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Justin Milhouse

Views From The Studio: Producer Key Wane Dissects Jazmine Sullivan And Bryson Tiller's "Insecure"

The Detroit native reveals the story behind that "sample" on "Insecure," the importance of the piano, and the power of prayer.

The rich music history and soul of Detroit engraved its presence within Key Wane's soundscapes the moment he decided to become a producer. Serving as the home of Motown, the Motor City has birthed some of music's past and present forerunners like the late J. Dilla, Black Milk, Dej Loaf, Royce da 5'9", Big Sean, Eminem, Tee Grizzley and more.

"You can spend three months here and be so influenced by the culture," Key Wane says. "It's one of the best cities ever, so much inspiration here. It's a city of soul. It's hard for you not to be soulful in any way with your recordings no matter what it sounds like."

That melodic plate of soul food that Wane cooks up behind the boards continues to be the main ingredient in his creations. From Meek Mill's "Amen" to Big Sean's "Play No Games" to Jazmine Sullivan's "Let It Burn," Wane's instrumentals are bound to leave a lasting impression, similar to his latest offering, "Insecure" by Sullivan featuring Bryson Tiller.

Wane said the song, which was featured on Sunday night's episode of Issa Rae's HBO series Insecure (Aug. 20), took "about a year-and-a-half to make it happen." Sullivan freestyled her verses once she heard the track and later reached out to Tiller to lay his vocals. Then Rae was introduced to the melody and the rest is soundtrack history.

Read what else Key Wane had to say about that "sample" on "Insecure," the importance of the piano, and the power of prayer.

VIBE: I read that one of the instruments you're well-versed with is the piano. I think it was in Rolling Stone, that Prince told Beyonce if she learned the piano, then her artistry could reach new heights. What are your thoughts on that statement and how important is the piano in producing?
Key Wane: There are many people who are skilled without it, there are many people who are skilled with it, but I feel it is important to know an instrument because you can definitely raise your creativity, have you think about a whole set of new ways to approach a song. I agree with Prince. Playing the piano helps out your artistry especially if you’re trying to be melodic, harmonic or just different. A lot of my favorite songs are created by people who know the instrument. Pharrell is a great piano player, he’s one of my favorite producers. You can tell by listening to his beats that clearly the instrument makes his production stand out more evidently. The chords on almost every song on Fly or Die or In Search of... stand out so much. My ear connects more to the musical, melodic side of things, so Pharrell is a big inspiration when it comes to that. To tie that into what Prince said, yes, playing the piano should be something that people should be trying. Not just the piano, the guitar too, the trumpet, the drums. I feel like an instrument heightens, raises your artistry or creativity. That’s just me, I’m not speaking for everybody.

Which process taps deeper into your creativity? Songwriting or producing?
I write to every beat so it’s both. I have to put some type of direction on the beat before I send it to an artist. If they don’t like it, it’s cool because you still have the beat, and if you like what I said now you know where to go. I love writing and I love making beats. I haven’t written as many hit records as I’ve done beats but when artists are either stuck or having a hard time trying to advance on the record, I would always say, ‘Can I pitch you an idea?’ “All Me” happened just like that. Drake had called me one day and said, ‘The beat is ill, we’re over here killing it, but I don’t really have a hook. I don’t know where to go. All we have are just verses.’ I asked him, ‘Can I write a hook to it?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I sent them a hook and he ran with it and it worked. I feel I have a great point of view on both producing and songwriting. I’m still growing as a songwriter but I can’t really choose between both. Technically, producing does include songwriting too.

That’s interesting, how producing in a way influences you to write as well, even though you’re not the main songwriter for the song you’re producing.
Never the sole songwriter. I’ve had people ask, ‘What do you think you would say on this?’ They’d send me beats from other producers and ask, ‘What would you say on the hook or the verse?’ Other times people would say, ‘send me hooks’ or ‘send me beats with hooks,’ or ‘play me beats with hooks.’ I’ve had people say, ‘Just play me all your hooks with your beats.’ If I make the beat, I’m always thinking of something to say on top of it, whether I was inspired and just decided to put a song out or just give it to somebody. For the last few years, almost every beat I make I try to put an idea with it because I try to give the artist direction if they can’t find it.

Walk me through the process of "Insecure?" What were the creative steps like, when did you get the notification to produce the track?
I had three different versions of the beat before I ran with one. Usually, when I make beats I make at least four or five different versions of it. I’ll send you something that’s a little rough to see where I’m going then I sit with it. I don’t finish beats in a day, I have to work on it day after day after day. I probably had that beat for a year. I kept going through different versions. One version had drums to it. The way the vibe was I didn’t want it to be drowned out with drums so I kept it simple and put a very light drum track on it. I liked it, ran with it, put some keys on it, loved it. Me and Jazmine Sullivan have been working together for some years, probably since I graduated from college. We’re always sending each other records. I did the “Let It Burn” record, “Mascara,” “Dumb,” I produced a great portion of her Reality Show album. Recording with Jazmine Sullivan is so great. She’s the most talented person I’ve ever worked with as an R&B singer. When we did “Let It Burn,” I think she did it in one take. She was like, ‘It’s done!’ because she can sing really good. I’m used to being in the studio with people that’ll do take after take. She just went in there and did it. She’s amazing, gifted, blessed, she got it going on.

[Big] Sean flew me out to New York when he was recording the I Decided album. I did “Jump Out the Window” which is a really good song, one of his current singles right now. Sean went back to L.A. and my flight got delayed so I couldn’t make it. I thought, ‘I’m going to be out in New York for a whole day. Might as well get into something.’ I don’t like sitting down, I hate being lazy. I remember Jazmine said, ‘I stay in Philly. The best way you can get here is to take the train.’ I took the train, got to her crib and I was only going to be there for the night. I was going to take the train out in the morning. I played her five beats that day and she was just vibing. We were in the room for hours listening to a lot of ideas I made before I came there. She heard the “Insecure” song and immediately she knew… I knew the song was going to be crazy by her immediate reaction and what came out her mouth when she started singing, how she started off her verse. She freestyled the whole thing! I’ve seen Sean freestyle records all of the time. He hears a beat and immediately goes in on it. Jazmine, she does the same thing. I was sitting there like, ‘You have the song already?’ We were just vibing and she recorded a reference.

The reference that she recorded ended up being the song. I said let me get a copy of this so I can see how I can work it. She said let me know what else you do to it. I went back to L.A. and played it for a bunch of people and asked, ‘What do you think of this Jazmine Sullivan song?’ They said this sounds hard. I was telling her it’s about to be a dope record and she said she wants somebody on it. I asked, ‘Who do you want?’ She said, ‘Who do you think?’ I said, 'Do you want a rapper on it or a singer because it’ll be good if you got a rapper on it.' She said she really wants somebody with vocals to feature on it. Then she said, Do you know Bryson [Tiller]?' I said I don’t know Bryson, but I know Bryson’s people. I know Neil [Dominique] is Bryson’s manager and he’s a really good guy. Neil and I have been working together since he used to work for Diddy. I got in touch with Neil and said, ‘Me and Jaz have this crazy record. She wants Bryson on it. I’m giving it to you. Let me know what you can do with it.’ He hits me back, and this is probably months after I left Jazmine’s house, when we did “Insecure.” He said, ‘I can get him on it, we’re literally recording right now.’ I think Bryson was finishing up his tour. They did the verse and sent it back to me. I sent it to Jaz and she really liked it. She recorded another verse to it. We were trying to figure out if we should let Bryson go either in the second or the third verse. We ended up getting that resolved then it was done. I remember going to her house again, this was a few months ago, and we were working on newer stuff because we have a few records that we haven’t put out that’s fire. My guy Tunji at RCA was hitting me up. He said they were about to release the record. I traveled a lot, nearly a year trying to work that song. We were trying to get that song finished. Hearing that the song was done I was really happy. We just had to do minor production at the end, fix some things around, add some color to it, basically put the finishing touches on it. They were telling me that they were with Issa Rae. I think Tunji played it for her, and she loved it and ran with it. It took about a year-and-a-half to make it happen.

Is that Pleasure P's "Rock Bottom" that you sampled? How'd you come across that melody and what made you utilize the ad-libs?
It’s actually Jazmine singing. I took some vocals that Jazmine sang. I have a bunch of her vocals on my computer. I had her engineer send me some of her stuff. I sample a lot, so I sampled her vocals and turned it into a beat. If I played it for you, it would sound totally different.

The beat is pretty minimal like you said the vocals drove the beat.
Cool & Dre made the song “Rock Bottom.” They had a guy reference, I don’t know who wrote it, I wanted to ask who is the guy. Tunji said, ‘Listen to this.’ It was the original, original version of “Rock Bottom.” It wasn’t Pleasure P’s version, it was the one Cool & Dre had. Cool & Dre asked, ‘What do you think about this?’ Tunji said, ‘See what you could do with this’ and I did what I could with it. I chopped up a portion of it. I couldn’t really fully chop up what Cool & Dre sent me. I had to combine what I did with the Cool & Dre chop with Jazmine Sullivan’s vocals and it came out really well. Kind of like when you cook food, and you chop things up to make it taste good is basically what I did. It came out right. I’m a minimalist. I don’t think you should flood beats with instruments. You need to let the beat breathe sometimes and that beat was for sure breathing.

How does that method of being a minimalist allow for your creativity to shine?
I don’t wake up and say, ‘Let’s be minimal,’ but some of my favorite songs have the most minimal sounds but have the biggest impact. “Amen” is a very minimal beat, but it’s hard because it’s filled with melodic sounds and a bright vibe. “All Me” is very minimal, the beat is simple. I f**k with beats that give the artist enough room to breathe. I can’t drown a beat out with sounds. That might be the most minimalistic beat I’ve ever made and it sounds so good. “Memories” by Big Sean, that beat is just a drum and a key. The stuff I did for Beyonce, the piano intro on “Mine.” I’m not trying to be minimalistic on everything, but it just sounds really good to me. It helps the people who hop on my records, it gives them enough room to breathe and not be cluttered or drowned out by the beat. But I do have a lot of songs where there’s a lot going on like Big Sean’s “Guap,” “Dumb,” “Mascara” by Jazmine Sullivan. Being a minimalist isn’t what I aim to be on every beat, but I always believe less is more.

9th Wonder said samples in hip-hop or R&B for this matter can serve as an educational tool. When you select your samples, what teaching purpose do you hope listeners will take away?
I definitely believe sampling is very educational because you learn techniques that people were doing back in the day that sounded too good to just leave it there. I was with Diddy, we did a record that’s coming out soon, and he feels the same way. Sampling is a lost art. He says it at the very beginning of the song. People aren't making stuff like this anymore. I was with Royce da 5’9" who feels the same way. I listen to everything, but some people say the whole vibe of boom bap doesn’t exist like it used to. That’s why I love JAY-Z's 4:44 album because that goes right up my alley; raps and beats. When it comes to sampling, I try to follow in those footsteps of 9th Wonder, J. Dilla, No I.D. and Kanye [West]. I grew up off of that. Some of the best records on earth are sampled. R&B, funk, everybody sampled it. When I look for things I try to look for stuff that either you never heard of that’s not on YouTube. I go crate digging at the record stores too.

I don’t sample everything. A lot of my songs are original music, but when it comes to sampling stuff, I try to sample something unique, that you will feel in your soul. Songs like “4th Quarter” by Big Sean, if you listen to the sample at the end you’ll feel that. I try to get something that you would just feel. I sample old and new sounds. It’s weird to explain the thought process of crate digging and sampling. I’m just looking for if the art cover was dope or if I’ve heard of it before, or just curious and grab something and go home and cook. A lot of songs happen like that where I just go to the record store, didn’t know what I was buying and it just came out good. When it comes to sampling, I’ll just take a Saturday, nothing to do, go to the record store, usually every Saturday out of the month and just buy records, just see what catches my attention. If I bought 100 records I probably will find two or three songs that are fire. I’m still going through records that I bought years ago, hopefully trying to find something. I do believe in being versatile too, but I’ll still play the entire song out for you like “Eternal Sunshine,” and “Mirrors” from Jhene Aiko are all original records, just me sitting in front of a keyboard playing chords, seeing if it’ll work. I try not to be or stay the same, I try to be versatile as much as possible.

How do you select your samples? What do you look for in that process?
It’s really the vibe I get listening to it. If I hear something in it and say, ‘This is going to be deep,’ usually when I’m listening to stuff… I really just go into it. I don’t sit and say to myself, ‘I’m going to make an R&B song today’ or ‘I’m going to make the biggest trap record,’ I don't do any of that. I just see if it sounds right. I flip it and turn it into a crazy rap record. Usually, with sampling, I just don’t know if it’s going to be the next biggest R&B record because [Beyonce's] “Partition” I gave to Wiz Khalifa first. I give a lot of R&B beats to rappers first. I gave “Let It Burn” to Meek Mill first. A lot of my beats usually are rap beats. It’s really who catches the vibe. I can go into the beat thinking it’s going to be a hard rap record and then it turns into being the biggest R&B record. I can go into it and it's the biggest R&B record turning into the biggest rap record. I sent the beat of “Mascara” to Drake because I thought that would be a really good record for him. He said, ‘I love this record, this sh*t is dope,’ but Jazmine ends up making it the greatest song for a woman. I don’t have a thought when it goes into making the beat. I just don’t sit in the front of the keyboard like, ‘This is going to be the biggest rap record.’ God will laugh and say, ‘Oh you thought it was,’ and then it be an R&B record. “Insecure,” I think I gave to Sean first. When I sample I just see what works, see where it goes. I don’t pressure myself like, ‘This has to be the biggest.’

Do you have a favorite sample that you've used thus far in your career?
The best song I’ve sampled my whole career, there’s three: the sample I used on “Higher” for Sean which is a John Legend song, then there’s the “All Me” sample is great. Every time I do interviews they always ask me how I chopped up the “All Me” sample which is one of my favorites. Another one of my favorite samples that I’ve used, it’s a song that didn’t come out yet but it is so good! I cannot wait for it to come out.

You also hail from Detroit, which was home to Motown Records for a while. Given that label's legendary roster of R&B artists, did your upbringing in Detroit play a role in how you approach your productions, or the use of samples today?
Motown and Detroit play a huge role in everything that I do because there’s so much soul, history, some of the best musicians are from here. J. Dilla is from Detroit, one of the best producers, period. It’s impossible for you to not soak that in. You can spend three months here and be so influenced by the culture here. It’s one of the best cities ever. So much inspiration here. I would drive downtown, listen to Jazz and get inspired and make something dope. It’s a city of soul. It’s hard for you not to be soulful in any way with your recordings no matter what it sounds like. You’re going to catch some type of soul that you can feel from anybody doing music in Michigan and that’s a proven fact from Eminem to Royce to Sean to Dej Loaf to Payroll to Tee Grizzley. Even producers from Black Milk to J. Dilla to even my little self. It’s real soulful here, the music sounds like a plate of soul food. I don’t think my music would sound nothing like this if I was from another city.

You utilize 90s R&B or even older songs as samples. How do you keep the spirit of those times alive or sound fresh in your productions?
Through a lot of chords that people were recording back in the day. I like how they crafted their chords. How do I feel about bringing the 90s into today’s music? Sometimes by sampling, making something that feels like it’s inspired by something from back in the day. A lot of stuff George Duke created is so good, I haven’t heard anybody use those chords in music today. He has a song called “Just For You” and I haven’t sampled that but the vibe of the song is so innovative, just to make something that sounds like that today...If the kids now knew what certain stuff in the 80s sounded like? That’s why I try to at least do my part and still hold onto that vibe in some of the songs that I produce. A lot of this is timeless from the 80s and 90s so I just love that time period. I’m mentally there sometimes so it’s hard for me not to make a beat and not have some type of 90s influence on it.

Anything you’d like to add?
On IG or when I run into people,  they say, ‘I’m in college too, how do I continue to do this?’ Because I was doing a lot of these songs during college. Some say they’re lost or uninspired, 'do I quit my job but I don’t know how I’m going to continue to get the money,’ all these questions that people ask me that I go through and I tell them the only thing that’s going to change anything around is prayer. I say this all the time. I used to work at a car wash, at a daycare, at a telecommunications place, and those places weren’t for me. I just prayed every day. I didn’t take a shortcut. I said, ‘Lord, please make this happen for me. I feel like you gave me a gift. If this is the gift you gave me, help me tap into it. Help me see the light behind all of this.’ I tell people all the time, ‘I had a job like you and I quit. I was broke like you. My boss fired me three times,’ and I still didn't let any of that stop me. I went to studios broke, I had no money. The way “Amen” happened is a prime example of God being real. I went to New York with no money. I was stranded in Times Square, didn’t know how I was going to get to the Greyhound to get back to Detroit just to hop in my raggedy car to drive back to school hoping that the car would make it. I’m thinking if I graduate this year with nothing I’m going to feel like a failure like I was lazy and I didn't achieve anything. I’m going to have to graduate and go right back to working these jobs. I just prayed, ‘Lord, change my situation if you feel like my situation needs to be changed.’ Then I ran into Meek Mill and gave him “Amen.” To bring my point home, a lot of people don't need anything. They ask, ‘Do I need all of this expensive studio equipment?’ I say all you need is prayer. You need to have a relationship with God and everything will fall into place after that. I remember when nobody emailed me for beats. Prayer changes everything.

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Stevie J, Sean 'Diddy' Combs and Deric "D Dot" Angelettie attend Compound Entertainment And Malibu Red GRAMMY Midnight Brunch 2013 at Bagatelle/STK on February 9, 2013 in West Hollywood, California.
Johnny Nunez

Music Sermon: We’ve Been Sleeping On Bad Boy's Dream Team

Over the last several weeks, there’s been an onslaught of Top 40 and 50 music conversations. A (truly misguided) top 50 rappers list led to people in the music industry and entertainment industry creating their own (including a really solid one from Mike Tyson), even a Top 40 Best Dressed/ Flyest Rappers of All Time list (immediately rendered void by Sean John “Preserve the Sexy” Combs sitting in the bottom three). In the midst of the listing frenzy, Timbaland put forth his Top 50 producers. Notably missing: any of Bad Boy’s famed Hitmen squad, the collective responsible for the overwhelming majority of the label’s hits in the mid-late 90s.

First, the Hitmen “captain,” Deric “D. Dot” Angelettie, reacted.

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What Producer lists??? #Hitmen - We are the soundtrack to a generation, an era. We birthed a lot of you cats out there!! #WeDareYou Over 200 milion sold... #DiamondRecords - Top 5 Dead Or Alive!!! #Historic #HowSoonTheyForget #BadBoy @hitmansteviej_1 @diddy @iammariowinans @chucklife365 @ronlawrence @nashiemmyrick @richyounglord @hitdent @dubzworld @hittmobb411 @carlosbroady

A post shared by D-Dot (@ddotangelettie) on Aug 18, 2019 at 1:41pm PDT

Then, the head Hitman himself, Puffy, bigged his squad up.

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Back in the 90s I put together a crew of producers. We all worked together in a musical brotherhood and created the soundtrack to a generation!!!!!! Over 200 million records sold. We are the motha fuckin HITMEN!! And don’t you EVER forget it!!! #BadBoy4life @hitmansteviej_1 @iammariowinans @chucklife365 @ronlawrence @nashiemmyrick @richyounglord @hitdent @dubzworld @hittmobb422 @carlosbroady @ddotangelettie

A post shared by Diddy (@diddy) on Aug 18, 2019 at 5:07pm PDT

Puffy and D. Dot were absolutely right to say, “Um, remember us? The folks who kept the parties poppin’ for almost a decade?” The Hitmen are among the architects of the East Coast hip-hop sound. For the better part of the ‘90s, Bad Boy’s in house production team carried the label to dominance by mastering the marriage of hip-hop and R&B, creating the remix, and pushing rap to the top of the pop charts. However, it’s normal for them to be left off of classic producer lists specifically because they took hits from the ‘80s (yeah yeah) and made them sound so crazy (yeah yeah), instead of pulling obscure samples and/or creating complex sound structures like, for example, RZA. A producer friend once critiqued a Bad Boy song by dropping the needle on a 12”, and remarking, deadpan: “That’s how D. Dot produced that track.” But this is an unfair critique; if you go beneath the surface, you'll find that the Bad Boy Hitmen were talents with their own styles, true musicianship, and the elusive understanding of the anatomy of a hit. And yeah, there was a lot of shiny pop and disco samples, but there was some real New York street ish in there, too.

Full disclosure, I’m a little biased about the Hitmen. I worked in Reggie Osse’s (aka Combat Jack’s) entertainment law office when his firm represented the full roster of producers. I remember when VIBE’s feature on the producers, “Mo Money Mo Problems,” hit stands in August 1998, and gushing to Mario Winans (who I had a paralyzing crush on) about how great he looked in the spread. I then went on to work at Bad Boy, so definitely not objective, but there’s plenty of sound evidence to support my argument. Production collectives don’t hit like they used to, but from the Motown and Stax era through Hip-Hop’s rise to the mainstream in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, a tight, dependable team of talent was often the secret ingredient in a label’s winning streak. Bad Boy would have lockouts at NY’s Hit Factory studios, and later Puffy’s own Daddy’s House studio, with a nonstop rotation of producers, talent, friends, etc falling through sessions. It was fertile ground for collaboration.

Season 3 of Netflix’s award-winning Hip-Hop Evolution looks into Bad Boy’s dominating era in music, starting with Biggie, but propelled by a distinctive Bad Boy sonic. Puff shared his motivation for forming an in house production squad: “I was always a big fan of Quincy Jones, not as a producer but as an orchestrator. I never saw him play an instrument, and that empowered me because I didn’t play any instruments (for the record, Quincy is a legendary jazz trumpeter, but had to stop playing after a brain aneurysm). I saw him giving direction, I was good at giving directions,” he explained to series narrator Shad. “The Hitmen believed in me and my leadership, so you had that cohesive sound, so it’s coming from one brain; our collective brain.” The formation of the Hitmen - of the Bad Boy sound - was the key to Bad Boy surviving Biggie’s death in 1997.

In 2016, D-Dot, Nashiem Myrick and a few other Hitmen sat with their former lawyer Combat Jack to talk about their legacy at the A3C conference. D-Dot compared the producers in their prime with another legendary NY team. “We started believing that we were the Yankees. We were puttin’ up home run hitters...everybody was contributing...Stevie would walk in with something. Then other teammates came; the next thing you know, Mario Winans joined [the team] later on. Then, shit got even crazier ’cause Chucky [Thompson], Stevie, and Mario are musicians. Like, for real musicians—five, six instruments apiece. Then to watch the three of them battle each other. Like, ‘Okay, we gotta make D-Dot or we gonna make Nash’s beat hot’...So Mario’s playing drums, Chucky is playing the bass, and Stevie’s on the keys—playing at the same time; they didn’t rehearse.”

The squad taught each other new techniques, played off of each other’s strengths and pushed each other to be better. “It made for great competition...That’s how the hits got made.”

Over the full course of Bad Boy’s run there’ve been more Hitmen than Wu Tang members - even Kanye was rumored to have joined the production team for a hot second several years ago. However, not all Bad Boy producers are Hitmen; that’s a special distinction appointed by Puff himself. As with other collectives, sometimes individual credit was skipped for the sake of the bigger picture. But also, in true team style, several Hitmen often worked on a track, with one laying the foundation, working with the artists on their vocals, and one closing out as the anchor with final touches. Today, we’re focusing on some of the key members in the lineup at its strongest: Deric “D Dot” Angelettie, Ron “Amen-Ra” Lawrence, “Stevie J” Jordan, Nashiem Myrick, Chucky Thompson, Mario Winans, and Rashad “Ringo” Smith.

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THE CAPTAIN: Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie THE ELDER: Ron “Amen-Ra” Lawrence

Several of the original key Bad Boy staff members and label collaborators originally met at Howard University. Deric "D Dot" Angelettie (aka the Mad Rapper) promoted parties with Puff, and he and another day one Hitman Ron "Amen-Ra" Lawrence started as a rap duo called Two Kings in a Cipher.

Deric is universally recognized as the head of the original Hitmen, second to only Puff, and had his hands in almost everything the collective did not only as a producer, but the label’s head A&R: figuring out what track worked for whom, coaxing performances out of developing artists, and guiding new producers coming into the fold on how to develop Bad Boy’s Midas touch. As a producer in his own right, he and partner Ron Lawrence were behind some of Bad Boy’s biggest hits.

Even though Deric was at the helm in the shiny suit era, he prefers a harder sound than the bop-inducing tracks. “I’m more grimier hip hop, that’s where I’m from.” Deric has explained. “But I love to dance and I love money. Puff said ‘If you can combine those two with what you do, you can be an asset to me.’”

While the dance and bling tracks are what most immediately come to mind with Bad Boy’s chart-topping era, there was way more in the catalog than the soundtrack for bottle poppin’ and partying. The Mad Rapper reminded the A3C crowd in the Combat Jack conversation, “What people don’t realize is that we probably had some of the grimiest hip-hop records in history...along with them joints that popped on top.”

He was talking about songs like classic posse cut “Money, Power, Respect,” a power anthem flipped from a ‘70s jazz fusion song, complete with DMX barks for that extra umph.

And “Where I’m From,” the haunting track Deric and Ron gave to Jay-Z after Puff passed it up, (and then got mad, even though he passed it up). 20 years later, the song still prompts that screwface only a disgusting beat and flow can inspire.

But even when moving on the dark side, a necessary Hitmen trait was the ability to walk the line between street, soulful and sexy. Shout out to Carl Thomas and Too Short.

There was one track D-Dot absolutely did not want to touch because it was too on the nose: Mase’s “Feels So Good.” (The sample from Kool & the Gang’s “Hollywood Swinging” is the one my producer friend criticized.) He tried to pass it to Nashiem or Stevie, but Puff insisted he produce it.

Even though Deric and Puff weren’t always on the same page with musical styles, he has always been one of the most vocal defenders of the team’s talents and the Hitmen legacy, as he was back when folks were accusing them of just dropping the needle on the record. "Let me see you go up in the studio, coach vocals, mix a record, and add all the necessary shit you need to get them three thousand eight hundred [radio] spins a week," he told VIBE in 1998. "Puffy can do that. Deric Angelettie can do that. Stevie J. can do that. Nashiem can do that. Ron Lawrence can do that. That's what makes us producers."

While Deric’s sonic heart was sometimes more in the streets, his partner Ron Lawrence - who could just as easily move between the two works - often kept the party stuff going even when working outside of the label.

THE GRIMEY ONE: Nashiem Myrick

Day one producer Nashiem Myrick is rarely one of the first - or second, or third - Hitmen that comes to mind, but he was one of Big's favorites - probably because he translated Big’s energy to track so perfectly. Nah started as a studio engineer, and started being pulled into sessions until he became part of the official first Hitmen lineup, along with his partner Carlos Broady. He’s lowkey been responsible for some of the grittier songs out of the camp. I mean, this is one of the hardest tracks of all time. Period. Till this day. The song was originally for Mary J. Blige’s “My Life,” but Big went too hard with his verses. They put an interlude version on Mary’s album (with Keith Murray), and when the full version dropped it was perceived as a shot fired at 2Pac, inciting the infamous East Coast/West Coast beef between Bad Boy & Death Row (the song was written and recorded long before Pac was shot at NYC’s Quad Studios). Song lore aside, it’s still one of Big’s best (and still my go-to when I need motivation for anything - public speaking, a negotiation, a run, a drug heist, whatever).

Nashiem got (and gets) very little light, despite the classics he’s put up. He was never one of the “faces” of the camp, but he’s said that wasn’t his goal. “I didn’t care about radio...Radio wasn’t in my domain. I just wanted to rock the streets, rock people’s minds...I just wanted to be the hardest dude out there.” And he did that without losing or compromising the trademark Bad Boy energy. (Nash’s songs are also some of Puff’s greatest adlib moments.)

Some of your favorite ugly Big joints are Nash’s. (This is also one of my favorite uses of this Al Green sample.)

He was also behind Lil’ Kim’s most Biggie’ish song.

The thing about being part of a collective is, there’s work that nobody will know you did because it was credited to the collective name, or to just one of the producers, or, in the early years with this team, sometimes just Puffy. Nash has said he produced one of the best Mariah remixes of all time (with Puff, of course).

Nash did put some radio points on the board under his own name.

And here, with the help of Stevie J.

His R&B direction was even still kinda hard – a reminder that the Hitmen were one of the earliest and most adept teams at using hip-hop tracks under R&B voices.

Almost all of the Hitmen also had East Coast hip-hop classics outside of the Bad Boy ecosystem, and Nash had one of the most NY joints ever - the inspiration for his eventual company name: Top of New York Productions. You got beef, I got beef.

THE R&B SPECIALIST: Chucky Thompson

DC native Chucky Thompson was part of the Hitmen before the Hitmen were the Hitmen, but he isn't discussed as much as his counterparts. That may be because his work is better known in R&B circles - two of Chucky’s biggest career markers are his work on Mary J Blige’s seminal sophomore album, My Life, and on Faith’s debut album. But he was a core element of Bad Boy’s foundational hits.

He joined the Bad Boy affiliation to work on Usher’s debut, which LA Reid had turned over to Puff to oversee. There was no real Bad Boy production team of any kind yet at this point.

Look at little itty bitty baby Ush!

Chucky became a core producer for the label, and would float from session to session in NY’s Hit Factory (Bad Boy’s studio home before Daddy’s House), adding keys here, guitar there, a drum track there. The beginning of the collaborative nature of the eventual team.

He really found his groove when he started working with Mary. Puffy initially wanted him to do maybe one song for My Life, but Chucky ended up spearheading the production of the whole project.

(This is my sh*t.)

The producer met Faith while working on Usher (Faith and Donnell Jones wrote “Think of You,”) and then continued working with her on Mary’s album. When Puff signed her, Faith told Chucky she wanted him to produce her album. His church-taught musicianship and her church-bred vocals were a perfect fit. She heard a track Chucky was working on for Total, who Puff was developing, and snatched it up.

Chucky didn't just bless R&B artists; he was also good for adding a bit of swing and melody in a rap track.

He was also great for a good ol’ hip-hop hood love story.

Like I said, all of the Hitmen also had key classics outside of the Bad Boy roster, Chucky included. He’s a regular collaborator with Nas.

THE MVP: Stevie J

In 2019, Stevie J. is known mostly as a reality TV star, and there’s an entire generation of people watching his exploits and ego like “I don’t get it.” But his self-aggrandizing is kinda justified: he was an integral part of one of the hottest eras in urban music history. Listen, “Steebie” ain't sh*t. Ain't never been sh*t. But he is talented as hell. The PK (pastor’s kid) plays multiple instruments, writes, arranges, sings…

Stevie said in his own response to the Top 50 list, there’s a difference between a beatmaker and a producer. Steven Jordan is a producer.

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Timberland- diddy- swizz & Dre know what’s up! There’s a difference in beat makers, people that don’t produce but say they are producers & then there are Producers. I’m a Producer

A post shared by Stevie J. (@hitmansteviej_1) on Aug 18, 2019 at 1:01pm PDT

Stevie came into the Bad Boy fold working with Jodeci, and at one point was was part of Devante's Swing Mob collective. He was the on-call person when Puff needed a specific touch. Much like Puff himself, Stevie was good for making a track sexy (“sexy” is a tangible thing at Bad Boy).

Like Deric tried to do with “Feels So Good,” other producers would kick certain songs over to Stevie when they felt like it was something destined for the pop chart by way of the dance floor. “One day Mase comes in the studio… he pulls up a Diana Ross record, ‘I’m Coming Out.’ He was like ‘Yo, Nash, hit that for me. I need that. I want to do that.’” Nash once shared. “I was like, ‘Nah, that’s not me. Steve about to come here. Let Steve do that.’” Mase took it personally and was allegedly never really good with Nash after that, but Nash wasn’t trying to be shady. “I knew I couldn’t bless it like Stevie. Stevie comes in, does it, it comes out, sold 2 million.” Then Puffy heard it, said it was fire, and told Mase it was going on Big’s album (poor Mase).

In my personal opinion, Stevie and Puffy were very similar. They had the same flair; Stevie moved a lot like Puff back in the day - you’d catch him out with full-length furs, platinum crosses and Jesus pieces, and no shirt on - which made him a perfect collaborator.

But that also meant they were destined to eventually clash. Similar to young Puffy while at Uptown, Stevie was hungry to grow, telling VIBE in ‘98 “I wanna see my name in big lights without Puffy as well as with Puffy.” With his ability to add live instrumentation on top of samples and loops - or even recreate samples on the spot - Stevie was an MVP for the team and contributed to two of Bad Boy’s most anthemic hits.

Stevie had a strong run of success outside of the label, too, if not long-lived.

He co-produced several songs on Mariah Carey’s Butterfly album, garnering his second Grammy.

While not the biggest of his hits, one of my personal favorite Stevie J contributions is Dave Hollister’s "My Favorite Girl," his debut solo single after leaving Blackstreet. I love this song so much, because it is so soulful, has so much church up in it, but is so damn disrespectful. If you listen closely, you can hear Stevie in the background vocals.

THE BABY: Mario Winans

Mario Winans kept things poppin’ when the veterans started leaving the fold, bridging the gap between the classic Bad Boy era and the P. Diddy and the era with The Family, G Dep, Danity Kane, Da Band, and Dirty Money.

He’s like a Stevie J. Jr with a touch of Chucky: a church-raised musician (his mother is Vicky Winans) who could play multiple instruments, write and sing.

He brought the sexy...

The core R&B feel…

And he was an artist in his own right.

But if Mario never did anything else in his career, we are thankful to him for these two classics. I’m team Part 2, by the way.

THE MOST KNOWN UNKNOWN: Rashad "Ringo" Smith.

Ringo Smith is a wildcard member of the Hitmen. There’s almost no info on him - google him and you’ll find some credits but no real interviews or video footage. I’ve worked in this game my entire career and never heard anybody say, "Yo, Ringo Smith is dope." And yet, he’s respected enough in music circles to have been one of the faces memorialized on A Tribe Called Quest’s iconic Midnight Marauders cover.

But the super low key Smith produced some of Bad Boy’s biggest early bangers.

He belongs in the hall of fame for this alone.

Ringo even made some of your non-Bad Boy faves from this era. “Doin’ It” was originally intended for Big’s Life After Death follow up, which is why “Go Brooklyn” is sampled throughout a song by the very-much-from-Queens LL. *Makes it hot*

I called Ringo a wildcard because he could move in so many different directions. He doesn’t have a sonic signature.

He could effortlessly go back and forth between left-of-center and shiny, happy, everybody-report-to-the-dancefloor right now.

THE EXECUTIVE PRODUCER - PUFF DADDY

Finally, we have to address the team General Manager (literally; all Hitmen were managed by Puffy). There's been a lot of speculation over the years about Puff as an executive producer. Did he just come in and push a button and get EP credit? But a majority of the Hitmen have said on record that Puff has the most important element of a good producer: the ear.

Hitmen Jeffrey “J-Dubb” Walker and Anthony Dent talked about Puff’s strengths as a producer in a round table with other members of the team for The Urban Daily. He echoed the same sentiments Puff shared in Hip-Hop Evolution. “People say Puff can’t play an instrument, he ain’t no producer. You ain’t gotta play sh*t to be a producer,” J-Dubb argued. (Clearly, that standard for producers is long gone) “He knew what he heard in his head and he knew who could make that happen. … That was his job!”

Anthony added an example from his early days with the team when Puff asked him to turn off the sample machine while he was talking to him. “(Puff) was standing by the SP and I said, ‘It’s right there, turn it off.’ He looked at the equipment and said ‘Playboy, I don’t know how to work none of this sh*t in here. I know how to make a hit.’ And that’s when it hit me: You know how to put a record together, you’re a producer.

So the Hitmen were not just a  ‘70s and ‘80s sample factory - but also, why was there even so much hate around sample-based hits (aside from the whole not seeing any back-end money because of publishing thing)? As Nash exclaimed at A3C, “Hip-Hop was created by taking an old record, rapping on it, and making it new again. That’s how the foundation of Hip-Hop started, so how could you be mad at what we’re doing? We were just doin’ it on another level.”

From the perspective Puff shares in Hip-Hop Evolution, crossover or not, the music was still serving us: black folks. “I just started to choose real big, worldwide samples, and I figured out how to keep it black as a mothafu**a. And they would go pop, but they would still be so fu**ing black. We make that cookout music, we made that get married music, we make that make that make your baby music.” As much as we look back on the shiny suit era with disdain today, after years of gangsta and mafioso rap, we needed some party music. We needed fun hip-hop. And there’s a reason the songs still hold up: the samples were classic and the production was flawless. In my opinion, the sole difference in good production versus flash in the pan ish is whether or not you can run the track in 20 years and it still feels fresh. I guarantee you danced to a Hitmen-produced track at least once this summer. All their top joints still feel fresh.

Even though the OG’s are long gone and the days of Bad Boy as a full roster of artists and producers are gone as well, the Hitmen are a lifetime fraternity. Going back to the VIBE interview 20 years ago; the vets were just starting branch out. Deric was cultivating Crazy Cat (with more John Blaze), Stevie was working on his own stuff (he didn’t even show up for the photoshoot, on some superstar ish). But Deric, in true team captain fashion, insisted it didn’t mean there was bad blood. "In fact, it's endorsed.” He insisted. “When Puffy assembled us, the first thing he said was, `It's gonna take time for y'all to become what y'all need to become, but at the end of the rainbow, there could be label deals, production deals....' So kill all the rumors. If Stevie J. leaves, if Deric leaves, we're still Hitmen. Our line to each other is, `Once a Bad Boy, always a Bad Boy.' "

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

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Courtesy of Black Music Honors

The Unrestricted Music Ministry Of Yolanda Adams

Since the beginning of her career, gospel legend Yolanda Adams has accomplished an enviable feat for artists in the genre the Queen of Contemporary Gospel is respected and still sought after in both the genre and secular music world, but seemingly without the criticism and pushback her peers like Kirk Franklin and Mary Mary have faced at various times for straddling the two. We’ve marveled at the Grammy-award winner and radio host for her “She is serving - Wait, can she wear that?!” fashions and Ebony Fashion Fair model realness. And Yolanda, as a person, seems connected to “the world” in a way that may leave some church kids clutching pearls. But the Houston native (Houston clearly only produces real ones) didn’t grow up under the same strict doctrines as some of her gospel peers and her less restricted understanding of obedience in faith has made her incredibly open, accessible and connected.

On the eve of receiving the Gospel Music Icon Award at the 2019 Black Music Honors, VIBE talked to Adams about the sisterhood of Gospel, how she maintains her eternal slayage (who knew Yolanda Adams was a distance runner?), the power of music, and man-made restrictions in the church.

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VIBE: You are being awarded the Gospel Music Icon Award at 2019 Black Music Honors. The BMH are meant to tribute trailblazers in Black music who may not have otherwise gotten their roses. You are definitely a trailblazer, but do you feel like you’ve been under-appreciated considering the magnitude of your contribution not just to gospel music, but music overall?

Yolanda Adams:  I’ve never felt as though I’ve been cheated or not awarded. As a matter of fact, I believe, personally, that I’ve been one of the most applauded gospel artists, especially female. One of the things that I do know is that sometimes you’re blazing trails that you really feel are just the norm. It’s not like you’re trying to do anything that’s different; you’re just doing you. And you’re enjoying doing you so much, that everybody else comes along and they join the bandwagon. I’ve never felt that I was in it by myself, although I’m a solo artist. I’ve had such a great support system with my family; my husband, my daughter. I’ve had so many people, like Shirley Caesar, Tramaine Hawkins, Albertina Walker - all of the great women who said, “We’re so proud of you, you keep doing what you’re doing. You make us look good every place that you go.” I had that support. Whenever I would call Tramaine and say, “How do I do this, this, and that?” She would always explain. Same with Pastor Shirley Caesar. Same with Nancy Wilson. I did (The Yolanda Adams Morning Show) as a result of having a conversation with Nancy Wilson. She said, “There will come a time, especially when [your daughter] Taylor gets older, that you will want to be home. So the best thing for you to do is something that you can use your radio/TV journalism degree in.” And I thought about it, and I’m like, “Wow, you know what? You are so right!” So a great conversation with her and being built up by her resulted in the creation of (the decade-long show).

So, no, I never thought that I had been underappreciated or undervalued. I always knew that what I brought to the table - and CeCe (Winans) and I have this conversation often - there was never any competition between her and I, or Vicky Winans or all of the great women in gospel music at that time because we all had our niche.

The thing that I have always said is that in this vast universe that we live in, there is an audience for everyone, and then there’s an audience that’s being left out, that somebody else needs to capture. I don’t have to fight for what belongs to CeCe, I don’t have to fight for what belongs to Vicky, or what belongs to Tasha Cobb, or anybody like that, because God has so strategically given me the platform that I have, and my responsibility in that is to be the best Yolanda I can be.

That’s a word. Let’s talk about your audience, though, because you were part of the class - along with Kirk Franklin and Mary Mary - that broke gospel music open to the mainstream. Bebe and Cece Winans cracked the door open (in the ‘90s), but you, Kirk, and the Marys blew the gap between gospel and secular all the way open. I think it’s hard for people to appreciate how big that was, then. You probably got less criticism than Kirk and the Marys because people felt like their sound was secular. Your sound wasn’t as secular; it just translated. Or did you catch heat?

When I first started, people were like, “She’s really jazzy. Why does she have to be so jazzy?” They have to understand; I was never part of a traditional gospel-type upbringing. In my household, we listened to everything. There was no restriction. We danced in our house, so I didn’t have the stronghold and the bars of “You can’t do this” and “You can’t do that.” I lived in such a cool house, God was so cool, he went to the skating rink with us on Friday and Saturday and went right to church with us on Sunday. So in my mind, I never had those types of restrictions placed on me. It was only when I started my solo career - when I was totally solo from (Houston’s Southeast Inspirational Choir) and I started traveling - people were like, “Well why do you wear makeup? And why are your dresses so short? And why do you do this and why do you do that?” I’m the kid who was into modeling. I’m into fashion. I’m into all of this stuff, so for someone to tell me my lipstick offended them, I’m looking at them like, “Ok, well then you don’t wear it.”

So you didn’t grow up in the COGIC church.

I didn’t grow up in COGIC or Pentecostal. I grew up in a Damascus church setting, and then we moved to non-denominational, which was like, “Hey, if the Bible doesn’t put all these restrictions on you, then why would you let people put these restrictions on you?”

I love that because that is such a challenge: Even though Christians are called to be circumspect and “in the world, but not of the world,” people are the ones who put so much restriction on faith. That’s us doing that, not God doing that.

Here’s the thing about knowing the Bible; you have to know the Bible for yourself.  You have to know what God said. Because if you look at what Jesus concentrated on - and I tell people all the time, you need a Bible or a Bible app that shows you the words of Jesus in the red - think about it. He’s concentrating on being loving, sharing, caring and giving, and treating people like you want to be treated. And healing people from the inside out. That was His core thing. And He said, “I came to bring the Kingdom to you,” so what is Kingdom mentality? Kingdom mentality is; if you’re broken-hearted you don’t have to be hurt; if you’re poor you can become wealthy; if you’re lonely, you don’t have to be lonely anymore. So you have to look at that, because folks start taking the Bible at face value, and they never look at the history behind it.

You’re thirty years into your career and working on new music now. Gospel music is going through some of the same transitions that R&B is going through, and we’re having the same conversations about the fundamental ways (of making music) versus the new ways, etc. What are you looking to do with your music now?

Here’s the thing: everything in life goes through cycles. Everything. Whether it’s fashion, whether it’s automobiles, whether it’s tech. It doesn’t matter. Everything goes through cycles. We’ve been having this conversation since…1987 (laughs). “What do you expect your music to do?” “Why is it that gospel music is going through this  transition?” Well, all music goes through transitions; life goes through transitions. I’m going through a different transition with my life right now with my daughter being in college. It’s just the way life goes. Everything turns around. It’s the way of nature; the sun rotates and we rotate, and we’re always turning on an axis, so that is the rhythm of life.

But here’s what I always focus in on: I am not recording an album to get another Grammy. Thank God if I get one, or when I get one because we call those things that be not as though they were. And you know, thank God for all these accolades. But at the end of the day, how can I help heal the world with what God has given me in my heart? That is always my basis for doing any album, any product, going into any business venture. All of that. Everything in my life has to do with what is in my heart at this present time. God, how can we get it out to the people that need it?

You said earlier you believe you’re one of the most celebrated female artists in gospel, and you’re definitely still one of the most visible artists in contemporary gospel. You get called for every tribute. I’ve seen you tribute Lionel Ritchie, Patti Labelle, [and] other gospel artists. You walk that line between gospel and secular so well. What do you attribute to people calling you up, even when they’re doing a regular tribute for R&B artists, and are like, “We need Yolanda”?

One of the things I think people sense with me is that I truly love people. That’s the first thing. And usually, I have a relationship with the people that are being honored. So they know that I will be very respectful to the tribute, and I will be very respectful to the artist. I will be very respectful to my friend. They know that my gift is being able to translate other people’s music that I admire into my own style without veering so far away from what they originally did with it.

I saw you do “Jesus is Love” for Lionel Richie a couple of years ago, and I was at Black Girls Rock last year getting the holy ghost right quick (during the Aretha Franklin tribute). You just bring the house down with your energy and your vocals every time, you kill it, so I think another thing is that they know you’re gonna SANG! (Yolanda laughs).

We touched on your fashion and the fact that you briefly dabbled in modeling. When you step on stage, so many women I know are like, “Yolanda is snatched! I need that dress!” Can you speak to the choice to be fashionable even while ministering?

I think I inherited that from folks like Mahalia Jackson. If you look at the history of gospel music, we have a history of being fly. You have to go back to the Clara Ward Singers, The Barrett Sisters, and folks like that. Even when Shirley Caesar and them were younger, they would wear gowns, they would wear updos. You could see Albertina Walker in the same room you saw Aretha Franklin, and Albertina Walker’s gown would be more killin’ than Aretha’s at the time! The beauty of gospel music is that our fashions are so unexpected. People are like, “Oh, they’re just gospel artists.” Then you show up and they’re like, “Wait a minute, now!’ And if you go back into our history as African-Americans, that’s why they call it your “Sunday Best” because church was the place you could go to show off your fashions. The hats, and the gloves, and the pocketbooks, all those kinds of things. We had to have it straight.

Do you have a fitness regime?

Oh yes, I am very wellness-centered. I know that at any time, without warning, I can be called to be on television, and it has been a practice of mine, since I started, to make sure I am physically fit, spiritually fit, emotionally fit, and sometimes that’s not so easy with the climate of the world that we live in now. But my regime is once I get off the morning show, I go straight to the park or the gym for strength training. I run at least three miles when I do my runs. My long days can be anywhere from 9-12 miles, but I never do less than three miles. Sometimes it’s for sanity purposes, sometimes it’s for meditation purposes, but I love fitness because I know what I want to look like in my clothes.

For the record, you’re 50...something. I’ll say fifty-something. But you are in peak shape, form, energy, all of that. So it’s obvious that you take care of yourself.

I tell people all the time: If you want to start living better, start today. With an extra glass of water, an extra apple. And I’m not saying cancel sugar out altogether because our brains need the sugar, but you don’t have to add extra sugar.

Right. And I do think that’s something that presents a challenge for folks who’ve grown up in the church - we eat with our fellowship.

It can be food and fellowship as long as the people who are bringing the food know how important eating well is. Just like you can bring fried chicken, you can bring baked chicken. Just like you can bring fried fish, you can bring baked fish. You don’t have to put all of that grease in your system. Now if you’re only doing it once or twice a year, that’s not a problem. But if you’re doing it every Sunday, every Wednesday, every Thursday, every Friday, you gon’ have a problem.

I used to go to [your 1993 hit] “The Battle is Not Yours” when I needed encouragement. Who do you listen to for encouragement?

I listen to a lot of the stuff that I have recorded and have written. My go-to's are Tramaine, Cece, Vicky, Richard Smallwood, Donnie (McClurkin), Donald Lawrence...I listen to everybody. I love listening to all gospel music. Especially at that time.

Who do you listen to on the secular side?

I listen to Mary J., Lauryn Hill, I listen to Monica, I listen to Brandy, Kenny Lattimore—

You listen to the voices.

Yes, I love voices, and I love different voices. Rashan Patterson. PJ Morton - I’ve known him since he was three years old. I love to hear young people express themselves, whatever it is. India Aire; I love her new album (2019’s Worthy). I’ve been listening to “Roller Coaster,” that song is so amazing. There are just certain things I hone in on. Tamia’s new project (2108’s Passion Like Fire). Johnny Gill has a new project (Game Changer II). Uncle Charlie (Wilson) has a new project. Lalah Hathaway, she is so amazing. I love the richness of voices, and I love people who are passionate about what they’re writing, what they are expressing and how they make you feel. I need some feeling in my songs, you know?

Who would be in your ideal line-up for a tribute to Yolanda Adams?

Oh my gosh, can I pick like 20 people? (laughs). If I could pick 20 people, it would be Avery Sunshine, Anita Wilson, Jekalyn Carr, Tasha Page House, Monica, Brandy, Jazmine Sullivan, Kelly Price, Donnie McClurkin, Jonathan McReynolds, Brian Courtney Wilson… I know I’m probably at 40 now! Joss Stone...So many people. I am a music lover, and I love to hear people expressing their love for what they do, and I know I’m repeating that, but all of those people I named, they’re so passionate about everything that they do. I could just listen to all of those people all of the time. Oh, and Lalah!

Based on how much you love music and you love feeling the emotions, can you speak to the power behind ministry in music?

Music is so… it’s so a part of us. Remember I said earlier that everything has a rhythm? It is in us. Our hearts beat at a rhythm, our blood flows in a rhythm. We can be walking down the street and then all of a sudden, we’re walking at a rhythmic pace. It’s just the way that we’re wired. So it is automatic that music has such a profound influence on the way we feel. When we’re in love, we can listen to Anita Baker. When we’re asking questions, we can listen to Donny Hathaway or Roberta Flack, or Donnie McClurkin or Fred Hammond. When we have a heartbreak, we can listen to Mary J. Blige. When we wanna be empowered, we can listen to Beyoncé. When we wanna cuss somebody out, we listen to Cardi B (laughs). I love Cardi!

But I’m just sayin’. There’s a rhythm to everything, so my thing is, it is automatic that we feel the power of someone’s interpretation when we’re listening to music. There is no way you can’t get the feeling that Jazmine really did knock the windows out of somebody’s car. It’s almost like you go back to that experience where somebody made you so mad you wanted to do that. And this is what I think music does as ministry. When we talk about ministry, the root is “minister,” which is also where we get “administer.” So music can administer healing, it can administer hope, it can administer empowerment, it can administer everything that you need it to. Power that changes people’s lives comes with the impact of music.

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The 2019 Black Music Honors, celebrating Yolanda Adams, Tamia, Xscape, Freddie Jackson and Arrested Development, is set to air in broadcast syndication Saturday, September 14, 2019. Visit BlackMusicHonors.com/airdates for more information.

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Jenny Regan

Un-Classic Man: The Evolution of Jidenna

Jidenna is glowing. The edge of the summer sun creeping into VIBE’s New York office highlights the 34-year-old's purple hues and cantaloupe-colored prints that adorn him. His mustard kufi, sitting snug atop his braids, is more than just a "cool hat." It's an introduction to who he really is. “I am Jidenna, the Un-Classic Man.”

Jidenna didn’t rigorously exfoliate that persona off—it shed on its own. The 2015 release of “Classic Man” helped usher him into the mainstream game under Janelle Monae’s Wondaland roster. The track provided the artist his first Billboard Top 40 hit, a Grammy nomination for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration and a chopped and screwed version featured in the Academy Award-winning film Moonlight. But the boom-trap feel of the record is nowhere to be found on his sophomore release, 85 To Africa.

Instead, the Nigerian-American gives life to hip-hop’s current identity crisis by stamping its passport across the African diaspora. “I want the album to integrate the African diaspora with the continent,” he says of the LP’s mission statement, which features a polished display of Afrobeat(s), R&B, psychedelic soul, funk and raw bars from an artist many haven’t figured out yet.

“It's [like] Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. If you look at him, that generation's mission statement was to integrate people of color and mainstream society, but mine is the diaspora into the continent,” he adds while elongating his goals. “I'm living and dying for that. There's nothing more important as black people as that. Nothing. There's plenty of things we gotta work on because if we do, a lot of other things will actually change. The economics in the hood, the idea of it being gentrified, the positions of power with women, the LGBTQ+ community worldwide. You have to deal with all of that to integrate the diaspora and the continent.”

Jidenna’s big ideas aren’t without merit. The son of a West African scientist and chief, the artist is not only knee-deep into social issues that plague the African-American community, but has strong ties back home. It’s enough to overwhelm any online revolutionary but Jidenna isn’t built that way.

“Someone described me as an aux cord for the diaspora to the continent,” he says. The album takes listeners to his once-humble abode in Atlanta—a cultural hub for black excellence in its own right—to sounds currently taking over Afrobeats and trap-themed parties. Horns blow with endurance on the album’s title track with special guests like GoldLink and Mr. Eazi shining on “Babouche” and “Zodi,” respectively. Jidenna’s sonic road trip is laced with good intentions, legendary producer Young Guru says.

“Jidenna's album is sort of a bridge, that's why it's 85 to Africa,” he says when asked about engineering the album.“It's bridging those gaps, but not only bridging those gaps musically but [also] bridging those gaps politically, bridging those gaps business-wise. That's the general purpose and the idea, along with very mature subject matters. I don't know if the average American knows what a 'Sou Sou' is.”

Throughout the album are odes to Caribbean and African culture like on “Sou Sou,” an offhand way of saving money in West Indian households. However, on the track, Jidenna compares the practice to a night in Ankara sheets. “Sufi Woman” plays to any soul sister keen to Yoruba, Brazillian Candomblé or whatever intensifies the spiritual vibrations. The lustful vibes continue on “Zodi,” which masterfully samples Busta Rhymes’ 1997 hit “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See.”

“If we are to be stewards of what this culture is, we have to allow it the space to evolve,” Guru mentions of Jidenna’s marriage of Afrobeats and hip-hop. It finds a calming balance on the album's lead single "Tribe" with a psychedelic video to match. “And that means sonically, subject matter wise and style-wise. That means us as 45-year-old parents of the culture allowing our 16-year-old children to express themselves. All of that is inside of this album. That's why you hear the direct nod to an old Busta Rhymes record but still making it new.”

He’s humble about the notion, but Jidenna and in-house producer Nana Kwabena were some of the early U.S.-based artists to blend the sounds of Afro House and Afrobeats into hip-hop’s obsession with trap beats. He points to "A Little Bit More," one of four singles from his debut album, The Chief. “That was the first time on the radio you were hearing real pidgin from a U.S.-based artist,” he recalls. “Nobody was saying 'Wahala she no dey give me.'” (Translation: She doesn't give me any trouble or worries.)

But Jidenna admits he’s not fond of his first studio project. He points to industry suits clamoring him about the “Classic Man” ethos. The pressure to be a gimmick only fueled the need to return to his roots.

“I enjoyed songs off it but [it was] the process. I was dealing with a label who wanted me to stick to one thing and I'm not that person,” he says. “It's not even natural to me. I live in between worlds. So that album, there was like three iterations for it so by the time it was done, I just wanted to get it out. I'm not proud of it and I'm still not.”

With 85 to Africa, Jidenna says he went in with no expectations as he traveled from Atlanta to Nigeria, Ethiopia, Swaziland (Eswatini), and Namibia. “I was just traveling through the continent and that's why it's 85 to Africa and not one country. That's how far I had to get away to make a natural album.”

He might not be a fan of his early tunes but he’s a scholar in trap and African music. “There's hella genres in Afrobeats, we're not even there yet,” he says about America's fascination with artists like Tiwa Savage, Burna Boy, and Mr. Eazi. “We're at the beginning. It's like when hip-hop started in 1979 and everyone is like, 'This is hip-hop.' We're literally at that point.”

Pointing to legends like Ebo Taylor, King Sunny Adé, Sunny Okosun, Cardinal Rex Lawson and Miriam Makeba, Jidenna hopes students of music listen to these artists in hopes of grasping a better understanding of other genres like highlife and jùjú music. He also believes hip-hop will have to pull a Sincere and head back home to the Motherland.

“I think for the first time in hip-hop history, hip-hop has to look outside of its history to evolve,” he says with much certainty. “Otherwise, it would be boring. I'm glad trap evolved the way it did because naturally, I was a fan because I was in it. I always told people, 'Trap music is African.' Those rhythms, those triplets, when Jazz players are talking about, 'Yeah, Jazz music baby. You know, the 6-8.’ When we're hip-hop historians, all old and grey, we’re gonna say, 'Migos was doing to the platter platter platter,’" he says in relation to their triplet flow.

Jidenna's love for hip-hop was felt throughout his 85 To Africa pop-up listening parties that were meant to recreate the days of The Tunnel (look it up) and house soirees. While playing his album, some fans had their chance to dance with the singer, with others pledging their devotion to Jidenna on social media.

He's well aware of his sex appeal but no one thought a simple studio photo would turn him into a trending topic—before he even released details of his album. “It's so funny because it shows that one, you don't know what will pop off and two, what people find attractive about you, I didn't like that picture,” he says.

https://twitter.com/VEJ0ME/status/1149344754649522176

But for every eye-catching photo of Jidenna comes an appreciation or at least, a respected view of his music. When it comes to his peers like Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, their talent is often questioned because of their sensuality.

“I'm biased. I think the female form is an unbelievable form. Period. I think that men and women can appreciate that, not to say that there's no beauty in men, but I do think that human beings really enjoy women,” he says between pauses.

“I know for a fact that a lot of female artists feel the pressure to be more revealing. Men are starting to feel that way, too. The pressure to lift weights, the pressure to put beard oil on, the pressure to get a lineup every week. I'm glad because women put a lot of work in. What's cool is that women in the U.S. are going through a phase where it seems like y’all are more unapologetic than ever before. Women are speaking crass and bolder, and that's why they're rooting for Megan and artists like Cardi. Lizzo also represents a certain kind of freedom and I think that kind of liberation is great.”

While speaking to the double standards of hip-hop’s shining stars, Jidenna believes men have tapped into their vulnerable sides. “With men, you're seeing what women have done more traditionally and that's being more vulnerable and admit to mental health and admit to having self-esteem issues,” he says. “I can go across the board from A$AP Ferg to Big Sean to myself. Our journey is that way and for women, it's the other way.”

From owning his artistry to his masculinity, Jidenna is in a special place of self-awareness.

“I think he's found his purpose and his sound,” Guru says. “With him and Nana coming together as a group, as a team, I think he was making sure that he was not being pigeonholed into a hit record, which sometimes can be a curse. But a lot of times you don't get to see the full scope or run the gamut of what that artist can do and I think that on this album. He's shown you his full gamut of what he can do as an artist. He can rap, he can sing, [and] he put together melodies that are not normal but that completely fit where we are right now. That's just him as an artist.”

Jidenna is finally where he wants to be and it's time hip-hop takes notice. Stream 85 to Africa here.

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