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Two Creatives On How Music Bookends The Tension, Relief And Stark Reality Of 'Shots Fired'

Music supervisor Jabari Ali and singer-songwriter Shiré dissect the selections and intent of the music in 'Shots Fired,' FOX's jarring new series.

Two Wednesdays have passed since Shots Fired, Reggie Rock Bythewood and Gina Prince-Bythewood's new TV drama, premiered on FOX, pulling viewers into the loss of two young men on opposite sides of a southern town's racial divide. Anyone who hasn't seen at least one Hour of the eerily timely series by now—the married creatives don't consider Shots Fired episodic, but rather a 10-hour film—is past the point of forgiveness.

Fueled by the historic killing of Emmitt Till and law enforcement-caused deaths of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Freddie Gray, Mike Brown, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and others, the Bythewoods called on Sanaa Lathan, Stephan James, Mack Wilds, Jill Hennessy, Helen Hunt and Richard Dreyfuss to bring to light not only the story of injustice, but the need for humanity.

"One of the things that shocked Reggie and I with the Zimmerman trial was how many people were sending George Zimmerman checks to support him and not talking about this kid that was killed," Gina said at a screening at New York's Paley Center for Media. "The lack of humanity and the lack empathy shown to this boy really struck us. We felt that in flipping the narrative, it was a way for people who don't normally deal with something like this to be able to see someone, empathize with their character and understand what we go through. Dealing with these two different versions allowed us to get into the way that victims of violence are treated based on race, and the fact that when these kids, men and women are being killed, the first thing the media tries to do is dehumanize [them] and make it their fault."

According to Dreyfuss, also present at the screening, although the show is "as current as tomorrow's newspaper headline," Gina and Reggie's agenda wasn't to make any particular side of the police brutality debate look like "the bad guy." "When I first met Reggie, he said that he wanted to do a show that had no heroes and no villains. What happens is that your empathy is aimed for a certain character and then it switches, and you understand or see something you did not expect," he said before focusing on Mack Wilds' character, Officer Joshua Beck. Beck, a black man, shot and killed an unarmed young white male for the same reason white police officers have killed countless unarmed black men: because they "feared for their lives." "There are men," Dreyfuss continued, "there are black men, and there are black cops, and each of those things has a pull on their devotion and on their values. His problem is just enormous and very, very telling."

It's not all stress and grief, though. The heavy moments are broken up by the things we subconsciously look to quality TV for: stimulating and realistic dialogue, unpredictability, vignettes of characters' personal trials and triumphs, peppered comedic relief, highly relatable awkward social moments and sexual chemistry and frustration. These nuances are carefully woven throughout the various characters that come together in the Charlotte, N.C.-area town, and the fiber that adequately ropes them throughout the narrative is the music.

The soundscapes we hear as we watch Shots Fired were carefully curated by music supervisor Jabari Ali, the man also behind the licensed, new and original music for Training Day, Brooklyn's Finest, Waist Deep, Biker Boyz and many others. Ali pulled together a team of top-notch writers, producers and artists, some of whom include BJ the Chicago Kid, Antonique Smith, the Hamiltones, Ruff Endz, Sunshine Anderson, Heather Victoria, Katlyn Nichol, Big Bill Morganfield and more. An official Shots Fired soundtrack is set to release via Def Jam Records, featuring original songs as well as unreleased numbers soon to be heard on the show. One of the voices you'll hear on both the series and the soundtrack is that of singer-songwriter Shiré, who penned and performed on the main title track "Where Do We Go From Here?" alongside BJ the Chicago Kid.

As Shots Fired moves to the center of entertainment conversation, Ali and Shiré open about about their contributions to the music moving the viewers, their anticipated reception of the show, the compromises involved and the real life emotional triggers that kept them going.

 

VIBE: At a time like this, and with Shots Fired out, we're at a place where our music has to represent a little more than just our entertainment desires. They actually have to speak to our issues.
Jabari Ali: Yes, indeed. Yes, indeed. I think Nina Simone said it best about artists and entertainment. What we need to do is portray what’s going on in our communities in a positive light. That’s why it was so important for us to have music that inspired people in different types of ways. Our mantra is "music provokes change," and that’s what we set out to do. Do music that would inspire and provoke change with an incredible narrative that Gina and Reggie Bythewood put together as far as the entire show.

Exactly. Well, before we jump into the film, I just want to clarify some things. For Shots Fired, you’re music supervisor, but you also license songs for films and soundtracks, TV and commercials. You also have soundtrack producer, music consultant and coordinator on your bio. Can you clear up what these terms mean and what are the key differences between them when you’re working on project to project?
JA:
Well, [as] music supervisor I’m in charge of the entire musical landscape of the project, whether that’s source music or score, which is the composed music. As a music supervisor, I oversee the budget, the creative and I implement the creative task that the director or executive producers have put out for me to do. But [with that] being said, if there’s original music or music that’s actually on camera, or songs or anything like that, we have to create that before the scene is shot. So it’s very detailed. So far as a music curator, I represent some certain states and what we do is we place those songs, those copyrights in TV shows, feature films, commercials, video games. We market the particular catalogs for those synchronization and licensing.

Music consultant is when... say, for instance, Training Day. I was a music consultant on that. They needed to get some things done and they had to hire me to get them done. For instance, Snoop’s song, like Dre’s single. Snoop kept giving Antoine Fuqua the B-drive, the songs that would never make his album. They hire me as a consultant to go in and make sure that I got into the A-drive and pull out the singles. You got me? There were only eight source cues in Training Day, so I was pretty much involved in at least four or five of them. And they were big music moments. Even in those eight, it was big, significant music moments. So with the Dre song from Training Day, I just kind of consulted them. That’s what it is. You pretty much use your clout and your relationships to bridge the gap or make the connection when they can’t really make the connection.

So can you give an overview of what a day in the life of a Shots Fired music supervisor looks like? Let’s say you wake up and go to set for the day. What does that day look like for you?
JA: Every day is different. First of all, everything was just a vision from Gina and Reggie Bythewood, and the vision happened right after the Trayvon Martin, Zimmerman case. As soon as that verdict came down, that was the start of Shots Fired. That was five years ago. That right there was the seed. And Cassius Bythewood, their own son, actually wrote a poem about Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till meeting in heaven. That conversation, that’s the seed to Shots Fired. So to be called and approached by Reggie and Gina to do something special, that first day was just incredible, just to sit there on that first day and read the pilot. Then have the task to create original music for such an amazing narrative, and something that people really need because there’s a lot of us out there that don’t have a voice. I always felt like music can be a voice. The right narrative with Shots Fired can be the voice of the unheard. So that day was, first of all, putting together a Shots Fired music writing team. That day was spent really vetting who in that collective of writers and producer and mixers and engineers would have the right fit. And to have that be a very diverse music writing team. It was a lot of research. Gina and Reggie also gave a lot of research, meeting with the Mothers of the Movement.

At times, it was overwhelming because it’s never been done like this before, especially for a mystery drama. This is not an entertainment piece [or] narrative. Shots Fired is a real reality, but you’re going to get every scene of the house, period. So it was putting together this music writing team and making sure that was diverse. Like Shiré, she’s from Baltimore. Antonique Smith, she’s from Jersey. [Dwayne] "Tezz" Morgan is from Ohio. And then Ebony Burkes is from Ohio. Jukebox is from Los Angeles. Chris and Jeff are from South Carolina. And the Honorable C-Note is from Michigan, by way of Atlanta. Just a very diverse team and from all walks of life. To get them in one room at one time, to just have some discussions about what the goal was, the type of music that we were trying to, embarking on that we wanted to create and the type of artists that we actually wanted to develop this new music for. This original music for. Those days were spent early crafting that. Seven original songs. Did you hear them?

Yes I did.
JA: Yes. So that day was going in the writers’ room with the writing team and talking about narrative of the different hours that certain writers of the show were working on. It was really a team effort. It was like, ‘Hey Jabari, I’m thinking about writing in a choir scene for The Chosen House and we just want something that… We don’t know what is…’ It’s one of those things that you know it when you hear it. They would go into the studio and spend eight hours in these different cells writing for the target. We most definitely want a super group choir, not the traditional Baptist, big choir. We want this small unit, unique to this community to represent this community in the show. That ended up being the Hamiltones, Sunshine Anderson, Heather Victoria, who’s 9th Wonder’s artist, and Katlyn Nichol. So my days were different. There was not one day the same. That right there is like why I love to music supervise because every day is a new challenge. Every song has a different story. Before [each scene is] shot, I have to have get approval of the song from our executive producers. They have to approve it. It has to be created, cut and approved. I get notes, I got to go back in. It’s a really really micro-managed solution to the end game.

Let’s start at the top, at the first thing that people hear. How did “Where Do We Go From Here,” the main title song, come together with BJ the Chicago Kid and Shiré?
JA: We actually set out do something that would be socially impactful, along the lines of a Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” or any of the greats who have always lent their artistry for social change in our country and abroad. Throughout the narrative of the music of Shots Fired, [the goal] was to bridge the gap between the Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter. That was a bar set really high, but I knew that with the right team, we could actually get it done. I had a hit list of artists that I thought could be that voice that could bridge that gap between the youth and the elders and those certain communities. I just felt like that perfect duet was BJ the Chicago Kid and Shiré. I mean, just the title alone, “Where Do We Go From Here?” We wanted it to be a call to action as well. I know that when you’re describing something and you’re giving all these adjectives, you don’t want to take it off narrative because it’s so many things that you’re throwing into the pot, but it’s like okay, well, where do we go from here? And BJ’s also on the writing team as well.

Yes, I saw. We're fans of his.
JA: Yes, indeed. It was just bringing this into a place where not only the millennials would be like wow, we need to add this to our vision board, but also, the Civil Rights babies. 'We need to add this to our vision board. Where do we go from here?' Let’s open up that dialogue and use music as a vehicle and a platform to be able to do that. [BJ's] voice represented that. His lifestyle represented that. And this was prior to him singing the national anthem for President Barack Obama. This wasn’t no Johnny come lately, jump on the bandwagon. This was pre-Grammy nods, all of that. So just imagine that. It’s been a year and some change of a process to develop the music and right sound and the right narrative with the music. I got hundreds of thousands of songs. And when I say hundreds of thousands, I mean literally hundreds of thousands.

That’s got to be stressful to narrow that down.
JA: Yeah, I mean, but it’s two types of music. I don’t care what genre it is. It’s two types of music, and that’s good or bad. And that’s all in the ears of the listener. But BJ crushed it. Shiré has this really deep kind of raspy tone in her vocal and it matched perfectly. But  I got some exciting news for you, and maybe you could be the first one to break it. Our soundtrack is actually is going to come by way of Def Jam Records. We’re excited about that partnership. I don’t know what the lineup is going to be, but I know it’s going to be the original songs, plus six songs from the show that are already pre-released. Then out of those six, three of them are unreleased songs. There’s going to be four inspired by songs from Def Jams artists, so be on the look out for that.

That already sounds like a promising release.
JA: We’re talking about a group of powerful, dynamic songwriters in a room. By the way, the song was produced by Amon Flanagan. I got to say that. It’s really really incredible, and he came with it. Like I said, when I put it out there to certain producers that I knew could do it, it was a choice of seven producers. Amon's tracks stood out and it was just instant magic. We pulled it up in the studio and everybody just kind of went in. A really, really incredible project.

You’re talking about the combining of two generations into one important topic, his kind of stuff does that. He’s very young, obviously for this generation, but he bridges that and brings the older generation to the same stage.
JA: Yes, and we wanted some one that wasn’t… Everybody was doing the John Legend. That’s easy, but let’s do something more unique. Let’s give a young artist who I feel... I feel BJ’s the next John Legend for us. I think he has that It. Just so you know, that deal almost did not happen. FOX has never ever had a major recording artist do a main title for them, ever in the history of the network, so there’s a lot of firsts here. We’re actually the first—outside of anything entertainment—music writing team assembled for a FOX network show. Like a real team, not just we’re going to do a deal with this person and this deal with this person. No, like a real ensemble. Now the catch is that they control. That’s just another business hurdle that no one was really ready to tackle and I went to the full stream on tackling that because this is what we want to do and we have to find a way to make it happen.

But it's still incredible news and good for BJ and the people involved.
JA:  Yes, indeed. I mean, we didn’t know he was going to go on his first international tour. We didn’t know he was embarking on three Grammy nods. We didn’t know that he was going to sing the National Anthem for the final address to the people of President Barack Obama. All of those things we did not know. Only thing I knew was, that’s the voice. That’s the voice to represent this culmination of this incredible narrative.

I got the chance to attend the screening and see a couple of the Hours—not "episodes." Shots Fired is so diverse in terms of moods and storylines. Of course the show is about very racially charged instances in the community, but then you have blanketed, more underlying issues behind Ashe Akino (Sanaa Lathan) and Preston Terry (Stephan James), with their families and the things they’re dealing with that you have to bring out musically. You have the white boys club nature of the town against the grit of the underserved part of town. There are the funerals and Ashe and Preston’s respective sex scenes. Then you have the comedy, like E-40’s "Choices" playing when they’re riding around town. How do you maneuver all of those nuisances? There are many moods that could conflict but they compliment each other.
JA:
Well, I’ll tell you, it actually represents who you are as a person. All those emotions that you just described. It represents us as a human race. Those are all the things that are felt through the music. To have all these different storylines and all these different layers, it’s just like you as a person. We’re not just one way, we have so many layers to our emotions. It’s actually finding or creating the right soundtrack that will be very significant in defining your journey in life. People will look back on that "Choices" scene, which is the first kind of montage you see in the show in Hour One, and that will become a part of the soundtrack of your life. That was the mission. When you go into The Chosen House and you hear the perfect harmonies of the Hamiltones and Sunshine Anderson and the Chosen House Super group Choir, that will become a narrative of your life for real. It’s already woven in because folks go to church, folk go to picnics. These are all the things that we do as human beings. We fellowship, we go through all these different emotions. We have families, we have children. We have wives and husbands. [It's] tying all of that together, so it just flows. The right music has a way to do that.

How important is comic relief in Shots Fired and projects similar to it? 
JA: Before we even go to that question, there’s one more thing I have to say. I’ve been to a lot of funerals burying young people in the last 10 or 15 years. You always hear the same kind of songs, generally. You know, “Stairway to Heaven.” I wanted to create something that could become the next “Stairway to Heaven.” In Hour Two, when you hear that song, it’s coming from a real place. I feel like that type of song will cross generations for a long time. There’ll be churches, congregations, student choirs and things like that singing that song. I shared that with the writing team as they were doing it. “Called Home,” that’s a record where even some one who is just strictly secular music is going to listen to. Not just because of the messaging, but it’s just so relevant. It applies to everyday life.

And this is where the light moments come in. 
JA: Yes, well, it’s like anything else. I love comedy. I think comedy, when used the right way, like music, could be a weapon. I think art is a weapon when used the right way. That was a big motivational point to activism. The comedic approach with the music was that comedy has a way to deliver serious messaging. It has a way to deliver in a softer type of way, where people are more advantageous to receive it. If it’s always right in your face, like roar, aggressive, then folks will start putting their guards up. So finding these clever ways to actually penetrate the viewer from what they’re hearing and to evolve the narrative even more through just a more comedic approach to the art.

There’s a scene in Hour Three that really touches on the dichotomy of black music in a white space. It was white consumers listening to, I don’t know, maybe 2 Chainz or something. But then you come to find out the way they feel about everyday black people differs from how they enjoy the music so much. The musical selection of that, how it fits with the scene and how it abruptly switches to silence, I think was so effective. Will we get more of that, showing that awkwardness directly? Not just music in the background, but music in the scene, showing what it means as a culture.
JA: Well, I see it all the time, where I have experienced this from a personal insight on this. Where you have other ethnicities and races who are now feeling comfortable, very comfortable using the n-word and certain language that we feel like is most definitely not appropriate for you to just use in your everyday language, which is a very touchy subject matter. I guess I can’t put the spoiler in there, but you’ve seen it.

Yeah, you know the scene I’m talking about. I’ve seen it, but people can’t know yet.
JA: Right, let me back up a bit. So using it in a way where it just kind of shows you through the eyes of white college kids, what they would go through in a setting while they’re at their party or their celebration which can more than likely be a lot different from the way other races in a setting would actually be celebrating or be turnt up in. That music was actually created by the Honorable C-Note, and he’s a multi-platinum producer. He’s done everything from 2 Chainz to Gucci Mane. His task was to do a song that he could not use the n-word, but imply that it’s being used. The way it feels, it feels like that’s what they were saying. The song is called, “Young Black Hittas.” Right, you got me? So we need this really strong aggressive, implied language, but it’s not really that, because we can’t really say that on a major network. And even if we could, Reggie and Gina would never allow us to use it. I said it needs to sounds like this song is on the radio right now. I need that track that Gucci Mane would snatch, that 2 Chainz would snatch, that all of these artists would be begging you to have and fighting in this bidding war over this track. I need that track. This can’t be just anything, just a regular old beat or production. The rest was the ingenuity of knowing how to come in and out of a song into the other one, almost as if the DJ got the chord pulled like, wait a minute, what are ya’ll doing? There will be more of that. That scene was really important and we went back and forth with the FOX execs on that for awhile. It was a tough.

I can imagine, but I’m glad you guys won.
JA: Yeah, we won just because it’s an implied reference. But it’s a way that we have to keep certain layers to the narrative with the music. It was very important to keep that authentic, just 100.

I’m excited for people to see it, so they can know what I’m talking about and I won’t have to talk in code for much longer. I'm also curious to know what Shiré, who appears as a performer and songwriter within the soundtrack, takes away from Shots Fired.
Yeah, Shiré is about to release her single. She just shot the video this week to “Broke Me Down.” She’s also on the writing team. Out of everybody on the writing team, she’s the only one who penned 100% on a song that will probably win an Emmy.

[Shiré hops on the line.]

JA: Shiré, I just want to say thank you. I can’t thank you enough. [You were] the last member on the team to come in. How about that.
Shiré: Exactly. It’s a beautiful thing and how everything has come together. I love how constantly you push me to be great. Not just myself, but the whole team. Shout out to you for always believing.
JA: Thanks, Shiré. I appreciate it. But I can’t wait for them to hear Hour 7 with that Ruff Endz, "Speak to My Heart." That’s going to shut the whole country down right there. It will be that moment.
S: It’s just one of those powerful moments because the tone of everything that’s going on in our daily lives to what we see on TV, it feels good to have a song like “Speak to My Heart.” It just sends out that love. It makes you want to love and it makes you want to look out. I feel like that embodies the thought process of having that humanity and the empathy for your fellow man.

First of all, Shiré, congratulations in advance. Like you said, this is promising to be a big moment in TV and music. I was a little hesitant about it at first, because you can’t tell anything from the trailer. It can go either way, but it comes together in a way that makes sense. It’s timely and it moves you. Tell me a little bit about you coming into the fold and you first thoughts when you heard about what Shots Fired even encompassed. How did you process that given the year we had last year?
S: Man, right. The year we had last year. I was one of the last writers to be brought on to the team to the music writing team. Reggie Bythewood had reached out and had Jabari have me come. They have this writers’ room, which is actually their office for the Shots Fired team, and it’s the writers for different episodes. I met about three writers that were actually in at that time when they took me on a tour. The first thing you see when I got off the elevator was a picture of Emmett Till. Just right off, as soon as I walked in, and I’m like whoa, okay. It’s about being woke. They created these binders to describe each character in the show. They laid down, sent out the outlines, and just the whole premise behind, just the storyline in general, the twists and turns of it. I was just blown away that we’re actually doing something that can impact in real time what’s going on in the world, especially here in the United States. So just that alone, and me being from Baltimore, Md. where Freddie Gray[was killed]. He’s only one of many unfortunately that we’ve lost due to this type of violence. I was just overwhelmed and very gracious to even be able to be a part of it, voice my thoughts and emotions, and to collaborate with such great other writers. It takes a lot of guts, drive and passion, and I’m thankful that they wanted to go there because it’s amazing.

Timely. Very timely.
S: Even when I think of the title track which is BJ the Chicago Kid featuring myself singing on it. Just to be able to be a part of a theme song, a main title to a show, is heavy in itself. Then to be able have co-written it and having those lyrics just constantly be driven into the viewers’ minds, like where do we go from here? How can we fix this? The first step is to get people to start thinking about it. The first of it is thinking, and then hopefully that will start the thought process on how to figure out the solution.

I could imagine. Then there's immediately seeing Emmett Till in the office; that’s one blow. Then you have what’s happening in Baltimore with Freddie Gray. At the screening, Mack Wilds talked about the day on set he had to film the scene of him shooting the young man, that was right after Philando Castile. So the energy was very heavy. Everyone has their trigger. How do you as a creative, whether it’s as an actor or singer, put yourself into that mindset to perform that song, perform that scene, and put the viewers into the mindset, too? 
S: It was challenging because you have to take yourself outside. You have to think beyond your personal feelings. One thing I did like that Mack Wilds has done is that he said that the empathy that you have, you have to be on both sides of it. You have to think from the perspective of the victim and then also think from the perspective of the person who was, for whatever reason, in that position to feel like they needed to pull that trigger. It’s weird because it’s still a universal approach. It just takes a lot of open-mindedness, I would say, and compassion. I just took from a really deep place. All day long, you go on your social media feed and you’re reading this, reading that, so that stuff was constantly happening during the writing process. I was getting information and getting lyrics just throughout life, just doing what I normally do. Those words, those topics, just being a voice for our community and not just being a black woman, but just in general, just being human and seeing how could we write this in a way that we could touch everyone. That was key.

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That’s the biggest part—the diversity of not only the sounds and voice and cast, but of the reach. What can you say about the audience and how they’ll take the show and the music, depending on where they fall in terms of background, region and occupation. What do you think the police takeaway would be from it? The church takeaway? What the underserved community will take from it?
S: I think that for each one of those, everyone will see a part of themselves in the storyline. You can find it through whichever character you relate to. I think that you can find yourself and the music just enhances what you’re visually seeing and, like I said, being the voice and expressing what it’s like to be that person. What it’s like to be that cop, what it’s like to be the mother of your killed son, or what’s it like to be the church. You’re representing the pastor, you’re representing the community and you have to try to come up with solutions and help support people. I think that when they engage it, I think they will find a piece of themselves, and that’s what makes a show so bomb to me because you’re like wow, this is real life. Either it’s you or you know some one that could be going through that or who have been faced with that.

You guys mentioned “Speak to My Heart.” The mood of the title track is very call to action. What about “Speak to My Heart?” How did that come about? What was the discussion about that in the writers’ room?
S: I’m going to give a shout out to the producer Willie Bailey. Ruff Endz actually performed it, featuring Marqus Clae, who’s on the show. This is Hour Seven, so at that point, we’re almost to the end stretch of the 10-hour event series. At that point you’re asking, it’s like this just happened, we see where we are, but how can… It’s almost like a cry to God, like please give me the strength, please help me understand, please help me know what my next step should be in my life. I think that’s the cry out. That’s the call out for the message. Where do we go from this point? Please speak to my heart. The funny thing, it’s not funny, but when I did write the song, it was shortly after Prince had died and I went to see Purple Rain because they had it out here in the theater in Woodland Hills. Then Jabari had sent the outline for the scene. I heard the track—I don’t want to get to much of the storyline for that hour—but we’re right at the point where everything is just climaxed. Everyone at that moment is trying to figure out what is my next step. What do I do? How can I move forward? Just from the energy, from being distraught over Prince, I was just like wow, what can I write, what can I say that’s going to impact and touch many people? And the lyrics just came, love. I mean, really. I couldn’t believe it. I came home and I was just like how could I write this song and it touch people and I wrote, referenced it, they came back and sent it back to me. I was blown away because I’m good friends with Ruff Endz and they really did my song the justice for real.
JA: Okay so, let me just say this Shiré, really quick. Shiré was really jaded at me for the fact that I told her, 'I think we got to go male vocal. You killed this. This song is really going to penetrate everybody. This song will be nominated for an Emmy, but Shiré, you won’t be able to sing it.’ She just looked at me and I just seen it in her eyes, her whole emotions just switched. But I said, this is what I want you to do. If you could reach out and find out who the artist that could bring this to the light, that would share the same passion that we all have about Shots Fired, who will sing it with so much compassion. It’s the only song in seven, so you’re going to know it. It’s a huge montage scene and it’s about two and a half minutes.
S: It's amazing.
JA: And the kid who’s rapping on it, the youngster, Marqus Clae, he just turned 17. And I tell you, I’ve been around a lot of rappers, a lot. This is Kendrick Lamar meets Nas with a work ethic of Tupac Shakur. He is that good. Remember, I said it first. He is that good.
S: He is exceptional. He just posted something, a little video and he’s laying in the bed and his flows on there are incredible... He’s that dude.

I guess I have to look into him.
JA: Yes, indeed. He just did The Wake Up Show and Sway in the Morning. He just did The Breakfast Club. He just recently signed with Master P to No Limit Forever. Trust me, this kid is phenomenal.
S: But that’s why it makes me feel so good because look at that. God blessed me with a gift to be able to sing and write, so even though I wanted to sing it, but it was the perfect thing to put the male vocals on it. I’m grateful that I’m even able to be a part of this young man’s success. Marqus Clay, he’s doing his thing. I’m gladly taking the backseat on the being the front person on that because it’s like, look what they did with the song. It sends a message.

You get to see your own message come to life.
S:
Yeah, it’s bigger than me. And for what we’re doing, especially because of Stephan’s character, it also sets the tone for the voice of what he… I would say it needed that male aspect to it.

That’s true. I heard the song, but I obviously haven’t seen that far.
S:
Yeah, got to watch it. My song “Broke Down” is in Hour Three, so I got my little vocals on there as well. I co-wrote that with Midi Mafia. It’s a single. Just did the video.
JA: Video is awesome by the way. Oh my goodness.
S: Shout out to Corey Grant the director. He is amazing. He did Sister Code and the new film Illicit that I worked with him on. And it’s just bomb.

Can't wait to see it. Speaking of something that isn’t your own, do you have a favorite or most moving song that wasn’t yours? So you can’t use any of the ones that you were on.
S: I loved the gospel song that’s in [Hour] Two.
JA: “Called Home.”
S: That’s right, “Called Home. When you see that, it really impacted. I loved the fact that [the other writers and I] all co-wrote that song. Then the Hamiltones were a part of the project and Sunshine Anderson, Katlyn Nichol and Heather Victoria. Shout out to Ebony Burks, Tezz Morgan, Chris Hanebutt. Jeffrey Friedland, Antonique Smith, Juke[box] as well.

Jabari and I were talking about how many different kinds of moods and tones are involved. It’s all reflective of the black experience, the white experience, the human experience. Do you think that will immediately come across?
S: Absolutely. I really do. Like at the screening in LA, I love when E-40’s song comes on, and everybody was like "Nope!" You never really realize how much it sets the tone for how the show feels. And with all the music that we did, I mean, the actors came back telling Jabari like, wow we were really motivated. This music is incredible because it was helping with them getting more into character.
JA: Yeah, like Jill Hennessy could not stop crying in the funeral scene. She was just so blown. Even Helen Hunt. I mean, they were blown. We were all there so we saw it come to life on the set. We shooting a scene, but it hit everybody just on a whole other level.
S: That is the other part that helps us, though, is that the writers came down to Charlotte twice, and we were there to see them actually doing it. It’s one thing to read something, but to actually start seeing it, and then we were able to create the soundtrack to what we saw. That helped tremendously.
JA: Just so you know the impact, we wrapped Shots Fired on Emmett Till’s birthday. So if that isn’t telling you that the variables are lining up here for something greater than us, then I don’t know what that is.

My gosh.
JA:
Then three weeks later or something like that, it was a full blown riot in Charlotte. That was after. We were done.

“Entertainment” is fusing into the timeline of life right now.
S: Yes. Art imitates life.
JA: Yes, indeed. Also, I have to make reference to this because you watched Hour Two, and something we did that nobody else has done [was] we bridged a gap between blues and hip- hop. That song is a song created for Shots Fired by Big Bill Morgan, who is Muddy Water’s son. He’s a well known, world renowned blues artist. His father is the legend Muddy Waters. So not only did I get them together to bridge this gap between blues and hip-hop... Because my dad, listen, he was a blues connoisseur, and that’s how I came into a likeness with blues. Rest in peace my dad. I was a hip hop baby. While he was driving, he would listen to his blues, and when I would drive, the rule was I could listen to hip-hop. But I found myself listening to more blues than hip-hop as those drives continued and as I got older. So to be able to fuse the gap between these generations of blues listeners and the generation of hip-hop, was something that I really wanted to do and just to pay homage and tribute to my dad and to also bridge the gap, like it helped me and my father bridge the gap with music.

Last question. When hour ten is done, Bythewood’s already said it’s not a cliffhanger, but it’s not neat and tidy. Once it’s all said and done for the viewer, what do you want to happen next in terms of what do we do with that? What do we do with our feelings? What do we do with the way it was and move forward?
S: I feel like because of how great they directed and filmed the different perspectives of each character, it just starts that thought process to create empathy. Because it starts in people’s households, and I’m hoping that people can start to instill better morals into their children as well as people in the family that have these stuck, old ways and patterns. I hope it begins to make them think beyond themselves. Just start to think beyond yourself and then hopefully in turn, the actions will follow. Again, the music will be out there and we’ll keep pushing that message through what we wrote. I’m hoping that does begin the change. And of course, we want another season.

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Skyzoo And Von Pea On Brooklyn Gentrification, Modern New York Hip-Hop And Artistic Integrity

Initially using rap’s blog era to make a mark, for over a decade Skyzoo and Von Pea have taken different approaches to the same concept - lyrically deft music that pushes the creative envelope while simultaneously landing well with trained ears.

Commonly recognized for the dual role of rapper/producer in the whimsical group Tanya Morgan, most of Von’s core following stems from 2009’s Brooklynati - a concept LP centered around a fictional city merging the influences of TM’s New York and Ohio members. A decade later, his latest solo LP City For Sale focuses on the true to life socioeconomic devastation caused by gentrification in his actual hometown of Bed-Stuy.

A kindred spirit of sorts, Skyzoo is heralded as a multilayered thinking man’s emcee who is street smart yet sophisticated, bleeding Brooklyn culture through songs like “Spike Lee Was My Hero” and never hiding his affinity for jazz. Blessed with the good fortune of working with production titan Pete Rock for a whole album in the same vein as Gang Starr, Retropolitan captures the essence of coming up over the past three decades in New York’s five boroughs. Contrasted with City For Sale’s narratives about how systemic change affects neighborhood residents, both artists present themselves as pillars and modern upgrades to what their golden age predecessors achieved.

Two sides of the same coin, Skyzoo and Von Pea displayed a mutual respect and camaraderie on a conference call with VIBE, as they waxed poetic on where they’ve been in and outside of music, the keys to maintaining consistency over the years and what it takes for underdogs to get their just due on the heels of 2020.

VIBE: Your latest albums City For Sale and Retropolitan are acclaimed companion pieces with seemingly similar aims. How does it feel to lead the charge in a sense for keeping traditionalism alive?

Skyzoo: For me, whether New York was the way it is now or how it was 15 years ago, my music would sound the same. I probably speak for Von as well knowing the type of artist and individual that he is. When I made Retropolitan, it wasn’t about saving New York rap. It was about making music that reflects who I am and who Pete Rock is from a production standpoint. I did what came naturally, rapping about the changes going on in my world. If the idea of us leading the charge comes with it, then so be it.

Von Pea: We spoke before both albums came out, and Sky was telling me how what was happening with the Slave Theater [as shown on my album cover] was an early idea that sparked Retropolitan. We’re both from Bed-Stuy and around the same age, so we’ll talk about the same thing in our music from different perspectives. What’s happening in Brooklyn [with gentrification] is happening in so many other cities, but us being from Brooklyn is [reflected] in the music. We’re not trying to pretend it’s still ‘94, it is 2019 but our music comes from who we are and everything we’ve gone through from day one.

Being from Harlem, I know how I’ve felt about gentrification, but growing up I didn’t experience the same blocks as Brooklyn natives. What are your memories of your area when you were growing up and how did it feel to see the changes happening around you?

Skyzoo: It’s funny you said you’re from Harlem, me being from Brooklyn I feel just as bad for Harlem and I ain't even from there. Harlem was ours even before we were in Brooklyn. When you were down South, you just wanted to get to Harlem and make something of yourself. To see that happen there is a slap to my blackness. It’s like how much of this sh*t you gonna take from us?

Brooklyn was one of the first places to get hit by gentrification on a wide scale, and it started with proximity. Manhattan was too expensive and overcrowded, so people figured “Williamsburg is right there, we can get on the L train for one stop and be in Manhattan in 3 minutes.” Then Williamsburg gets overcrowded and expensive, so let’s push it back to Bushwick, Bed-Stuy and Fort Greene. Then the Barclays Center is built and you can’t just have a billion dollar stadium in the middle of the hood. You gotta build bars and cafes around it and now you’re kicking grandmothers out and people trying to make it to the next day.

People will be walking their dogs and if I’m walking my dog and nod, they don’t acknowledge me because in their mind they’re like “You’re not gonna be here in three or four years anyway, we’re gonna own this.” We can enjoy this together, don’t look at me like I don’t belong, because if we had to take a test on who belongs more, I’m gonna ace that (laughs).

Von: I remember looking at reviews from people moving in and they would flat out describe the neighborhood saying “It’s sketchy, but we’re waiting it out.” That planted the first seed for City For Sale, it was the first time I thought of the concept of somebody coming for my neighborhood and it no longer being for me.

Skyzoo: You can enjoy the neighborhood despite your nationality, background and tax bracket. It’s not about keeping people away, but when we wanted the garbage picked up or for police to show up, we couldn’t get it. So now that all of that has changed and the neighborhood is pristine, if we had to thug it out when it was pouring rain, we should be able to enjoy it when the sun is out.

City For Sale by Von Pea VIBE: You’re both ambitious artists who use narratives in your music. How did you come up with the concepts for these albums, and what were the exact statements you were looking to make?

Von: Going back to New York and thinking about Jay-Z, no matter what you think about The Blueprint, The Black Album or 4:44, he’s gonna let you know Reasonable Doubt is his masterpiece. I would never say I was trying to make my masterpiece, but I was trying to make that album that was the one for me. My group Tanya Morgan has Brooklynati and on the last song I said that for the past 40 minutes I was trying to beat that album and make a solo version of that for myself. I wanted to make a record about my city for today, people like Skyzoo and Torae never tried to bring New York back, they talked about where they were from presently, so I thought about what Sumner Projects and Myrtle Avenue were like today.

Skyzoo: Working with Pete and knowing what I was getting into, he’s one of the greatest of all time and I didn’t just get one joint, it’s like 11 or 12. Think of all of the people who have done all of these wonderful things in the game that don’t have a whole album with him, being on that shortlist was serious. The only pressure on myself is to beat what I’ve done before, knowing what he brings and what I wanted to do to match that. Like Von said, it was never about bringing New York back. It was just about making music that represented me. I always respected how the South never tried to sound like New York or LA when nobody was thinking about them. Master P, T.I. and Pastor Troy represented who they are and never tried to be us. As much as they respected us, they never tried to make a Wu-Tang joint.

Von: You gotta be yourself. You can’t tell somebody else’s story and sound authentic.

VIBE: Along with gentrification and other changes in the city, some would argue New York lost its musical identity. If you can identify with that feeling, how do you think that came to pass?

Von: I would disagree. Maybe you could say that was the case for a little while, but a record like “All The Way Up” [by Fat Joe & Remy Ma] sounds like a New York club record today. French Montana’s music has trap elements but to me they sound like current New York club records. You can get traditional sounds from people like us and the city’s current sound comes from things like transplants and the internet. You look at A$AP Rocky’s generation, they don’t just sound like Dipset, they sound like they were listening to Scarface.

Skyzoo: I think that’s a dope point. As large as the internet is, it made the world smaller. No matter where you are, everybody has access to the same things at the same time. While I agree with Von, I think on top of that New York has always been the home of the hustle. Whatever is winning, New York is gonna do it because we’re about that paper. If heads is wearing white tees down to their knees, we’re doing that, and if we’re scamming and swiping cards we’re doing that too. Being the home of the hustle is a pro and a con, because musically all these little kids in their early 20s see what’s winning and run after whatever is gonna get the paper, and the identity gets lost in that.

VIBE: The three of us have similar stories, growing up in the hood but never letting it define our limitations. This idea tends to come up in your music often, what gave you focus to see that there was more to the world?

Von: It really was just rap. I had an older cousin who was pursuing a rap career. We would drive around in his car listening to whatever was popular whether it was [Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s] Mecca & The Soul Brother, The Cactus Album by 3rd Bass or LL Cool J. He was trying to be a rapper and I had only seen rappers on TV. I was never into comics but Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick and KRS-One were my Superman and Batman growing up. Then I discovered Tribe and De La Soul and my best friend growing up put me onto Death Row, and I realized all of these people were from the hood like me.

Skyzoo: For me, it definitely was Hip-Hop but the difference was having my pops. I grew up with both of my parents my whole life, even though they never were in the same house. I spoke to my pops every day even if I was staying at my mom’s crib. When I eventually moved in with him, I would come from hanging out in the hood and we would have Leroy Campbell paintings on the wall and he was listening to artists like Ronnie Jordan, Anita Baker and Sade. It taught me how to be comfortable in both types of surroundings.

Retropolitan by Skyzoo & Pete Rock VIBE: You’re both pretty prolific, dropping quality music almost annually whether free or for sale. What would you say has been the key to your consistency over the years?

Von Pea: For me it’s being a fan and competitive. I could be listening to Sky’s latest record, Drake or a dude I just heard of yesterday, but if somebody is spitting that sh*t I’ll be like “That was ill, why didn’t I think of that? You hear that flow? This beat is ill, I should have flipped that sample.” Then I’ll turn on the drum machine, fire up the Notes app and write some sh*t. I’m a huge fan, but I have to remember I’m one of these people and I have to keep up too.

Skyzoo: Same for me. If you’re doing anything creative, the day you’re not a fan anymore is the day you lose because you gotta know what’s going on out there in order to compete and coexist. I always want to one up myself creatively, while knowing the business end and what it takes to stay out here. You can’t drop every five years unless you’re Jay, Beyonce or Nas, that’s the era we’re in. I don’t believe in dropping 30 mixtapes a year, but one a year will keep me on tour, selling records and merch, and collecting feature money because the new record is out. You have to keep the fans locked in without them forgetting. If you’re gonna be in this, you gotta actively work.

VIBE: What is it like to take the road less traveled at a time where it can feel like there’s a limited audience hanging onto the type of music you make?

Von: I met Skyzoo at the Little Brother “Lovin’ It’” video shoot in 2005 and in all of that time, you see people try to get signed only to sit. People who were dope as f**k being themselves would be like “I got the Lil Jon-sounding record because Im trying to put my album out.” Even sadder is seeing someone become totally different because they’re trying to get on...I say it’s integrity on my part. A label will want to sign you only for you to sound like another person on that label and I never understood that, so I’m just gonna do me. If I could make a hit record being myself I would do that.

Skyzoo: Like Von said it’s about integrity, where I’m able to look in the mirror and be happy with the music I made. You never want to have moments where you’re like “I can’t believe I made that type of record.” There was never a moment when I dumbed down, for me it was like how can I do what’s working, while doing me at the same time and making it make sense.

Von: Fat Joe tells this story where KRS-One said “No one is shooting at my shows because I don’t talk about that.” We see what’s going on with [Tekashi 6ix9ine] in court, you talk up certain things and people are gonna approach you [with that same energy.] So I keep it true to who I am and what I’m doing.

VIBE: I know gentrification, fixing New York’s infrastructure or even the state of Hip-Hop are issues that are too big for any of us to tackle, but what’s the role you want to take on with your music?

Von: It’s part selfish, but as I’m trying to figure out what I want to say and do next, I just want to continue to have the respect of my peers and for people to say “Von is dope” or “Tanya Morgan dropped another classic record.” I don’t know if that’s vanity (laughs), I just want to be acknowledged for being dope and anything else is a nice perk.

Skyzoo: I want people to relate to the music, see themselves in it and leave a legacy. We’re always celebrating 15, 20 and 25 year anniversaries of incredible albums and I want my music to be looked at like that. We do that with Marvin Gaye, Stevie, James Brown, Michael Jackson and all of the music that shaped this country and world. I want my music to be represented like that as something that lasts, having the same impact as Illmatic, Ready To Die, Reasonable Doubt, Midnight Marauders, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and sh*t that I listen to like it dropped yesterday.

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Missy Elliott's "Hot Boyz" Remix Remains A Heater 20 Years Later

“This is for my ghetto motherf***ers…”

When needing to avoid the dreaded “sophomore slump” while crafting 1999 album Da Real World, Missy Elliott called upon the talents of Nas, Eve, Q-Tip, and Lil Mo to create a remix of her single “Hot Boyz.” The track’s legacy is being one of hip-hop’s most beloved all-star posse cuts. When icons at the height of their talents and popularity execute in the manner that this quintet does on this track, magic transpires. Having spent 18 weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Singles from December 4, 1999 to March 25, 2000, its prestigious chart record was recently topped by Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Old Town Road.” On the Hot Rap Singles charts, the track hit No. 1 in January 2000 and spent nine months on the charts. The song’s longevity as a hit is undeniable.

Join vocalist Lil Mo as we revisit the cusp of the millennium to celebrate an unlikely track worthy of super-acclaim, finally receiving long overdue recognition of its excellence for its 20th anniversary.

AN ICONIC PRELUDE

In the era between 1995–1998 (1995 included as tracks produced in 1995 that were released in/impacted 1996), Missy Elliott likely accrued 65 official production credits, 70 singles, features, or guest appearances, and worked on her first two solo albums with a combined total of 34 tracks between them. In compiling this impressive volume of work, she also spent time in the studio as a producer, songwriter, arranger, collaborator, and engineer with somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 artists, highlighting the fact that when the “Hot Boyz” remix dropped on November 9, 1999, the idea that a song featuring an artist of her then already prodigious talent, combined with that of Nas, Q-Tip, Lil Mo, and mega-producer Timbaland was a guaranteed hit. It actually wasn’t.

By 1999, Missy Elliott was a breakout hip-hop star following up the success of her debut album Supa Dupa Fly’s singles “The Rain,” “Sock It 2 Me” and “Beep Me 911.” But as a collaborator, she was thriving and maintaining relevance. Missy’s protege Nicole Wray’s seductive rap ballad “Make It Hot,” Timbaland & Magoo’s artist album lead single “Up Jumps Da Boogie,” and Total's simmering hi-hat driven soul ballad “Trippin’” were all hits bearing Missy’s musical fingerprints.

Recorded over eight months between 1998-1999, Elliott’s sophomore release, Da Real World was originally titled She's a Bitch, as a positive way of expressing herself as an empowered woman. Previous to this, Elliott had crafted five top ten singles for other artists (702’s “Steelo,” Aaliyah’s “If Your Girl Only Knew” and “Are You That Somebody,” SWV’s “Can We,” and Total’s “Trippin”) so far in her career, quite possibly a case of giving away her A-level material for others while retaining significant, but not quite breakthrough pieces for herself.

“Missy had hits, but yeah, we knew we had that ‘one’ in us," Lil Mo remembers. "The team was incredible. We felt excited and unstoppable.

"We were working nonstop. We were also working with Jay-Z, Puffy, Beyonce, I even vocal produced Whitney Houston and Aaliyah, there was so much happening. We knew we had hits, we just didn’t expect a ‘Hot Boyz’-level hit.”

THE INGREDIENTS OF SUCCESS

Nas’ rap career reheated after his debut and follow up albums Illmatic and It Was Written. Namely, 1999’s “Hate Me Now” featuring Diddy was a global success. Q-Tip was still a member of A Tribe Called Quest but making solo waves—his single “Vivrant Thing” dropped a month prior to Missy’s remix. Eve came to the record by way of the Ruff Ryders clique, and likely because she was the most-anticipated female emcee of the moment. Lil Mo was Missy’s protege and worked with (but not signed to) her GoldMind label, having done considerable songwriting for the aforementioned Nicole Wray’s debut album. As for Timbaland, he had recently exploded into mega-stardom, having produced 18 top ten Billboard Hip-Hop and R&B Chart singles in three years' time. Timbo brilliantly found a way to blend the coarse edge of urban radio with the seductive vibe of the late-night quiet storm format into a potent, pop-friendly formula. His trademark sound was off-kilter: not so hard that it offended adult contemporary listeners, but also not so smooth that it alienated the streets.

Lyrically, this song plays as a haughty come on from a social-climbing female looking to land a date with a hard-hustling playboy pushing the hottest whip on the streets. Pulsing, MPC-boosted violin samples over a skittering hi-hat provide the underpinning. There’s the slightest bleed of one note that reverberates in a way that makes it a perfectly imperfect earworm. The excellence of the track is that it's a bed for Missy to showcase her soul vocal chops. The emcees fill in the edges with familiar, pop chart-aimed voices. Lil Mo's vocals filter through the entire mix, so loud and still somewhat unrefined, but for the purposes of a track so minimal in its construction, absolutely perfect. If ever needing proof that the greatest hits oftentimes break the “rules” of conventional production logic, look no further.

“When Missy was writing ‘Hot Boyz,’ we got there that night, and we immediately ate dinner. We had unlimited budgets back then, so why not! (laughs) Then, we—as we always would—would start cracking jokes while in the lounge,” Lil Mo recalls. “I heard the beat, she started putting down the words, and then she’s like, ‘Go record some ad-libs [to the beat], and take it to church!’ When I first heard the track, there wasn’t much to what Timbaland had put together, but it still had that magic. Missy heard it once, told me to not be worried about what it sounded like now, because she knew what it would become. We finished the version with her and I on it alone, but she had already told me who she was reaching out to for the remix. The song—with Nas, Eve, and Q-Tip’s parts added with mine—and the video were done in a week. Missy’s powerful. And when she has a plan, she’s going to do what she says she’s going to do.”

“We recorded and mixed the original version of the record in the same night,” Mo continues. “Timbaland’s production, mixing, and engineering team at that time was incredible. Jimmy Douglass was his engineer, and once he got the record, he went into seclusion and came back with a hit.” Douglass is likely the most decorated of the modern era session engineers, having worked with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, the Rolling Stones, Hall and Oates, and every significant Timbaland production in the past two decades of his career.

THE SONG “RADIO DIDN’T WANT TO PLAY”

Regarding the single which she noted that “radio didn’t want to play,” Missy told Billboard, “I remember one of the stations in L.A. was the first to pull it. And something happened, I can’t tell you what happened, but whatever happened, it ended up back at the stations...and it ended up in the Guinness Book of World Records.”

“I want guys to feel like they could ride around and listen to this because the beat was so hard. This beat feel like all the male rappers would want to get on this joint right here,” she said. “Eve snapped EFFORTLESSLY and came through on this song,” Missy also noted via Instagram. Lil Mo continues regarding Eve, “Missy gave her 16 bars on the record and she wasn’t even lit yet! That’s the equivalent of giving someone one million dollars!”

 

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“HotBoyz” one of the hardest R&B bangaz🔥 Let’s talk about how @therealeve SNAPPED EFFORTLESSLY on this song here 🙌🏾 Eve came through👏🏾I remember this song had so many bad call outs at 1st that some radio stations stopped playing it 😩🙁but through the grace of God it went #1 stayed there for 18 weeks & ended up in the Guinness World Book of Records🙌🏾Won’t he do it🙏🏾 big up @nas @thelilmoshow @qtiptheabstract

A post shared by Missy Elliott (@missymisdemeanorelliott) on Nov 21, 2018 at 7:35am PST

The first voice heard the remix is that of Nas. The flow is reminiscent of Firm-era Esco, equipped with swagger raps and cop-bait. Then, as Nas correctly says, “Missy’s about to tear it up....”

Missy’s opening verse takes her from quirky, awkward 'round the way high school homie to college senior home before graduation looking to make a move on making babies, then quite possibly getting married. She’s the embodiment of a thug’s dream wifey: able to cook, clean, and provide ultimate sexual satisfaction in the same breath. When she says “I’m a fly girl, and I like those…” she’s effectively refreshed much of her entire brand imaging and also opened herself up to female fans of say, Nas, who kicked off the record. It’s a stroke of genius.

The second verse is a stunning evolution. Missy’s now best renowned as a feminist sociocultural bellwether. However, here, she’s cooing about being a hot guy’s date because he drives a Jaguar XK8. Moreover, she wants all of her friends, if his friends drive cars similar in luxury to the XK8, to meet. Yes, feminism is not a monolith. This moment is empowering in a sense that actually fits the notion of feral female sexual desire showcased here like a glove. It’s truly fantastic songwriting.

Eve’s up next, having notched two top 40 features (The Roots’ “You Got Me” and Blackstreet/Janet Jackson collaboration “Girlfriend/Boyfriend”) and two debut album singles (“What You Want” and “Gotta Man”) at this point in her career. In the 45-second feature, the “illest pitbull in a skirt” wastes no lyrical motion. No cute ad-libs, nothing approaching platitudes about her sexual prowess. Spitting gangsta vitriol is her method, and what’s to boot, in the video version of the remix (sans Q-Tip), Missy returns to maintain her lyrical aesthetic, going in about how she’s going to “dig in your pockets, dig in your wallets, is that money I’m foundin’, now you got my heart poundin’...” Missy’s a true lyrical chameleon, showcasing her ability to meet any rhymer halfway. In the non-video version, Q-Tip, uncharacteristic to his Native Tongue ways but likely more method acting in time with the aesthetic set by his fellow performers on the remix, is pure cocksure sex fiend here. It fits.

A LEGACY THAT CAN NEVER BE REPLICATED

“What? 18 weeks at number one? Yeah, people thought we were paying for that. MTV, BET, everything,” says Lil Mo, answering the questions surrounding if payola or illicit wrangling was involved with “Hot Boyz’s” epic run. “To this day, people go crazy when you play it. It was a genuine hit record. We had no Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Myspace to boost it...that single hit because of nothing but Billboard and radio.” Continuing, she remembers, “when I used to get my hair braided, it would take the girl six hours. I swear, in that six hours, I might hear ‘Hot Boyz’ 12 times.”

When asked if it would be possible to recreate that “Hot Boyz” moment, Lil Mo pauses, and then bittersweetly opines, “artists today don’t have the same type of confidence or creativity that we had back then. We had both, plus genius creatives pushing us to not fit into expected standards, but to be ourselves. That’s a gift and blessing. It inspires you to, when they give you the mic, to just kill it.” Lil Mo also credits the tune for kicking off her career “in a major way. It opened the door to me working with Ja Rule, Jay-Z, it helped me blow up out of control! My career struck gold.”

Upon hearing that artists like Kash Doll were inspired to become rappers because of songs like “Hot Boyz,” in her recent live performances, Lil Mo has updated the song’s hook to reflect modern times. Switching the hook from “Where your Lexus jeeps, and the Benz jeeps, and the Lincoln jeeps, and the Bentleys and the Jaguars, and the fly cars...Where you at” to “Some drive Bentley jeeps, some drive Lambos, even if they drive an Uber now, as long as he’s driving, baby,” has allowed the song’s relevance to resonate with just as much excitement for the current generation.

For her final note, Lil Mo reflects on her decades-long friendship with Missy. “This is 20 years of friendship. I just saw Missy last Saturday and though I don’t see her like I did all of the time two decades ago, it’s like we pick up exactly where we left off. The camaraderie that comes from making records that big is real. Our friendships, a song like this, they sustain and surpass the test of time.”

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Nature Sounds

Stalley Talks 'Reflection of Self: The Head Trip': 'I Haven't Been Vulnerable Enough’

Ever since leaving Maybach Music Group and making a dive into the independent market in 2017, Stalley has been peeling back the layers and giving listeners access into his life and thoughts through his music.

Fans got their first taste of Stalley's personal life post-MMG with his noteworthy three-volume EP series Tell The Truth, Shame The Devil. Through this series, Stalley updated listeners on his well-being and voiced his feelings about the trials and tribulations of the music industry. Last January, Stalley continued to flirt with vulnerability with his EP Human. On that project, the Ohio lyricist looked beyond the flashy rapper lifestyle and showed his listeners that he's human just like the rest of us.

This month, Stalley is making his return to the music scene with his latest musical effort Reflection of Self: The Head Trip. The nine-track EP is Stalley's most eye-opening project yet. Teaming up with producer Jansport J, Stalley again invites listeners into his closeted life, this time revealing the inner workings of his mind. "This project came from me doing a self-reflection of myself and kind of figuring out where I was in my headspace," Stalley tells VIBE. "I'm taking you all on a trip through my head and the random thoughts and ideas that come through my head. You guys have never heard me like this before."

VIBE chopped it up with Stalley some more to talk about Reflection of Self: The Head Trip, his favorite tracks off the project, opening up and being vulnerable in his music, how writing his rhymes helped elevate his lyrics, and more.

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VIBE: What was the inspiration behind Reflection of Self: The Head Trip?

The first part, Reflection of Self, is me reflecting on where I've been and what I've been going through. The Head Trip is me taking you on a trip through my head as a listener and just getting you to bend those corners and every avenue and crevice of my mind to kind of see where it all comes and plays out. It's present Stalley. I think a lot of my music I've touched on the past. Now it's very current and emotional and what I've been going through and what I've been seeing musically as a man, as a father, just observing the world and itself. Not just sinking myself into music but just really observing the world and what's going on and putting it into the music.

After opening up on Human, what did you do differently on this project to bring listeners into a journey through your mind?

I think with this I tapped more into my emotional side. I dug deep and I'm a very closed off person sometimes and I don't really open up, not even to friends and family. I kind of pushed myself and pushed those limits to really talk about some things that have been bothering me whether it's been mental health, whether it's been my relationship with God, whether it's been my relationship with music, and how I want people to listen and perceive and grab my music. I want to be able to teach, and help people to grow, and help people to learn and to do things that the music did for me when I was growing up.

What was the hardest topic for you to talk about on Reflection of Self?

I think it was just the whole fact of people not seeing me sometimes. People don't see me posting on social media or speaking. I touched on it on the second verse on "All So New." I said “I kept it inside I was barely outdoors,” and that was real. There was a time where I would only go to the gym and back home. I would be in the studio or whatever but I was really closing myself off to the world and a lot of friends and family.

Upon listening to the album the production sounds like it was heavily influenced by early 90s rap. Were there any projects or producers from that era that you listened to as a source of inspiration for this project?

No, it was really just conversations Jansport and I would have when creating this project of just bringing ourselves with that kind of essence but making it current and making it about us. We definitely are fans of the Pete Rocks and MadLibs and the Dillas and people like that. We wanted to make our own version of that and make it current. I think we succeeded and did a great job. But I didn't really listen to anything in particular. I really wanted to close myself off, especially musically, and just really dive into my own head. I didn't want any influences. I wanted to speak from my heart and my soul. I think that Jansport was able to give me the perfect soundtrack to that and with that, it came out that sound.

How'd you link with Jansport?

I linked with him actually through Twitter. We chopped it up on there and followed each other. We spoke and talked about building and doing some music together. We exchanged information, got on the phone, and really just built. It took us a couple of months to really get where we got but it was awesome.

What are some of your favorite tracks off the project?

A couple of my favorite tracks are "Peppermints and Water," "Hold It Up," and "Bad Ass Kids." "Bad Ass Kids" that's a record that it kind of brought me back to when I was a kid and then to observing even my children and the kids that I've seen and been around and just really wanting to protect them. I want to be that person that they can come to for knowledge and grow with. I think that we lost that sense of community and the OGs and the older people really giving morals to the kids and that's what "Bad Ass Kids" was for me.

"Peppermints and Water" was just me reflecting. In the studio, I always have peppermints and water and I just kind of reflected over that. Some people reflect through weed or through a drink or whatever but that was something that I reflected on. "Hold It Up" you know everybody in hip-hop says you have to hold it down and stay this way, but I feel people say it but don't really hold it down. So I'm like instead of holding it down I'm trying to hold it up. I'm trying to uplift, build, inspire, and help people grow mentally and spiritually. Whatever it is I just want people to be better people. I'm trying to be a better person so we're working together on that.

These are some of the sharpest bars you ever spit. What did you do to elevate them this go around?

I went back to writing. I got out of my head and I let my soul talk. I let my spirit talk and guide me. I think before I was more into my head like I gotta say this a certain way or just putting unnecessary pressure on myself. But literally, the music is more spiritual for me. I tell people if the music doesn't move me to move you I can't do it. I don't want to do it. So with this, it's just straight spiritual and letting my spirit, soul, and God guide my pen. I'm so proud of the writing. This is some of my best writing if not my best writing by far. I'm proud of myself for always continuing to get better and pushing myself to try to help and inspire.

Did writing your verses down help you get all your thoughts out in a concise manner?

Yes, I do. I think that I was able to guide myself a little better. People like to say “guide your pen” but I really was able to guide myself and my thoughts. I was able to structure it a little bit instead of it being me regurgitating s**t out. It flowed more like poetry and like a book. I like to look at my projects as a good book. I want to write you a chapter or a book of my life and just give you myself. I think I was able to do that by picking up the pen and putting words to paper again.

Did you have any fear that writing would take away from the raw emotion of rapping from the head instead?

Yeah sometimes because I think that the freeness comes when you have the cadences and you say things a certain way. Sometimes you don't want to feel like you’re reading off of a paper or you don't want to be reading your thoughts because then it becomes more of a spoken word type feel. But I think that my flow was immaculate on this even then because I think from previously not writing and having that experience of just going off the top of my head I'm able to be more comfortable in my pocket when it comes to writing.

Do you see yourself continuing to be vulnerable throughout your music in the future?

Yeah, I think I need to for myself and my fans. I think that I haven't been vulnerable enough. I haven't given my fans enough of me. I haven't given the world enough of me. Again like I said earlier I have been very closed off and secluded in my own thoughts and in myself because maybe it's my upbringing or maybe that's just my star sign. (laughs) I don't know where it comes from but it's just me. I really want to be more personable. I really want to help. I keep bringing up the word help because I know there are people who are like me who go through things that I go through and I want to speak more current and I want to speak more present. I think that this project is the most current and present that I've been in my music.

After a project like this, what other stories or what else do you feel you have to tell people about yourself?

I think that with timing and growth it will show. There are a lot of things that fans or even myself need answers to, but I think it's going to take a little bit of time for me to do a little bit more reflecting and growing. I always try to push myself to the limit and I'm going to do that even more with this now that I have started to open up, I really want to crack that shell and truly open up.

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