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Illustration By Nicholas Rice

Aaliyah Week: An Ode To Static Major, The Pen Behind Aaliyah’s Self-Titled Album

As part of VIBE’s Aaliyah Week, we’re rolling out a collection of stories focusing on the legacy of the “One in a Million” singer.

Stephen “Static Major” Garrett could be seen as a lyrical surgeon. He possessed the ability to cut out your aching thoughts and turn them into a string of therapeutic words, providing the much needed mental ease that you got from listening to his songs for other artists, or within the comfort of his Louisville brethren, Playa.

With his roots cemented deep in the church, Static Major's voice transcended the holy sanctuary and landed on the ears of Jawann “Smokey” Peacock and later Benjamin “Black” Bush. They formed the 90s group Playa -- which saw the addition and subtraction of members before it became just the trio -- after being discovered by Devante Swing of Jodeci at a concert. For Playa, music was a way of life. Black and Smoke’s first introduction via three-way resulted in a battle of the vocals, and they instantly knew they would click on wax. From winning top prizes at gospel expos to serving as a source of inspiration for Jodeci, the R&B group was determined to be a force to be reckoned with in front of the masses and behind the pen.

With the success of their debut album, Cheers 2 U, Playa set their sights on spreading their name even further across the industry. Although their second album was put on hold, the trio focused on their personal endeavors and Static was just beginning to jump into the rap world. Two weeks before the release of a hit song that was set to introduce Static to a new audience, he passed away before he could enjoy the success of Lil Wayne's track, "Lollipop." Weezy recalled the moment that Static brought the song to him in the studio, stating that, "Once he pushed play I knew it was going to be magic." He added that working alongside the Kentuckian "brought out the best of me."

Below, Smoke and Black recall their fondest memories of Static and Playa, working in Da Bassment/Swing Mob collective, and producers behind Aaliyah’s self-titled album reveal what it was like to work with the pen behind her last project.

 

From The Pew To Performing For Jodeci: The Formation Of Playa

Jawann “Smokey” Peacock: I grew up listening to a lot of gospel music and not necessarily at home, but I was always in church. At home when it came to the R&B side of things, pretty much anything that came on the radio or when you start talking about all of the 80s and the 90s R&B type hits. I started delving off into a lot of old school stuff, jazz, Harry Connick Jr. I think a couple of my biggest influences was probably John Pee K., Take 6, there’s just so many that I listened to but it all revolved around soul.

Benjamin “Black” Bush: My dad was a church pastor so it was a lot of church music, and I had older brothers and sisters so I had a wide range. It went from Stevie Wonder to Commodores, Al Green and then just being around the family. I got to hear a lot of stuff like gospel and jazz. Growing up, I pretty much liked anything. I appreciated all music.

Smokey: I’ve been a lot of places, touring, and I know it’s kind of hard respecting me saying this because I was born and raised in Louisville, but there is literally no place like it. Just even the way that it’s structured. It’s family-oriented to me. That alone built up motivation to do what I wanted to do. When it comes to Louisville not being accessible to the music industry, that brought forth motivation and pride within, that this is something that’s truly a blessing because not only does this not happen everyday, and not only does this not happen to everyone aspiring to be a singer, but it doesn’t happen with people coming out of Louisville that much because we’re not accessible to the music industry like New York or L.A., Detroit, Philly. One of the biggest aspects of inspiration that it brought to the table was just that motivation and pride that gave you the drive to do it, and to try to become as successful as possible.

Black: You had Nappy Roots, you had Playa, you got Bryson Tiller now, New Birth, there’s a lot of music and a lot of super talented people, musically, here. It’s a melting pot for music, and it’s a real church city. Music is everywhere. You can run up on a wino and he’ll be able to sing you under the table.

Smokey: Being able to sing and go from secular or we’ll be in shows on Saturdays doing songs that are secular and no one knows what we have to do in church on Sunday singing gospel, that was easy. It wasn’t really any different, it was just like singing a different song and having a different crowd in a different facility. But it was no different because we always sang whatever we sang as if it were a gospel song anyway. Gospel was the root of the talent to begin with. That’s where it all began, that’s what we knew best. When it came to singing gospel, we were a little bit more in tune with that than we were with the secular, but we just brought to the table what we brought to the church to the secular. That’s why we had such a fondness for Jodeci because nobody had been doing it like them. These two cats that were singing secular music were singing it like it was gospel. That’s what we were on. It wasn’t anything difficult at all. It was the same thing to us, just different lyrics. Now of course, you couldn’t do no hyping up the crowd, curse, nothing like that, but it was the same thing talent wise.

Black: My brother, he’s a pastor now, but he’s one of the most phenomenal singers in the city. Just growing up in my house in general helped cultivate everything. Everything I was hearing was just as dope at home.

Smokey: I think we all wanted to and aspired to do R&B more so than gospel. Black I know had been singing since a child, like K-Ci and JoJo, in a gospel quartet group. Static had been singing in the church, in the choirs, and we had all aspired, as most kids in the church, a longing for the street. You have those rebellious preacher’s kids, and I heard a story one time that Dalvin [Jodeci member] told me which I can relate to that type of thing. Him and Devante and a couple of others played instruments for their father’s church. At a point in time, there was something they call a praise break where everybody is shouting and the music speeds up and everybody loses it. He said that they started playing “Jungle Love” and his father looked over at him like, ‘Are y’all serious about that? Y’all better stop playing that type of music in here.’ Kids that are in the church heavy as we were, you long for the secular because it’s something different and it’s something bad but it’s not bad. We actually dealt with some people that would question but would not totally be with us doing both. I’ve heard it said that we were serving two gods and it’s like, ‘No!’ I knew then that I wasn’t serving two gods, I’m serving one God. It wouldn’t be any different than you selling cigarettes to kill people, or working at the liquor store. This is just what I’m doing, it’s no different than what Al Green did, or Aretha Franklin. I serve one God and that didn’t stop us at all.

The legend!!!!

A photo posted by Ben Bush (@blackplaya502) on

Black: Basically my dad wasn’t fond of it in the beginning, but he also knew that I was going to do what I wanted. My mind was made up. I wasn’t really worried about what people were saying, I just wanted to make sure that we succeeded so that whatever they were saying was wrong.

Smokey: In my church [Elim Baptist Church], and this is like in the 80s, we had our own little group. There were like four of us, and back in the days, and maybe they still do it today but I haven’t seen it, there would be something you’d call the brotherhood. The Deacons that sat on the front row of the church sang every second and fourth Sunday. They sang one song right after the scripture reading. We being singers and wanting to have a little group and do singing inside of the church formed the junior brotherhood. One of the guys named Charles Tilly went to Wagner High School with Static and knew him. With us aspiring to also sing secular music outside of the church and be a national R&B group, he mentioned Static and pulled him into the group, which was back in the 80s. We went on to win first place in the gospel expo in Louisville, and we did a number of things inside and outside of the church. After that group disbanded, we formulated another group.

"If I saw the melodies had Static wrapped up I wouldn’t bother him" ~ Benjamin "Black" Bush

Black: It was never one genre that drove me and I think that was probably equally across the board with Static and Smokey too. We all have that range of music. You got so many different genres. But soul music was a big thing.

Static & DeVante. Goodnight! 💖 #ForeverDeVante #devanteswing #StaticMajor

A photo posted by Forever DeVante (@forever.devante) on

Smokey: Back in the days in Louisville, the scene around the late 80s and the early 90s was full of R&B. It was full of different R&B groups. Around that time, boy bands were really big. It was so heavy in Louisville that it was almost like the NBA Drafts. There would be drafts of members from one group to the next, and I remember there was one point that we had six members in my group. There were a lot of us. We ended up one day going to, I want to say it was March of ’91, we went to a concert that had Jodeci, I think it was Boyz II Men, MC Hammer, there were a lot of people on that card. We went there with the aspiration of singing and meeting someone, but of course everybody’s dream is to get backstage. For one reason or another, that wasn’t happening with security.

Black: What’s crazy, Jodeci was our idol, how many people get to study up under their idol or a chance to meet them?

Smokey: There ended up being a security guard at a door where all the buses for the incoming acts loaded and unloaded, that remembered us from singing. It was either at a school or a church. We were so booked that we were singing at three churches every Sunday. We would sing at Sunday school, at the morning worship, then at the worship the churches would have in the afternoon or the evening. He remembered us from singing at something and was willing to let us go out there and see if we see anyone and sing for them, and he’d let us back in. When we went out there, Jodeci was the first people we saw. I think it was either JoJo or Dalvin that we saw and he said, ‘Let me go get my people, let me go get my brother.’ He brought Devante out and we sang “Stay,” and then we sang “The End Of The Road” by Boyz II Men. He liked us, took down our numbers and actually remembered my number over the course of a year or so, and ended up reaching back out once he got his Swing Mob label together, basically saying he was ready to deal. So were we, but at the same time since the groups had so many drafts, what ended up happening was there was a totally new group at the time. All he wanted at the time was me, so I said, ‘No, you need to come down here and check out my group.’ He came down, I think it was right after the Soul Train Awards, he had a stop in Cleveland and checked out a group named Sugah, which was Tweet. At the time Tweet wasn’t in it, but that’s the group Tweet became a part of in Da Bassment later on. After that he came to Louisville and checked us out. That wasn’t the time he created Playa, but that’s when he went on ahead and said, ‘I’m digging it. You three let’s roll.’ And there it was in ’94. Now, my mom don’t play. She didn’t give a sh** whether or not Quincy Jones was sitting right in the living room with us. I wasn’t going nowhere until I graduated high school. I graduated in ’94, and 45 minutes after I walked down the aisle for my high school graduation, I was on a plane. I was moving out to live with Devante in New Jersey.

Goood Morning y'all! 👋 #DaBassment

A photo posted by Forever DeVante (@forever.devante) on

Black: At the time, Devante had a studio rented for two or three years in Rochester, New York and we all moved there. We would go in the piano room and have this live singing session, set the mics up and just go. That could last for hours. I have fond memories of that time just because it helped cultivate me into the singer and writer I am now.

 

Class Is In Session: Da Bassment’s Crash Course On The Music Industry

Smokey: We always referred to that period of time as school. I’ll even go as far as saying as paying dues time. We learned so much—more than we actually did—and that prepped us, watching Jodeci and Devante just being around all of that talent. Missy, Tim, Magoo, Tweet, there was tons of talent that only the die hard Bassment fans know about that came out of Rochester, N.Y. It came to a point where Devante was working on The Show, The After-Party, The Hotel for most of that time and we never really had an opportunity to actually work with Devante on a record, maybe once or twice. In this big studio that we pretty much had to ourselves for a certain amount of years, there was what you called the pre-product room. Things that you want to lay down the groundwork for right now and it was wide open. I got in there and started messing with some knobs and started learning how to record, how to mix, how to produce, learning the actual keyboard and production equipment. That was the start for me, I pretty much knew how to prior to that when I was younger before I moved up there with them. I would get a dual cassette tape deck, record on one side, put that tape in the play back and record as if I’m copying it to another tape, but sing along to it at the same time and just keep switching as I stack stuff just to try to create stuff. I knew the method of that, but when it came to actually doing it on this real studio equipment and producing, that’s where I learned it all. Watching Devante, asking questions, being hands on... they say experience is the best teacher. That whole period of time was straight school. We wouldn’t be who we are today if it had not been for that period of time. I absolutely have no malice for that period of time.

Black: Rochester is similar to Kentucky, it’s just cold. It wasn’t moving as much as New York City, nowhere near. It still had a New York vibe, but demographic, size-wise it wasn’t. Louisville might be bigger than Rochester.

Smokey: I remember when we first got up there that morning—it was the first time I had ever been on a plane—and within 12 hours coming up there, Devante had just gotten robbed. I’ll never forget that. Moving up into that and saying, ‘It’s going down like that up here?’ I’m from the hood so it didn’t bother me, but at the same time, I am moving away at 17, 45 minutes fresh out of high school to New Jersey/New York, but I was the happiest person you could’ve ever met. Picture one of your biggest admirers and you get to actually work with them or they want to work with you and you move in with them. That sh** doesn’t happen everyday.

Black: Right before Jodeci, the Boyz II Men era came out and most of the guys were singing in falsetto. There wasn’t really any heavy crooners back then. No knock on that, those dudes were phenomenal. Al B. Sure still is in my playlist, those type of cats are definitely super talented, but Jodeci sounded like me. When I heard “Forever My Lady,” I was like, ‘Oh my God, those dudes sound like…’ it was just so soulful. We finally fit in. The church sound finally fit in.

Smokey: There was a time when I had produced a record, and it was rare that we were able to really work hands-on with Devante because he was so busy with Jodeci, but I was in the studio by myself and Devante just happened to come down there. When he heard it, he loved it so much that he wanted to sit down at the keyboard and start playing over it. I just felt so accomplished at that moment because it’s like, ‘I’m finally getting to work on my production and here Devante comes in, hears it and likes it, gives me the approval on it.’ He likes it so much that he starts playing on it. There was a time that I recorded a record that K-Ci and JoJo had came in and liked so much that K-Ci called his mama and was like, ‘Listen to this!’ They both got on [“Anything”] and sang it because it reminded them of a quartet gospel record. Being not just an aspiring singer but an aspiring producer and writer and having whom I look up to and whom I’m blessed to be in the company of comes in and validates what I’m doing and validates it so much so that you got somebody calling their mama, or got them wanting to be a part of that record.

Black: We all came up from Da Bassment, but we all stayed together. Missy, Timbaland, Ginuwine, Magoo, Tweet, we all stayed together, so even though we weren’t up under Devante’s umbrella, Timbaland produced half of our first album, Missy wrote on our first album, we wrote for Missy’s artists, Nicole Wray, we were still a family. Once we met Aaliyah it was like family. We went to prom with her, a lot of people might not know that. The business had to get handled, but anytime we were dealing with Missy, Timbaland, Ginuwine and Aaliyah, it was family first.

Smokey: There was always something innovative when you had Timbaland doing that beat that was just going to be straight up something crazy, and then you had Missy come in and she could write, she had melodies, she could sing, and she could rap, too. Then you got Magoo who could rap, and I know a lot of people familiarize his voice with Q-Tip, but regardless I don’t feel like they’re the same. I feel like Magoo had a unique voice. You start bringing in singing and it’s like what the hell just happened? What’s going on? Just working with them there was so much talent from different areas and with different backgrounds that you bring them together and it’s phenomenal. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, a lot of people have said it, it was like Motown. You can’t forget Ginuwine, Stevie J, he was in Da Bassment too. Prior to him getting with Diddy he was with us. He never really did get to cut any records. His biggest role was producing and he did a lot of stuff. He was playing guitar. We were all Da Bassment, we were all a family, but he was a part of Klownin Records which was Dalvin’s record label. But we were all there, we were all family and doing stuff together. A lot of the guitars and stuff like that that you hear on The Show, The After Party, The Hotel was him. Me and Stevie J in that pre-production room, we cut some records together. I knew that he could sing and play and everything.

Black: It was like college, because you were around arguably the most talented people. It’s like a football player going to Alabama. It’s the elite of the elite prospects. Everybody was super talented which made you bring your A-game everyday and you learned something from everybody so it was a melting pot. Sista learned something from Playa, Playa learned something from Sugah. It’s like being in music school.

Smokey: Devante always said, ‘Even if you ain’t a star yet, or a celebrity or famous, you still need to carry yourself like one.’ I think that’s one of the biggest things that I can remember, learning that regardless, still look the part, still carry yourself that way, which I felt like built self pride.

Black: Missy and Tim already set the bar high, and Ginuwine, too, so it wasn’t pressure behind our debut album. It was more so lets do what we do. We were up next. I always felt I was too young to feel pressured too. We were just doing music so I don’t think the pressure wasn’t doing the album. The pressure probably came from how are we going to write the album?

 

The Hurdles And Triumphs Of Cheers 2 U Debut

Smokey: Initially the brainstorming session was very frustrating. The business has a way of not respecting you or what you do unless you have plaques on the wall or you got hits under your belt. The irony about that is that somebody had to give whoever has a plaque a chance to get the plaque. I don’t think nobody understands that.

Black: We fought to work with Tim. Def Jam was thinking Timbaland hadn’t really blew up yet, so they were looking at Tim, Ginuwine, all of us as country. Once we got with Barry and Jomo Hankerson, once we got with them for management, and Aaliyah was winning, they had to listen to what they were saying, too, because we were the guinea pigs for their R&B even though they had Montell. He had a super big smash so they still didn’t know how to work an R&B record from the ground up. Barry came in and was very instrumental with them letting us write. Initially they weren’t trying to let us write at all. I can remember having big arguments in the studio, I can remember getting kicked out of sessions a couple of times for voicing my opinion about certain stuff in the studio. You’re dealing with Jodeci, Mary J. Biige, all these dope people and we got somebody that’s trying to produce our record that can’t sing, who’s trying to write our songs that can’t sing. It was very frustrating and sometimes I couldn’t hold it back. I had to let them know how I really felt.

Smokey: When we had a direction we wanted to go, we had certain records we wanted to do, we were unable to do them and we were bound by what they were telling us to do, Def Jam, and eventually whatever happened, happened with that and we ended up being able to direct our own path on the music tip. That’s why me and Tim pretty much produced half of the album. We were able to do what Playa does, not what they want us to do. They allowed us to go ahead and do what Playa does.

Black: We were just so happy to be able to put a record out. We were constantly recording. Even when we were working on Playa’s album, we’d be in the studio working on somebody else. When it came time for us, we pretty much knew what we wanted to do and how we wanted to sound.

Smokey: We had just embarked on management from Blackground and they became our voice. They were able to get us to where we wanted to be in order to let us create our own identities and not only the music, but the image was screwed up. It was what some guys from Louisville, Kentucky, and some guys from the 'hood looked at as, ‘I ain’t trying to wear this sh**.’ The shirt so tight you can see your heart beating through it. Tight pants, leather pants, and we’re like we don’t dress like that, we’ve never dressed like that. But we were still blessed and highly favored to even be in that situation. It had a lot to do with Blackground fighting on our behalf for what it was that we wanted and what we should’ve been granted from jump to be able to do and that’s let us be who we are, not who you want us to be.

Black: The biggest thing was when we first got with Def Jam, our A&R was trying to produce the record a little bit. We had to fight initially to even write and produce on our record. Imagine having a song out, “Pony” that’s rising on the charts and the A&R is telling you that’s a country record, that record isn’t going to do anything, but it’s steadily rising. Our management had to go in. We probably did about six or seven songs with that particular A&R and we scrapped all of that. Def Jam didn’t have a problem once we went in the studio and they actually saw what we could do. They didn’t have a problem with us writing our whole album outside of one song that Missy wrote. Smokey produced 70 percent, Timbaland produced 30 percent of the record. It was just more so once we got a strong management, the writing and other stuff opened up. Making that album was a dope process, but it made it special because it was our album. I don’t want to say seasoned vets, but we had been writing and producing in major studios from the mid 90s on down. By the time it came for our album our pens were sharp. Smokey’s production was sharp and we were ready.

"Static had reached a point where whatever he wanted to do after "Lollipop" was going to be major and bigger than it was." ~ Jawaan "Smoke" Peacock

Smokey: Whatever Tim did we already granted it as it’s the sh** and we just did what we did on it. He might come back and add something else, but he’s just so out there mentally when it comes to creating stuff. Like how the hell did you hear that? Or where the hell did you get that sound from? He’s just out there. It’s like if I went to the store and bought a pink suit, I’ll probably look damn good, but there’s a whole lot of people who will look at me and say, ‘I will never do that.’ There are a lot of people who aren’t comfortable with stepping outside of the box and that’s what Tim is best for and what gives him the title of innovator is because he steps outside of the box. It’s always interesting to hear and see what’s he getting ready to do now, what’s he going to do now? When I go to the studio tonight, what am I getting ready to hear coming out of them speakers because I know he’s on some other sh** and that sh** excites Tim. It excites him to innovate. That’s what I love about it. That just shows the passion that he has for music.


Black: We’ve been working with Tim since ‘93 or ’94. He never micro managed us. He would give us the track and let us do our thing. By the time “Birthday” came out we already had songs on Ginuwine and Nicole Wray and different artists. Tim and Missy knew, we all came up in the same camp together, so they knew the talent level before anybody else knew the talent level.

Smokey On The Album’s Title Track: When you think of a hit record you think that a lot went into it and I’ve learned, even some of my solo stuff, my first solo album that I put out had like 29 tracks on it and the song that I whipped up the quickest and didn’t put a whole lot of time and effort in to was the song that a lot of people were like, ‘That song right there!’ I’m like, ‘For real?’ I came up with that and been in the studio all night and just started playing some old stuff like at six or seven o’clock in the morning, cut it and went about my business and put it on the album, but never did I think that was a song that everybody would be like that one right there. I grew to learn that less is more and us recording “Cheers 2 U” was hearing that beat that Tim did, loving it for no other reason beside the fact that it kind of emulated “One in a Million” which we loved. We just wrote to it and sung it. It was nothing to go in the booth and sing this stuff and it’s done. It wasn’t any massive process or anything to ensure that it would be a hit record. It just turned out to be that.

Black: The track came on and Static came up with a melody and he just ran with it. Sometimes we would hear something and he wouldn’t need nobody else, if I saw the melodies had Static wrapped up I wouldn’t bother him and vice versa. He would let me finish, we were very cognizant of that zone. We were very cognizant of that part of the game too. We had been writing together since we left Louisville. That was my best friend, my big brother. Us three, even with how we sung, a lot of people don’t know this, Smokey might start off singing the top harmony, but by the middle of the song he might sing the bottom note. We would intertwine our notes or I could look at Smoke and know that we switched notes in the middle of the song.

Smokey: There was one time that Static said—and I don’t really know where that stemmed from and looking back now and connecting his death with it, it makes me think even more—but I remember one time he said when it came to his writing, he began to take more of a love for the writing more so than he did the actual singing because being from the 'hood, being from Louisville, singing was not a manly thing to do like rapping would be or playing football would be. I don’t think it had anything to do with that, I do know that’s how he felt and Black, too. I think he started to get more into the writing and enjoying the writing and he had said once that as far as me and Black that, ‘Y’all are my voices to my lyrics.’ We’re bringing his lyrics to life.

 

The Pen Behind The Red Album

Eric Seats (Produced "Rock The Boat," "Extra Smooth"): When we met Static, we flew out to Kentucky where he was living at the time and stayed there for a month just to do music. We stayed at his home and that’s really when we wrote the bulk of those Aaliyah songs. We did all the rough drafts in Kentucky at Static’s house, just pushing ideas out to present to Aaliyah. By the time we got there to present some stuff to her, she was checking off songs left and right because her and Static were tight. He knew how to convey her messages or whatever she was going through at the time and that’s why he ended up doing pretty much the whole record. She could bank on him to get that message out and still be her without forcing his own thing.

Bud’da (Produced "Never No More," "I Can Be"): His harmony choices, oh my goodness. Sometimes it was even hard to… when he would demo a song, whoever it was for, he would do certain songs and once the artist got on it you would miss Static being on it. The only person that wasn’t necessarily like that was Baby Girl. Aaliyah would get on there and she would take on what it was that he did, but give it a whole other energy and you’re like, ‘Okay, I get it.’ Missing all those nuances of being melodic, being clever and what the writing was, and just having the content of it all. When you think of the process we went through to do “Never No More” and it’s addressing abuse, it takes a certain person to go there. You could always write things that are relevant to the times and dealing with issues, sexual, or whatever the case would be, but there’s so many more people dealing with things like that, and we have a platform to create. I just thought it was admirable of him to even write something that would help to deliver people from situations and let them know that they’re not alone.

Seats: He’s the one guy that can make you feel like a woman wrote it. His range, and him catering to the individual that he’s actually in the lab with instead of just showing up and saying, ‘I’m Static and I write like this.’ The diversity to go from writing a “Pony” for Ginuwine to a “Rock The Boat,” he had the sensual side as well as the hard side too. He could separate that and write in that way. That’s what stood out because everything was different. Every song on that record, he didn’t use the same lyrics over and over.

Bud’da: Static was a muse for her, if that’s the right word. He was able to embody what it is that she was thinking. They could sit down and have conversations and laugh and certain things come about from the relation of it all, the relation of being cool. Fitting like a glove was one thing that was unique about Baby Girl. Out of anything that I’ve heard him do not just for myself, but for other people, whenever he would record something it had so much swag, it was so much him. It was hard for other people to articulate that without it sounding like him. Aaliyah was able to articulate what it is that he wrote and it’d be her. It’s not an easy thing to do unless you are exceptionally talented. Unless somebody really knew the inner workings of Blackground, of her process of making music, you would never know that there was this element behind her because it just fit so perfectly. Everything prior to the album was witty and just her. They were able to, together, cast this persona, make this person Aaliyah. It just fit like that.

Seats: Static is actually on every background vocal that KeyBeats did. He sung on there first and Aaliyah is like, ‘Don’t erase his, I’m going to sing on top of his.’ Much like a Sade does. I love that contrast of a male voice and a female voice without you necessarily having the male all in your face, like a duet type but just present. That’s magic, because you have a lot of people who like to do their own background so after you hear a whole album like that, you’re like, 'This is too much.' You want to hear another soul singing, another presence, another tone and it’s hard for one individual to be 10 individuals.

Jeffrey “J-DUB” Walker (Produced "What If," "I Refuse"): He just went with the flow. I’d go in and blaze up a beat. He’d come in and just start writing. With him, if he liked the beat he’s not going to wait too long, he’s going to jump in the booth and start singing and just lay it down. He was just dope, smooth. That whole camp was smooth.

Bud’da: Anybody who knows Static would say this. When he’s writing something or listening to something, he may be at the board and the music is really loud and he’s bopping, moving his head. If you’re bopping along with Static, you best not look at him because he’ll throw you off beat (Laughs). Static had his own bounce and it’s almost like he’s feeling the music. If you could envision it, it’s like a cartoon where you see a music note just floating around in the wind and blowing it around. That’s how he was. I loved that about him. He was so funny and always open. He was a genius and to this day I know that he’s inspired so many in relation to not just what he’s done, but just his process. Me writing songs to this day, I literally still think about Static and how would he attack this? Thinking about the process in which he meditated on things as well, he would sit there and listen. He had a notepad and he would go into the booth and sing some craziness, with the melodies and all the harmonies in his head.

"Sometimes we would hear something and he wouldn’t need nobody else,
Aaliyah could bank on Static to get that message out and still be her without forcing his own thing." ~ Eric Seats

J-DUB: Static had a weird way of writing where instead of his rhythm being 2-4 it would be on 1-3. The way that he moves when he wrote was so unorthodox, but it came out so dope. Static was in his own lane. He was just in another world. It’s like you have great writers and Static is one of them. He had a sound. Nobody could really write like him, still to this day. He was so clever with it, his wordplay was so clever, his harmonies and melodies and just how he rode a beat. It was incredible.

---

The Influence Of Playa’s Music In Hip-Hop & R&B

Smokey On “If You’re Scared, Say You’re Scared:” It was initially a Playa song and it was going to be on the Woo soundtrack. It was to be in that movie but we ended up not putting it on the soundtrack. It’s just a record amongst others that we had from creating on the piano as you saw on that video that we had never released. It’s a song that I went on ahead and released myself because I felt like it needed to be heard. It was a good song. Through Drake, because a lot of people are doing it, even Chris Brown did it, being interested in that sound and that era of music, he dug through the crates and found some things that he wanted to use and sample. I definitely appreciate the acknowledgement that we were talking about something enough for him to want to use one of our records.

Black On “Don’t Think They Know:” That was the song that I wrote for the second Playa album. Chris Brown took Aaliyah's chords, they made a track around her parts, and I guess he wrote his part. The Aaliyah part was to be for the Playa album.

A photo posted by Ben Bush (@blackplaya502) on

Smokey: I believe though that had he been here, something different would’ve probably came of that situation, something more would’ve came out of that situation because I think that Drake’s true interest came from wanting to sift through Static’s catalogue and when he heard that he said, ‘I’ll take this right here.’ I thought it was amazing to me that he could take that and turn it into a rap record at that, but I love that record. That’s a record where he’s talking about something.

Black: It was funny because Chris Brown is an amazing talent. For him to like a record of mine that I recorded in 2000, 2003, it felt good as a writer and musician. You want to have a legacy too. It just proved that our music transcended us. It feels good to be liked. It was cool to see the next generation appreciate our music.

Smokey: Static would still be writing for everybody because he had reached a point like Missy before she came out as an artist, where she made a name for herself through her writing prior to. I think with that record “Lollipop,” Static had reached that point where whatever he wanted to do after that was going to be major and bigger that it was, and he was doing tons of stuff prior. He did stuff with David Banner, Jay Z, Destiny’s Child, he was at that point where he was on his way straight up hill. His solo album would’ve dropped, I believe, and would’ve been off the chain. But in all honesty, if you believe in the God I believe in, where he’s at right now is greater than where he was on his way to when he was here.

R.I.P. Static Major 2/25/08 #iAintForgot #StaticMajor #smokedigglera

A photo posted by Smoke E. Digglera (@smokedigglera) on

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August Moon (@slutaugust)

Faze Clan, 100 Thieves, And How Hip-Hop And Video Games Collide With Esports

“I got game like Genesis.” – Lord Finesse, “Yes You May (Remix)” (1992)

Smugly sophisticated, succinct but vivid, Lord Finesse managed more in five words than this author ever could. Then there’s The Fresh Prince, who gave us, simply, “Ever since I was younger, I was into video games” on 1988’s “Human Video Game,” complete with Ready Rock C’s beatboxed rendition of the Donkey Kong theme. Of course, Biggie immortalized the poshness of a multiple console array on “Juicy,” a lyric inevitably recited at the mere mention.

Prescient though these men were, none could have predicted that Rockstar Games’ 2013 offering Grand Theft Auto V, itself emblematic of this marriage of worlds, would become the most profitable entertainment title in history. It raced to $1B in sales in just three days and has since surpassed $6B. Or that video games would out-earn all of Hollywood’s offerings and all record label projects, combined—now eight years and counting. Or that, according to the Wall Street Journal, more people watched other people play video games than they did the entirety of the 2017 NFL season.

The math is mind-bending. And few are as qualified to unlock it as Kevin Mitchell, who launched an esports program within the Sports Communications Department at Emerson College and also a pre-college initiative for high schoolers interested in esports careers. Last year, Mitchell founded the College Esports Expo (CEX), the first of its kind; year two saw 300% growth. CEX panels discussed ESPN’s first-ever Collegiate Esports Championship (CEC), a March Madness-esque national championship for gaming set to premiere this May; the fledgling Evergreen Conference, an esports league comprising the eight Ivy League schools; a Learfield IMG merger that Mitchell claims “will reshape the college esports landscape” by elevating merchandising, sponsorships and media rights to the level of D1 athletics. Meanwhile, more than 200 national institutions offer scholarships for varsity esports. And major schools like NYU, Syracuse, George Washington, and UC Irvine–“the Harvard of esports,” says Mitchell, with 400+ members in its esports club and an on-campus gaming arena–are diversifying their esports curricula.

Mitchell boasts not just game but guile and grit as a veteran of the music industry, hired by Bobbito Garcia at Def Jam and mentored by Lyor Cohen. Along the way, he earned several Grammy nominations and created a Washington, DC-based internship program that counted Young Guru, Delante Murphy, and Kevin Liles as participants. He also singlehandedly pressed up the white labels for ‘90s anthem “Déjà Vu (Uptown Baby)” by Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz. But it was his oversight of Shaquille O'Neal’s record label TWIsM that bore fruit.

“It was ’96. I was on set at a video shoot for ‘Man of Steel,’ off the Steel soundtrack, and I beat Shaq at Tekken in front of Ice Cube and B-Real,” Mitchell grins. “Shaq got pissed and joked that he didn’t want to pay me. That’s my earliest recollection of hip-hop and gaming—that and playing Madden with Snoop in the ‘G Thang’ era.”

Long removed from boyish bravado, Mitchell, who acknowledges that he’s “more of a practitioner than an academic,” serves as director of business development and strategic intelligence for theater company National Amusements—looking for opportunities between seemingly disparate worlds. When he first started placing songs into the Madden and NBA Live franchises on behalf of EA Sports, he knew he’d found his lane – it turns out that hip-hop and gaming aren't as different as they may seem.

“There’s a high level of authenticity required with gaming; it’s not anyone trying to be something they’re not. That was always a staple of hip-hop. Also, the power of both seemingly came out of nowhere, driven by a fringe component of society: Latinos and African Americans from the streets who didn’t have an outlet and gamers holed up in their basements with nobody paying attention to them," Mitchell explained. "...Now, both disciplines have become borderless and diverse, and they leverage the internet—streaming for gamers and SoundCloud for rappers. They also share management inefficiency. Think about all those regional record labels that emerged then imploded; a few people did well while a lot of the talent suffered. Esports is no different. ... Those in the gaming space are not equipped to lead others because they’re used to thriving independently.”

Speaking of thriving, one needn’t look much farther than Drake, Travis Scott, and gaming phenom Ninja, the most followed–and most profitable, cresting half a million dollars a month–user on all of streaming platform Twitch. Those three, plus gaming aficionado JuJu Smith-Schuster of the Pittsburgh Steelers, lifted the virtual roof off Twitch in March of 2018 when they teamed up for a game of Fortnite.

“That was the ‘man on the moon, shot-heard-round-the-world’ moment in esports,” attests Mitchell. “It’s akin to hip-hop’s moving from the uptown clubs to the downtown clubs. That day, hip-hop went to Union Square. I’d always anticipated that moment because of my exposure to hip-hop, but I couldn’t exactly predict how or when it would take place. If you could write a script of how these worlds would intersect, it would be that.”

The threesome would prove no one-night stand. Later in 2018, Drake would join Scooter Braun as co-owners of esports team 100 Thieves, along with Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert. And the NBA affiliation doesn’t stop there. Incredibly, there is a full-blown, sanctioned NBA 2K League: 21 NBA franchises drafted teams from among the world’s best NBA 2K players. It’s the first official esports league operated by an American professional sports association.

The synergy isn’t lost on the ballers. Says Andre Drummond of the Detroit Pistons, himself an avid gamer: “The overlap between hip-hop and esports is so dynamic because a lot of these artists are still in their teens and mid-twenties. So the crossover is easy to see: when they aren’t making music in the studio or performing in front of thousands of people, hip-hop artists are locked in playing a video game. And, from the other side, esports is a good way for gamers to meet their favorite artists or athletes; not only are they fans of our work, most of us know gamers by name and we are fans of their work as well!”

One such famous fan is Lil Yachty, now a member of the mighty FaZe Clan, far and away the world’s most successful esports brand. FaZe is a fascinating case study, for it combines 24/7 pro gamers with online personalities dedicated to creating content. Consider the work of FaZe Blaze, who as a preteen created and uploaded Call of Duty montages and now, via his FaZe affiliation, speaks of how blessed he is to have played GTA with Mac Miller and to call Schoolboy Q a friend. Fittingly, Blaze is releasing a wholly self-produced and performed hip-hop album called Playing Games. Blaze’s words ring true to any artist: “My best friends today are people that I met playing online; we all have the same passion to create. All of us are open books; we understood from very young ages that, if we were going to do this YouTube thing, anything in our lives can and will be made public. And because we’re so open with our audience, they connect with us on a much deeper level. It’s the sort of connection you make with real friends, close friends, even siblings. On the other hand, critical feedback can be hard. You’re not going to make your best stuff every time. But somebody else’s opinions shouldn’t change what you do, how you do it, or, ultimately, who you are.”

Whatever FaZe Clan is doing, it’s working: FaZe tallies a combined social reach of 210M, 21 times larger than that of the aforementioned 100 Thieves. In fact, FaZe was ranked #2 on Bleacher Report’s 2018 Power 50 Shake it Up list—two spots ahead of Drake. And FaZe’s social engagement numbers trump the Kardashians’. Not convinced? Prior to his induction and totally unsolicited, Lil’ Yachty was habitually tweeting, “FaZe Clan or no clan.”

Yachty reflects on those no-clan days. “I got my first Xbox in kindergarten. I was 5 years old. Faze Clan is the best gaming group in the world, plus I had been a fan since high school. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of it? Esports is going to the top. Major. It’s getting much more respect and I’m all for it. And hip-hop and gaming will continue to intersect because artists are younger and younger these days. There’s always a need for games and music.”

Yachty and the aforementioned Smith-Schuster, who in the offseason actually lives in the FaZe house in the Hollywood Hills, are among the group’s more visible assets. So too is FaZe streamer Tfue, who boasts the most-watched Fortnite channel on Twitch and whose 6M+ monthly viewer hours actually outpace Ninja’s. But the machine behind FaZe is no less impressive. CEO Lee Trink once helmed Capitol Records and Virgin Records. And the director of business development is none other than Clinton Sparks, the Grammy-nominated producer, songwriter, and DJ. Known best for his forward-facing ventures–writing and producing for everyone to Lady Gaga to Pitbull, winning ASCAP Awards with DJ Snake–Clinton has long pushed the culture from a number of leverage points, e.g. his stint as director of marketing at Karmaloop. There, under the purview of founder and CEO Greg Selkoe, he helped turn Karmaloop into the biggest streetwear E-commerce website. So, when Selkoe sold out of the ‘loop and assumed presidency of FaZe, he insisted that Clinton leave his native Boston and bring his magic dust to La-La Land.

Indeed, if looks like the Planters Super Bowl commercial, brand deals with Nike, HTC, and Nissan and collabs with Supreme and Champion are aftershocks of FaZe’s clout, then the L.A. house marks its epicenter. “At any given time, you will find guys like Post Malone, Trippie Redd, Logic, and Roddy Ricch just hanging out at the FaZe house,” notes Clinton. “The FaZe house is a thing; the Hollywood house tours actually stop now and point it out.” The irony shouldn’t be lost on anyone. The home, once the sanctuary of the reclusive gamer, has become a tourist attraction.

Clinton, whose legendary Vegas parties brought worlds together, revels in the apparent dichotomy. “There's a really blurry line between what's cool and what's not cool anymore. You don’t necessarily have to run in rap circles to exist in each other’s lanes. But this move isn’t an accident; we strategically recruit and bring in people that make sense to the lifestyle that FaZe represents," he said. "It's not strictly ‘Can you game well?’ It's also ‘Do you understand culture? Maybe you're great at fashion? Maybe you're a model? Maybe you're an artist?’ So we seek out people with keen understandings of culture and lifestyle. Ultimately, my goal is to enhance and amplify the existing business and to make the FaZe brand bigger than any one player on the team, to the point of sustainability—not just in esports, but in music, fashion, business development, and new products. And I want to familiarize people not otherwise familiar with esports and get them involved.”

Clinton has stayed busy assembling what he calls a “hip-hop syndicate.” He’s currently in talks with everyone from French Montana to DJ Paul to Trey Smith to Travis Scott. On the content and business development levels, he’s dialoguing with Mark Wahlberg and Apple Music Head of Content Larry Jackson. And he’s secured investments from music executive Troy Carter–formerly of Spotify–and Yo Gotti.

“My experience with esports has been with Faze because they are in touch with the culture,” Gotti states emphatically. “My kids are big fans. The youth cares about music, fashion, and gaming and they’re all connected. I see what they are doing business-wise and I wanted to be involved. I know what it is to build a brand and FaZe not just a team; it’s a brand and a lifestyle. I’m all in!”

Indeed, the monetary aspect speaks to another unique parallel between the rap and gaming worlds—the hustle. Says FaZe Blaze: “The beautiful thing about our world today is that we have the resources not just to create, but to create revenue. We can literally generate cash, while living at home, through the internet.” The corner has been replaced with a gaming chair and a LAN line; the product, once physical, is now virtual. The end result is the same.

“Gamers are the new rock stars,” Clinton Sparks attests. “They're the new leading actor. They're the new leader of the band. They're the new major DJ. And it's only going to get better. To consider yourself cool but not see where esports is going is to be the guy who didn’t see what the internet was going to be when it was first introduced.”

Others are jumping onto the trend as well. Meek Mill announced in February that he was founding an esports team, and personality DJ Akademiks now hosts a Complex show called On The Sticks where he plays video games with celebrities (guests so far have included artists like Yachty and A Boogie, comedian Chris Redd, and baller Iman Shumpert) while speaking to them about music, gaming and more.

“Esports is Vegas when it was still a desert,” concludes Kevin Mitchell. “I see esports having the same appeal that owning a basketball team had in the Rucker Park or Above the Rim era. I see Floyd Mayweather’s team facing LeBron’s team and bets being placed on mobile phones. I see esports leagues being as prevalent as Little League and AAU. And I want to help athletes create a new model, similar to a ‘Déjà Vu’—make that impact that the industry really needs without getting permission. Just kicking in the door.”

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Then & Now: The O'Jays Highlight Their Rich Discography, Trump And New Album 'The Last Word'

Soul legends The O'Jays have seen a lot throughout their time in the game and displayed the state of the world through 31 albums. Their latest and final album The Last Word is no different as the trio dedicates tracks like "Above the Law" towards social injustice and callings of a love movement on "Enjoy Yourself."

For this session of VIBE's Then & Now series, group co-founders Gerald Levert and Walter Williams take a trip down memory lane with their biggest hits. It wasn't easy as the group has a slew of Top 20 Billboard hits like "Love Train," "Used Ta Be My Girl" and the stirring "Backstabbers," but the duo made sure to share how the tracks were made with spiritual undertones thanks to Philadelphia songwriting icons Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.

"That song had a big fat message of love, the bible speaks of love throughout it," Williams says about their 1974 hit "Love Train." "It was an idea when we went in the studio. They had the track and we recorded the background but no verses. But [Kenny] Gamble wrote the first and second verses and we went in the studio and tried it out and went on to do the adlibs. Because of the lyrical content, you can feel where it was going."

The two also showed love for those who have sampled their work like Angie Stone and Drake. The rapper cleverly interpolated 1972's "Backstabbers" in his 2016 hit, "Fake Love" while Stone lifted the track for her 2002 single "Wish I Didn't Miss You."

"I like him, I like his message and I liked his delivery," Levert said about Drake's approach to the sample. "I like where he's going in his music. There's not a lot of profanity and cursing and saying a lot of negative words. There's a message in his music."

Often praised for their political undertones, Williams and Levert say their ability to stay consistent allowed them to make some of the most timeless music in R&B.

"It's tough to get around but you have to be persistent," Williams said. "You have to go after what you want today. You have to stay relentless and then you get action."

Levert notes that today's artists are holding back when it comes to speaking up against the political machine. "I think the younger artists are too afraid to hurt their fanbase by taking a stand," he said. "They're too afraid to offend or think, 'It's not my fight. Things have changed, we don't need to address that.' Things are not gonna change as long as you don't speak out on it. If you just keep letting things go on and you never have anything to say, they will continue to go that way."

Watch Then & Now with The O'Jays up top.

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Scott Harrison

Music Sermon: The Divinity Of Luther Vandross

“There are voices in this world and once they sing, it’s a stamp on everybody.” Bravo producer and personality Andy Cohen was asking Patti Labelle about her dear friend Luther Vandross on talk show Watch What Happens Live. “Luther’s done that.”

Luther Ronzoni Vandross, Jr. was the preeminent urban pop singer; the essence of ‘80s quiet storm R&B. He was called “the velvet voice” and “the Black Pavarotti,” but there’s not really a male predecessor he compares to because he didn’t pattern himself after the soul men like Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, or Teddy Pendergrass. He studied the divas. Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and Patti Labelle were the voices that fascinated and inspired a young Luther. Seeing Dionne Warwick live at the Brooklyn Fox Theater made him realize he wanted to sing. “She came on stage and just killed me; the music was more serious, the song value was more serious. 'Anyone Who Has a Heart' was a masterpiece,” he told The Washington Post. “I decided at that point that I wanted to do something in music."

The difference informs the distinction between him and most other men of R&B. Luther sang from a softer space, topically and tonally. He usually sang from a gentle, easy place. Not urgent. Not aggressive. Never suggestive. His first greatest hits compilation was titled The Best of Luther, The Best of Love because his entire catalog was love. Romantic and devoted love, not sex or lust. Adoration. And while his voice is appreciated–he’s featured on every greatest vocalist list of note–the full range and depth of Luther’s vocal craftsmanship are not. He was a writer, producer, and one of the greatest vocal manipulators in the game, as well-known and sought-after from early in his career for his vocal arrangements as his singing. The New York Times once described Luther as having an “obsession with the human voice, bordering on clinical.” Some people’s gifts are leagues beyond the old talent-plus-preparation-equals-opportunity equation. Some are truly called, anointed even. Luther was divinely appointed.

The world was officially introduced to Luther in 1981, but he was already an established singer’s singer on the professional circuit. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, teenaged Luther was part of youth performing arts group sponsored by the Apollo Theater called Listen My Brother. Their music was largely social commentary, and they performed in and around New York, including on the very first episode of Sesame Street.

In 1974, Luther accidentally landed a gig as a background singer and arranger for David Bowie. He visiting a friend in Bowie’s band at the studio, and talking about an idea to improve the hook for “Young Americans,” unaware that the singer was standing within earshot. Bowie loved the idea, hired Luther, and quickly became a champion for the young singer’s budding career. Luther handled vocal arrangements for the entire Young Americans album, and additionally wrote the album cut “Infatuation.” He also performed a 45-minute opening set of his own material each night on tour, at Bowie’s insistence.

Luther’s singing here on the far left.

Bowie then introduced the crooner to Bette Midler, who took him on tour, and Luther’s career as an in-demand background singer and arranger was underway. His study of great female vocalists helped him develop an ear that set him apart. “One of the contexts you have to understand was that the background singing has always been a female-dominated area,” Luther explained in an early interview. “I was bringing stuff on my own to the sessions that was kind of unique in terms of how to do background vocals. And later I learned never to give away anything you can sell, so I started charging for this extra bit of approach, which was fine, because by this time everyone wanted it so bad that they were willing to pay for it.”

Over the years, Luther sang with Carley Simon, Chic (“Everybody Dance”), Average White Band, Chaka Khan, and Roberta Flack, who chided him for getting too comfortable as a background singer and encouraged him to finally put a demo together. Due to his own intimate relationship with excellence in backing vocals, Luther was famously known to always use the top talent in the business for his albums. A read through the personnel of his catalogue will reveal names including Cissy Houston, James Ingram, Darlene Love, Tawatha Agee (lead singer of Mtume), premiere professional backing vocalists like Fonzi Thornton, and Lisa Fischer, who Luther pushed to get out of her comfort zone and record as Flack did with him.

During a recording session for Quincy Jones, Luther was introduced to a commercial producer, who then helped him break into the jingle-writing business. He’s always been credited with his ability to write an infectious hook–that talent was honed with jingles.

Before Luther took the solo leap, he tried the group route. He briefly had a deal as part of a group called, appropriately, Luther. They recorded two albums, but neither made any noise. Then, he joined disco group Change as their frontman and had two hits, including one of my favorite mood-boosting, make everything right anthems.

Luther had a little money in his pocket from commercials and background singing, and from writing and producing a song for the Broadway musical-turned-major motion picture The Wiz.

Oh, you didn’t know Luther wrote “A Brand New Day (Everybody Rejoice)”?

He had the means to record and produce his demo himself, and assembled what became his career dream team. While in the group Listen My Brother, Luther met pianist Nat Adderly, Jr., son of jazz trumpeter Nat Adderley and nephew of saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. As a session singer, he met bassist Marcus Miller and recommended him to Gladys Knight, and the two bonded while on tour. He recruited them both to put together the songs that eventually became Never Too Much, and they were key contributing architects to Luther’s signature sound.

Miller is responsible for those slappin’ basslines that were prevalent in Luther’s early work, and for most of Luther’s uptempo cuts. “I never had any official responsibilities with Luther because we used to just work,“ Marcus shared in an interview, “but I felt like one of my (unspoken) responsibilities was to make sure Luther had tracks on his album that could be played on the radio during the day time.”

Adderley’s genius came through in Luther’s trademark covers. In Luther’s case, “remake” is a more apt description than “cover,” because he and Nat would take the original songs apart, stretch them out, invert them, slow parts down, add sections, reverse some sh*t… it was a whole different composition when they were done. The lush string and woodwind arrangements in Luther ballads are Nat’s handiwork. Incredible piano flourishes and solos, also Nat.

When both Miller and Adderley worked on the track, magic ensued, starting with Luther’s forever-a-bop solo debut “Never Too Much.” Coming out of the funk band driven ‘70s landscape, labels were doubtful of Luther’s smooth solo style. Epic finally took a chance, and it hit just as popular urban music went through its next evolution, which happened to be right in Luther’s sonic pocket.

“Luther, Marcus Miller and I had a real musical connection,” Nat has said. “We saw stuff the same way. We thought of things in the same way. When we came together, we really learned about each other and fed off of each other.”

Luther knew who he was as a singer and an artist. He wrote and produced the majority of his early material, and continued to co-write and co-produce through most of his career. He was clear on what worked for him both vocally and formulaically. Marcus Miller shared, “One of the things I used to hear him say was ‘I don’t need to compete with any other singers. Other singers sing hard, high, and with a lot of riffs. That’s not me. That’s not my thing. I’m just going to style these people to death.’” And he styled us to death, honey. Luther was the king of melisma and dramatic effect, but without oversinging. Where most vocalists would build towards a climax in the song, Luther’s structure was often reversed. He’d start easy, build during the middle, and come back to a soft, light, but emotional close.

This careful, deliberate singing was part of his genius. There’s a reason Black folks yell “Take your time,” to soloists when they’re in their bag–mastery isn’t rushed.

As I mentioned before, Luther was also a transformative cover artist. Would straight Deebo your song – that was his song, now. And artists didn’t even mind, because he elevated it so incredibly. Some of Luther’s biggest hits are covers: “Superstar/Until You Come Back to Me” (The Carpenters and Aretha Franklin), “Anyone Who Had a Heart” (Dionne Warwick), “Since I Lost My Baby” (The Temptations), “Bad Boy/Having a Party” (an interpolation of Sam Cooke’s “Having a Party”), “If Only for One Night” (Brenda Russell), “Creepin’” (Stevie Wonder). He was a repeat offender with Dionne Warwick’s material from Burt Bacharach and Hal David, jacking not just “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” the song that blew him away at a young age, but also “A House is Not a Home”–on the same album. And she didn’t even care, look at her.

Luther’s capabilities as Mr. Steal-Your-Song also translated to his strength as a duet partner. He knew how to blend voices so perfectly, he was outstanding when paired with another strong vocalist. Luther produced Cheryl Lynn’s 1982 album Instant Love, and took the opportunity to use a Tammi and Marvin classic to showcase the singer’s strength beyond uptempo dance hits.

One of my favorite Luther duets and covers is an album cut with the tragically uncelebrated Martha Wash. Their version of the torch song standard “I Who Have Nothing,” is a little heavy on production in some places, especially the early ‘90s R&B sax, but their voices are perfect together. And the breakdown at the end? Whew. All the feels. All of them.

But Luther could also do very sweet and simple arrangements, like his duet with Gregory Hines. This song always makes me wish Gregory had done more professional singing after he left musical theater.

Don’t get it twisted, though, Luther specialized in controlled vocals, but he could act a fool when he wanted to. Especially when playing off the energy of another singer, like his dear friend and my favorite Auntie, queen of extra just because she can, Patti Labelle.

Jenifer Holliday and Luther messed around and pushed poor Paul Simon out of his own damn song.

Luther was a balladeer of elite caliber, but he’ll also get an uptempo jumpin’, literally. When Aretha’s career was in a lengthy lull and facing the challenges of a new musical era, Clive Davis called Luther to write and produce for her. Luther, who once called himself an "Arethacologist," was thrilled to work with one of his biggest idols and inspirations. But Luther was a very exacting producer; he would tell vocalists specifically what and how to sing. Auntie Re wasn’t playing that at first, and even stormed out of the studio at one point, but the end result was her biggest hit in seven years.

Luther himself has several cookout and red cup party classics. Tunes that me, you, your mama and your cousin can dance to. That’s part of the beauty in Luther’s music; there’s no content too mature–or too immature–for anyone. While recalling Luther, Marcus Miller remarked, “There is no greater feeling in the world than walking down the street in New York City and hearing a Luther song blasting in the street.” I can personally confirm, as someone who’s heard Luther blasting while in these New York City streets.

What I don’t believe is acknowledged enough is Luther’s longevity. A 20-year career is a rare feat for any artist, but especially for a core R&B singer who started in the ‘80s. Luther did have pop hits–“Here and Now” was one of the biggest wedding songs of the ‘90s–but he was always a core R&B artist, and always stayed on brand and on topic. He was somewhat inactive in the latter ‘90s after ending his contract with Epic Records; he released one album with Virgin records in 1996, but it’s not usually included in his definitive material. Whispers and speculation about his health began, as he’d spent much of the ‘90s going up and down dramatically with his weight. But he made a fierce return in the early aughts. His final two albums, with Clive Davis’ J. Records, were two of the biggest in his career, with material that was relevant and contemporary without sounding contrived.

This song makes me want to put on some white linen and go on somebody’s boat ride.

As secure as Luther had always been in his artistry, he still felt overlooked as a writer and producer and longed for critical recognition beyond R&B. Out of 33 career Grammy nominations with eight wins, only two were in the Pop category. It wasn’t until his final album, 2003’s Dance With my Father, that Luther earned the elusive Song of the Year nomination and subsequent win he’d been longing for, for the album’s title track. But he also suffered a debilitating stroke in April 2003, before the project’s release. Since he was unable to shoot a video, artists who loved him stepped in with their children or parents as a tribute. Warning: this video may cause severe allergy flareups.

I have no doubt that barring health issues, Luther would at minimum still be touring. He was one of the most thorough live performers I’ve ever seen, with production simple enough to keep the vocals as the centerpiece, but extra enough so you were visually entertained as well (lots of sequins). Luther was touring in 2003 until his stroke (do yourself a favor and listen to his Live at Radio City Music Hall album, his last live appearance), and was scheduled to perform at Essence Festival that year. Can you imagine Luther at Essence Fest?

When news of Luther’s death broke, my mother and I–both huge fans–were driving to a family reunion, and we played and sang along to his music for about four states. I still play Luther when I need a boost, or when I want to burrow deep down into my feelings. When I want to go into chill mode, or when I want to dance around the house. Luther is all-purpose. He is all-emotion. He is everything. He was a gift.

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#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.

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