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Illustration By Nicholas Rice

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

Collaborators turned close friends share their memories of Static Major in the studio.

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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Kirk Franklin And Fred Hammond's 'The Healing' Was More Than A Verzuz Event

Verzuz has been helping fill the void for live musical entertainment and, to an extent, live sports for two months now. On Sunday (May 31), the newly launched platform provided us with a digital worship service by way of gospel greats Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond.

As the online music battle has grown from producers to artists, Swizz and Tim have been transparent about their efforts to make Verzuz musically inclusive, starting first with giving women some much-needed representation and now expanding into different genres — because Black music is more than rap and R&B.

In April, contemporary gospel greats John P. Kee and Hezikiah Walker organized their own matchup that Timbaland (a COGIC kid himself) and Swizz cosigned and promoted, proving the desire and demand for a Gospel Verzuz outing. Fans have also requested to see Kirk participate because of his hip-hop based productions and his mainstream familiarity. But Sunday’s Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond pairing, while full of the progressive gospel sound both men are famous for, was straight-up church.

Between the time Timbaland and Swizz announced the special event earlier this week—billed as “The Healing” and featuring opening words of prayer from Bishop TD Jakes—and Sunday, escalation of protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer has literally spread like fire to cities across the country and world. Video and news reports are coming in with furious speed. Peaceful protests are morphing into violence at the hands of agitators. People are furious and scared.

Franklin and Hammond had a large responsibility on their hands yesterday; a delicate balance to maintain. These are moments when even the churched don’t necessarily believe the church can help. But the men of God met the task, setting the tone from the very beginning by appearing in shirts that said: “I Can’t Breathe” (Franklin) and “I Can’t Breathe - Again” (Hammond). Over the course of the event, they mixed straight talk, spiritual encouragement, prayer, and proper acknowledgment of the chaos waiting for us all after we eventually clicked out of the Instagram Live.

Even though Kirk came with and maintained a good-natured “battle” energy, this was ministry and fellowship, not a match. So instead we’re going to review each round with an “and” instead of a “vs.” These two brothers in music ministry were building on and adding to each other’s energy over the course of 2.5 hours. Much like Beenie Man and Bounty Killer's session, this was more a concert than a competition. And the spirit in the room (plus the anointed sound quality) blessed our souls so much that we were willing to forgive the slight social distancing infractions. Even Instagram (allegedly) sent a message for them to ignore the 90-second copyright restrictions and let the spirit move.

ROUND 1: Fred Hammond's “I Am Persuaded” and Kirk Franklin's “He’s Able”

Both Fred and Kirk pulled out early signature songs to set the tone; Fred with the title track from his first solo album, and Kirk with one of the singles from the Kirk Franklin and the Family album. Both songs highlighted how each artist were trendsetters in the contemporary Gospel sound with their music’s early ‘90s New Jack Swing influence.

ROUND 2: Fred Hammond & Radical For Christ's “When the Spirit of the Lord” and Kirk Franklin's “Brighter Day”

Everyone knows Kirk Franklin has jams, but Hammond’s music is mostly known by those who put in years in the youth and young adult choirs, and those who came up in strict households with no secular music. But on Sunday, everybody learned that Frederick also has jams that will make you “dance like David danced.”

Kirk followed with another classic Family joint, and the tenors watching from home stepped up in their collective living rooms to hit that “brighter day” with their chest.

ROUND 3: Fred Hammond's “Awesome God” and Kirk Franklin's “He Reigns/Awesome God”

Kirk and Fred were working from a list, which suggested they coordinated at least parts of their lineups, leaving room for head-to-head rounds like this. If this was a scored match, however, Franklin would get this point. “He Reigns/Awesome God” isn’t his original work, but he flipped and updated it as only he can, and it instantly inspires whatever choreography listeners learned in the afore-mentioned choir 20 years ago.

ROUND 4: Commissioned's “Strange Land” and Kirk Franklin & Georgia Mass Choir's “Joy”

Again, this Verzuz wasn’t just about music, it was about music ministry, and both Franklin and Hammond wove moments of preaching, proclamation, and encouragement throughout. As Kirk had acknowledged at the beginning of the event that some people didn’t even want to hear about Jesus right now, Fred addressed the thought that Christians are just waiting on a “kumbaya moment.” He “(took) it back to Detroit” and played the first song of the night by Commissioned—his former gospel group—“How Can We Sing (In a Strange Land),” which spoke to the seeming futility of something like today’s Verzuz: singing for help in the midst of crisis.

If you're asking How can we sing When we're in a strange land How can we face adversity whoa whoa How can we stand in the midst of trouble When the enemy laughs at our beliefs Won't you take some time to realize You're His own that's why He died

Kirk also reached back to a foundational record; the first song he ever wrote as the young music director of the Georgia Mass Choir. “Joy” is probably the most traditional song in Kirk’s catalog, prompting him to declare that folks probably wouldn’t know it “if your grandmama ain't got peppermint wrapped up in pieces of toilet paper in her purse.” (If you didn’t get that reference, he’s right.) “Joy” is also one of the few songs Kirk actually sings lead on, which is probably why he didn’t play more than a short clip.

ROUND 5: Fred Hammond's "Prelude" (from Love Unstoppable) and Kirk Franklin's “More Than I Can Bear”

Hammond, who provided most of the afternoon’s solemn notes while Kirk mostly kept the energy up, chose a prelude his son and daughter recorded to open his 2009 album as an avenue to share his concern about his own son, a 6’2”, 22-year-old Black man. Kirk picked up the acknowledgment of pain, fear, and uncertainty with The Family’s “More Than I Can Bear,” and then jumped on the keyboard to follow it up with a reprise. This was the first shouting moment of the day.

ROUND 6: Commissioned's “King of Glory” and Kirk Franklin's “Looking for You”

When Franklin and Hammond announced surprises at the top of the first hour, it was a safe assumption that some collaborators were spread out throughout Franklin’s house. First up; Hammond’s former Commissioned group member Marvin Sapp. When the group was already well established, Sapp joined the Commissioned in 1990 and his voice fit right in. The two shared the first single, featuring the then-22-year old, which is now one of Commissioned's signature songs.

This was a turn-up round, so Franklin followed up with the high energy, Patrice Rushen sampled “Looking for You,” but first...

BONUS: Marvin Sapp's “Never Would Have Made It”

Marvin ain’t break social distancing just to sing over the radio track for “King of Glory.” Franklin introduced him with a quick note of “Never Would Have Made It,” Sapp’s powerful 2007 testimonial praise and worship anthem. Sapp feigned reluctance to sing the whole song, but we all know that’s what he was there for. That was the second shout of the day.

ROUND 7: Fred Hammond's “Glory to Glory” and Kirk Franklin's “Hosanna”

This was the praise & worship round: songs with relatively simple and repetitive lyrics that are often used to set the tone in worship. Gospel music contains and or reflects scripture; praise & worship is exactly what the description says and what the lyrics of Hammond and Franklin’s respective selections express:

Let the people praise Him, rejoice in all His goodness, and be thankful for all He has done. - "Glory to Glory"

Hosanna forever, we worship you - "Hosanna"

ROUND 8: Fred Hammond's “Please Don’t Pass Me By” and Kirk Franklin's “Something About the Name Jesus”

Kirk and Fred were a perfect pairing for this Verzuz edition because they both bridged gospel and secular music in groundbreaking—and at times controversial—ways. Fred and former group Commissioned are credited with influencing a generation of male R&B singers; he mentioned later how church elders and gospel traditionalists wouldn’t support Commissioned because they wore jeans on the album cover. Similar to Kirk, Fred’s been known for music that sounded more like something you’d hear on mainstream radio than anything you’d hear in church. Case in point: the music bed for “Please Don’t Pass Me By” brings R&B group 112’s “Cupid” to mind.

In contrast, Kirk responded with the old-school-styled “Something About the Name Jesus” featuring gospel OG Rance Allen and gospel Men of Standard from Franklin's 1998 The Nu Nation Project.

ROUND 9: Fred Hammond's “Jesus Be a Fence Around Me” and Kirk Franklin's “Love Theory”

Rounds 8 and 9 illustrated how this was more of a digital concert than battle; selections that felt more like a well-curated playlist than a back and forth of comparative tracks.

Perhaps taking a cue from Kirk and “Something About the Name Jesus,” Fred shared some of his influences before offering his rendition of gospel standard “Jesus Be a Fence Around Me.” Even though the song is now a standard for church elders, the singers who first popularized it—original writer Sam Cooke with legendary gospel group The Soul Stirrers, soul crooner Lou Rawls with The Pilgrim Travelers (the version closest to Fred’s), and Supreme’s influences The Meditation Singers—were all known for toeing the line between R&B and pop and traditional gospel in their time.

Kirk followed with the lead single from his most recent album, 2019’s Long, Live, Love, a bop (a whole bop) that sounds a million miles away from “Jesus Be a Fence Around Me” and in fact complements Fred’s choice; It’s also about Jesus being a protector. And Kirk blessed us with a little choreography.

ROUND 10: Commissioned's “Love is the Key” and  Kirk Franklin & The Family's “Now Behold the Lamb”

Even if Kirk hadn’t announced what song he was about to play, hands would have shot up in preparatory praise as soon as he played the opening keys of “Now Behold the Lamb.” Originally on The Family’s 1995 Christmas album (Kirk Franklin & the Family Christmas) and featuring vocals of original members-turned- TV-stars David and Tamela Mann, the song still has the power to quickly bring listeners to tears, 25 years later.

ROUND 11: Kirk Franklin's “Revolution” and Fred Hammond's “Let the Praise Begin” 

Before starting this round, Fred and Kirk took a minute to say the names of the Black men whose lives have been unjustly cut down by police or self-appointed vigilantes. (They took a moment later to add the Black women they neglected to initially include.) As protests rapidly grow across the country with many having morphed into riots, Kirk Franklin's Rodney Jerkins-produced “Revolution” hit even harder than usual.

On Fred’s turn, he demonstrated his secular influence again with “Let the Praise Begin”—which Chance the Rapper sampled on his Coloring Book mixtape, “Blessings”—a track the rapper used for an unofficial altar call at the end of his live performances.

ROUND 12: Kirk Franklin's “Silver and Gold” and Fred Hammond's “All Things are Working”

As mentioned earlier, the primary difference between traditional gospel songs and praise & worship songs is the lyrics. “Gospel” is, by definition, from the actual gospel: scripture. Kirk and Fred are both part of a generation of contemporary gospel singers that have been somewhat chided for gospel music’s transition into more of a praise & worship space, but both also have deep foundational gospel roots. These two songs are each prime examples, both taken directly from scriptural influence:

“Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee” - Acts 3:6

“And we know all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose” - Romans 8:28

ROUND 13: Kirk Franklin's “Imagine Me” and Commissioned's “Ordinary Just Won’t Do”

If these rounds were themed (I’d love to see their notes), Round 13 was about finding unconditional love and trust in God.

Imagine me, being free, trusting you totally, finally, I can Imagine me I admit it was hard to see You being in love with someone like me But finally I can Imagine me - "Imagine Me"

The ordinary just won’t do I need a love that's pure and true I can always find it in you Jesus The ordinary just won’t do I gotta have a touch from you I can always find it in you, Jesus - "Ordinary Just Won’t Do"

ROUND 14: Kirk Franklin on Kanye West's “Ultralight Beam” and Fred Hammond on Kanye West's “Hands On”

Some collective digital groans went up amongst those in the house solely for Fred and Kirk jams during the round devoted to tracks each done with Kanye West. For Kirk, the rousing “Ultralight Beam” from The Life of Pablo, which also featured Chance the Rapper and R&B/gospel singer Kelly Price. For Hammond, a track from West’s hotly debated “gospel album” Jesus is King. It did make sense: Verzuz started as a hip-hop-leaning platform. Fortunately, though, both seemed to know this round would change the energy if they let it and kept the moment brief.

ROUND 15: Kirk Franklin's “The Reason Why I Sing” and Fred Hammond's “Running Back to You”

Heading into the home stretch, the men each offered their break-out hits. Franklin’s “The Reason Why I Sing” broke records on gospel, Christian, and R&B radio and set him on the path for mainstream crossover. Commission’s “Running Back to You” is one of many templates the groups inadvertently created for male R&B groups that came along a few years later, having come of age singing and studying the Detroit vocalists’ music. Jodeci’s K-Ci Hailey even ad-libbed part of the chorus, “(My) arms are open wide, and I don’t have to cry no more…” on the torch 1992 track “I’m Still Waiting” from the group’s debut album, 5 years later.

ROUND 16: God's Property's  “My Life is in Your Hands” and Fred Hammond's “They That Wait” feat. John P. Kee

“My Life is in Your Hands” by Kirk's gospel choir, God's Property, feels like a sequel of “The Reason Why I Sing,” so it made sense as Franklin’s next choice.

Hammond’s selection was a collaboration with contemporary gospel great John P. Kee. Even though Kee already had his own Instagram Live match, it was plagued with a muffled sound, so he deserved a moment.

ROUND 17: Kirk Franklin's “I Smile” and Fred Hammond's “You are the Living Word”

Before playing the bouncy “Smile,” Kirk acknowledged that in a week that feels like we’re in a civil war, the idea of smiling is likely difficult (the guys did a solid job of reading the room.)

Hammond in turn played fan-favorite “You are the Living Word” but cut it off just as listeners at home were getting into their parts of the three-part harmony. Kirk knew it was too soon and jumped on the piano keys again so Fred could get to the bridge and we could properly get our sing-along on at home.

ROUND 18: Tamela Mann's “Take me to the King” and Fred Hammond and Radical For Christ's “This is the Day”

Tamela Mann just casually strolling into the studio from making the potato salad for post-battle repast in Kirk’s kitchen or wherever she was didn’t fool anybody. Real ones have known what’s up since we were introduced to her voice over 25 years ago as an original member of Franklin’s Family. I knew she was about to make us cry when memes hit our Twitter timelines before she even opened her mouth. Her live rendition of “Take Me to the King,” a song about those moments when prayer just doesn’t feel effective enough, was so powerful and resonated with the times of right now. If you listened carefully, you could hear her shouting for minutes after she left the room.

ROUND 19: Kirk Franklin's “Melodies from Heaven” and Fred Hammond's “No Weapon”

Kirk had a sense of humor about his reputation as a “secular” gospel artist and called his gorgeous wife Tammy into the room to dance as he played “Melodies from Heaven,” a song that’s been played in many a club and has been remixed with Junior Mafia’s “Crush on You,” a mashup that Kirk himself performs in concert.

Hammond used 2007’s “No Weapon” to bring the tempo down as they prepared to close. After Franklin took a minute to call Wanda Cooper, the mother of Ahmad Aubrey, Hammond extended a prayer of invitation and salvation for listeners. If there’s one moment that defines this Verzuz event as a ministry rather than just musical exchanges, that prayer is the moment.

ROUND 20: Kirk Franklin's “Stomp (Remix)" and Fred Hammond's “We’re Blessed”

The men held their strongest jams for last: Kirk with his 1997 career-defining and genre-changing “Stomp (Remix)" (again, former choir members watching the live stream broke out their choreography without even thinking), and Hammond with 1995’s “We’re Blessed,” a track that runs almost six minutes in length that almost all of us would have been happy for him to play in full.

BENEDICTION SELECTIONS: Kirk Franklin's “Strong God,” Fred Hammond's “Alright” and "My Desire"

As everyone filed out of the digital church and tried to figure out where to go for dinner, Franklin and Hammond each offered one last song.

Kirk played “Strong God” another single from his latest album and announced the video’s Monday release (see below). Hammond also rendered a selection from his most recent album, the title track from 2019’s Alright.

To close it out, the men played their first collaboration "My Desire," off Franklin's The Nu Nation Project.

THE WINNER: While The Healing drew fewer numbers than most of the Verzus of the last month, peaking around 277K, the positive responses were overwhelming. Viewers shared that they felt lifted, renewed, and energized. Some expressed that they felt hopeful for the first time in several days. We all won. But if we have to list specific winners, that run down includes Black folks, church kids, music lovers, the audio, and our collective and communal spirits. And Tamela Mann.

Watch Fred Hammond and Kirk Franklin's The Healing over on Verzuz's official Instagram account.  

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Courtesy of DubShot Records

Boomshots: The Unstoppable Rise Of Dre Island

"We rise to the top," Dre Island sings on "We Pray," his massive collab with Popcaan, "cause we know what it takes."

Building on that theme of musical and spiritual elevation, the multi-talented musician—singer, deejay, songwriter, producer, and pianist—has just released his debut album Now I Rise. The project features the aforementioned "We Pray" as well as crucial collaborations with the likes of Jesse Royal and Chronixx. "Ah mi family dem deh," says Dre Island, who has toured Europe backed by Chronixx's band Zincfence Redemption. A graduate of Kingston’s Calabar high school—alma mater of both Jr. Gong and Vybz Kartel—Andre Johnson aka Dre Island is a living link between the vaunted “roots revival” movement and the sound of the Jamaican streets.

“The revival is really within the people," he says. "Reggae music never stop. Reggae artists always been touring. So it’s just the people’s awareness.” During a time when reggae and dancehall stand at a crossroads, Dre Island has emerged as one of the few artists capable of bringing together dancehall vibes and the ancient roots traditions—not to mention outernational connections like "People" his collaboration with UK talents Cadenza and Jorja Smith. “An island is a small land mass surrounded by water,” the artist told Boomshots correspondent Reshma B in their first interview. “But if you read further it’s also a place where you go to find yourself.”

Released through a joint-venture partnership with New York-based DubShot Records and the artist's own Kingston Hills Entertainment imprint, Now I Rise is a 13-track set that includes the hit single “We Pray” featuring Popcaan, “My City,” as well as the recently released “Be Okay” feat Jesse Royal. Never-before-heard tracks include “Days of Stone” featuring Chronixx and “Run to Me” featuring Alandon as well as tracks produced by the likes of Jam2, Anju Blaxx, Teetimus, Winta James, Dretegs Music and Barkley Productions. The artist is now managed by Sharon Burke, founder of the Solid Agency in Kingston, Jamaica. Earlier this month, Dre Island premiered the official music video (directed by Fernando Hevetia) for the last song on the album, “Still Remain.”

“This album speaks of arising, growth, new beginnings and emerging from the ashes," Dre Island states. "At this time, these are all the things we need based on what is happening right now. The truth is, since 2015 I have been advertising that the album is coming. It has been five years and the time is right. As an artist and person Dre Island move different. I embrace Rasta and this way of life, but I am not part of any group like Boboshanti or Twelve Tribes. Everything I do is inspired by the father. I am moved to drop this album at this time because I am divinely inspired to do so. When you look at a song like “We Pray” I can take no credit for a song like that. Yes I wrote the lyrics and built the rhythm and I voice the track, but it's a prayer, not just a song so how a man fi tek credit for something that come from above.”

Dre Island and Boomshots have been linking up from early in his musical journey. During a recent trip to New York City, he sat down with Reshma B to speak about the new project and his unstoppable rise. Check the reasoning:

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Carlos Perez

Anuel AA Breaks Free

In 2015, an entourage of close to 30 men drew guns among one another during a traditional Christmas parranda in Puerto Rico. The scene turned into something straight out of a movie when a pair of gangsters clandestinely attempted to kidnap local rapper Anuel AA. After a brief scuffle and flagrant shouting match, however, the man born Emmanuel Gazmey Santiago went on to finish the evening’s holiday spree in the boisterous company of his loyal posse.

Months later, after ushering in the new year on a promising note by featuring on one of Latin trap’s first global hits – De La Ghetto’s sex anthem “La Ocasion” with Arcangel and Ozuna – someone delivered Anuel AA a divine premonition of sorts: “If you keep talking about this stuff in your songs, something really ugly is going to happen to you.”

A Puerto Rican music legend, Hector “El Father” of reggaeton-turned-son of God, paid Anuel a visit to share his foreboding message. “He and I did not know each other,” explained Anuel, who prides himself on waxing poetics about the real-life experiences Hector was concerned with, “but God spoke to him and Hector felt he needed to reach out to me. When he warned me, he said it with so much conviction that he even cried.”

Having forged a legacy of his own as one of the key trailblazing reggaeton entertainers of the ‘90s who later signed a deal with JAY-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records, Hector – now a devoted Christian – understood life imitated art when it came to Anuel’s lyrics.

“My lyrics talked a lot about God and the devil, so when he told me that,” Anuel continued, “I knew I needed to make some changes. Those themes, good versus evil, they were my mark and what separated me from the rest.”

On April 3, 2016, just two weeks after meeting with Hector, Anuel was arrested and held in Guaynabo’s correctional institution on charges of illegal gun possession. Following his biggest musical break yet, just as he was touching the cusp of international stardom, a court judge sentenced Anuel to 30 months in federal prison without bail.

Raised east of San Juan, in the Puerto Rican city of Carolina, Anuel AA has a lot in common with many of my favorite MCs: he’s charming, resolute, and lyrically gifted, yet marred by a criminal past, complicit misogyny and the constant struggle between right and wrong. “I had no choice but to carry those weapons with me, because of the issues I had on the street,” the rapper said to VIBE Viva over the phone, while quarantined in Miami. “I thought to myself I’d rather be locked up than found dead.”

Indeed, Anuel had evaded his probable demise when he was nearly abducted and landed right behind bars months later, fulfilling a prophecy that cost him both his freedom and a flourishing start at the tipping point of trap music en Español. “I was being forced to reckon with all the bad things I had done for money in the past,” Anuel expressed, regretfully. “I started reading the Bible for the first time and realized that my talent and blessings came from God, not anywhere else.”

Anuel had begun to take music seriously around the same time his father, José Gazmey, was laid off from his coveted A&R position at Sony Music. With his back against the wall, a scrappy Anuel left home at 15 and began to engage in felonious activity to help provide for his family and finance his music endeavors.

Like many rappers on the island, Anuel was influenced by popular culture and trends on the mainland, most discernibly by contemporary trap. Anuel understood the genre’s synonymy with street life and the drug enterprise and immediately took to Messiah El Artista, a Dominican-American rapper VIBE profiled for championing Spanish-language trap music all over New York.

“I figured if Latin trap was doing well in New York, it was for sure going to pop in Puerto Rico,” said Anuel, who had signed with the Latino division of Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group the year prior to his arrest. “I spent about a month in New York before I returned to Puerto Rico. Then I started to release all the songs I had, one by one, and they began to gain popularity.”

While artists like J. Balvin helped breathe new life into the reggaeton genre in Colombia, Anuel wanted to spearhead a movement in Puerto Rico with a sound all their own. “I recorded the ‘Esclava’ remix with Bryant Myers and it might not have taken off worldwide, but it became a huge trap song in Puerto Rico.”

Akin to the heydays of reggaeton, an Afro-Caribbean genre-fusing hip-hop and reggae that originated in Puerto Rico, trap music was considered lowbrow and was heavily criticized for its vulgarity, violence, and explicit lyrics. Puerto Rican critics and artists alike had very little faith in the music’s potential and therefore denounced it. “DJ Luian, who is like a brother to me, couldn’t understand why I wanted to put all my energy into music that none of our artists wanted to sing.”

“Reggaeton went dormant for years,” he continued. “It was necessary to make trap music, because it felt like reggaeton was stuck in another era.” A self-described student of the late and oft-controversial Tupac Shakur, Anuel thought reggaeton had reached its pinnacle and believed Latin trap would be its successor.

Songs like “Nunca Sapo,” where Anuel channels Rick Ross’ Teflon Don ethos and spits a grimy slow-tempo flow over a sinister 808-laden instrumental, helped put a face to Anuel’s little-known name in the US. On cuts like Farruko’s “Liberace,” Anuel speeds up his delivery for fun and plays on the “Versace” rhythm popularized by Migos, who all hail from Atlanta—the widely credited birthplace of trap music.

For Anuel, whose life mantra “real hasta la muerte” is now a famous hashtag, music aspirations had little to do with radio play. Anuel, 27, was largely concerned with dominating the digital space, especially while incarcerated. Despite his arrest, he continued to release music from behind prison walls while his team fed his massive following up-to-date content.

Hear This Music CEO, DJ Luian heeded what Anuel was trying to accomplish and began to work with Bad Bunny, the Latin Grammy-winning artist and star voice of the current Latin trap movement. “When I was locked up, Luian helped develop Bad Bunny and he basically became in charge of keeping trap alive while I was away,” said Anuel, who ironically came under fire recently and was accused of throwing shade at Bad Bunny for the video treatment of “Yo Perreo Sola,” in which the rapper-singer dresses in drag as a stance against toxic masculinity.

“I couldn’t believe something like this was going viral,” Anuel interrupted anxiously before I could expound on a question concerning their relationship. “It looked like it was something that was edited or put together to make my Instagram posts read that way. I immediately texted Bad Bunny about it and he was like, ‘Don’t worry, people are always going to be talking sh*t.’”

Anuel considers Bad Bunny a genius at what he does and maintains that despite not knowing each other very well, he and his fellow compatriot are friendly collaborators with a working rapport: “When he and I do a new song together, what will people say then?”

Today, the collective jury will reach a verdict upon listening to Anuel’s newly-released sophomore studio album Emmanuel, where fans will find a track titled “Hasta Que Dios Diga,” a sultry, mid-tempo reggaeton number. Fans can expect to hear a star-studded project riddled with guest features, including Tego Calderón, Daddy Yankee, Enrique Iglesias, J. Balvin, Ozuna, and Karol G, to name a few.

Discussing life during a global pandemic, Anuel spoke fondly of his partner-in-rhyme, Colombian singer-songwriter Karol G. “She’s the love of my life. She’s been there with me through the good and bad. People who really love you are the ones who stand firm by you when things are bleak. In my toughest moments, Karol was there. She’s shown me how to be a better man,” he gushed.

“Karol comes off as super feminine—which she is, but Karol also has a really tough masculine side,” Anuel laughed heartily on the other end of the line. “She rides motorcycles and likes taking them up these crazy hills. She rides jet skis too! She’s like a dude, haha. We work well together and we give each other advice all the time.”

The pair are making the most of quarantine life in South Florida, releasing a self-directed and self-shot music video for their joint single “Follow,” a reference to flirting over social media in the era of social-distancing, the idea that shooting one’s proverbial shot can lead to a budding romance.

On July 17, 2018, Anuel dropped his debut studio album, Real Hasta La Muerte, hours before he was released from jail. By September, the RIAA certified his introduction to the game platinum, garnering the attention of Roc Nation artist Meek Mill. When the Philly wordsmith released his fourth studio LP in November of the same year, followers were geeked to learn Anuel had earned himself a place on Meek’s highly anticipated Championships album with “Uptown Vibes.”

I always wanted you and anuel aa to make a track together bc i feel like he’s the meek mill of spanish trap , how was it working with him ?

— Nagga (@naggareports) December 17, 2018

“Recording with Meek Mill for me was like when Allen Iverson played with Michael Jordan for the first time,” Anuel said, singing praises about their first-ever partnership. “I’m a huge fan of Meek; when his music took off I was still in the streets, so I related and identified with a lot of the things he was saying.”

“Meek doesn’t understand a lick of Spanish,” he mused in jest, “but he’s always with a bunch of Latinos. When I speak to him he says, ‘I don’t know what you’re saying, but my Spanish [speaking] ni**as tell me you be talking that sh*t!’”

Anuel leveraged his knack for storytelling and released “3 de Abril” earlier this year, an emotional freestyle about the day he was arrested and a graphic snapshot of his trials and tribulations.

“I did things without caring about the consequences. I thought I was a man because I was street smart. Now I know what it’s like to lose everything, so I wanted to talk more about my life and the experiences of me and my family,” Anuel described the inspiration behind the song.

Following the release of “3 de Abril,” Anuel again turned hip-hop heads when he and Lil Pump shared a fiery audiovisual for their collaborative effort “Illuminati,” stamping Pump's first new song since summer 2019. This year, Anuel also has songs with Colombian pop empress Shakira (“Me Gusta”) and with the late Juice WRLD (“No Me Ames”).

Albeit Anuel and Juice WRLD never got to meet in person, Anuel learned about the Chicago rapper from listening to his singles on the radio in jail. “The same year I won Billboard Latin’s Artist of The Year award, Juice WRLD won New Artist at the American Billboard Awards. We ended up recording the song after that but held off on releasing it for a bit because he and I had respective singles coming out at the same time,” Anuel explained.

“By the time we were finally ready to premiere it, Juice WRLD had passed away. We were never able to record together in person, but at least we got to feature him on the video. I know the tribute gave his fans and family some needed strength.”

Less than 30 minutes have gone by and already I am forced to wrap my conversation with Boricua’s burgeoning superstar:

Anuel, explain “real hasta la muerte” for me. Why exactly is this mantra of yours so important? 

“I can’t betray anyone. I don’t know what it’s like to really betray someone. I’m very loyal to my circle, my family, and those I hold close to me. Being real is what keeps me humble. It doesn’t matter how much money I make or how much I accomplish. What’s critical is staying real to myself and keeping my feet on the ground. That’s what helps keep me going.”

This interview was translated from Spanish to English and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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