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Heather Weston

Interview: Raquel Cepeda On Identity, Race & Hip-Hop

"Extend the olive branch to people from past generations, because you don’t know everything."

Raquel Cepeda is a fighter. The renowned writer, journalist and filmmaker is clad in light blue patterned tights and a gray crop top, with her hair pulled back in a ponytail— she is furiously jabbing a black Everlast bag. On this chilly Friday afternoon, we’re at Mendez Boxing where Cepeda spends a good amount of time training for her bouts.

Inside, the large space on the lower level is laden with black punching bags, swaying from the ceiling. Behind the cloud of sand-filled sacks, sits a red boxing ring. As Cepeda makes her way around the gym, she gets pounds and greetings from many boxing aficionados here. You can very much tell she is a regular and perhaps well-liked. Not to mention, she's quite comfortable kicking it with the boys. After we take a stroll around the facility, we settle in a wooden bench by a row of yellow lockers.

Born to Dominican parents in Harlem, and raised in Washington Heights during the early '80s when hip-hop was in a state of becoming, Cepeda is no stranger to battling adversity. From surviving a crime-ridden neighborhood to standing resilient in an abusive household, she details in her 2013 memoir Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina her simultaneous journey of finding her roots through ancestral DNA.

Cepeda has lent her editorial wizardry to And It Don’t Stop: The Best American Hip Hop Journalism Of The Last 25 Years, and has served as Editor-in-Chief at the now-defunct One World Magazine by Russell Simmons. She's also penned for biggie publications like The Village Voice and The New York Times, among many others.

Her film credits include a documentary titled Bling: A Planet Rock, which tells the story of how hip-hop’s flashy lifestyle played a role in the 10-year civil war that took place in Sierra Leone, West Africa. The film features artist Raekwon of Wu-Tang Clan, Paul Wall and reggaeton star Tego Calderon, among others. And if you're into that sort of thing, you can also hear sound bites of Cepeda’s socially charged commentary on her ABOUT RACE podcast.

“I feel like life is a continuation,” she says. “You grow every single day. I learn something new everyday. I learn from my three-year-old and I learn from 19-year-old. I learn from everybody around me. Every time I travel. Everyday on the subway, in my neighborhood—I learn something new that challenges my beliefs on everything and I think that’s exciting.”

In the spirit of Women’s History Month, VIBE VIVA talked with the fearless Latina, during which we discussed everything from the inception of her journalism career, to growing up in Washington Heights, to how she self identifies. Gloves on or off, Cepeda is always down for the cause.

VIBE VIVA: When did you realize you wanted to be a journalist?
Raquel Cepeda:
Well, I always wanted to be a writer. I remember when I called my grandmother—my mother’s mother; to tell her ‘Mama I sold a book—my memoir and she started laughing. And I was like ‘why are you laughing?’ And she said because when I was very angry in Santo Domingo, at five-years-old I would say ‘One day, I’m going to write a story about our family and I’m going to set the record straight.’

My grandmother said ‘Well let me tell you something honey, I didn’t give a s**t then and I don’t give a s**t now.’ It's funny because it’s a book about our family, so I guess she told me that ever since I could speak—I was talking about being a writer. And that is something I guess I inherited from my birth mother, because my birth mother— her daughter—always wanted to be a writer.  If she didn’t meet my dad, she probably would have been a writer. That’s what she was studying to become.

How did the hip-hop and Uptown scenes in the '80s influence the woman that you are today?
Well, I was born in Harlem. I went to Santo Domingo like a lot of children of Dominican immigrants—they go back and forth. And I was shuttled back and forth between my maternal grandparents and with my birth mother and father. When I came back to stay with my father and stepmother who is from Finland in 1981, hip-hop, Uptown, Washington Heights was crazy.

One of the things that we were known for is the expression that you can arguably say comes out of hip-hop, or hip-hop comes out of this particular branch of the culture, which is graffiti. The Bronx really took it there, there were really great writers in the Bronx. The earliest photos that Henry Chalfant shot were Uptown all the way in Washington Heights and Inwood.

So, I was growing up around that. Also for me, rap music and the culture was a way for me to be able to talk people. To people that were Dominican, Haitian, Black-American, de-franchised white, whatever it was, hip-hop was a way that we can all come together and talk. Because it was a thing that we were creating that the authority figures and the old people hated. So the more they hated it, the more we used as a foil. Which was a way of communicating, which is very different than today’s hip-hop. It was something that definitely went into shaping who I am today.

I remember one time I was talking to Jay Smooth—cause he was born the same year as me, in the '70s, and we mix academic lingo with street lingo or whatever and I’ll hear like ‘you don’t have to talk like you’re in hip hop.’ But I thought 'I’m not adapting a culture, it’s my culture that everybody else is adapting.' I was just being myself and he got that. We were this little culture of kids that felt like tunnel rats, who basically ended up inspiring everything from language to fashion to a kind of so called high culture.

What were some of your best memories as a young girl in that culture?
What really took me over the edge, what gassed me up, was when Red Head King Pin came to one of our parties. You couldn’t tell me anything. That was definitely one of my highlights.

And then also, I was a very disengaged student, so I would cut school a lot. I would go to Washington Square Park and I remember just chilling looking back and looking around and seeing Russell Simmons and all these people that I would end up being cool with or working for. They would walk pass me and I'd think ‘one day I’m going to work for that guy, one day I’m going to do this and that.’ Just to see how all these things ended up connecting, that to me affirms that there is no such thing as a coincidence.

How was it like for you working at One World as a young woman? Was it male dominated?
It was definitely male dominated being at One World, but I had a publisher named John Pasamore that was very supportive with everything that I was doing. He allowed me to take chances. And because of that, even though he was a guy, I was able to do a lot of things that were interesting in the magazine. And because I was always a tomboy, I didn’t really care about dealing with men. I just deal with them the way I would deal with anybody. I’m from New York City. I grew up in the 'hood. I’m always used to dealing with male dominated spaces, so for me that wasn’t an issue.

The issue for me was making the magazine something that was really global, that was adult and that it showed hip-hop for what it was and what it had the potential to become. What it has become, for better or for worse, it has become the most important youth export to ever come out of the United States of America. So I really enjoyed my time there, and to this day I still think that we were way ahead of the curve back then. Sometimes when I think about what we covered back then, and I think to myself ‘It would make sense today.’

I love how you put Omahyra Mota on the cover…
Yeah, because I didn’t know any Dominican-Americans—I’m Dominican-American—at the time who were in the culture real thick. It didn’t matter that much because for me, as a Dominican-American, the part of me that’s American is from this well that we all come from, which is Africa. And indigenous America links us to our black American brothers and sisters, and our Haitian brothers and sisters.

Happy #HaitianindependenceDay to our brothers and sisters on the west side of the isle!!! #Ayiti #quisqueya

A photo posted by Raquel Cepeda (@raquelcepeda) on

How do you define the term AfroLatina?
I don’t define the term AfroLatina, because I don’t like defining terms of identity, because they mean something different to everybody.

Would you consider yourself one?
I’m a Dominiyorkian of mixed decent. If you read my book you will find that I’m mixed and that I am just one example of the many of how the New World came to be. I’m the genetic evidence that the New World happened. So can't just turn my back on one side of my culture and just call myself one thing. I feel like I’d be selling out the parts of who I am for better or for worse. Because there are things that we have in our blood that we don’t want to have; that we don’t want to admit. That we don’t want to reconcile with. For example, growing up I always thought as the European man as the aggressor, but when you have European blood running down your veins too, you have to come to terms with that.

Why do you think it’s important for our mental health to find our DNA? Especially when it comes to young Latinas who are at most risk for suicide than their counterparts, which you explore in your new documentary Some Girls.
Not everybody can afford to go on an ancestral DNA quest and trace all of their ancestry, right? Some people are not in touch with their family members, and some people don’t have that desire. I thought it was interesting and I had a desire to that testing because I was just wondering ‘Ok, what are we?’ And using myself as an example, I just said ‘Let me just go in with my fist unclenched and my heart open.'

When I went on the quest, I was able to meet people I hadn’t known were related to me, and find information about them. What I found out, which is detailed in my book Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina, was that my background was West African, Pre-Colombian, Indigenous American, Berber and English or Welsh. I’m not sure which side because they have the similar genetic makeup. And it re-affirmed to me that we are the physical evidence of how this new world, the Americas came to be.

It shows me that even though I’m being told that my people are illegal and that I don’t have any kind of agency in North America—to be Latino is to be American. The very essence of being Latino is to be American. That kind of grounds me and it also makes me feel like I am a part of this continuum of the narrative of human kind, of how the world has evolved. So for me it’s important, and that goes also to mental health. They don’t teach you that in school. When you go to school they teach that the people who made America and any kind of success here were white and American. So then, when I find out my ancestry and see that it took everybody to make this, it makes you feel more grounded and more part of your society. It makes you feel like you’re a part of the community.

When you don’t feel disenfranchised, you’re apart of something. It makes you kind of act differently and talk differently and do things differently. It kind of makes you feel like you have agency, and it makes you feel confident to do other things, which is why in my documentary, Some Girls, I embarked in a genetic ancestral DNA journey with a few girls from a suicide prevention program to show them that they come from people that survive.

My father’s ancestral mitochondrial DNA is pre-Columbian. My direct maternal DNA is West African. These people had to find a way, despite the indigenous slave trade, despite Columbus bum-rushing the New World, despite the transatlantic slave trade, despite the re-writing of history, they had to find a way to survive in my body. So it makes me even look at myself, like my body is a temple. And it makes me look at everything in a more holistic, spiritual way.

What do you hope to accomplish with your new book, East of Broadway?
Like in all my projects I try to be very balanced,  because I’m artist and I represent things the way I see them. For me it’s a memoir about my community in flux, and it’s me trying to kind of work out the fact that I’m in the middle. I’m from a generation where we 're traveled, we’re educated and a lot of times we have found ourselves having things in common with people that live for example on the west side of Broadway—the gentrifiers.

And then I grew up in the hood, right, that hood in the "battle days." I hate that term, by the way. Even though I grew up in Inwood during the time it had the highest crime rates, I found community and love there. I found people that took care of me there. It instilled in me the passion and the creative impulses to do everything that I have done ever since. So I’m trying to find a way to represent both sides in my book. Because I am in the middle, I left and I came back. I came back with a little bit more cash and a different way of thinking.

How do you feel about gentrification?
I also have a huge problem with gentrification, because I feel like the people that stuck it out and fought to build a community and better streets and put themselves in peril, they deserve to be able benefit from the beautification of the 'hood. So what I want to do is explore the question: why is it when people that are perceived to be white move into a area it becomes gentrified? But when people that are perceived to be brown and black move in, it's the 'hood, the slums? How does race play into that? And does it play into that today? Those are the questions that I’m interested in exploring in the book that I’m working on right now.

What do you think about the 2016 election?
Well, I haven’t made up my mind yet. Obviously it’s going to be between Hillary and Bernie. But I have a hard time reconciling the Clinton years with this war on drugs that was perpetuated against kids I grew up with.

I actually was living to see my friends and my family become casualties of the war on drugs and I saw what it did to my community and then I look at it today as one example of the war on drugs. I see how they are calling for us to have a kinder strategy with dealing with the war on drugs, because the face of it has turned white. But why wasn’t it like that when my black, Haitian and Latino American counterparts were suffering through that? Why did they have to be ravaged, while one community get to be coddled? I have an issue with that, but I also think it’s very important to have experience when you’re in office, and I feel like Hillary has a lot of experience when in office. Though, I like Bernie’s energy. It just can’t be Trump.

How did you first start getting into boxing?
I grew up in a very violent home, so I always had to defend myself. I had to learn how to put my hands up. I grew up also in a different time, were it was kind of violent. I grew up fighting in the street. I always wanted to be a boxer, but I wasn’t allowed to. I’ve always liked the sport. I remember my favorite boxer of all time was Lucia Rijker. I always wanted to be like her. As I've gotten older, it’s spectacular how I got into it. Sacha and I after dating for six years, on our first year of our marriage, we were just eating, screwing around and living. And the end of that year, I was in Santo Domingo and one of my mentors/closest friends Dr. Frank Moya Pons, asked ‘Do you work out? So I thought 'That’s it, I have to change, this is a sign from the universe I have to change.'

I just said I’m starting on Monday, I’m going to this Mendez boxing with my husband or not. And when I came in, none of the trainers believed that I could box in the ring. I took to it very quickly, and one thing lead to another and I started competing. I love it. It helps me write, and work out my issues. It helps me workout my stress and it helps me stay in shape, and it helps me keep up with my son who is turning 4 in a couple of weeks. It also helps me feel good. It helps me release. There is nothing like being in the ring, hitting somebody with all my might and then watching that s**t. I’m not going to front, I like going in and f**king s**t up. I enjoy it. [Laughs]

What advice would you give young women?
For young women in general I would say take the time out to really do the work to be selfish. And do the work in investing in yourself and identifying yourself and challenging people’s perceptions and challenge those check boxes that society forces you into and create your own. Create your own identity, redefine what is out there and don’t allow anybody to cram you in anything.

I feel like I wish I would have done more investing when I was younger in exploring my own self. I’ve done a lot of work on it. I wish I would have done more when I was younger, because knowledge of self is power, and there is nothing like that feeling than having knowledge and being powerful when you walk in these murky waters of 2016. So I would say take the time to really invest.

I would actually say this to my own daughter who is 19. You know, people tell her she isn’t one thing enough, or Latina enough, or black American enough or that enough. But thank God she is like me. She doesn’t really give a s**t about what anybody says at the end of the day because she knows who she is. When you know who you are, you don’t feel the pressure of having to stay that way. Since identity is like water, it shifts. We change every three years. Be like water. Keep on changing, keep on flowing, keep on growing. My other advice would be to really bridge the gap with and extend the olive branch to people from past generations, because you don’t know everything.

#Baenation. ?? The #daughter and I. ??

A photo posted by Raquel Cepeda (@raquelcepeda) on

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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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Issa Vibe: The Best Songs To Fit Your Different 4/20 Sessions

April 20th isn’t a national holiday, but it might as well be.

Although recreational marijuana use is only legal in 10 states, the U.S. is home to approximately 35 million regular users of cannabis, according to a survey done by Yahoo News and Marist University. That's 10.6 percent of the American population and while that may seem minuscule, the numbers are growing daily and it's understandable.

Weed has now become a staple of American culture; it's become a legitimate business in the states where it's legal, it's now part of the way people socialize, and better yet it's a theme in some of the hottest music out today. "Kush" has been included in some of the hardest verses that millennials and generation-z kids have heard in their lifetime.

Wiz Khalifa and Snoop Dogg, amazing emcees in their own right, are also widely known for their love of the green plant. Wiz's biggest album, Rolling Papers is clearly influenced by weed and along with the Snoop Dogg-assisted "Young, Wild & Free" is all about that green positivity.

There's an endless list of hits about rolling up a joint, hitting it and passing it, but what about moods? Whether it's a bowl, a blunt or an edible weed, can leave people feeling a variety of ways and that all can be traced to a certain strand of weed someone's inhaling, or the mood they're already.

Regardless, it's important to be prepared and have music ready to match whatever feelings marijuana concocts; and that's why VIBE compiled an adequate list of songs for each of the main pot moods.

So on this 4/20, sit back, relax, smoke and find the songs that suit the vibe.

___

The "Let Me Chill Out" Mood 

Sometimes the best way to come down from an over the top high is to play some tunes with a soft beat and a light voice. The best artists in the game right now, like Jhené Aiko for instance, have created that sound that's perfect for when relaxation is needed, so of course, she made the list.  These are the top four songs that can help anyone kick back and relax if a pull from a joint just isn't hitting the right way.

"Blue Dream" by Jhené Aiko "Muse" by Afro Nostalgia "Summer Games" by Drake "LOVE." by Kendrick Lamar (feat. Zacari) The Bad B*tch Hours or "Top Two and I'm Not Two" Mood 

You look around the room and realize: you're top two and you're not two in it. All it took was one or a couple of puffs and then a pass to make you feel pretty good about yourself. One of the main upsides to smoking that's constantly mentioned in the media is that it can help alleviate chronic pain, well, another positive to it is that it can leave you feeling sexy, sensual and everything in between.

This is that high that can make you feel that you're significant other is lucky to have you, and subsequently makes you hit them up, that tells you: you're single and ready to mingle. It's a smoking session that lets you know: if you shoot your shot now, you'll score and it's a session that you want music playing that only affirms how sultry and seductive you feel. If this is how 4/20 leaves you feeling, putting on some RiRi or even Young Thug can effectively get you 'in your bag.'

"Same Ol' Mistakes" by Rihanna "Tyrant" by Kali Uchis (feat. Jorja Smith) "Worth It" by Young Thug "Smoke Break" by Chance the Rapper (feat. Future) The "Head in the Clouds" Mood 

More often than not, edibles have the power of leaving people spaced out and speaking slowly, after consuming them. Sometimes smoking weed, or hotboxing with friends is a silent event. Either everyone's consumed by their phones, or every other person has been looking at a nonexistent spot on the wall for the past 15 minutes.

Regardless this isn't the high where people want to hear "Act Up" by City Girls, no matter how much they love them. No, this is the high where people need music that takes them on a journey. Songs where the production is out of this world and it seems like the artist specifically made the song for a smoke session like no other. Travis Scott's ASTROWORLD is full of tracks with that vibe, and Lil' Wayne, a weed connoisseur of his own, has songs that fulfill that need too. Smoke a bit and let the weed do its thing.

"ASTROTHUNDER" by Travis Scott "I Feel Like Dying" by Lil' Wayne "Hyyer" by Kid Cudi "St. Tropez" by J. Cole The "Got the Giggles" Mood 

This is when the blunt hits perfectly and there's nothing wrong in the world or when the bowl did its' job and leaves everyone feeling silly. A "feel good high" is the best way to describe and the best way to live through that kind of smoke session is to listen to some "feel good music." These are the songs that can have people swaying unknowingly to its' beat, or the tracks that leave people smiling from ear to ear. This is the session that lets people know that "this is it chief," and here are the best songs to go along with it.

"Pass the Vibes" by Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment "Dreamcatcher" by Metro Boomin' (feat. Swae Lee & Travis Scott) "It's a Vibe" by 2 Chainz (feat. Ty Dolla $ign, Trey Songz & Jhené Aiko) "Binz" by Solange
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4/20: A VIBE-Era Timeline Of Hip-Hop's Relationship With Cigars And Rolling Papers

Hip-hop's relationship with Mary Jane has always been a beloved one. From song from artists like Styles P, Curren$y and Snoop Dogg, laying back and enjoying nature's herbs is a coveted pastime in the game.

But we wouldn't be able to enjoy it all without the inclusion of cigars and rolling papers. Sure, we have vapes and other creative ways to reach aerial heights, but the OG accessories bring a different element to the table. The herb holiday might be a perfect time for enthusiasts to light one in the air, but VIBE was inspired to pay homage to hip-hop's love for the preroll.

Only keeping the VIBE-era in mind (starting from 1992), we analyzed companies like Swisher Sweets, Phillies and more, along with its ambassadors throughout the game like Snoop Dogg, Cypress Hill and Wiz Khalifa.

Enjoy the brief timeline of Hip-Hop's relationship with cigars and rolling papers below.

Made with Visme Infographic Maker

___ 1. Zig Zag

 

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A post shared by Zig-Zag World (@zigzagworld) on Apr 15, 2019 at 1:06pm PDT

Established Since 1855

Peak Years of Popularity (In Hip Hop): 1992-1996 / 2009-2013

Most Popular in California

Top Ambassadors: Snoop Dogg, Wiz Khalifa, Curren$y, Juicy J

In 1988, N.W.A. founder Eazy-E established Zig Zag as the official rolling paper for west-coasters after referencing the brand on a song from his solo debut, Eazy-Duz-It. In subsequent years, Zig Zag would appear on songs from legends like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, 2Pac, and B-Real, resulting in the brand becoming synonymous with the west coast.

The decline in west coast rap's popularity during the latter half of the '90s would result in a decreased amount of nods to Zig Zag within hip-hop, as other brands continued to dominate the conversation. In 2009, Zig Zag's standing among rap fans would receive a jolt when Wiz Khalifa and Curren$y teamed up for their collaborative mixtape How Fly, which included numerous references to the brand. However, as other brands of rolling papers began to dominate the market, Zig Zag's approval rating faltered slightly, but continues to transcend generations and will forever be remembered as the O.G. smokers utensil.

2. E-Z Wider

Established Since 1972

Peak Years of Popularity (In Hip Hop): 1992-1996 / 2008-2011

Most Popular in New York

Top Ambassadors: Wiz Khalifa, Chris Webby

The east coast's affinity for blunts is well-documented, but for a brief period during the '90s, EZ-Wider became the alternative for a select group of rappers out of New York City. Introduced into to hip-hop lexicon by A Tribe Called Quest member Phife Dawg on "Scenario (Demo 2)," EZ-Wider enjoyed a short run among smokers in the hip-hop community before losing its luster by the mid-'90s.

After more than a decade of sporadic mentions in rap songs, EZ-Wider made a comeback. This was largely on the strength of rappers like Wiz Khalifa, who brought the brand back to prominence in the late aughts during his transition from rolling cigars to smoking using paper. Over the past decade, EZ-Wider's popularity has been eclipsed by competing brands in the market, but its place within hip-hop history is secure.

3. Phillies Cigars (Known as Phillie Blunts)

 

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A post shared by Phillies Cigars & Tobacco Fans (@philliescigars) on Oct 7, 2018 at 1:19pm PDT

Established Since 1910

Peak Years of Popularity (In Hip Hop): 1992-1999

Most Popular in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Atlanta

Top Ambassadors: Nas, The Notorious B.I.G., Redman, Big Pun, Big Boi, N.O.R.E., Big L

The first cigar to truly reign supreme in hip-hop is the Phillie blunt with a history that runs deep. Referenced as early as 1989, the Phillie came to prominence during the early '90s, with rappers like Redman, Nas, and The Notorious B.I.G. becoming unofficial ambassadors of the brand.

Found in some of the most memorable rap songs of all-time, the Phillie blunt was the cigar of choice on the east coast but began to spread to regions like the south and midwest, with artists like Big Boi of Outkast, and Twista singing its praises. By the end of the '90s, the popularity of the Phillie blunt began to wane, and while it still receives the occasional mention for nostalgic purposes, has never regained its stature as the go-to cigar in hip-hop.

4. Swisher Sweets

Established Since 1959

Peak Years of Popularity (In Hip Hop): 1993-Present

Most Popular in California, Texas, Tennessee, Illinois, Louisiana

Top Ambassadors: Three 6 Mafia, UGK, 8Ball & MJG, Scarface, Kid Ink, Lil Wayne, Freddie Gibbs, Gucci Mane, Wiz Khalifa, The Game, Lil Durk, Fat Trel, Ab-Soul, YG, Danny Brown, Fredo Santana, Machine Gun Kelly, Wale, Mac Miller, G-Eazy, G Herbo, Kevin Gates, Jeezy, 21 Savage

During the early '90s, Swisher Sweets emerged as the cigar brand of choice among marijuana enthusiasts in the south and western regions of the country. Since as early as 1993, when rap group Souls of Mischief helped put the brand on the map, Swisher Sweets cigars have become a staple in hip-hop, maintaining their popularity for the better part of a quarter century.

Over the years, Swisher Sweets has been name-dropped in songs by rappers from all corners of the country, but rap legends UGK and Three 6 Mafia were among the brand's most fervent supporters. Today, artists like Gucci Mane and Lil Yachty continue to keep Swisher Sweet in the public consciousness and recognized as one of the legacy smoking utensils in hip-hop culture

5. White Owl Cigarillos

 

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A post shared by Gotham Cigars (@gothamcigars) on Sep 9, 2014 at 8:29am PDT

Established Since 1887

Peak Years of Popularity (In Hip Hop): 1993-1997

Most Popular in New York

Top Ambassadors: Wu-Tang Clan

One cigar that caught traction among marijuana aficionados during the early-mid '90s was the White Owl, which became one of the leading brands on the east coast at its peak. Initially popping up on the rap radar via a mention by Gang Starr member Guru in 1992, White Owl would be championed by a number of rap artists out of New York. One act that helped solidify White Owl's standing within hip-hop culture was the Wu-Tang Clan, as numerous members of the Staten Island-based collective paid homage to the brand until its sudden decrease in popularity during the latter half of the decade.

6. Optimo

 

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A post shared by | Cigars (@optimocigars) on Feb 24, 2019 at 5:02pm PST

Established Since 1898

Peak Years of Popularity (In Hip Hop): 1997-2001

Most Popular in Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee

Top Ambassador: Juicy J

The Notorious B.I.G. may have immortalized the brand after referencing their cigars on his hit single "Big Poppa," but Optimo's lineage in hip-hop can be actually traced back to the southern region of the country. As rap acts out of the south began to reach a national audience during the latter half of the '90s, Optimo's approval rating skyrocketed as well, quickly becoming the cigar of choice for many of the region's star talent.

This particularly proved true in states like Texas, Louisiana, and Tennessee, where Optimo was considered king among blunt smokers and mentioned at a seemingly constant clip. Optimo cigars are not as prominent in rap lyrics as they once were, but remain a legacy brand in the south and have earned their rightful place in the annals of hip-hop history.

7. Garcia Y Vega

 

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GO GET #1882 BACKWOODS AT YOUR NEAREST SMOKE SHOP!!! #1882s

A post shared by Garcia Y Vega 1882 Cigars (@1882_backwoods) on Jun 22, 2015 at 10:57am PDT

Established Since 1882

Peak Years of Popularity (In Hip Hop):1995-2001

Most Popular in New York, California

Top Ambassador: JT tha Bigga Figga

One cigar brand that had a brief, but noteworthy run within hip-hop was Garcia Y Vega, which was touted by various rap artists on the east coast in beyond. Finding its way into a rap song as early as 1994, the popularity of the Garcia Y Vega cigar was largely relegated to the east coast during its peak years in the latter half of the '90s.

The brand's popularity reached all the way to California, where rappers like JT the Bigga Figga helped give Garcia Y Vega its cultural clout. Today, a Garcia Y Vega cigar is largely considered a relic, but its recognition within the hip-hop community as one of the defining brands for blunt-gut spillers is well-deserved.

8. Dutch Masters Cigars

 

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#DutchMastersCigars

A post shared by Russian Cream (@dutchmasterscigars) on Apr 15, 2019 at 5:31pm PDT

Established Since 1911

Peak Years of Popularity (In Hip Hop): 1996-2008

Most Popular in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia

Top Ambassadors: Wu-Tang Clan, Mobb Deep, The Lox

In terms of sheer dominance of the market, Dutch Masters was once at the top of the list of cigars among marijuana smokers. Introduced by members of the Wu-Tang Clan during the group's rise to power, Dutch Masters would quickly catch on with fellow New Yorkers, including like-minded rap acts Mobb Deep and The LOX.

By the time the smoke from the cigar wars of the '90s cleared, Dutch Masters was the clear victor, as the brand extended its dominance into the next decade. While Dutch Masters' stronghold on the lungs of rap artists and fans alike began to dissipate by the end of the aughts, the brand still receives nods til this day and remains the go-to cigar within the hip-hop community.

9. Backwoods Smokes

 

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Rate these 1-10 and why? #exoticbackwoods

A post shared by Backwoods Cigars (@backwoods_cigars) on Mar 26, 2019 at 3:41pm PDT

Established Since 1973

Peak Years of Popularity (In Hip Hop): 1998-2005, 2013-Present

Most Popular in New York, Philadelphia, California, Texas, Atlanta

Top Ambassadors: Beanie Sigel, Freeway, Mac Dre, Travis Scott, Lil Yachty,

One cigar that has transcended regions and managed to sustain its standing among marijuana smokers is the Backwood, which has a history that is as rich as any brand in hip-hop. Referenced in a rap lyric as far back as 1994, by the turn of the century, Backwoods saw a spike in popularity, with rappers from the east coast and west coasts singing its praises.

After finding equal footing with the competing cigar brands at the time, Backwoods' visibility within rap dipped during the latter half of the aughts, before returning to prominence the next decade. This was due in large part to the influx of a new generation of rap stars gravitating to the brand, resulting in it regaining its reputation as the unofficial cigar of hip-hop as of 2019 and moving forward.

10. RAW Rolling Papers

 

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A few cones a day.. : @ganjawitness #rawlife #natural #rollingpapers #alcoyspain #rawpapersovereverything

A post shared by RAW Rolling Papers (@rawlife247) on Feb 10, 2019 at 5:10pm PST

Established Since 2005

Peak Years of Popularity (In Hip Hop): 2012-Present

Most Popular in North America

Top Ambassadors: Wiz Khalifa, Curren$y, 2 Chainz, Mick Jenkins, Chris Webby, Z-Ro, Futuristic

As the new kid on the block, RAW Rolling Papers may lack the rich history of other brands in the market, however, its place as the current smoking utensil of choice in hip-hop cannot be denied.

Establishing itself right in time for the cultural gravitation to rolling papers during the late aughts, RAW Rolling Papers capitalized on early cosigns from marijuana mavens like Wiz Khalifa and Curren$y to infiltrate the culture. With about a decade since its first mention in a rap song, RAW Papers have become a cultural institution in their own right, partnering with various rap artists and connecting the dots between hip-hop, culture, and marijuana.

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