Aaliyah Week: Remembering Aaliyah’s Final Musical Journey

When Aaliyah released her self-titled album in 2001, I was so excited that I scratched the CD while hastily placing it in my Walkman. Because of that eagerness, Timbaland’s opening vocals on “We Need A Resolution” skips right after the first repetitive line, “I’m tired of arguing, girl.” It angered me every time I played the song back, hoping that the CD would somehow correct itself.

But the more that I got used to hearing that distortion, the more it seemed to fit the original beat of the song. The unintentional, three-second remix prepared my ears for the rest of the puzzling beats that somehow found a way to fit perfectly with Aaliyah’s clean cut voice. You could tell the beats were tailor made just for her, showcasing her knack for tackling challenging beats while pushing the envelope even further in the world of sound.

Aaliyah reached new heights on “I Care 4 U” while sending you on a dream with the simplicity of “It’s Whatever.” The Static Major-penned “Loose Rap” showcased Aaliyah’s boastful side, and “Rock the Boat” restated why you were a fan of her in the first place.

To round out VIBE’s Aaliyah Week, those involved with her last album share their stories from the studio to the video set.

Bud’da: Producer, “Never No More,” “Read Between The Lines,” “I Can Be”
Eric Seats: Producer, “Loose Rap,” “Rock The Boat,” “Extra Smooth,” “U Got Nerve,” “It’s Whatever,” “Those Were The Days,” “Messed Up,” “Erica Kane”
Warren Fu: Album Cover Designer
Jeffrey “J-DUB” Walker: Producer, “I Refuse,” “What If”
Benjamin “Black” Bush: Songwriter, “U Got Nerve,” “Messed Up”
Dave Meyers: “More Than A Woman” Video Director
Paul Hunter: “We Need A Resolution” Video Director
Albert Watson: Album Cover Photographer

Bud’da: When I first met Aaliyah it was casual. We were in New York and I was working on Tank’s record. Either Jomo [Hankerson, Aaliyah’s cousin] or Barry [Hankerson, Aaliyah’s uncle/manager] had come to the studio and introduced us. I didn’t get a chance to really know her until we were in Australia where there was more time and we were literally over there for a month and some change. Just being over there for so long, seeing somebody not necessarily everyday, but a whole lot every other day, getting to know them, we were able to grow like that. But initially I was very nervous, like, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s Aaliyah!’ She just said, ‘Hey,’ sweetly and they walked into another room because she may have been doing an interview or something. That was my first time meeting her. All the times after that we really got a chance to sit and talk with her, an incredible spirit.

Eric Seats: My partner, Rapture Stewart at the time and I were doing our production together. We were just doing it on the side for fun. We didn’t plan on having official meetings or anything. We ended up being in a band for that whole Blackground camp: Timbaland, Aaliyah, Ginuwine, that whole crew. While on the road with them all the time, and all these different places, Timbaland overheard our tracks. It got his attention and we weren’t trying to get his attention but we got his attention. I remember him saying it didn’t sound like him, because that was during a phase where a lot of producers were starting to sound like the very thing that he brought to the table as far as beats are concerned. We stood out. That was the year of 1996. He signed us to a production deal and that snowball kicked in. We ended up doing a lot of work for a lot of artists, more notable Aaliyah for sure. The bulk of that red album we did about nine songs, and then two on the one that came after that one. It was a beautiful thing.

Warren Fu: Aaliyah was just so cool. She was a visionary because she managed to have this mystique and aura around her, yet the weird thing was that she was also humble and sweet. I can’t think of anyone that has been able to pull that off the way she did, and at the same time, it was not fabricated or planned. She really was that person. She was the first artist I ever worked with, so I gotta admit, I was pretty nervous. But she was so down to Earth with everyone, that after a few minutes you kind of forgot that you were dealing with a big star.

Jeffrey “J-DUB” Walker: I think the first time that I met Aaliyah was in the studio when we were doing the Romeo Must Die soundtrack. We didn’t actually work together but I met her. She was just such a sweet spirit. She was like the coolest artist, endless star ever. A lot of times you deal with an artist that might have an ego or attitude, but with her she was down to Earth. Then she had to go to Australia to do Queen of the Damned. We had started her last album in New York, so basically it was a team of producers that were signed to Blackground. I was signed, Bud’dha, Overdose and Caviar, and Static and we just basically went to Chung King’s Studios in New York and just set up shop and started an album. I would be in one room, Bud’dha was in another room, Static and them would be in another room so we were just vibing off of each other like that.

Bud’da: We were all hard critics on each other and if I did something that wasn’t kosher, it would be said. If somebody else did something that was wack, you would be like, ‘That’s wack, that’s not going to work.’ Just creating and knowing that if I could say anything to anybody at any point in relation to creativity and trying to be something classic, just creating without boundaries. You could go up the same lane as everybody else and win or lose, and if you win and you sound like somebody else. Now you’re going to have to be stuck to that sound. But if you create your own sound, your own path then you’re going to be a trendsetter and people are going to do what you want to do and then you’re going to be able to change and make some kind of a movement versus just doing something that everybody else is doing. Aaliyah didn’t want to do that and nobody involved with the project wanted to do that. I know Timbaland never wanted to do anything like that. For myself, coming from Dre, that’s a no no. As well as Seats, Rapture, Dub, none of us. Just be creative. Creativity without limits, without bounds.

Seats: I think that she knew that she was not the girl to be blended in with the herd. At the end of the day, she chose all of the records that are on that record. She had to give the okay. She had to like them. She was not a push over to where an A&R was going to come and say, ‘Baby Girl, you got to put this one on there.’ She was running her stuff. Her ear, for her to hear those sounds and say, ‘Aha!’ that’s what I mean by that. Tim didn’t do that. Static didn’t do that. That’s Aaliyah’s work. That’s her executive mind, so what you hear are the songs that she chose to sing. That makes her a genius, to not play it safe. She didn’t come like that.

#Aaliyah #RIP #ES3⃣3⃣3⃣

A photo posted by Eric Seats #3⃣3⃣3⃣ #Sidiooo (@ericseats) on

Benjamin “Black” Bush: Working on the Aaliyah album, I did a lot of vocal production on the record. Her uncle and cousin who owned the label [Blackground], they always wanted to create her own sound so if you notice on that last album, there’s wasn’t a whole bunch of different writers. I think it was me, Static, Missy [Elliott] and Tank. We were all in the same camp. Barry wanted to develop her sound and once we did the Dr. Doolittle soundtrack, they knew where they wanted to go. They knew that we were the dudes for the job. By the time we got to the “red album” she was a grown woman. We knew that we could push the envelope a little bit.

Dave Meyers: She was the triple threat: professionalism, beautiful and she had gravitas. She could command big budgets, she could deliver professionalism and she was sweet as could be. She was forward thinking. Some artists stay within the box and she was someone who wanted to push the box. I think that usually hands down is a memorable thing that any director could have the opportunity to work with someone like that.

J-DUB: It was her first album not working with one producer. But I think she learned so much from Timbaland and R. Kelly, she was ready to jump out there and start doing her own stuff and working with different producers. I think she took a lot that she learned with R. Kelly, Missy Elliott and Tim and brought it to this project. By the time she got to us, she already had an identity musically, and in her head she knew what she wanted to do. It was the right time and the right place for her. We were all blessed to meet each other at the same time on the same vibe basically. Once she heard our music it wasn’t a hard fit. It wasn’t like something that we really had to work on. We did a beat and she loved it, they’d write it and we’d cut it. I think by her working with Missy Elliott and Tim and Kells helped her come into her own musically.

Traveling To The Land Down Under

J-DUB: Virgin was very adamant about getting this album wrapped up so they flew all of the producers out to Melbourne, Australia so Aaliyah could cut the movie [Queen of the Damned] during the day and then at night she would come in and finish the album. It was a ball though. We were like superstars in Melbourne (laughs). When we got to Australia we basically knew which songs we were going to cut, so she would just come in and lay the vocals. But some sessions we would bounce ideas off of each other. I still have a few songs in my vault that we did that’s unreleased. We would sit in and cut records that we figured we would get back to, but unfortunately we didn’t have a chance to do that.

Seats: That Australia experience was beautiful because they took us away from everything that was going on. That might have to do a lot with the sound too. They took us away from here. We were over there at least six months. We got very comfortable. We joined the gym and everything. We became citizens of Australia and I love that place to this day. Maybe it’s because of the memories associated with it, I’m not even sure, but we went over there and we felt a way enough to probably be a little more creative as opposed to being in New York. It could’ve happened there too, but something about taking you away, the focus becomes greater on that subject matter.

J-DUB: It was all of our first time in Australia. The people were wonderful, the steaks are great, the studio that we was in was dope. The hotel that we stayed in … Melbourne is like the Beverly Hills of Australia. We had a ball because during the day all we did was shop and hang out or ball the city. At night we would be in the studio with Aaliyah. After the studio we would hit the club every night and listen to the music and check out the scenery and the people. By the time we left there everybody knew our name (laughs).

Seats: Before we would start recording Aaliyah would always come back and tell us what she filmed that day. To hear the excitement in her voice from doing something else, she came to the studio with energy from what she had just done. We would listen to her talk about that stuff – I wish I would’ve gotten that on footage– she would talk about the scenes and then we would just get into the music. The sessions wouldn’t last all night because she’s quick in the lab. There’s a difference between seeing it live and a studio session singer, because not all singers I don’t care how good they are, can’t go in there and tame themselves enough to do studio work. There’s two different mindsets, going in the lab and being on stage. Just because you can sing doesn’t mean you can sing in both places. Usually people are better at one than the other, but others have that switch that they can turn it on or off. She was equipped with that already so our sessions didn’t last long. We pushed them out and got it right back. Sometimes we would go out after the sessions and sometimes we wouldn’t.

Bud’da: There was this one beautiful place, and I don’t remember the exact name, but I think they called it the 12 Apostles and it’s on the coast. There’s these 12 massive rocks that at some point they were connected to the land and through time and weather they disconnected themselves. They’re now off into the ocean. I can’t even describe it. They’re like little islands but they’re high up and they sit off in the water. That was really cool and us all not necessarily thinking about music, just living and being over there, experiencing Australia. All of that stuff was part of the creative process and us getting to know each other in a different fashion and enjoy living, being there, creating and looking forward to whatever was in the future.

Taking ‘Aaliyah’ From The Paper To The Boards

“Loose Rap”
Seats: I love the changes on “Loose Rap.” There’s a drum machine called the MPC 3000 and 2000. Rapture and I used both of them. “Loose Rap” started out when Rap did something, and then I would go to the machine and do something. I would walk away and he comes back and do something. I’d walk over there and do something. “Loose Rap” happened just like that. It happened in no time at all. We knew how each other thought. We knew everything was okay.

“Rock The Boat”
Seats: I almost deleted “Rock The Boat” because I’m the kind of guy that once I start producing a track and I don’t feel it right away sometimes, I would delete it and just start something over fresh. Thank God, this day my headphones were so loud and Static overheard what was going on in the headphones. He asked ‘What’s that Seats?’ And I said, ‘It’s nothing.’ And he’s like, ‘Let me hear it.’ I put the headphones on him and I went to the restroom. By the time I got back, and it was very raw, not even all the drums are in it yet or nothing. When I came back he already had the hook. Since he had an interest in it, I said, ‘Let me go and continue building on it, let me embellish it, make something happen since you’re feeling it.’ We didn’t know it was going to end up being “Rock The Boat.” Then I told him that and he said, ‘Don’t delete that, save it.’ He rescued “Rock The Boat” for sure and after that day I stopped deleting stuff so fast. I would put it away and come back to it later, come back with a fresh ear. But he rescued “Rock The Boat” for sure. I had to embellish on that after I saw that Static had some attention to it. I wanted to beef it up so we ended up calling Dave Foreman to play guitar, who was touring with us at that time with Ginuwine and Rapture added some strings, and “Rock The Boat” happened. Aaliyah made “Rock The Boat” the next single because politically Timbaland was supposed to have the singles to the records because that’s just the politics of it. He’s the guy, so it was supposed to be his name on the next Aaliyah single and I believed that was going to be “More Than A Woman.” But Aaliyah herself refused to have “More Than A Woman” come out before “Rock The Boat.” I remember those couple of weeks, the back and forth with her and Tim and she was like ‘No, it’s this one. I don’t care who did what. This one is the next one.’ That’s how it got chosen. I remember hearing her saying, ‘It has to be next.’ She wasn’t aggressive in that way where if she didn’t like something it would be handled, but it wouldn’t be handled in front of 20 people. It’s not her style, but I only know so much about it as a producer. But I know she had to go with Tim and Blackground to make some decisions, but we see who won.

Bud’da: This is how sweet she was. She was actually debating on whether or not to use the line on “Rock The Boat” “Feels like I’m on dope.” I think that was the line or it might’ve been in another line within there or another song, but I think it was that one. She was debating on having that line in there. I thought that showed a lot as far as character, knowing that she has influence and she could possibly stumble somebody, would that be a good choice?

Fu: At the time, “More Than A Woman” was my favorite. But over a decade later, I heard “Rock The Boat” at a bar and I was amazed at how well her music has held up. It sounded as current and relevant as ever.

“Never No More”
Bud’da: I did “Never No More” maybe a year prior to recording the song with Aaliyah and I was just creating at some point and came up with the chord progressions with the Finger Roads and did the drums and everything and then thought to myself, ‘Hey, I want to put some live strings on here.’ Went to the studio and did the live strings. The musical elements with the exception of small tweaks and the mixing came prior to the actual song and when Static heard it he went crazy. When he wrote to it, he embodied everything and beyond what I thought the beat by itself could bring forth. He gave it a whole new life, the metaphorical subject matter. I’m always a person that just loves melody, and coming from a world of being self taught in hip hop transitioning into R&B, and then moving from R&B into doing cartoons like The Proud Family, creatively my mind just thinks melodically. I like lush melodies. Once I put the strings on there, and did the bass line, it pretty much sat for a minute.

I didn’t necessarily have someone in mind for that, but when he heard it he knew from day one, he said he had something to it and wrote it. We went back and forth a couple of times and it was done from that point. I did add some percussion stuff after Baby Girl laid some of her vocals, just to embellish certain transitions in the song to make it more powerful. I think I might have done a cymbal roll as well, but the majority of the production of the music happened prior to, with the exception of all of the vocal production, which Static did the vocal production while we were in the studio. Static demoed it in L.A. at Larry Studios, and we all were in the studio like, ‘Oh my goodness!’ She hadn’t heard it yet. I think she was on set somewhere and Barry called me and said she heard it and liked it. I was definitely excited. We didn’t record the vocals until Australia and it was one of those late nights where she would come in after shooting and at times she would take a quick power nap on the couch then she was back at it. I remember her recording it and she had to have been listening or meditating on it. When she went in there, there wasn’t any paper and she knew the song. Static and I were in there and he was articulating certain ways she should do things, or the way she might like her runs in certain places and it was incredible. That process was incredible. Thinking about the content matter and thinking about how many people that song… people hit me up constantly all the time telling me that was their favorite song. They say thank you for this song, and thinking about “Never No More” versus me hoping another song made it on there, I’m blessed that made it on there because I know somebody’s life was changed by that song.

“Extra Smooth”
Seats: I did “Extra Smooth” in my closet one day on my MPC 2000 and I used to do a lot of tracks on that. I put my MPC in the closet because I liked the way it sounded in there. I did “Extra Smooth” in about five minutes. I love that track. I get a lot of compliments about “Extra Smooth” still. That was one of Static’s favorites. You know how much he likes something when he dances. That’s when you know he felt it. No words needed. If he starts bopping so hard that you think he’s about to hit his head on the mixing board, then he loves it.

“Read Between The Lines”
Bud’da: That song is really fun. I had fun going through that process. The studio I was recording at had a midi grand piano. I thought it would be cool if she did something Latin. The beat that Static wrote to initially had a Latin time signature to it. It had the bass line and the drums, and he wrote to that. In him writing to that, I was able to build around his voice in which I brought in live horns, saxophones, trumpet and trombone. A good friend of mine, Ron Blake, put a horn section together. I played the piano from 150 feet away. I was in the control room with the keyboard, the mini cable that stretched all the way into a live room where there was a piano microphone in there and I was able to play the piano from in the studio in a whole other room. Once Static had his vocals, I did the piano, had the horns playing and then I played around with what interesting things could happen with the vocals. If you noticed that song in the beginning of some of the verses, it stutters certain things in her voice or some backwards effects, just trying different things out. Just trying to get all those types of things out of the way in pre-production. She hadn’t necessarily heard it yet, and Static had the liberty to mess around with it for a little bit to get it a certain way before she actually got a chance to hear it. Once she heard it, she got the full picture of where it could go. I don’t remember her mentioning it, but when I talked to her, she said, ‘I love this song. This song is so fun!’ That definitely was inspiration for me. I was like I want to do 900 more (Laughs). We recorded that in Australia as well. Her schedule was such a way, between all of our schedules, doing different things, it was difficult to link up. I think that’s why we ended up doing the Australia trip just to have everybody in one location with the exception of Tim, to be there and just get the record done.

“U Got Nerve”
Seats: Rapture started that track and I did very little on “U Got Nerve.” I’ll tell you why, because I wasn’t really feeling it (laughs). I let him do the bulk of that. I don’t want to dissect it, but the overall thing didn’t hit me. Maybe it was the sound, maybe it was the day, I don’t remember specifically what I didn’t like about it. I’d probably skip it still. I’m just being honest.

“I Refuse”
J-DUB: I actually did that beat at Music Grinder in Hollywood, California. It was right when Blackground told us that we were going to start on her album so I started doing tracks for her. I think it was raining that night too, and I went back to the studio. It was raining already and I was playing with some sounds and I heard the horses. I put the horses on and the rain, and from there I started playing the piano. I built from the piano to the strings and then after I really got the hook going I put a live guitar in it. The live guitar off set the theatrics of it. It was theatrical but then you have a live guitar blazing it. I think Static was in the studio that night with us, and Static heard it and he immediately went in the booth and wrote it. Whatever that first verse is, he started singing and said, ‘That’s it!’ We knew it was it, and when we played it for her she went crazy. From there she cut it, and after she cut it that’s when I went in with the orchestra and we did our part. The mix was huge. I think we did 106 virtual tracks in that mix. We had a SSL board plus an extension. It was a huge mix, but it was huge record and I’m really happy how it came out. I’m really happy with that record.

“It’s Whatever”
Seats: That whole track started with those bells and I just did the beat. I asked Rapture to play piano on it. I knew we wanted a simple piano on it so not a lot, not a solo, just the subtleties. I love how basic that track is but it’s so crazy effective though. That’s the one track that we did that had the least amount of tracks. Let’s say there were 56 tracks, “It’s Whatever” probably had like seven. It was beefy still, there wasn’t a lot going on but we need that space sometimes. That worked. Everybody liked that one. From that first line, ‘Just like a bird,’ that was a big one. I love “It’s Whatever.”

“I Can Be”
Bud’da: “I Can Be” was interesting. It started off one way in terms of the process in which that came about. I did the music and I played it for Tank at one point because we were recording something and I don’t know if we were doing a remix or another song for somebody else, but I played it for him and Tank and I did about four songs for her. That’s the only one of mine that ended up going on the record. I think he wrote one for Dub that actually went on the record as well, but he wrote the lyrics to it and where I was going with the music I felt that it changed. I thought that I could bring even more out of what he wrote because what he wrote was incredible. I thought, ‘Man, if I go here we’re going to take it to the moon,’ in my opinion. He recorded the whole song and I maybe had a four bar loop going, and from that point with his melody, just like we did on his record, he’s clearly one of the best singers I have ever worked with. He laid down the vocals and because his vocals were impeccable, it really charged me to go in directions to merge everything together even more. He did certain things, and I wasn’t even going in the rock direction, not that it’s all rock, but it’s a combination of an early trap and rock. When he did what he did and thinking about the subject matter in itself, it was dark, but even I thought it felt light. The subject matter was sneaky and dark, but it paint the picture of what this song was on top of her voice being the way it was. The first thing I started messing with was changing the drums around and then brought in some guitars. My buddy Sean Cruz played guitar on there and had to articulate the parts I wanted and added bass with it. I wanted to articulate a crunk, rock feel with her being able to stay on top of it. That’s how that one came about.

“Those Were The Days”
Eric Seats: That was another funky one. I can see Static dancing to it now. He was acting nuts to that one. It was just an easy-going song. It’s hard to have a problem with that song. Rapture started “Those Were The Days” off. I remember he started it with that bass and that was it. What’s funny is that we can hear one sound and we know what the rest of the track is going to sound like. “Those Were The Days” for me and Rapture, that happened for us. He did the bulk of that one. That’s a funky track.

“What If”
J-DUB: It was a good time. It was definitely a good time. Like I said, a lot of people weren’t used to R&B with guitars and stuff. My engineers at the time, they were some of the best engineers out there, so they would have my music sounding like it was already mixed. When she walked in and heard that guitar line, she was hooked. It was definitely the guitars and just because it was different. She really liked stuff that a lot of artists wouldn’t pick because they wouldn’t know what to do with it. She loved those types of records because that track I already know back then nobody would’ve picked that track, but she did so that’s a testament to how great her ear was.

“Messed Up”
Seats: That was a latecomer. I did “Messed Up” in Australia and we were already finishing up. Even though it was a bonus track on that record, they weren’t going to put it on there. They were going to make it a separate thing. But she wanted “Messed Up” on there. She had her song limit and she still made them put that bonus track on there. It just felt good.

Bush: That song had a girly vibe it, trashing dudes a little bit. That’s where that came from. It was me trying to speak for the ladies, the beat would tell what to write. The beat would tell us what to write and the melody would come and we would just go from there.

Bonus: “Erica Kane”
Seats: I think “Erica Kane” came out of the Kentucky time, during those pre-production sessions. I think we just had it already, it was done and it was good. We just went and mixed and mastered it and probably embellished it a little more. I have an older daughter, Erin who is 19 now. One day I overheard her listening to “Erica Kane” and she had no clue that I did that song. My own kid! I’m like, ‘You like that song?’ and she said, ‘Yeah that’s one of my favorites.’ I said, ‘You know who did that?’ and she tripped out. She didn’t know her dad did it. That was cool, when she said that I was glad my own kid liked my work. I remember Static talking about how they would confuse people whether they were talking about the soap actress or cocaine, because the song is about cocaine. The association with the soap star Erica Kane was what he wanted to do, he wanted to throw people off, but indirectly giving a message without being blatant. That was a witty approach for sure. I remember I initially didn’t know what he was talking about (laughs).

Aaliyah Steps In Front Of The Camera, On Paper And On Screen

Paul Hunter: I met Aaliyah in a recording studio. She was very quiet, but at the same time she had a side to her that you knew that there was more. Her personality or who she was expressed more in her music and in her performances. I would say she was more shy than quiet.

Meyers: My impression of her was she was very professional, very sweet and funny enough my impression was that she’d always covered one of her eyes with her hair in all of her videos, but for my video she wasn’t going to cover it. You know how you start to build up a mythology of that there’s something that they’re hiding? (laughs) It was really funny because she was just sweet and normal and real professional. I was really impressed with how balanced she was on her whole deal and really had a great understanding of all sides of the artistic equation. She was pulling tears out of magazines and sharing those with me, it was a little bit more of how she wanted to present herself and I built the world around her with the motorcycle and the lights and the dance. I feel like it might’ve been a correlation at the time. She was with Damon Dash, her boyfriend I think, or at least they were friendly. Damon was hiring me for a lot of Jay Z’s videos. I think that might’ve been the way I got into that job. I don’t remember exactly. I just remember Damon telling me I better make his girlfriend look good (laughs).

Hunter [On shooting “We Need A Resolution”]: We had a pretty good connection to other projects and both went our different ways [after shooting “One In A Million”]. I wanted to work with her on a couple of projects after that but she wanted to go in another direction. She’d gone her direction, I’d gone my direction and then over time we started to see each other around and as she was making the record, she called me and said, ‘Hey, I want to connect back with you on this project, try to recreate the magic that we did on “One In A Million.’” One of the things that she wanted to do, she wanted to obviously dance, and she was really great at it. I felt that the idea behind that connection, we wanted an exclusive peek into her life, so the idea there was to create a sense that every room, every scenario that you’re looking at something that only certain people can see. It’s almost like if you’ve ever seen a celebrity in the airport, they’re going into a first class lounge, or they’re going into a private hallway, they sort of slip past you. The idea was to have this experience where we create these rooms that felt like they were exclusive.

Meyers [On the concept of “More Than A Woman”]: That was just a brainstorm I actually had with another younger director at my company. I was really excited about the video so I sort of did a little roundtable. The light show was something I’ve been wanting to do ever since Lenny Kravitz “Are You Gonna Go My Way,” and then the motorcycle motif I think one of the younger guys had initially tossed it out there and I thought it was awesome. I’d never seen a dance video with… there’s a lot of good metaphorical aspects of being inside the petitions of a hot motorcycle. The dance itself, her energy is fueling that. It was during the time of Ruff Ryders and all that stuff so this motorcycle mania was on my mind, and the culture. It just seemed like a nice marriage.

Hunter [On the cobras]: I think that idea was about danger. I don’t know if it was her idea or my idea, but ultimately it was about her being in control of something that was dangerous or that would create some sort of tension in the story and that ultimately she was in control of it…Aaliyah always wanted something that was different from what was going on. She always wanted to stand out, she wanted her visuals to stand out… We were very clear about connecting to the roots of her vibe and what she was all about, what she established with her audience. We worked hand in hand to make sure that came across.

Meyers: I’ve always loved lights and dance. I think light shows are a synonymous expression of music and I think you see it in live concerts. Back then and even particularly now it’s very rare that you get the budget to express the light show for a music video the way you once did. Now in video form it tends to be more artificial with post effects or it’s done over a concert, concerts that do 40 cities can afford that, a 12 million dollar light show like the Coldplays, the U2s. It’s really hard to bring that to a video, and that one was a very expensive video where Aaliyah was insistent on hitting that level. I think I was a little bit nervous because the budget was high and she was like, ‘No I want to do this right.’ She got it approved, and the next thing you know we’re doing it.

Hunter: Her vibe has always been easy going and chill and laid back. You see the way she dances, the way she sings is very much her personality. She was in an extremely good mood because she was happy about her album and her new music that she had coming out, the music video that we did. She was really happy about that.

Albert Watson: She was fresh and she was very young. She had a lot of connections within the industry and she fed off of that. Her smartness was part of her whole persona. I think there’s lots of beautiful women, but she was beautiful and talented. She projected a very honest aura

Fu: I met her father backstage at KMEL Summer Jam when I was living in the Bay Area. I gave him my business card and told him I was a visual artist and I would love to work with them. It’s been so long, but think I emailed them some samples of my work and I didn’t think anything would come of it. To my surprise, her management team hit me back and asked me to come up with some designs for Romeo Must Die. The ideas never got used, but they liked what I showed them and eventually reached out again when she was finishing up her next album.

Watson: I think the whole shooting time was maybe 3-and-a-half hours in front of the camera. For the album cover, they wanted to do it in red so I did quite a lot of different shots on her and we thought that the red could be added later, almost like a gel on top of the shot. That ended up being the album cover. It was a natural thing. They had a lot of clothes. I think the thing they wanted to make sure was they wanted the shot to have some energy. It wasn’t just a beauty shot of her that had some sort of energy to it. But they wanted it to feel like a beauty shot.

Fu: I was sent proofs from so many of the top photographers of the day, including Albert Watson, Jonathan Mannion and David LaChapelle. To be completely honest, my favorite photos of her were from Jonathan Mannion. But of all the photos, there was one photo from Albert Watson that spoke to me. It was a symmetrical composition, with Aaliyah facing directly at you, with a look of confidence and maturity. Perhaps it was a reaction to her being mysterious and aloof behind her sunglasses in previous covers, but this particular photo seemed to say “Here I am, this is me.” It just felt like her arrival from her adolescent years to womanhood. I think the cover was more of a result of understanding her vibe and stage in her career. The fact that she also picked my favorite cover shows that we were on the same wavelength. I wasn’t sure why I decided to tint the cover photo red at the time. But there is something so bold and celebratory about it, it just felt right.

Hunter: One thing about her was that she brought a sense of independence and she pushed things past just her being standard.

Fu: I think I was still dealing with the concept of such a vibrant life being here and suddenly not. So after she passed, it was hard to look at that image. She is so full of life, so ready to embrace the next chapter in her life.

Meyers: The most sentimental thing about the last shot, just because it was the dedication, her on the motorcycle with the helmet off, was a very uncomfortable post-process. We shot the video and then she went to the islands to shoot her final video and she was coming back to give me notes on my final video and didn’t make it. As a result of probably public pressure and curiosity and just the way that the family wanted to manage it, they released her island video first and I didn’t even know if they were going to release mine, but about six or seven months later I got the phone call to finish up the video. That’s when I put the dedication on because it had been about six months from her passing when I was asked to finish the video. It was a very sad ending to a really fun video. The time I did get to spend with her was really meaningful and inspiring. Interestingly enough, she gets referenced even now. That video, her impact matches her death, but the impact she had culturally on the next wave of artists I’ve worked with, like four or five artists that want to be the next Aaliyah. She had a huge impact on her peers and young women that were around the corner coming up. It’s interesting to live through both generations of that.

Remembering Baby Girl

J-DUB: I always knew that Aaliyah was dope and by the grace of God I was blessed to work with her on that final album. The songs that we did are some of my favorite songs actually I ever done with any artist.

Bud’da: There’s a book called “Heaven Is For Real” where there was a kid that had an experience with dying and going to Heaven and in the book it mentioned the fact that in Heaven there were colors he had never seen before. There were colors we never seen on Earth. Thinking about Aaliyah creatively and how forward she was and ahead of time in her process then, that’s the only thing I could think about if she were here at this point. She was painting with a palette that hasn’t been painted with yet. It’s hard to articulate what it is but it would be beautiful.