey the underlying seriousness of her art to a broader public.”

But Millie was happy to fly under the radar. It gave her more freedom. “When you had all the problems with profanity in the music, nobody mentioned me. The senator’s wife never knew I existed. So I didn’t have to go to Congress.” Jackson was talking about the 1985 congressional hearings spurred by the Parental Music Resource Center, an organization founded by Tipper Gore after she purchased Purple Rain for her daughter, and “Darling Nikki” made her clutch her pearls. Most remember the hearings for the eventual result of Parental Advisory warnings on albums just as rap was emerging, but pop artists were the initial target. Prince, Madonna, Frank Zappa, even the Mary Jane Girls were in the roundup. But not Jackson. “Nobody mentioned my name. Nobody knew I was doing it. I didn’t have to deal with any of that.”

She did enjoy some pop success with Caught Up, but her biggest potential moment for a breakthrough was a 1985 duet with Elton John. Pop/soul duets were in fashion, but though the single was a moderate success in the UK, it never broke in the US.

11. She Has (Possibly One-Sided) Beef with Tina Turner

The two contemporaries Jackson has most been compared to vocally are Gladys and Tina – for example, Elton John approached Jackson for “Act of War” after Tina declined. Millie adores Gladys and counts the fellow Georgian among her favorite vocalists, but there’s something about Tina that just doesn't sit right with her. It’s unclear what the source of her dislike is, but I suspect it’s centered around Tina entering and dominating the rock/soul space as a solo artist just as Millie was plotting a move in that direction.

Jackson did finally record her rock-inspired album, titled Rock n’ Soul, in 1994. She told her audience at a Howard Theater show in 2012 she made the LP because “I wanted Tina Turner to know she wasn't the only black bitch to sing rock’n’roll.”

But then, according to Millie, Tina jacked her single. “I recorded (John Waithe’s) ‘Missing You,’ and I was all excited about it, it was gonna be my next single. And the guys at Muscle Shoals said, ‘Boy you got the song out quick! I heard it at a truck stop.” And I’m trying to figure out how in the world did they hear my song when it won’t be out for two week. And of course, it was Tina Turner, and we had to pull the single and come back with a different one.”

That was in the ‘90s, but Millie was throwing subs at Tina in the ‘80s. Jackson’s 1988 album The Tide is Turning included a song called “You Knocked the Love (Right Outta My Heart).” Listeners will easily hear the Ike and Tina influence in the song, but the track, a song about a passionate love turning into domestic violence, was a shot. “I did that one messin’ with Tina,” Jackson admitted in 2010. “It was about Ike and Tina, and the proceeds for that are supposed to go to battered women. But I didn’t call any names.”

After Millie stopped recording in 2001, she didn’t retire. She spent 13 years hosting a drive time radio show, continued to tour (when she felt like it), and wrote and produced a stage play based on her album Young Man, Older Woman which toured successfully for four years.

Now she’s posted up at home in Atlanta, and a few years ago she was working on a reality show concept for her family (please, contents gods, let this happen while she still has the capacity to do it).

But Millie should be out here at these awards shows and tributes with her contemporaries. She should still be mixing it up with younger artists who emulate her energy without even realizing it (she loves Rihanna, by the way). Auntie Millie is deserving of far more recognition and praise than she’s received. Not just for her outrageous and explicit music and performances, but as a complete artist: as a writer, a producer, a businesswoman, a creative, a pioneer. Alladat. Just because she didn’t go the route of No. 1 hits and stadium tours doesn’t make her any less accomplished. Respect Millie Jackson’s gangster.

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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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