aaliyah-age-aint-nothing-but-a-number aaliyah-age-aint-nothing-but-a-number

Aaliyah Week: 'Age Ain't Nothing But A Number' & The Isley Brothers Cover That Placed Aaliyah On The Map

Former Jive A&R Jeff Sledge discusses the making of Aaliyah's debut album, while Chris Jasper, original composer of "At Your Best," details how the song was created.

Aaliyah broke onto the music scene in 1994 as a young and eager teenager, ready to finally launch her music career. After landing a deal with Jive Records thanks to her uncle/manager Barry Hankerson, the anticipated arrival of her Age Ain't Nothing But A Number album brought a new wave of R&B ballads sprinkled in between hard knock beats.

From the "Intro" to the "Back & Forth (Remix)," the sound of the '90s was in full swing under the executive production of R. Kelly. Aaliyah's fleecy vocals blended seamlessly while the track list transitioned from the posse anthem "Down with the Clique" to the wine-down of "Old School." With the previous visual arrival of "Back & Forth," the anticipation only began to build when people placed a face and stylish look of the voice behind the radio hit. And thus, a star was born.

Below, former Jive A&R Jeff Sledge and original composer/writer of The Isley Brothers' "At Your Best (You Are Love)" explain why Aaliyah was years ahead of her future musical domination.

How Aaliyah's Introduction To The Music Industry Set Her Up For Stardom

Although R. Kelly was primarily responsible for crafting the sound of 'Age Ain't Nothing But A Number,' Jeff Sledge had the task of sequencing the album in a way that allowed you to play the project from top to bottom.

Sledge, who can currently be heard dropping industry gems on the Pop Life Podcast, recalls how Aaliyah's debut came to be.

VIBE: What did you think of the talent that Jive was home to at the time?
Jeff Sledge: I always say that our roster, even up until the end, our roster was the best roster assembled. Even back then there was KRS-One, Will Smith was there at that time, R. Kelly of course, UGK, E-40, Mystikal, Keith Murray, we just kept getting more and more great artists as time went on. The roster was crazy.

And Aaliyah eventually became a part of that roster. On a podcast with Billboard, you said that her uncle Barry Hankerson, who was managing R. Kelly, brought her to Jive?
He had brought Aaliyah to Jive and I think he started bring her to Jive when she was probably around 11 or 12? She was young when she put out the first album, but she was like 11 or 12 when he first started shopping her to Jive. The guy who owned Jive at the time, Clive Calder, he’s also an A&R person by trade. He was basically head of the A&R department. Barry kept shopping her to him and he saw something, but he said, ‘She’s not ready, she’s still young, she needs to be developed more.’ Barry would go back and develop her more. Aaliyah was in a performing arts high school in Detroit, like the Fame kind of school, but for Detroit. She was always a creative girl, that was her path, singing and dancing. Barry kept bringing her back. I think when she was 14 was when Clive said, ‘Okay, we’re ready to take a shot at her.’ And they signed her and started to put together her work on that first album.

You said that you guys didn’t sign her right away, but did you notice a star quality in her when she first came to Jive at 11 or 12?
I wasn’t there at the 11 or 12 stages. When I first met her, it was probably when she first got signed. But again, 14 is still really young. She was in 10th grade or something. She grew up to be a beautiful woman, but she was a cute girl and she was very personable, very nice. In talking to her, she had ideas of her own of what she wanted to do and what kind of records she wanted to make. All that stuff that she was doing back then with the hair over the eye, a lot of that was her. Some of it was Robert [Kelly], he definitely had some influence on her style as well, but a lot of it was her. She had her own vision, her imaging grew. It didn’t fall off because she didn’t remind you of anybody. It was her knowing what she wanted to do and how she wanted to look. Even as a young kid you could tell that she had that something.

How do you think Aaliyah’s style and sound fit into that list of artists that were on Jive?
With those guys, I don’t want to say her style didn’t fit. E-40 was from the Bay Area so they had their own sound. KRS-One and A Tribe Called Quest were from New York so they had their own sound as well. I don’t know if her sound fit with them, but she was a great addition to the label because we didn’t have a young girl like that rapping or singing. A girl that was straight up R&B like that, we didn’t have anybody. It was a hole that she filled.

When it came time to begin the process for her debut album, what was the brainstorming session like behind it?
To be honest with you, it wasn’t really much of a brainstorming session because Barry was managing Robert. He was coming off of 12 Play so he was on fire. It wasn’t much of a brainstorm because Robert was the creative genius. Barry said, ‘Hey my guy who I’m managing, he's going to make the record with my niece,’ and that was it. Nobody disagreed because Robert was a genius. It was like, ‘Well, of course, why not?’ It wasn’t that deep. It wasn’t that hard to figure out that that would be a good idea.

R. Kelly seemed like he had that Midas Touch when it came to R&B music at that time.
Absolutely, he was starting to produce for a lot of people at that time too, because 12 Play was such a big record. Even on the first record, there was still a lot of people saying he was trying to be Guy, be like Aaron Hall, and by the second record when he came out with “Bump N Grind,” “Your Body Is Calling,” that stuff started to go away and people started to say, ‘Oh yeah, this dude is the sh**,’ especially when they found out that he was producing and writing everything on his own. Him doing the album with Aaliyah was easy, that was a lay up.

I’m assuming it was always the plan to have R. Kelly do the producing and songwriting or were there any discussions to bring in other producers or songwriters along the way?
Not that I remember, Robert was going to do the whole record. Clive was a publishing guru, so he and Barry weren’t trying to cut a lot of people in on the album to share the publishing. They said we’re going to do this with one guy and the publishing will be easy to deal with because it’s one person.

On that same podcast, you said the team at Jive didn’t hear the album until it was finished. What was the team’s reaction when you heard it in full?
It was dope, it was the sh**, it was crazy. Robert and her made the record in Chicago in the summer and she was off to school. She would fly to Chicago, fly down from Detroit, and they’d make the records in the two months that she was off and she’d hang out in Chicago, pick up the vibes. Her and Robert spent a lot of time together going to arcades and bowling so that Robert could catch her vibe and write the songs that fit her and what kids her age and her friends were talking about. When we finally heard the album we were blown away because the album was dope. It was basically like listening to an R. Kelly album, but with a little girl singing. Obviously the subject matter wasn’t sexual, but the overall production and the sound of the record was like a Robert album as a little girl. It’s like the first time people listened to the first Lil' Kim album, it’s almost like listening to Biggie as a girl. It was the same kind of thing, it was crazy.

Once the album was released, what was the reaction from the masses?
People loved the first single, “Back and Forth.” The first single blew and people loved the video because it was a very fun, energetic video. It represented what 15- or 16-year-old kids were doing at that time or dressing like at that time. It was a perfect depiction of what kids her age around the country were doing. But she had her own little style so it influenced little girls to start dressing like her or doing the hair over the eye thing and the sunglasses. You started seeing a lot of Aaliyah clones. It was great, it was amazing. “At Your Best” was the next single and that was dope. When Robert did the remix, it really took the album to another place. The remix was so crazy. That remix, to me, is what really blew the album to the stratosphere.

Frank Ocean recently covering that song brought back that nostalgic feeling people felt when they first heard Aaliyah's rendition.
It was the Isley Brothers record originally, but her version is actually way more famous than theirs.

When I got the album, I didn’t know it was a cover of the Isley Brothers. I always thought it was Aaliyah’s original song.
If I’m not mistaken, I don’t think the Isley Brothers version was ever a single. It was like an album cut. A lot of people didn’t really know that because it wasn’t a big album single. It wasn’t even one of their more popular album cuts. They have a lot of album cuts that are very popular too and it wasn’t even that. It was this hidden gem. I think it was a Chicago thing. Knowing Robert, it was probably a big record in Chicago and he just liked the record and he just decided to do it over.

Do you know how the title of the album came to be?
With that type of stuff with the title and a lot of the creative stuff, it wasn’t even Barry Hankerson per se, a lot of it was Robert. If I’m not mistaken, but I believe Robert named the album that. He was really the executive producer. On the creative side it was him. The only thing he didn’t do on the creative side was sequence the album. I sequenced the album. Barry Hankerson let me sequence the album which was dope because I didn’t think he would let me. When I shared with him the sequence, he said, ‘You like the way this sounds running like this?’ I said, ‘Yeah it sounds dope.’ He said, ‘That’s the sequence then.’ It was just that simple. It was me and him, there was no big meeting, he came by the office one day and I wrote the sequence out to him. That was it. But naming the album, that was all Robert. He was the driving force behind it.

On the opener of the album there’s a voice from a woman named Tia Hawkins, that’s also heard throughout the album. Do you know how she was brought on board?
I would assume that was Robert, but I don’t remember that. It was so long ago. I’m going to assume that was Robert. If anybody was on there rapping, that was probably Robert bringing her in or maybe it was one of Aaliyah’s friends.

I feel like Tia had that hard side that Aaliyah probably didn’t possess in terms of sound or vocals. What did you think about that contrast between the gritty sound mixed with Aaliyah’s angelic vocals?
Robert was like a street guy so he was always going to find a way to have that street energy around. He always used to figure out a way to put a rapper on something or make the drums harder or do a remix. He was that guy, so I’m sure that was Robert wanting to balance the album out and make sure it had a hard edge to it. Aaliyah was a sweet girl. She wasn’t no prissy little girl either, so I could see her wanting to have that energy on the record as well. People, especially at that time she was so young, people thought that she was this sweet little girl. She was a sweet little girl, but she liked rap and whatever else was going on at the time like all the other young kids at the time. I could see her wanting to have that energy on her record because that’s what was hot.

What did you think about the fusion between Aaliyah’s vocals and R. Kelly’s hip hop influenced beats?
I think that was the genius of the record. The fact that she had that really light voice, and then at that time, he had that hard edge, and big drums, I think that was the genius of the record. He was able to marry the two. The sweet and the hard at the same time.

When you first met her, did you have a different vision of what you thought the album would’ve sounded like?
Hmm, I don’t think so. I just wanted to see what Robert was going to do. I was excited about Robert making the record because he was a genius. That’s what I wanted to see, where he was going to go with it. I didn’t have a particular vision or thought in my head, like, ‘Her album should sound like this or that.’ If someone is making your record, you trust them that they create something dope. I just wanted to see what he was going to do with it.

Just from the album cover, you could tell by Aaliyah's style that she was about to be a different type of artist. When you first met her, what did you think about her fashion?
I thought it was dope. There were rumors about if she had one eye, crazy sh** because she always used to wear her hair over her eye. A lot of people used to think, ‘She’s blind in one eye that’s why she wears her hair like that.’ But obviously when you met her you realize no, she has normal vision. She was cool, a nice young girl. Her and her mom were very close, and her mom is Barry’s sister. Her mom would always be with her. They were a nice family getting it in the entertainment business.

On that same podcast, you talked about the mysteriousness with her eye being covered or her sunglasses. Did you think that that style would continue onto her next album, One in a Million? She had shades on that album cover as well, and it wasn’t until her last album cover that she was bare face in a sense.
I didn’t know how long she was going to continue to ride that wave, obviously it was working, but what bugged me out was how many young girls started copying her style. That’s what really blew me away. Seeing young girls wearing the ski hats with their hair out, their hair doobie down and the sunglasses and the Doc Martins and the big jeans, like the tomboy-ish dressing. That’s what bugged me out, like how many people copied her swag. Even now, it’s more than 20 years later and you still see variations of that. It’s not exactly the same, but you still see young girls with a little ski hat with their hair down and sunglasses on. It’s still going. It still bugs me out how many young girls today love her. She’s sadly been passed away for a minute, but it’s like her influence is still going. I met a girl group previously and one of them is 18 and the other two are 20. One of the girls said, ‘Our influence is Aaliyah,’ and I’m like that’s crazy. You’re only 20 years old, you’re really as old as her first album. She’s still influencing people to this day. That blows my mind.

As a new artist during that time, why was Aaliyah granted that free reign to groom herself in terms of fashion instead of maybe the label inserting their opinion on how they want to market her in terms of looks?
I think a lot of that is because of the way she came to Jive through Barry Hankerson and with Robert being involved, it was set up so that she wouldn’t have to [change]. The label wasn’t involved until the record got done. Then we went into marketing, promotion, getting the records on the radio, some publicity. Previous to that, it was set up so she could make her record on her own without anybody being all over her. When it came to style, it was the same thing. ‘This is what we’re doing,’ they didn’t come in really asking. It was, 'This is how she’s going to dress, this is what she’s going to wear. It wasn’t like, ‘What do y’all think? Do you think she should do this?’ It wasn’t like that.

Walk me through the process of sequencing the album, like how many songs you were presented with. Did you have to cut out any tracks?
By the time I was presented with the songs, they were the songs but there weren’t in any order. The process was simple. People sequence albums all kinds of different ways. Some people like to put the hits on the front, ‘You have to put the single as the third song,’ some people do it that way. But I always like the sequence the album so that it moves and flows from top to bottom so it’s not like, ‘I like the first five and then the rest of the album I don’t listen to.’ That’s what I did. I sat with it and picked out what worked best. I know I put “Back and Forth” earlier in the record because that’s what you should do, but I said I want the next one to balance it out. At that time it was still cassette tapes so you would make a tape of the sequence, then listen to it over and over and say this song should go here, this song should go there, back and forth until it gets right.

Some artists seek to tell a story in a sense, on their albums. Since you were presented with the songs, how did you seek to assist that narrative?
I wasn’t really trying to tell a story. I just wanted the album to flow well and you could listen to it from the first song to the last song and not feel like it’s out of balance. I wasn’t really trying to tell a story, I just wanted people to be able to put the album on for the first song and listen all the way through without skipping or listen to the record to the point where you’re like ‘I like the first six and then I never listen to seven through 14.’ I don’t like to do that. That’s what it was, it wasn’t about a story. I just wanted it to move right.

When her debut album dropped, did you and the label gain a sense that you had something epic on your hands or were you guys just living in the moment from the public’s reaction?
You could tell, because “Back & Forth” was already exploding so there was a big pull from the marketplace for her record because the single was so big. Robert was on fire, he also had records in the marketplace so people realized that he was doing her record and “Back and Forth” was a big record and Robert was a big writer and producer and artist as well. It was pretty easy to see, to feel rather.

Around the time of the album, the rumors circulated about her and R. Kelly and even VIBE I believe broke that news. How did Jive seek to place the attention back on the music?
We just kept trying to pump the records out. It was a horrible scandal, a horrible situation for everybody involved so we tried to keep the focus on the music and the videos and it wasn’t like now with social media. Twitter wasn’t on fire with it. But once VIBE did that article, it definitely put a whole different energy around the project and about her and Robert. Previously to that, nobody even thought like that. They just said, ‘Oh, Robert produced her record,’ and that was it.

What was the atmosphere like at Jive once VIBE printed that article?
It was very uncomfortable and I’ll leave it at that [laughs].

Was the record label worried that the quality of the music would get eclipsed by the controversy?
Yeah of course, you want people to focus on the music and not the controversy that’s going on, but it snowballed and it got a life of its own. We were definitely trying to keep people focused on the record because the record was selling. It still sold extremely well. We were trying to keep that going, but I guess it wasn’t meant to be.

Following her debut, what did you think of Aaliyah’s musical progression?
I thought it was amazing. Timbaland and Missy were incredible. It was awesome, it’s like they went to another place with it. I think people are still trying to figure out how to copy that sound and that swag now. It was great. I was a fan of hers regardless if she was on the label or not. She was still dope as hell.

 

How The Original Version Of "At Your Best" Was Composed

Chris Jasper lives, eats and breathes music. Since the age of seven, the Ohio native learned to play piano by ear and continued his passion to pursue music all the way through Juilliard and Long Island University C.W. Post. Throughout his academic career, Jasper formed The Jazzman Trio with family friends Ernie and Marvin Isley, and later joined The Isley Brothers, which at the time included Rudolph, Ronald and O'Kelly.

With a background in music composition, Jasper was partly responsible for constructing many of The Isley Brothers' hits including "For The Love Of You" and "At Your Best." Frank Ocean recently covered the latter song, bringing back nostalgic feelings of when the late Aaliyah covered the 1976 hit on her debut 18 years later.

Here, Jasper recalls how the original melody came to be.

VIBE: How did you become a part of the Isley Brothers?
Chris Jasper: Our families knew each other all of my life. We were from the same neighborhood in Cincinnati. When my sister married Rudolph Isley, one of the older brothers, the families got even closer. It was a lifetime relationship. Musically, what happened was the three of us younger guys [Marvin and Ernie Isley] when I was in junior high school and high school, we formed our own little trio called The Jazzman Trio and we would play in local areas in New Jersey, schools, even bowling alleys. Wherever we could play and the older brothers would come and see us play and they liked what they saw. At one point they wanted us to start recording with them and that was right before or right after we formed a trio. It was shortly after that because they really liked what we were doing. They took us down to a studio and recorded one of our sessions. Shortly after that we started to record and tour with them. It was a progression of things. We eventually formed into one band.

You guys recorded Harvest for the World, which was a big success on the charts. What was the process behind that album?
It was an album that we wanted to get messages out in. "Harvest for the World" was the lead single from there. "People of Today" was another song on there that had a message to it. I remember when we recorded "Harvest for the World," I felt that it needed to have a setup, something to setup that song. I remember saying, give me a few minutes I’m going to try to come up with something in the studio and the prelude to that song I came up with right in the studio. It took me about a half hour, but I went back to some of my compositional skills. I took chord progressions from some of the songs and combined them, then came up with a different melody and constructed the lyrics from the songs, recorded it right there in the studio. It was conceived right there in the studio. I think that was the only idea that was conceived in the studio and recorded right after it was conceived [laughs]. It was definitely a message album in a way because of those two songs.

Also on that album, “At You Best” was recorded. What was the inspiration behind that song? I read that it was dedicated to the Isley Brothers’ mother?
After we did the song and after we recorded it, I think Marvin did a dedication to her. I think we just wanted to do a ballad. It started with Ernie. We wanted to do a nice ballad, a love song. That’s what we were thinking about with that song. As we worked on it, it developed more and more and it got better and better. I did a lot of keyboard work on it, which is the sound of the song basically. We wanted to do a good love song because we were known at that point, and I think that was ’76, we were known for doing R&B ballads. “For The Love Of You” was on the previous album and “Let Me Down Easy” was another one on that album. That was a strong ballad too from that album. We wanted to continue that, writing good ballads, and it turned into what it turned into. It got a lot of play, people went back and found it and said, ‘hey, this is a good song, let’s do another version of it.’ Aaliyah did a good job with that, too.

What was the studio session like for "At Your Best?"
I did a whole lot of the instrumentation. Once I knew the chord progression and I knew where it was going as far as that was concerned, we would start laying down those tracks. Basically we would start with, if Ernie played with the drums, we would start with the drums and whatever my main keyboard was going to be, and lay those two tracks down first and it opened up other things. Sometimes Marvin would play along with us and the three of us would lay down three tracks first and then if we need to add a guitar later we would add that. Or if we needed to add keyboards, we would add those. It was recorded in stages. That’s how we approached it because we were the only three musicians.

When you constructed “At Your Best,” what type of feeling did you guys set out to convey? In my opinion, it was very a soulful and touching song. What type of emotion did you hope the song would translate to the listener?
It was a song that was a very personal song lyrically. We wanted it to be a song like if a person wanted to express how they felt about another person, and in this case a man and a woman, you could just put on that song and it would speak for him. That’s how I saw it personally. I saw it like if you really want to say something to a woman, you really care about her, just put this song on and it’ll tell her how you feel. I guess that worked because a lot of people said that they like the lyrics to that song.

When you heard Aaliyah’s version what were your thoughts? She began singing the opening lyrics a capella and then the instrumental comes in right after. What was running through your head when you first heard it?
It was great. Every time I hear someone do a cover of anything that I worked on I’m very pleased because that means they thought it was important enough to record it. There’s thousands of songs that people can choose from to do covers of and if they single out something that I had my hand in I’m amazed. I’m like, ‘That’s fantastic,’ especially if they do a good version, which I felt her version was very, very good. I was happy to hear it. It’s like when Whitney Houston did “For The Love Of You.” That was another time I said, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’ She did a great job with that one, too. I’m always very pleased when I hear that.

“At Your Best” also wasn’t a single for you guys. Why do you think people gravitated towards that melody? It became a radio hit but it wasn’t an official single off of that album.
That was common as far as our albums were concerned. People wouldn’t just listen to the singles. I remember when we used to put out a single, the request from a lot of the retailers were, ‘Well, okay, where’s the album? When is the album going to come out?’ Because people liked our albums. There was usually some funk on there, some ballads on there, there was a mixture. There were songs that had a guitar solo on it. There was a mixture of things in there that people could go to. What happened at radio, too, was that they wouldn’t only play the single, they would play things from the album. A song like “Sensuality” was not a single, but it got a lot of play from the previous album The Heat Is On. People would go into albums and play the other records.

“At Your Best” was one that they did that with, too. They went into the album and it got a lot of airplay. If people were following the Isley Brothers, they still knew that song, even though it wasn’t a single and we would do it in concerts sometimes and people recognized it when it came on. They would recognize album cuts, as well as the singles. “For The Love Of You” was another one. That’s one of the favorite songs that we play in concert, but it wasn’t the lead single from the album. “Fight The Power” was. What I’m saying is they would go in depth and get songs out of the album. Earth, Wind and Fire were the same way. They would go into their albums. The Commodores, they would go into their albums and play stuff from their albums. Stevie Wonder was the same way. I think that’s why people could pick it out and recognize it pretty quickly and say, ‘We like this, We want to do a cover,’ because it did receive a lot of attention.

You said the lyrics came from a personal place. Do you think the magic within that song lies within the lyrics more than the actual instrumental?
A song is, to me, especially a ballad, is poetry set to music. It’s basically what it is. The music sets up everything with songs and I feel the music is the first thing that a person is going to, unless it’s an a capella piece. But the music is the first thing that’s going to grab the attention of the listener. The setting has to be right for those lyrics because if you put a good lyric with the wrong setting, it won’t be as affective. People won’t feel it the same way. If you put those “At Your Best” lyrics in a setting of heavy metal music, it’s not going to affect the listener the same way. That music was the first consideration, how it sounded. When that thing comes on, what is it going to sound like? I added a lot of layers and keyboards on it to make it sound really beautiful and lush so that when the lyrics come out, it has the proper effect when you start hearing the lyrics, because usually at first listening nobody really hears all of the lyrics and remembers all of the lyrics once they hear a song. But what they will do, they will remember the feeling they had when they heard it and they might remember some of the hook like the chords or whatever the main thing is, they might remember that. But they may not remember all of the verses at first listening. You have to hear it several times before you get into the verses and what it’s saying. That’s kind of the consideration when writing a song. That came from a lot of experience, what does a person take in first when they hear a song? What is the first thing that they feel? Generally, it’s the music and that main theme you keep repeating in the song. Generally, that’s what they take away first. Then they get into the verses.

Frank Ocean, who’s big on songwriting, covered “At Your Best” on his Endless album recently. Did you have a chance to hear it?
I like that, too. I heard his version. Not as much as Aaliyah’s, but I did like his version. I think Aaliyah’s was closer to the original. At the top of my head, I’m more familiar with Aaliyah’s because I heard it more, but I think that was the first impression I got. Aaliyah's was more like the original. I did appreciate that it was more like the original. Sometimes I feel that if you’re going to do a cover, either it’s going to be like the original, similar in some way, or you’re going to do something that makes it different. When we did songs like “Hello It’s Me” and “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” those were covers. What the decision was, and again I’m the composition guy, the chord structure and everything, I changed the chord structure of those songs and made them different. Those were songs that people recognized for us now because they were like different almost. I did some covers on my upcoming album, too, and made them my own. That’s two ways of approaching covers. I tend to like the latter. I like to make them my own. I like to put my old footprint on it. That’s the difference I saw with Ocean and Aaliyah. Aaliyah’s was more like the original.

How do you feel about people recognizing “At Your Best” as Aaliyah’s own? When I first heard that song, I thought it was her original melody, I didn’t know it was a cover. What do you think about people who do take it a step further to read the credits and ultimately come back to the Isley Brothers to see that’s you guys’ original song?
I can understand that, a person being younger and just hearing the record for the first time, maybe they didn’t hear the original. A lot of people think the song Whitney Houston she did in The Bodyguard was the first version. Dolly Parton wrote it and there was another version. I’m sure she doesn’t mind [laughs], but it’s just what happens with generations, when something is recorded to another audience. That’s understandable. I still appreciate that she even did it.

I agree, it is generational. Even now with Frank Ocean covering it, who I think has an even younger fan base, it opens them up to a wider range of music. Even when I looked up the original song on YouTube, I read the comments and a few of them said that Frank Ocean brought them there. Now they’re introduced to the Isley Brothers if they didn’t know before. What do you think is the recipe behind making that timeless music that can still in 2016 standout as it did back in the 70s or 80s?
Music I feel that is timeless I can equate it to something else in another field. If you make a really nice car like a Rolls Royce and you keep it well, it’s going to look good no matter what era you see it in. When that car drives down the street, somebody is going to recognize it and say, ‘That’s a great looking car.’ They don’t care about the year. The craftsmanship is well done, you go inside it’s a beautiful interior, it doesn’t matter what year it is. Music is the same way, art is the same way. If you do something well, it doesn’t matter what period of time it’s played in. That’s proven by the classics. Beethoven sounds just as good now as he did when it was recorded. People are still performing that music. It’s because it’s a certain quality. Quality never goes out of style. If you do something well, it doesn’t matter what era it’s in. That’s where that term timeless came from. It’s well constructed. I have to say that I was a huge part of constructing that music because of my background. I’m the composer in the group and I made sure that the songs made musical sense, from the chord progression to the melody and everything flowed right. That’s true with a lot of the Motown music. It sounds just as good now as it did then. They had the same thing. They had arrangers and songwriters who put that stuff together and crafted it well and it stands the test of time.

R. Kelly also remixed “At Your Best” on that same album. He gave it more of a hip-hop and R&B fusion, which was the main sound of Aaliyah's album. What did you think when they took it a step further in terms of completely changing up its sound from its original ballad format?
To me that just shows that the song has versatility. If somebody can do something else with it and it works out and it sounds good and people appreciate it, it just shows that there’s other possibilities that maybe I didn’t think of from the beginning, but if someone else can think of something else that works, that’s fine with me. That’s part of the business of music and even art. You can have different interpretations of things. I think that’s one of the beautiful things of music. I did a version on my last album of “You Are So Beautiful” and it’s a different interpretation but in its own way it’s still very powerful. That’s the beauty of music, that another person can hear something a different way and still be effective with it. I like that.

Even Drake sampled Aaliyah’s vocals in the beginning of his “Unforgettable” song, so I do agree that people interpret music or art to fit their own mold.
Sometimes what works vocally for one artist may not work for another one. That new artist will sometimes have to develop a new way to approach the song that fits them. That’s the beautiful thing about music.

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Stacy-Ann Ellis

NEXT: Intent On Impact, Kiana Lede Is Ready To Leave Her Mark

After learning The Alphabet Song as a little girl, Kiana Lede would always “get in trouble” for singing during class. “My mom was like, ‘why can't you focus?’” she laughs while reminiscing on her career’s formative years. “I was like, ‘I don’t know! Songs are just playing in my head all the time!’”

Whilst sitting in a shoebox-sized room at Midtown Manhattan’s Moxy Hotel on a humid September day, the now- 21-year-old Arizona-bred R&B songbird, actress and pianist speculates that she “may have had ADD.” However, she settles down after taking off her white cowboy boots and flops down on the ivory-clothed bed, demonstrating that her fiery Aries energy can be contained. Cool as a cucumber, Lede shuffles between chewing on banana candies and blowing smoke rings after taking drags from a pen, all while musing about her journey to becoming a Republic Records signee.

“I just grew up singing and doing musical theater, and reading a lot of books, and playing piano way too much in my room by myself,” she says, pushing her big, curly brown hair out of her face. Her expressive green eyes widen as she grins. “It was my thing. Nobody in my family does music, just me.”

After winning Kidz Bop’s 2011 KIDZ Star USA talent contest at 14 (which her mother secretly entered her into), Lede was signed to RCA Records. She was released from her contract and dropped from the label three years later. However, thanks to guidance and friendship from the Grammy-winning production duo Rice N’ Peas, (who’ve worked with G-Eazy, Trevor Jackson, and Bazzi), she released covers of songs such as Drake’s “Hotline Bling” while working to get her groove back. The latter rendition resulted in Republic Record’s Chairman and CEO Monte Lipman flying her out and signing her to his label.

“I got a second chance, which a lot of people don't get,” she reveals. “So I'm really happy that that all happened. I wouldn't be here right now in this room if that didn't happen.”

Thanks to the new opportunity she was given, Lede’s sound has evolved into something she’s proud of—equal parts soul, R&B and bohemian. As evidenced by the aforementioned ensemble, glimmers of each aesthetic can be found when observing her personal style as well. She released her seven-song EP Selfless in July, which features the bedroom-ready “Show Love” and “Fairplay,” which manages to fit in the mainstream R&B vein while also showcasing her goosebump-inducing vocals. The remix of the latter features MC A$AP Ferg. What pleases her most is that it not only garnered a favorable response from fans, but that those listeners found it so relatable.

“As an artist, it's really nerve-wracking for someone who writes about such personal things all the time,” she says. “Just the fact that it is my story… It's good to know that other people know that there's somebody on their side, and they're not the only ones going through it. A lot of people obviously feel this way, and have been through this same thing that I've been through. So I think that's cool.”

Although she moved to various places as a Navy serviceman’s daughter, Lede claims Phoenix as home. This means she hails from the same stomping grounds as rockers Alice Cooper, Stevie Nicks and the late Chester Bennington of Linkin Park. However, growing up in a mixed race household gave way to tons of sonic exploration outside of the rock-heavy scene.

“My dad's black, and both of my parents are from the East Coast,” she says of her musical and ethnic upbringing (she’s black, Latina and Native American). “[My parents] listened to a lot of R&B. My mom listened to a lot of SWV, TLC, Boyz II Men. I didn't realize I knew the songs until I got older. I played a charity show with T-Boz, and I was like 'why do I know these songs?'” Lede also says her father was a fan of neo-soul and gangsta rap, but she personally believes the early-2000s was the best time for music.

“[That era] influences a lot of my music subconsciously, and also, singer-songwriter stuff,” she continues. “I listen to a lot of early-2000s music because I played piano most of my life. I listened to Sara Bareilles, John Mayer.”

An open book, Lede details some of her struggles with anxiety and depression with the utmost candor. After being dropped from RCA, her trust in people diminished, and she experienced long bouts of depression after being sexually assaulted by someone in the industry. The track that she feels most deeply about is “One Of Them Days,” which tackles these issues head-on.

“When I'm anxious and depressed, it's really hard to be happy,” Lede says. “Most of the time, I can do it, but there are just some days where I literally can't separate the anxiety, and I can't tell anybody why, because I don't really know why myself… I was feeling very odd that day, didn't even know if I could write a song. Hue [Strother], the guy who I wrote the song with, he was like 'I totally get you. Lots of people go through this.’’’

As we’ve observed in headlines recently, mental health and being honest about life’s trickier situations can help someone going through the same thing, and Lede hopes her music provides encouragement to those who are struggling. As for how she’s learning to push through her mental health roadblocks, she meditates, runs, and is an advocate for therapy, especially in Trump’s America, where harrowing news reports dominate the cycle.

Another hallmark of Kiana Lede’s personality is her bleeding heart for others. She cites women of color, sexual assault victims and the homeless youth specifically as individuals she feels most responsible to help, since she is personally connected to all three. While she’s aiming to create a project that helps homeless youth specifically, she’s working hard this holiday season to ensure that they have a place to stay “at least for the night” after horrific wildfires displaced many individuals in California.

“My passion is really people. Music is just a way that I can get to helping people,” she says with a grin. “Helping people emotionally and physically are both very important. I never want to stop helping people. I feel if other people can respect me, and I can respect myself, then I'll be happy. Happiness is all that we strive for.”

Recently, Lede played her first headlining solo show, a one-night event at The Mint in Los Angeles. While she was thrilled to see that the show sold-out, she was even happier to see the faces of her audience members, who she said ‘looked like [her].’ “Mixed girls, brown girls, black girls, gay boys,” she explains over-the-phone. Even though she wasn’t in person to discuss her latest huge accomplishment, you could hear the pride and joy through her voice.

As for the future of her career, she’s looking forward to more acting roles. You may recognize her from the first season of MTV’s Scream, and after her recent Netflix series All About The Washingtons with legendary MC Rev Run was cancelled, she has been “reading for auditions” and is “negotiating” for a role in a film set to shoot in NYC. While her time with the Run-DMC frontman was brief, she says he taught her about the importance of “not compromising your art for money.”

What Kiana Lede is most excited about, of course, is making music. She hopes to work on a new EP and then release an album after that. The ultimate goal is to fully realize the dreams in her personal and professional life, and she assures she’s just getting started.

“I want to be able to look back on my career and think 'man, I really poured my heart into this music, and made music that mattered, and made music that made people feel a certain way, whether it's bad, good, sad, anxious, whatever it may be.’”

READ MORE: NEXT: H.E.R. Is The Future Of R&B (And Then Some) In Plain Sight

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Lloyd Pursall

THEY. Break Down The Creation Of 'Fireside' EP And Their Unique Group Dynamic

Dante Jones and Drew Love–equally important, yet separate entities THEY.–arrive comfortably late to the listening of their newly released EP, Fireside. Drew, the more personable member of the group, swaggers into the room in a silk button-down. Failing to fasten the first three of the light brown buttons, his soft mocha chest peeks through. Closely following, Jones saunters in physically present but distant from the world around him, in his Friday's best casual fit. Quickly dividing to greet the crowded room of New York City journalists the pair fan out, taking the east and west wings of Esther & Carroll’s Soho eatery by storm.

Tracks from Fireside flow through the speakers like the honest "Broken," a conversational duet with Jessie Reyez and "18 Months," with Ty Dolla $ign. Both songs go further than love at first sight as THEY. speak on the rough parts of an evolving relationship. Overall, the six-track project takes on the progressive side of R&B with a little help from friends like Reyez, Jeremih, and Wiz Khalifa. Inviting outside forces into their world, the musicians are stretching their creative muscles while providing lessons as ear candy to fans.

THEY. is the culmination of a four-year relationship that has left a beast bigger than the fame in its wake. Standing on the precipice of a new subgenre of hip-hop and R&B, the duo has centered their sound around the eclectic flare of rhythm and blues while crashing into a new lane of its own. The members drive down the same road, they ride in two different cars. Fireside’s inspiration stems from the movie The Grey. "[Fireside is] this really interesting scene where all these different people from different walks of life are coming together,” Jones admits.

Much like the exploits of Agents J and K in Men In Black, their collaboration rings true to the futuristic movie series starring Tommie Lee Jones and Will Smith. Easily distinguished by the eager rookie paired with the grumpy veteran, the roles commandeered by Love and Jones can be heard through the cell phone. Cycling through evolution, the self-proclaimed yin and yang constantly battle the forces of dark and light to bring forth harmony in their ever-changing relationship.

At times unable to see eye-to-eye, the East Coast natives have adapted their rocky partnership, fine-tuning the kinks between them, learning to compromise, and most of all made subtle changes to the ways in which they interact with each other. Never expanding on the nature of their true relationship, the past tensions never seep into the conversation. Throwing subtle brotherly love moments during our interview, the artists toss admirable compliments back and forth.

“He understands where I come from because I am very rough around the edges and very abrasive at times,” Love says of his fellow creative. "Dante can be very hard to read at times, but I think it is an ongoing understanding and continual effort to learn to understand the other person and what triggers them and what doesn't trigger them, what their strengths are and what their weakness are. And how to motivate them and how to work together toward the common goal. I think both the work relationship and friendship have continued to evolve in a good way.”

Following the uprising of their movement through the states, their transcendent sound carried them across the pond to New Zealand and Australia, where they were opened for 6LACK earlier this year. receiving a more welcome reception from their overseas counterparts. The good vibes transferred throughout the show brought them one step closer to the aspirations that bond them together.

“The people are beautiful and you know, are not so pretentious and high strung,” Love explained of the best and worst moments in Australia. “The fans are very receptive to any type of music it seems. They just like to go to concerts and have a good time, as opposed to coming to the United States, you'll get someplace that sit there and fold their arms like you are supposed to impress them.”

 

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Melbourne was a movie 🎥 Round 2 this Wednesday at @theoxfordartfactory. Limited tickets still available. 🐺x🇦🇺

A post shared by THEY. (@they) on Oct 15, 2018 at 6:00pm PDT

Just a few months prior, the duo made their first appearance at Billboard’s Hot 100 Festival. The group caught the short end of the festival stick when their set time clashed with hip-hop acts like Rae Sremmurd and Lil Xan. THEY. was subjected to a crowd cross-armed and unwilling to catch the vibes. Pushing forth a strong performance, the group shattered the hard shells of concert goers, changing their crossed arms and intimidating stares to body rolls and kinder eyes.

As momentum continues for the duo, they've avoided the type of burnout establishing acts normally face. From smaller venues to sold-out arenas, the boys have set their sights on performance meccas like Madison Square Garden. But beyond the surface level goals, THEY. seeks to give the outcasts a place to call home. Leaving their mark on all the generations to come after, former victims of bullying illustrate that life has the opportunity to get better.

“At the end of the day, I want to change the world,” Jones explained. “That's really the goal to change the world and change music and really it only takes one moment. It's like the butterfly effect. We were the first few people to put out the idea of 808's, guitars and pop vocals. Now it's out in the atmosphere and we see a lot more people taking that approach. I feel like ultimately it's circling back our way."

Uncertain about the next trends in R&B, THEY. find themselves ahead of the curve. A few years removed from their first album Nü Religion: Hyena, the two have made strides to perfect their music making formula. Naturally, Dante and Drew are striving to leave a lasting impact on as many people as possible.

Stream THEY.’s Fireside EP below

READ MORE: NEXT: R&B Is Taking Many Directions And Music Duo THEY. Is Creating Their Own

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Ebro Darden caught the Internet's wrath after calling out Kodak Black for sexual assault during an interview.
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We're Looking At Y'all: Hip-Hop Won't Have A 'Me Too' Moment Because Of Apologists

Ebro Darden — the host of Hot 97 FM’s radio show Ebro In The Morning — caught the ire of the Internet Wednesday evening (Dec. 12) after a clip from an interview with 21-year-old rapper Kodak Black made the rounds. The longtime radio personality merely admonished and acknowledged the rapper’s recent sexual assault cases, including one that he is currently awaiting trial for. While Ebro noted he wouldn’t be able to go into details since the case is ongoing, he did take a moment to acknowledge that sexual assault is serious, and the discussion will not be ignored in the future.

“Respect to everybody involved in that case, we can’t get into details today… We take sexual assault here serious,” “El Viejo Ebro” exclaimed. “We can’t get into details, but we hope to have you back so that we can have a deeper conversation about that. It’s a serious topic, we’re hearing these stories a lot.” No more than two minutes later, the interview was over, as a visibly uncomfortable Kodak, legal name Bill K. Kapri, stated that the media is “entertained” by “bullsh*t” before leaving.

For some asinine reason, Ebro — a man whose job it is to interview musicians about life and their craft — was the one getting the heat for bringing up the allegations. The uproar was not given to the alleged sexual offender, but to the host acknowledging the wrongdoing by the alleged sexual offender.

Label booked him. I didn’t force anything. I was attenpting to make sure a huge issue was not ignored. https://t.co/vnl0JqeLfi

— El Viejo Ebro (@oldmanebro) December 13, 2018

Earlier this year, Buzzfeed posed the question: “Will Time Ever Be Up For Abusive Men In Hip-Hop?” Due to the fans, some media personalities and the higher powers continuing to insulate these artists and avoiding discussion of the elephants in the room, it won’t — at least for the time being.

Fans of the Florida MC ignorantly tweeted that Ebro is likely working “with the Feds” for bringing up the sexual assault allegation, which proves that time will not be up anytime soon for men who allegedly abuse women in the game.

Due to many fans’ beliefs that hosts and journalists should “stick to asking artists about music” — and not the controversial lives often documented and discussed more than the careers that provide them bread and butter on the table — time will not be up. A similar “demand” came up earlier this year, when Laura Ingraham said LeBron James should just “shut up and dribble” instead of using his platform to discuss politics.

Then, there are media personalities like Peter Rosenberg, who during the Kodak interview aimed to deflect from the situation at hand by asking about the moon landing of 1969, in order to make Kodak feel a bit more comfortable (although his status in the hip-hop game despite his documented wrongdoing certainly makes some uncomfortable as well).

We also can’t ignore the woman on the panel, Laura Stylez, who chose to stay silent instead of using her platform and her voice to stand up for the women allegedly affected by Kodak’s behavior, or women in general. As a woman, her silence rubbed me the wrong way entirely.

These two, however, are not the only problematic personalities. DJ Akademiks, YouTuber turned host of Complex’s Everyday Struggle, often discusses his relationship with embattled musician Tekashi 6ix9ine.

“I’m a little sad… but these are the decisions that got here,” Ak, real name Livingston Allen, said in a recent episode of the YouTube series regarding Tekashi’s recent high-profile racketeering arrest and possibility of life in jail. However, he continued to acknowledge that the young man is his n***a, and has not appeared to call out Tekashi for the allegations against him in terms of sexual misconduct.

It doesn’t appear he’s discussed his homie’s sexual misconduct charges head-on since 2014. Even in this particular interview, it appears that the 27-year-old was being more of an apologist for his friend, stating that “[he] could tell [Tekashi] was young, and obviously not thinking straight.”

Is this insulation of musicians who lead perilous lives a way to hold on to the clout these personalities have obtained? Or, is it realizing that if they stop defending these artists as a way to defend those who are hurt, they’ll lose a legion of equally as troublesome fans and followers in the process? Why not attempt to discuss the difficult topic at hand with as much discretion as possible, instead of getting a biased view of the story for clicks?

I know that as a woman in hip-hop, hip-hop doesn’t always love me back, but if this isn’t a slap in the face? To have this conversation occur in the same week that Cyntoia Brown was told she had to serve 51 years in prison for defending herself against a potential rapist, it’s infuriating to have to write about the blatant disregard and disrespect for the well-being of women in society in a field that I hold dear to my heart.

Due to the “separating artists from art” thought-process, especially in such a male-dominated industry and genre, it’s unsurprising that this is the response Ebro received for calling out wrongdoing.

This is the same thought process that allows R. Kelly to continue to tour despite well-documented instances of sexual misconduct for 25 years.

This is the same thought-process that causes music fans to lash out at Vic Mensa for “vehemently rejecting the trend in hip-hop of championing abusers”; although many would argue that he wasn’t the proper messenger to convey such a statement, the intentionality in the statement was appreciated by many.

On a grander scale, this is the same apologist thought-process that placed Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court and Donald Trump in the White House… and look at how well that’s going.

If we continue this trend of protecting the men in the game and not putting the well-being of the minority consumers of the genre into consideration (such as women and members of the LGBTQ community), hip-hop could be headed to a very murky place. While I don’t always agree with Ebro Darden, I applaud his effort in attempting to start a conversation that can’t continue to be ignored any longer, especially as a man with a platform in the hip-hop media space.

As hip-hop fans, we should aim to hold these artists accountable for their lyrics, comments and behavior. We can’t argue that they’re not hurting anyone through these things just because you don’t feel threatened, because best believe, someone does.

Whatever side of the fence you’re on, Ebro, Vic and other men attempting to hold these artists accountable is a small step on a long journey. While it’s clear that consumers are more interested in the music these people put out than the lives they lead, it would behoove all of us to take a long look at the state of the game beyond the bars and beats.

READ MORE: Ebro Calls Out Kodak Black For Sexual Assault During Interview

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