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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VIBE Vault: Jada Pinkett Smith Talks Motherhood, Marriage & Sexiness In May 2001 Issue

Ever since playing streetwise Lena James on the college-campus sitcom A Different World, Jada Pinkett Smith has portrayed many a sexy shortie with attitude, boast a tough-as-nails swagger with a dash of vulnerability. Her film career—highlighted by Menace II Society, A Low Down Dirty Shame, Set It Off, Jason’s Lyric, and Woo—has been dotted with every possible permutation of the strong ghetto girl in distress.

But with mature roles like Bamboozled’s socially conscious Sloan Hopkins tucked under her belt, the Baltimore native who once spit verse with a teenaged Tupac Shakur in high school is proving to be more than the stereotypical neck-swiveling drama queen. Pinkett Smith has taken on a roster of challenging characters: exploring family matters in Fox Searchlight’s April release Kingdom Come, as well as starring in the highly anticipated pictures Ali (with husband Will Smith) and The Matrix 2 and 3.

But don’t think this woman is strictly business. The 29-year-old feels the upside of growing pains in both her professional and personal lives. As the mother of two youngsters (Jaden Christopher Syre, 2, and Willow Camille Reign, 6 months) and stepmom to 6-year-old Trey, Pinkett Smith is macking the maternal lifestyle—juggling play circles, early morning call times, and a little conjugal nookie on the side with the talented Mr. Smith. This pint-size fireplug’s still got teeth-gritting edge.

VIBE: Tell me about your character Charisse in Kingdom Come. I hear she’s pretty headstrong.

Jada Pinkett Smith: Definitely, but she’s a fool. She’s really self centered and headstrong about all the wrong things; she can’t see outside of herself. The patriarch of the family has passed away, and her focus is still all about her. It’s like, Sis, it's not all about you right now.

Co-starring with LL Cool J, Whoopi Goldberg, Vivica A. Fox, Toni Braxton, et al, you’re doing another movie with a predominantly black cast. But you know what they say about working with our people…

It’s always been such a pleasure working with black directors and black casts, because you don’t have to spend a lot of time explaining yourself. It’s the same reasons why white people do all white films. These are the people you can relate to, that have the same experiences as you. I’ve never had any drama, only love. Like in Set It Off: There was so much buzz that there was going to be some drama with four black women working together, but that was probably the most fun I’ve ever had on a film.

You’re married to Anthony Anderson’s character in Kingdom Come. Can we expect any love scenes like you’ve done in the past? We all remember you rolling in the grass with Allen Payne in Jason’s Lyric.

None of that anymore. My older son is a little bit too old for me to be doing that if it’s not with his dad [laughter]! That part of my life is in the past. I’ve got sons now, and I’ve got a little girl. That was the other, younger Jada, who didn’t have any other responsibilities but to herself. Now I’ve got to think about my kids.

Of all the characters you’ve played—from manslaying Woo to stand-by-you-man Lyricto gangsta-boo Stoney to knucklehead Charisse—which of your roles is filled with the most Jada?

I really wasn’t in a space of maturity with that character to really fall into the depths of Lyric’s vulnerable space as I would’ve liked to. I think about it today, and I go, Wow, I could have done this and done this. That was another side of myself that I wasn’t comfortable showing yet. And from A Low Down Dirty Shame, Peaches was basically Jada at that time but to the third power. Set It Off was definitely Jada to another level. Stony was rah-rah but not that rah-rah [laughter]! That’s exactly how I would be—scared but [knowing I] gotta do my thing. Woo was truly the other side of Jada, like Honey, please talk to the hand [laughter].

If Woo was your alter ego, how did you deal with trifling men before you met Will? 

The best punishment is just to be out. There's so much you can take, I was definitely one of those chicks that would hang in there for a minute trying to week it out. But once I realized in my head that it just wasn't it, I rolled. Then niggas was was like, “Well, where you going?” I was like, Man. I told you. You saw me hanging in there with your crazy ass, trying to work this out. You know what I'm saying? Now you want to know where I am? I’m somewhere not with you.

Was there a specific incident? 

Nothing really, because when I was younger, I wasn't living right either. I can't really say that someone did anything so bad to me, because whatever they did, I deserved it.

Jada Pinkett Smith is a former playa-playa in repentance? 

You can say it however you want [laughter].. I was young in Hollywood. I didn't know about relationship and commitment. Unfortunately, that's something that we're not really taught, especially in our households. Most of us come from very dysfunctional places. Will is the first monogamous relationship I've had. I never knew what it took to have a healthy relationship or what commitment was all about.

How have the kids impacted your coochie-cooing sessions with Will?

HA HA [big laughter]!!! Well, shoot, kids are always going to put a little damper on that parade, but not so much that you can’t handle your business. They come, and, once again, you have that transition period where you have to find your groove within this new lifestyle you've been given. But it hasn't been drama. We've handled it very well [naughty laughter]. 

Inquiring minds want to know the real deal with Will Smith. Does he come correct in the boudoir? 

I'll just say this one absolute fact. For all the women who want to know, all the women in the VIBE world: Will puts it down! I could not be married or be monogamous with anybody who didn't. That's real [big laughter]! All I have to do is look at Will, and everything gets turned on from that. I'm pretty much an easy catch. He’s got beautiful eyes, and his physique now is out of control ‘cause of Ali. Yeaaahhh… It doesn’t take much for my buttons to get pushed. 

But Will is tall, maybe 6’2”, and you're so petite. 

It doesn't matter. Size doesn't matter. He says this all the time: I can't come at him in a bad way. And I’m like, Whatever, Daddy—just bring it. That's why we're such a happy couple. We can't be mad too long. 

It's great to have such a strong physical connection. 

And also the spiritual connection. The friendship even deepens sexual connection. When all of that is tied in together, it never gets tired. You have your times when you're kind of slow—if you're working, or during pregnancy. That's why it's important to have that friendship and that spiritual connection. That's what keeps it all together until the physical aspect of it booms back in, because everybody has their slow times.

Your children will grow up faster than you realize. What kind of relationship advice will you give them? 

You basically have to go with the flow. I know for my daughter, I probably won't put restrictions on her in a [harsh] way, because, being female myself. I understand the type of freedom a young girl needs. But when I talk about freedom, I mean you have to have a sense of responsibility. That's very difficult in our culture, because we're basically selling being a ho as what it is to be a woman today. If you're not a ho, then you're not really down or you're not really hip. I don't talk about freedom in that sense—basically just giving it away to whomever you want. There was a time when black women were very uptight about their sexuality. I think right now we're going through a space where we're finding our freedom as far as our sexuality, but I think we're going to our next extreme. We're going to find that middle ground. I hope by the time my daughter is of age we'll be at that space.

You're considered one of the sexiest people in Hollywood. What’s your definition of sexiness?

Really [laughter]? Well that is quite an honor. I'm learning as I get older, because I haven't always been this way. I'm gaining a better understanding as I mature that what people are attracted to most of all—and especially my husband, who's pretty much the only person I have to worry about these days—is beyond my physical. I'll be 30 this year. I'm moving into a whole other space of my womanhood! So I've kind of outgrown that whole, well let me go out with my short skirts on, with my stomach out or my bust up. I don't necessarily think that's something I have to do. I feel like I've been there like hardcore [laughter]. I might go back to feeling like that. Now I'm finally feeling like a woman, whereas before I was a little girl just trying to be a woman. Now I'm really feeling myself. Trust that with Kingdom Come, Matrix 2 and 3, and Ali, y'all will see a whole new Jada. Believe me. Y’all bouts to see it like y'all haven't seen it. 

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This article originally appeared in VIBE's May 2001 issue. Written by Brett Johnson | Photography by: Isabel Snyder and others.

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'The Old Guard' Celebrates Women On Both Sides Of The Lens, Says Director Gina Prince-Bythewood & Actress KiKi Layne

Gina Prince-Bythewood is not new to this. Her decades-long screenwriting credits go back as far as 1992 when she contributed to the Cosby Show spin-off, A Different World. Her directorial debut happened nearly 10 years later with her 2000 film, Love & Basketball which grossed over $27 million in the U.S. box office and went on to become a black cinematic classic. Since then, Bythewood directed more films like The Secret Life of Bees (2008) and Beyond the Lights (2014). Today, Bythewood is stepping away from the dramatic and romantic films of yesteryear and making her mark in the genre of action films with the new Netflix movie, The Old Guard.

Based on the comic book by Greg Rucka, The Old Guard stars lead actresses Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road, Hancock) and KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk, Native Son). Theron plays Andy, an immortal mercenary recruited for a mission to protect the mortal world. Layne plays Nile, a U.S. Marine recruited to join the badass task force. Before her "rebirth" into her new eternal life as a soldier, she learns about life as an Old Guard, what she'll stand to gain and lose as undying warrior and more.

Upon receiving the script, Bythewood was "incredibly excited" and happy to have an opportunity where she could not only take on a different type of cinema but also bring a young Black female hero to life and into the spotlight. "I knew the type of action film I wanted to do, an action drama," she says in an interview with VIBE correspondent Jazzie Belle. "And I knew absolutely when I got the opportunity, that I wanted us [Black people] to be in it." And that we are. With actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) taking on a supporting role, Layne holds her own in the action-packed feature film as she tests her body's limits in scene after scene. The rising star would be sure to let you know how physicalities set her and her character apart.

"I mean I love the opportunity to be that physical," she says. "Nile still has so much heart and, being led by Gina, being encouraged to dig deeper into that and to not be afraid of her vulnerability, which was exciting. So I kind of play that, but then still play that physical strength and being a Marine and all of that. So I would say that would actually be the biggest difference between us."

The Prince-Bythewood and Layne sat with Belle to discuss the limitations around the term "Black cinema," being a part of a film that has Black women in front and behind the lens, and what they hope for The Old Guard's impact 20 years from now.

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On how music inspires her screenwriting:

Prince-Bythewood: Music is everything to my process. When I start to write, I create soundtracks for myself too. If it's just songs that either speak to what I'm writing or open me up emotionally to what I'm about to write. I have soundtracks for myself for directing, and then I create soundtracks as I'm editing. It's everything and I love doing songs for score. I love the traditional score, but I also love songs for scores. And those are songs that just help elevate the scene, add a little bit more emotion. It doesn't take over the scene, but it absolutely aides it and songs tell such a story...I love soundtracks, it goes back to Purple Rain. Where you could listen to that soundtrack and then watch the movie again in your head because the songs were that distinct, that's what I love to do with my films.

On the Black women she pulled influence from when preparing for her role:

Layne: Black women who I find to be strong and just maybe haven't seen it represented that way on film. Honestly, just thinking about my mom. Angela Bassett was the biggest example of strength. Who else was I thinking of? Those are like the first students to kind of pop in my head of just like, especially with Angela, the way that she just carries herself. There's such pride and dignity and integrity to her that I just, I mean love. Period. But it was definitely something that, when thinking of Nile, trying to bring some of that in there as well.

On the limiting term "Black cinema" as it relates to Hollywood:

The term "Black cinema" is not a negative to me, nor to us. My issue with it is with Hollywood. In terms of Hollywood using that to describe any film that has a black person in it. So suddenly they feel like, "Oh, we've done our one black film." As opposed to, "We should be in every single genre. Sci-fi, Western, love stories, period pieces." That's who we are, that's the breadth of our humanity, that's what I want to see. I just don't want to limit us, but I revel and celebrate black cinema and black film.

On how they would like The Old Guard to be remembered 20 years from now:

Layne: In 20 years from now, I would hope that it would be, you won't necessarily remember, but as a, I don't know, a piece of getting Hollywood to tell more of these types of stories with women at the lead in front of and behind the camera. I'm hoping that it will be an opportunity that leads to more doors like this being opened. Just showing that we're just as capable and it's just as interesting when we do it.

Prince-Bythewood: And then I'll just add in 20 years, if people are still watching this film that says it all, that this film had longevity, it spoke to them and it was a world and it's characters that they wanted to see again and live with again. And as artists, I think that's a pretty incredible thing.

Interview's music bed provided by Gus.

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Watch: Rodney Jerkins Talks Producing On ‘The High Note’ Soundtrack, Andre Harrell And How His Dad Sparked His Career In ‘Billboard’

When you think of your favorite R&B and pop hits by Brandy, Destiny's Child, Mary J. Blige, and Michael Jackson, you can't help but think about the musical genius behind the tracks: Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins. Since his start in the music industry at the young age of 14 (under the mentorship of legendary musician Teddy Riley and his father Pastor Fredrick Jerkins), the Grammy-winning producer has created songs across countries, genres, and mediums.  To date, Jerkins has contributed to over 115 movie and television series soundtracks with his first credit for Joe's "Don't Wanna Be a Player" (not be confused with Big Pun's hit) on the 1996 Booty Call soundtrack.

His latest accomplishment is serving as the executive music producer for the new video-on-demand film, The High Note, starring actress Tracee Ellis Ross, daughter of the legendary Diana Ross. In the Nisha Ganatra-directed  film, Ross plays Grace Davis, a diva and iconic singer who has to "choose between playing it safe or listening to her heart in a decision that could change her life forever." Weeks prior to The High Note's premiere, Focus Features and Republic Records released "Love Myself," the lead single from the movie's soundtrack, which features Ross singing on her very first musical recording. As the film's executive music producer, Jerkins worked with her on another track, "Stop For A Minute," and helped Ross become comfortable with laying down tracks in a music recording studio, an experience she'd only witnessed second-hand while her mother worked on music.

"When we first started, that was Tracy's first time in the booths," says Jerkins about working with Ross. "That can become somewhat intimidating. I said, 'Tracy just trust me. I've worked with every artist. I've worked with actresses who had to sing before.' I said, 'This is what I do. Just have trust that we'll get through it.' As we started to work, her confidence started to build and she started to understand what it took."

VIBE and Cory Taylor of R&B Spotlight had a chance to sit down with Jerkins to talk about his extensive career, working on the official soundtrack for The High Note, his advice for upcoming producers, and more.

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On when he got the call to be a part of the film's soundtrack:

I was in Florida at home and Mike Knobloch, the head of music at Universal, he called me one day. He was just like, "Man, I got a prize that I think you would be perfect for. Would you mind reading the script?" I said, "Yes, send me the script." And this was crazy. I was actually working with an artist at the time. I have this artist named Jac Ross and I was just listening to Lee Moses because Jack has this super soulful voice. In the script, the first scene had a Lee Moses song. I called Mike before reading the rest of the script. I was like, "Yo, this is mine." I said, "The first song. I just studied Lee Moses two days ago." So the fact that the first song in the scene was a Lee Moses song called "Bad Girl," I was like, this is mine.

On how his Dad sparked his start in the music business:

I got started with Teddy Riley working in Virginia Beach. I was kind of this apprentice down there. I was 14 when I first met Teddy. Every summer I'd go down there and just kind of sit and learn. I would go back home and work on stuff and work on ideas. It wasn't really until I was probably 16 or 17 when I really got my first songs heard by record companies, and people started paying attention saying, "Yo, there's this kid in New Jersey." I think what really sparked that and my father, who was mentoring me at the time, I think I said to him one day, "I got all this good music, but nobody knows who I am, because I'm from South Jersey, Pleasantville." There's no outlet down there. My dad invested money out of his own pocket, and he bought this ad in Billboard.

At first, people thought he was crazy because there were no ads in Billboard. Like if you looked through Billboard, it was just charts. For some reason my dad, he bought this ad and in this ad it said: "Super producer." I was young and wasn't a super-producer yet. He put this ad in and 50% of the people laughing at it were saying, "Yo, this is crazy. This dude is crazy." You had the other 50% of people calling and saying, "Yo, we want to meet."

 

View this post on Instagram

 

Dad, Thanks for instilling in me Christ at an early age. It’s because of you I choose to lead my family in that same direction. You’ve given me so many great moments as a child growing up. Believing in me when others didn’t. Pushing me to greatness. Being unconventional with your approach is exactly the way I do things to this day. Demanding respect from my counterparts. Not being taken advantage of, and being prayerful about everything. These are the life lessons and qualities you have given me. By watching you apply all of these things in your life I’ve learned to do the same. I appreciate you and love you dearly! HAPPY FATHERS DAY DAD!

A post shared by Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins (@rodneyjerkins) on Jun 21, 2020 at 4:51pm PDT

On his fondest memory of the late Andre Harrell:

He would call me up when I wasn't working with him. I remember when I did "Deja Vu" for Beyonce and Jay-Z. I was in New York City, the song was out, and Andre called and said, "Yo, where you at?" I said, "I'm in this old studio." "I'm coming to see you right now. I'm coming to see you right now." I ain't know what he wanted. He came up to the studio. He was like, "Playboy, playboy. Do you know what you just did? Do you know what you just gave this girl?" And I was like, "Nah," because I'm just keeping it moving.

He's like, "Man, you gave her Michael Jackson, 2005, like you gave her the Michael Jackson 'Don't Stop Til You Get Enough' for a female like this." I was like, "What you mean?" He was like, "The way you put the horns with the live bass and the drums, and still knocking with the 808, people aren't doing that." He was so animated when he spoke to you. He made you believe there's something much greater in yourself. That was my guy, man. He did that constantly with me. He would be like that all the time. I'm talking about even like three months ago, like in February, we had a similar conversation.

Advice to up and coming producers looking to get their foot in the music business:

First, I would say study all the greats that came before you. I'm not talking in the last 10, 20 years. I'm talking about going back, going back to Barry Gordy days, and study them. Study sound. Every sound and every genre possible. Don't be a one-trick pony. Be able to produce any type of genre. I would also say be different. What I mean by that, a lot of technology has allowed it for producers to become easy, but it's also become easy in the same sonic, in the same sound. All the tools are the same. You have everybody using the same tools right now. It all starts to sound the same. I would tell producers to challenge themselves to be different. Be unique, be different.

On his future plans to produce music for films: 

I'm going to continue to do movies. I've made it my thing. I can't say it right now, but it looks like I got another movie coming my way right now. With the same company, by the way. I'm going to continue to do it because I love it. I think it brings out a whole different side of emotion for me. It allows me to create differently. Sometimes we get caught up in what's popping at radio, what's popping streaming...I would love to do more in the TV and film realm because I just think that's the natural progression for me and my career.

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