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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.

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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

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Scotch Porter Founder Calvin Quallis Talks New Haircare Line, Self Care Beyond Products

Calvin Quallis worked multiple jobs that he hated before founding Scotch Porter, but between childhood memories at his mom’s beauty parlor and his own trips to the barbershop, one thing stuck out. “On some of those worst days, I’d go get a haircut and come out thinking I could take on the world,” Quallis said. “So I’ve always known that grooming and self care had the chance to make you feel better about yourself.” After founding a barbershop called Center Stage Cuts  in New Jersey and seeing so many customers with dry, damaged hair in their beards, he began to research ingredients and start making products in his home. In the first 12 months of Scotch Porter – named after his favorite drink (scotch) and his favorite musician (Gregory Porter) – he made more than a million dollars in sales. Since then, Scotch Porter has become one of the most known names for black men’s beard and skin care products.

This year, Scotch Porter is seeing changes. February has seen the launch of a new hair care line, and a new set of ingredients to the beard and skin care products that were already so popular. Plus, the signature brown tubes that hold their products has been changed to new, streamlined blue packaging. Quallis visited the VIBE office to talk about the foundation of the company, 2020’s new leaf, and Scotch Porter’s emphasis on community and lifestyle beyond what their customers put in their dopp kits.

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VIBE: Black men have always cared about how we look, but in recent years, we’ve been more comfortable using products for our faces and beards. Where do you think that comfort comes from?

Calvin Quallis: I think it’s a couple of things. One, access to social media. We’re always in front of a camera, always visible. When you’re always visible, you want to look your best. Two, folks are just much more comfortable that were in the past considered female-oriented. So, always being in front of a camera, with selfies and the gist, and wanting to look your best and becoming comfortable using products that were originally toward women.

VIBE: I’m not sure that you were the first black beard company that I heard of, but you were definitely one of the first that I had seen that didn’t just seem like a homemade thing. You were very professional. What kind of strategy went into how you presented the product?

I did work at a design firm. So just seeing designers put together beautiful buildings and different projects, and also in my own personal life, I like nice things. So in terms of the overall aesthetic for the brand, I think it comes somewhat naturally, and then also working at a design firm and seeing how they put together projects, and how they start from scratch, and how they think about design. I think that lended a hand as well.

VIBE: When you were selling this early on, was there any convincing you had to do for the customers?

At that time, I didn’t see many folks talking to black men about beard care or hair care. I didn’t see ads on Instagram or Facebook. So when we launched, it was easy to break through the noise. I noticed at the shop that guys were growing out their beards more, and there weren’t products on the market meant specifically for coily, curly, dry hair. So I seen that as an opportunity, and folks weren’t advertising products like that. It kind of made it slightly easier than it is now, because every other day there’s some new product that’s popped up that someone has created. At that time, it was easier to cut through the clutter because there wasn’t much available for guys with hair textures like us, and they weren’t advertising it if it did exist.

 

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All the hair care you need is right here. Try the Scotch Porter Superior Hair Collection, to clean, nourish, hydrate and style your hair from start to finish. ⁠With key ingredients Kale Protein and Biotin, achieving the healthy hair & scalp you need is waiting for you. 👀 no further... add this collection to your cart. #MensGrooming #ScotchPorter

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VIBE: Tell me about the new hair products you’re launching. 

We’re watching new reformulated hair care products, along with reformulated beard and skincare products. Our new hair care line includes five products: our Hydrating Hair Wash, Nourish And Repair Hair Conditioner, Smoothing Hair Balm, Smooth & Shine Hair Serum, and our Leave-In Conditioner. All of these hair care products, including our beard and skincare products, are multifunctional, so they do more than just one thing. Our hair balm and hair wash don’t only cleanse and condition, but also include some flake reduction actives, and healthy hair and scalp botanicals that help with things like dandruff, and it also helps prevent hair thinning.

VIBE: I’ve been using Scotch Porter for so long that I always associate the image of the brown containers. What made you decide to change up the look?

I’ve noticed for a while, the space is just becoming increasingly competitive. I’ve known for about a year that we needed to reinvent ourselves, and to reup. Make better products, make them more affordable – we’ve been able to reduce the price point on all our products by about 25 percent. Also, pull out things from our products. There’s no BHTs, there’s no parabins, no formaldehyde donors. We’ve gotten rid of phenoxyethanol, and we’ve included really interesting ingredient stories. This, again, is all based on seeing how the landscape has gotten increasingly competitive.

VIBE: I wanted to dig into that a little bit. You were one of the first in the space. What do you think is the balance between sticking with what you know, vs. knowing when you need to change?

Part of it is insight. You’ve got to pay attention to what’s going on around you, with a focus on the consumer. Understand what’s going on in the marketplace, but also thinking how we can better serve the customer by delivering even better products. The products that we’ve reformulated are even better than we’ve had before. Thinking of price points and making products more accessible. Then, just giving folks more value and pulling out interesting ingredients that help with some of the issues that men have as it relates to grooming.

VIBE: One of my favorite parts of Scotch Porter is the emphasis on lifestyle and community. Last year, I went to the pop up shop you had, and I was impressed – not only did you have the products at a discount, but you also had the panel for black men to congregate. You also have the email newsletter, and the print manual; in the former, you recently told customers to go to the doctor. Also, each purchase comes with the NakedWines voucher. It just feels like there’s an intention to make black men enjoy each other and love themselves.

It stems from our mission. Our mission from day one has always been to help men feel their best and to live their most fulfilled lives. These touchpoints are just expressions of that. Even as I think about wellness – over the last 14 months or so, I’ve lost 60 pounds. I’ve been getting better at looking at what I’m putting in my body, and what’s important, and these are the things I need to do if I want to be around longer. I’m still on my journey; I ain’t there yet. But we’ve always been talking about how internal and external wellness are a big part of helping guys to feel their best. Some of the articles you see, or the pop-up shop where we have a discussion around mental health, and even the articles on going to the doctor. It’s a holistic approach to helping men feel their best. For us, it’s never been about just giving you the next goop to put in your beard, and that’s all that you need to look and feel your best. It’s internal and external.

VIBE: The manual and the newsletter have these important messages, but it doesn’t feel like they’re talking down to you. It just feels like one of my homies emailing me about it.

Because that’s the only way you’re going to be able to digest it. And again, I’m on my own journey. I’m not there yet. I’m not rocking a six-pack. And it’s not necessarily about that. Each and every day, what can you be doing to make your life better? For us, that’s what it’s about, and that’s the conversation that we have with guys. It’s not about us being on a soapbox pretending we have it all figured out.

 

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It’s official! We’re proud to share that #ScotchPorter is now available at select @Target retail locations across the nation. (CLICK LINK IN BIO FOR STORE LOCATOR) • • We’re pumped about our retail expansion as it provides us with the opportunity to bring our #MULTIPurpose better-for-you Beard and Face care products straight to your local #Target store. • • When it comes to accessing products that are non-toxic and healthier for you, you deserve options that won’t break the bank. With key ingredients in our Beard and Face collections including Biotin and Pomegranate Enzymes, our products have you covered. • • Thanks for riding with us, we’re just getting started!☄️ #MensGrooming #TellAFriend

A post shared by Scotch Porter (@scotchporter) on Feb 17, 2020 at 1:55pm PST

VIBE: Within the past couple of years, Bevel sold their products in Target and they were later acquired by Procter & Gamble. Do you have any plans to expand in terms of selling products outside of the website?

On February 9, we launch in about a third of the Target doors with our beard care and skin care products. We’re super excited about that. Target has launched a campaign, and I’m included in the launch for their black history month Black Beyond Measure campaign, where they’re highlighting black founders and their success stories. Excited to be a part of that and share my journey, both with potential entrepreneurs and regular customers.

VIBE: Anything else about Scotch Porter that people should know?

One of the things that’s always been important to me is providing access, opportunity and employment to people that look like us. It’s really intentional. I’d say about 95 to 98 percent of the folks that work with us look like me and you. We provide opportunity, and we provide what I consider great pay. I remember when I was working for somebody else, feeling like I had to fight to climb the career ladder, the limitations that were put on me had nothing to do with my skill set. When I was starting Scotch Porter, I made it very important to hire people who look like us and give them an opportunity to climb up.

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Nicky Jam: A Love Supreme

Love has neurological effects similar to those of cocaine. That’s what researchers from Syracuse University discovered in a study called "The Neuroimaging of Love.” According to science, falling in love triggers the same feeling of ecstasy experienced by people when they consume the drug.

What’s more, the withdrawal of love—or the emotional mourning that transpires after a serious breakup, for instance—can result in what is called Broken Heart Syndrome, also known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy. The chest pain, characterized as sudden and intense, can rear its ugly head no matter how healthy one might be.

So when one of the biggest reggaeton singers to ever walk the planet tells me he resorted to the use of narcotics after an unexpected breakup during his formative years, I was all but flabbergasted. A 15-year-old Nick "Nicky Jam" Rivera Caminero had slipped into subterranean levels of depression in the face of cyclical family trauma, maternal abandonment and, ultimately, adolescent heartache.

“That’s when I touched cocaine for the first time,” and Nicky experienced a coke-induced euphoria that he spent the following 15 years trying to reproduce. Not long after recording his first album in 1994, ...Distinto A Los Demás, Nicky set on a path of years under the devilish grips of chronic addiction that saw him rise to teen fame in Puerto Rico and practically fade into oblivion by his mid-20s.

A considerably brief, yet successful stint as one-half of Los Cangris with reggaeton compatriot Daddy Yankee during the late 90s served as a precursor to Nicky’s solo career in the early 2000s. After the two parted ways professionally, Nicky went on to release a pair of studio albums, Haciendo Escante and Vida Escante between 2001 and 2004. By 2010, Nicky—now a struggling addict and self-described embarrassment of the Latin Caribbean music industry—relocated to Medellín, Colombia.

It was there in one of the most criminally notorious Latin American cities where Nicky Jam was able to produce a cadre of concerts and hit singles— “Voy A Beber,” “Tu Primera Vez,” and “Juegos Prohibidos,” to name a few—that helped revive his once-dwindling career. A city he feels indebted to for nurturing him when he most needed it, Medellín would also go on to backdrop the near overdose that almost took Nicky’s life before he made the radical (and perilous) decision of going clean.

In 2015, Nicky earned his first Latin Grammy Award in the category of Best Urban Performance with Enrique Iglesias for “El Perdón.” By 2017, Nicky had effectively kicked a deadly habit, resurrected his career, and from the ashes emerged with Fénix, an award-winning and Latin Grammy-nominated studio album that gathered collaborations featuring everyone from Sean Paul and J Balvin to El Alfa and Kid Ink.

Lead singles “El Amante” and “Hasta el Amanecer” would go on to receive their respective billions in views on YouTube, while a spot on Jaden Smith’s “Icon (Remix)” sparked the beginning of a collaborative relationship with the rapper’s father and Hollywood veteran, Will Smith. The Lawrence, Massachusetts born singer was tapped to play the official 2018 FIFA World Cup anthem, “Live it Up,” featuring Big Willie himself and Albanian singer-songwriter Era Istrefi.

In the same year, amid an afrobeat wave, Nicky released “X” with J Balvin, under Sony Music Latin. The song would go on to rule Billboard’s Latin Pop Airplay charts and, as of today, its accompanying music video has accumulated nearly 1.8 billion views on YouTube. In the time “X” took to climb the charts and make a home on the global dance floor, Nicky conjured thoughts with Will about possibly starring in Bad Boys For Life, the third installment of the classic movie franchise.

On January 17, 2020, Nicky then made a memorable return to the big screen alongside Will and on-screen partner-in-crime Martin Lawrence for the big-budget film. Playing one of the villains, Zway-Lo, Nicky’s dedication to his role went as far as him learning to perform a majority of his own stunts. Bad Boys For Life topped the box office for three straight weekends, raking in approximately $168 million in revenue and a total of $338 million worldwide. In the thick of it all, the father of four managed to drop a seventh studio album, Íntimo, and go on a U.S. tour to promote it.

To call Nicky’s story a comeback would be an understatement. Reggaeton’s reigning cupid is a dissertation on transnational redemption and personal resilience, despite falling victim to the social, psychological, physiological, and financial ramifications of inherited drug abuse.

On March 5, 2020, Nicky Jam will enjoy the homecoming of a lifetime, as he's honored with the Special Achievement Award at this year’s Premios Tu Música Urbano at the renowned José Miguel Agrelot Coliseum in Puerto Rico. His former Los Cangris partner Daddy Yankee is the only other recipient to have taken home the same accolade. The greater accolade will be receiving his honor in the company of the new leading lady in his life.

Love is, indeed, in the air.

But no amount of emotional ecstasy was going to see Nicky through to the other side; it was the deliberate act of love that would save him. “I knew I had to break these chains,” he says. “To fix my life and my family.”

Bring me to the moment that made you feel you needed drugs.

I think drugs sometimes make you think it can be the fix of a lot of your problems. The problem with drugs is that you go to drugs because in your mind you don't care anymore about dealing with the troubles that you have. You need something to make you feel good.

What were you feeling bad about?

I lost my mom. My mom wasn't with me. In my mind, I was abandoned by her since I was eight-years-old. Then I had a close girlfriend who left me when I was 15 years old. That’s when I touched cocaine for the first time. ‘Cause in my mentality, nobody was stable in my life. Nobody was sticking around. I felt a lot of betrayal from my own mom and from the girl I loved.

I thought, “Why am I going to take care of myself? My dad didn’t handle his drug problems. My mom did drugs too, so why not me?" I mean, I had drugs all around me, and the foundation of everything is your home. It's your family.

The absence of someone you loved, is that at the root of your past drug abuse?

Yeah, basically.

What was the moment you knew you had to stop and that your life needed radical change?

Years and years after the fact. Imagine, I started at 15 years old. So it was about 15 years later around the time I was 30. I said I gotta break these chains. I almost died from an overdose. I knew I had to break these chains. My mom was doing drugs, my dad struggled with drugs—I gotta break these chains! I needed to fix my life and my family. And that's what I did.

What were the key decisions you had to make in order for you to be successful in your sobriety?

Every pain that I had while I was trying to get clean made me not want to come back to this ever again. When you go cold and try to break drugs, you start to get back pains and bone pains and it's cold all the time. Every time I was going through that process I thought, “This is me breaking this evil, this curse. Am I really going back to this curse?” I had to go through it.

Anything that you have to suffer physically for in that way is the only red flag you need. That right there was letting me know, bro, I was a slave to drugs. I didn't want to be one anymore, so I said I'm not going back to that again. I want to live like normal people. I don't want to work so I can maintain an addiction. I'm seeing that I haven't even been successful enough just because I've been stuck in this cycle. I didn’t want the story of my family and my life to be drugs. I didn’t want to die that way.

One of my favorite songs by Kendrick Lamar is called “i.” That song let us know he was someone who battled with suicidal thoughts and urges. I like to think it’s a love song that he dedicated to himself and others like him. The song is about coming to this radical understanding that despite what the world has to say about you and where you come from, you are enough and worthy of all the good things life has to offer. Talk a little bit about your relationship with self when you were on drugs.

I felt like s**t. I felt like my soul was dead. I didn't care about nothing. It got to a point where I loved living that life, that miserable life and that darkness. I enjoyed hanging around people that lived that same life as well. I enjoyed not having responsibility. I enjoyed just hiding away from everything. You know, one of the big problems of leaving drugs is not just leaving drugs. It’s going back to the reality of what made you turn to drugs in the first place. All those skeletons that you have in the closet. That was my problem.

What else don’t people get about drug addiction?

Another thing people don't know about drugs is that you are a slave to your first high. That first high is always the best high in the world. You're always looking for that same reaction and you never find it. You find a lot of good ones, but never like that first one. You could say that is love at first sight. The [high] is like love at first sight. This is what you feel in a moment where you fall in love or something like that. It’s the only thing similar to having something so good in your life. But it’s not good. Not good at all.

In another interview, you talked about the first time you saw people dancing reggae. It was at one of your parents’ house parties, I believe. You also compared that moment to love at first sight. What was it about reggae that immediately caught your attention?

It was just the Caribbean, you know? In the Caribbean you will see people dancing reggae like normal, but in the States you didn’t really see that. Now, yes, but back in the 80s? It was just MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, A Tribe Called Quest. People danced to hip-hop, obviously, but not so together. It wasn't really that grinding present. So when I saw people dancing reggae like that in Puerto Rico, and how sexy it was with that Caribbean vibe…

Is that what sparked your love for music?

Yes and no. My love for music began really when I saw the “Thriller” video by Michael Jackson. I remember seeing the premiere and I said I want to do this. I knew automatically when I saw Michael Jackson do “Thriller” as a little kid that I wanted people to fall in love with my music.

What other artists or genres did you consume that helped mold you into the artist you are today? Because you're lauded for bringing romance or the romantic flair to reggaeton.

Yeah, melody wise.

Are you a hopeless romantic?

I'm romantic, for sure, but it's also that I have a beautiful voice. My voice happens to work for that kind of material. So it's not only about my personality; I have a voice that helps create that type of music. What I did was take advantage of that.

I see.

But to answer your question, you can say a lot of music made me who I am. I'm talking about Prince, JAY-Z, Jenni Rivera. I’m talking about country and rock and so much other music that made Nicky Jam. I love that soul—that feeling. That’s what I’ve always been about.

Who taught you how to love?

Who taught me how to love?

Yes.

My kids taught me how to love. They’ve shown me what love really is. Colombia, believe it or not, showed me how to love. Because when I most needed love, they gave it to me. And God taught me love. Por encima de todo, God. God gave me that second opportunity in life where I really recognized that I was loved. I had my doubts.

What is your relationship with God?

God is everything. My respect to God is everything. I’m probably not the best church person in the world, but my connection with God is crazy. He knows that I have conversations with him. We can probably agree that I should maybe pray a little more. [Laughs] I get distracted a little bit because I got A.D.D., you know what I'm saying? But I love God.

You lit up when you mentioned your kids earlier. Who are they?

I have four kids. One is 18 years old and her name is Yarimar. My 17-year-old is Alissa. The 16-year-old is Luciana and my boy, Joe, is the youngest. He's 14 years old.

 

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A post shared by NICKY JAM (@nickyjampr) on Dec 22, 2019 at 8:40am PST

“La Promesa (La Calle)” is a standout cut for me off the new album. Considering some of the things you’re saying here, what was the writing process like?

That's the kind of song I wanted a lot of people to relate to. It’s saying I’m not giving up and I'm just going to do this. My situation is music, but somebody else can want to be a lawyer. Someone might want to be a journalist, a firefighter or a cop, who knows. But you’re saying, “I’m doing this.” I told my mom I'm not gonna stop. I'm gonna work my ass off and I'm gonna do what I'm gonna do so I don’t go back to that dark place. A lot of people hate me, but I see them. I see through them and I keep pushing anyway. I’m not stopping for nobody. That's the type of song that has a good vibe, but carries a strong message.

Would you say music helped save you?

Did music save me? Let me see, ‘cause I know a lot of people say it just to say it, right?

For sure.

Well, I gotta say that music did save me because it's really the only thing I had. I didn’t graduate from college, you know? I knew I had a voice and I knew I had the power to make people listen to me. So obviously music gave me hope and it gave me faith. It also made me want to be somebody and then it made me believe I was actually going to be somebody.

Music, then, also gifted you a world of people who love you, irrespective of your past or shortcomings.

It did. It gave me a platform, it gave me faith, and it gave me people that love me. Music saved me and my family, to be honest. Today my family lives good because of the music. Today my sister got her house because of the music. My mom got a home because of the music. My dad has his house because of the music. My kids got their college funds because of the music. Music saved the lives of my whole family.

What are your fears?

My fear today is not being with my kids when they need me. My fear today is that one of my kids will go through drugs. Because I know today the youth is crazy. My fear is not seeing my grandkids, stuff like that. I'm not saying I'm scared for my life. I'm saying that those are the things that I want to be here for. I want to make sure that I live a healthy life so I can be around for all of that.

You say that you work like you're going to lose everything at any given moment. Do you also love that way?

Of course. I try to give love to everybody that's next to me in the best way I know how. I try to share my life with them in a way that makes them feel like they have everything. That’s just how I operate. I focus on giving love and I focus on ensuring that [whoever is in my life] can walk away knowing that Nicky is a good guy. That I loved them and respected them. I'm the type of guy, I know when I go with God and I'm no longer on this earth, people gonna say, “I miss Nicky.” And that's when you know you made your legacy. When you make people miss you, you make people want to be with you. You make people want to say good things about you. That’s a legacy.

What’s your love language? How do you express your love to someone you care about?

I think the way I show love is by doing whatever it is I need to for my girl or for anybody that I love. You know what I'm saying? “What do you need?” I don't act like I'm this kind of guy, or that I can't do certain things. I don't have any limits when it's about showing love. It’s in the details, the stupid stuff. You want something? I’ll go get it for you. You want coffee? You hungry? You want me to get you anything? I got you.

You like to serve.

I definitely serve. I’m a server. It’s funny ‘cause I know I might not look like it, but that's who I am. That's how I show my love. And I think it's a good way to show it, ‘cause you know it when it’s gone.

And you brought your partner with you. How did you meet her?

I was doing a video called “Atrevete.” I called her agency and I thought she was the perfect girl for the video. It was just love at first sight. [Laughs] I just saw her come in the restaurant and I said, “Wow, that's a beautiful girl right there.” Then we started talking and it was just instant.

Really?

I had never seen eyes like that before. I just went crazy. Yeah, there's a lot of blue eyes, but something about her eyes drove me crazy. We were flirting around and everybody started to watch, and we just didn't care that people were there. We were just at it and it didn’t matter who was in the room. The video was about us. About me trying to win her over, and it worked. [Laughs]

Do you see a life with her?

Yeah. You also have to understand my background, where I come from and how I lost so many people in life. So my mind doesn’t necessarily… I try not to really think about it like that. I just try my best to enjoy [the present].

 

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My goofball ❤️

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Is that what your “Life” tattoo is about?

It’s the only thing that matters, life and living it to your fullest. The word is a beautiful word. I don't think there's a more beautiful word. Other than God, maybe.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photographer: Jason Chandler, Finalis Valdez

Art Designer: Nicole Tereza

Videographers: Dexterity Productions

Wardrobe Stylists: Norma Castro

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Courtesy of Neon

Chinonye Chukwu’s ‘CLEMENCY’ Reveals Incarceration's Hidden Perils

It pays to take note of films that encourage viewers to rethink how much space empathy and understanding take up in one’s conscience—and how to continue to allow more of both in. CLEMENCY, Chinonye Chukwu’s award-winning and thought-provoking film, explores those themes through the lens of capital punishment.

CLEMENCY follows Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard), a prison warden, whose livelihood of carrying out death row executions have taken a toll on her marriage and mental health. Bogged down with flashbacks of a recently botched execution that occurred under her watch, she must face the psychological and emotional demons her job manifests. This reckoning eventually connects her to Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge)—another inmate she prepares to execute.

Each act in the film is a layer unfolding the intricate complexities of the death penalty—from how it impacts those who implement such acts as their day-to-day, to their community, the victims, the inmates’ advocates, and their own families. CLEMENCY, while leaving you speechless, shows how much more there is to learn about this form of punishment and poses the question of whether it’s even worth it—given the consequences all parties involved suffer over time.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), 29 states in America still uphold the death penalty with over 1,500 executions performed since 1976. Of those executions, about a third of the deceased defendants were Black. And just like the case of Anthony Woods in the film, many inmates are wrongfully convicted of the death penalty, where very few are able to get their cases exonerated.

Clemency is the process that defendants pursue, where a governor or member of the executive branch of government can reduce a defendant’s sentence or grant a pardon. This process is especially important for those who’ve been wrongfully convicted and have had their appeals denied. Though rare, clemency gives the possibility that an inmate’s life will be pardoned.

Chukwu says that Troy Davis’ clemency case is what sparked her to develop this film. Davis was executed on Sept. 21, 2011, where hundreds of thousands of people around the world protested against it, including a handful of retired wardens and directors of corrections. “They were urging for clemency, not just on the grounds of Troy’s potential innocence, but they spoke to the emotional and psychological consequences they knew, from first-hand experience, killing Troy would have on the prison staff sanctioned to do so,” she explains. “The morning after he was executed, I was really obsessed with the question, ‘What must it be like for your livelihood to be tied to taking a human life?’”

From there, the director embarked on a four-year journey of researching for CLEMENCY. She did her due diligence, speaking and interviewing wardens, corrections officers, death row lawyers, lieutenants and a director of corrections about their experiences working in prisons and death row facilities. She touched base with men currently on death row, including a man who was exonerated from death row after being wrongfully incarcerated for 28 years. Chukwu also spent time volunteering for nonprofit legal organizations on 14 different clemency cases for women who are serving life sentences as well as initiated a writing program in prisons called Pens to Pictures. Such a deep dive helped inform how humanity is tied to incarceration.

Putting in the preliminary work and paying attention to details the untrained eye would gloss over in this world was evident in CLEMENCY. Chukwu was intentional on drawing parallels between Bernadine and Anthony with her use of color theory, isolation and evoking emotion. “I wanted to show how anyone is connected,” Chukwu says. “They’re both tied to this ecosystem of incarceration—they’re both impacted in some way and so I really wanted to make that clearer as the narrative progresses.”

For Hodge, knowing how much preparation Chukwu did inspired him to do his homework as well. Alongside producer Bronwyn Cornelius, Hodge visited San Quentin Prison with the intent of speaking with men currently serving on death row. “I was only able to talk to the brothers serving life sentences—the warden wouldn’t allow us to speak with the death row inmates,” Hodge says. “How they were treated, their increased sense of isolation from the other inmates was very polarizing—and informative. It shaped my idea for my character’s world. From there, I went into who I thought I wanted my character to represent to the audience, which was hope.”

The actor saw playing Anthony as an opportunity to show people a man beyond his situation, to show empathy in human form. “I wanted the audience to be able to see a man and see something familiar before judging him based off of his situation,” he explains. “I didn’t want them to see a criminal. As it goes, when it comes to black and brown people in this country, I think we are disproportionately targeted, especially by the prison system and the judicial system, because we are still seen as less than human.”

Hodge also hopes CLEMENCY is a conversation starter that helps push the conversation of how American society is pacified by the idea of taking lives under the guise of justice. “What I keep asking and repeating to myself is that as a society, do we have the right to take the lives of those who have taken life? Would that not make us also the same kind of monster? And granted, there are people who do some heinous things and yes there are a lot of folks that need to be put in jail, but jail in the sense of actual rehabilitation—I’m not sure I’ve seen it,” he says.

CLEMENCY is Chukwu’s offering to the viewer, where she hopes they see the humanity of people who are incarcerated while narrowing the gap between those who think they’re not directly impacted by incarceration and those who are behind prison walls. Even when embarking on challenging work that intersects social justice and film, one would wonder how this impacts a director and actor personally. Chukwu notes that she’s still processing it for herself, tapping into being intentional about finding and embracing joy and detaching from ego; utilizing helpful tools like meditation and therapy.

“It was hard to make this film emotionally and psychologically,” she shares. “There were definitely moments where I had to compartmentalize because I had a job to do—and as the leader of this ship, I can’t can’t break down every time I want to. But I stuffed it in and saved it for later. I knew when I needed to let myself cry and really let myself feel all the things and then feel through it.”

Hodge stresses that he was able to separate the two, as he does not carry his character home when working on projects, otherwise he would lose himself in the craft. “I have to be able to step out of it and be able to observe and refine what needs to be worked on,” he says. “My ambition is to increasingly improve every single take; to show this person I’ve built up for the audience to see. I’m also quite ambitious about showing the world what this rawness is—so the harder it is, the more excited I get. Oddly enough, with all those crazy scenes [in CLEMENCY], I was just actually really excited about shooting them.”

The end of 2019 was the time the world could finally see why CLEMENCY was awarded the Grand Jury Prize for the U.S. Dramatic competition at Sundance Film Festival—making Chukwu, who also wrote the film in addition to directing it, the first Black woman to win the award at the festival. This accomplishment was the launchpad she needed to expand the reach of the film but revealed yet another challenge for her to navigate as the film makes its theatrical runs nationwide.

“I realized that before Sundance I was comfortable in the struggle. I was comfortable climbing up the hill and I realized that I haven’t allowed myself to enjoy the view,” she says. “I think the struggle this year for me was allowing myself to thrive and really align. I’ve been working on other projects and writing. I needed to stop and have compassion for myself and enjoy and say to myself, ‘You did that.’ I’ve been doing the work spiritually to allow myself to thrive and enjoy it and not think that means I’m not doing the work. As a black woman especially, it’s an act of resistance to rest. We work, but we’ve got to rest. And it’s alright.”

As the 92nd Academy Awards approaches, Chukwu was one of the many women and filmmakers of color who were snubbed despite releasing critically-acclaimed bodies of work in 2019. Following her reaction to the lack of acknowledgment after the nominees were announced in January, it’s evident she still taps into joy in the face of willful ignorance.

“I speak on joy because in a world that is more comfortable with my oppression than my empowerment as a black woman, owning my joy is one of my greatest tools of power,” she says in a tweet. “To the many artists who have been overlooked and undervalued, I see you—I see US—and we are glorious!”

CLEMENCY is still playing in select cities. You can see if it’s available for viewing near you here.

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