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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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PJ Morton Talks Grammys, Super Bowl And Finding His Niche

Thank goodness that PJ Morton trusted his gut.

“PJ, you're not mainstream enough / Would you consider us changing some stuff / Like everything about who you are / No offense, we're just trying to make you a star,” Morton sings on “Claustrophobic,” a song from his 2017 album Gumbo. “PJ, you're not quite street enough … can you switch your style up a little more? You can be yourself later, for now we need the radio.”

Whatever advice he got from out-of-touch record execs was nonsense. PJ Morton being himself has served him well: the album that hosted the above lyrics earned him two Grammy nominations for Best R&B Album and Best R&B Song. He took home his first Grammys trophy himself this year with the Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Performance for his “How Deep Is Your Love,” one of three nominations at the 61st Annual Grammy Awards from 2018's Gumbo Unplugged.

Along with the hardware, he also got one of the most memorable experiences of his life. As a member of Maroon 5, he headlined the Super Bowl LIII halftime show in a performance with Travis Scott and Big Boi. His beloved football Saints may have gotten robbed in the weeks leading up to the big game, but New Orleans still has plenty to celebrate with Morton’s recent success.

“I felt [the energy] even when we were rehearsing with nobody in there. But then, when you feel that audience in there and you know it’s live, it’s just—to me it started as nervousness a little bit and then it just turned into excitement, knowing that you’re reaching all these people. Really for me, it’s a sentimental moment,” Morton said. “Our manager passed away last year, and I remember, since I’ve been in the band for nine years, the Super Bowl was just something that we were always looking [forward] to. For Jordan [Feldstein] to not be here for this made me reflect a lot on that and reflect on my life as a musician and the things I’ve did that ultimately got me to the biggest gigs a musician could want.”

Rather than celebrate his accomplishments for the rest of the year, Morton is using them as momentum. Weeks after the Super Bowl, he had the Valentine's Day release of  "Say So," a beautiful new duet with JoJo.

VIBE caught up on the phone with PJ Morton prior to the Grammys as he sat in his studio in New Orleans to chat about his nominations, his journey into creating his sound, the Super Bowl halftime performance and New Orleans Saints, and whether black musicians and fans should still care about the ceremony.


What were you doing when you found out about you were nominated a second time?

It was about 5 a.m. in the morning, I had to wake up, I was on the West Coast and that’s when I found out, but this year, I was more just in shock. I was shocked about [being nominated for] Best R&B Album, I wasn’t necessarily expecting it. I [was nominated for] Best R&B Album last year and…whew, I almost shed a tear last year. This year I was just in shock (laughs). I called my family and shared the news and it was amazing.

At this point in your career, what does the award mean to you?

It still means a lot to me. I’ve yet to win one [until now] as a solo artist or as an artist period. It still means that it was voted by your peers. It’s voted on by the professionals in the music industry so that always means a lot. You definitely want to impress your friends. So this is like impressing your friends, known or unknown, who are amazing artists, musicians, and engineers so it still means a lot to me.

There’s a lot of conversation about the validation of these type of awards when it comes to black music. Which one means the most to you? The validation of the Academy or the people?

Ultimately, I make music for people, whether I win an award or not. Like I said, I was up for two Grammys last year and didn’t win, but it didn’t take away from the impact that I had on the people who've been supporting me and being able to go out on the road and sell out tours, that’ll always mean the most to me. [The Grammy] is like a cherry on top, the award and the validation from them. I make music for the people first.

And a lot of your success reminds me of your song “Claustrophobic,” considering the story behind that song. Do you feel like you’re fitting in nowadays or are people recognizing your individuality more?

I think individuality is being more celebrated in general these days. Before, the big labels and everybody were able to prove to us what was hot and what’s supposed to be the best thing and everything. I think that the way the industry is moving now, people are able to make their own decisions. They don’t have to listen to the radio if they don’t want to or listen to anybody who tells them who to listen to. They can go and create their own playlist and find the artists they love. For me, now I’m able to stand out a little bit more and my fans are able to choose on their own without anybody having to feed it to them. I think that part is being celebrated, who I am in “Claustrophobic” and really fighting to be myself. I think people connected to that more than anything.

What was the real life experience that lead you to create that song?

It was a combination of things, but the last straw was that I had just left Young Money and was looking to go into working on a new record and I took a meeting with a label and the meeting had went so bad. These people didn’t understand me at all. I remember myself kind of checking out of the meeting even before I left. I knew I had to get out of there both figuratively and [literally]. I was ready to just move on and do something else. And that meeting kind of put me on my path to leave Los Angeles and move to New Orleans and really find myself again.

How long did it take you to find your niche all the way? I know you’ve been through some ups and downs with that.

That’s the other side of it. I feel like I’ve been myself the whole time. It’s not like I’ve made some huge transition and made some music that I’ve never made before. I’ve always kind of done it like this. But I think it was more so when I wasn’t making music, when I was trying to make music and couldn’t really get to myself and couldn’t figure out who I was. It’s just more of what I’m talking about in “Claustrophobic,” but any time I’m making music, I feel like I’ve been my authentic self. It was just a matter of making sure I got back to that and gotten back to it fully. And I feel like, for me, it’s always a journey. You live, you evolve, you grow, and I think the art reflects that. I never feel like I’m done learning and growing. I think it was all through the journey that I found my niche, but if you listen to my first album 10 years ago, you still hear the same PJ, you still hear the same instruments so it’s not like I drastically changed or found some new sh*t I didn’t have in the beginning. I’m always perfecting it and growing and evolving.

Let’s go back to the Grammys for a second. In previous years, they’ve gotten many awards wrong when it comes to our music and some would argue that both black artists and fans should no longer care about them or other mainstream award shows. Do you think that they’re relevant at all to black music?

I think black people—so there’s two levels to the Grammys, right? I think the voting usually gets it right because you have small committees who are making sure—and these committees are industry professionals. So, the R&B singers and the R&B producers are the ones who make sure that the right artists, the right songs are in the right category. Even [from] last year to this year, I think the categories are right, the songs are right, whoever I’m up against I think all of that is right. I think sometimes when you get to the general voting where sometimes people who aren’t experts in those categories have to put their vote in when they don’t even know what’s been going on in the streets or what’s been going on in these genres. That’s when sometimes it goes a little left. So, I think they’re relevant. I think the Grammys are relevant. When the Grammys work when they’re designed to work, it’s a beautiful thing. So, I don’t need to be voting in the country category because I’m not listening to country all of the time and I’m not creating country music. But when the country guys are voting for country music, then they’ll get that right. I think that’s what it comes down to, it’s being able to stick to what you know. In that sense, I think they’re relevant for sure.


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Much love to everybody that celebrated with me last night!! 🙏🏾⚜️⚜️⚜️ #NEWORLEANSFINEST #GRAMMYS

A post shared by PJ Morton (@pjmorton) on Feb 16, 2019 at 9:40am PST

With this new influx of new R&B and jazz artists, do you think that at this point, both genres are getting the respect they deserve?

I definitely think it’s getting better, it’s growing. I don’t know if it’s getting the full respect that it deserves but it’s going in the right direction. We’re getting more love.

I’m sure you’re familiar with Jennifer Lopez performing the Motown tribute at the ceremony. Who are some legends that you think should get deserve a tribute that might not have had one before on that kind of platform?

That’s a good question. I think sometimes we wait until people die before they get a tribute. I think we’re at the point where probably Anita Baker deserves a tribute. Chaka Khan, maybe. It’s so many people who’s had an impact, I don’t think Al Green has had a tribute [since his BET Awards tribute in 2008] and that’s one of the soundtracks to America.

On your Super Bowl halftime performance, the New Yorker called it an “artless spectacle.” How did you and/or Maroon 5 handle the negative criticism?

I mean, I think the other side of when you play—when you have that many people watching you, at one time, you can’t expect for all of it to be good. What I haven’t heard out of everybody is the critique that they sounded bad (laughs), which is what I wanted to accomplish. I think they had expectations for us to do something other than play our songs. I think what gets you to the Super Bowl is lots of success and we’ve been blessed to have hit songs and successful tours for years and years. Like I said, I’ve been [in Maroon 5] for nine years while the guys have been a band for 20 years and to have success like that and still currently have success with a huge #1 song with “Girls Like You.” I can’t really let a bad critique [bother me]—or really not even bad, all of it just like a regular “it wasn’t great, it wasn’t bad,” that’s what I’ve been hearing.

To have a lot of that success over the years and to make it to the Super Bowl and to allow somebody that gives a “regular” critique to sway me in any way, it just doesn’t do anything to me. I’m happy. I wanted to make sure that we play the music well and that we sounded good and we put on a good show. I’m sorry that we couldn’t (laughs) live up to the expectations like I think we were supposed to do some backflips or something like that or do some other things, but I just wanted to play the music and that was our plan from the beginning and that’s what we did. I’m proud of my bandmates for doing what we do. We’re musicians and we play music and entertain people. That’s what we did.

As we both know, the actual Super Bowl game was terrible. As a New Orleans native, how did you feel about the Saints not making it to Super Bowl?

I was deeply hurt! I was deeply hurt, man! We should have been there. I thought that the call was as obvious as it gets, and I don’t think I’ve seen a worst no call blunder in my life watching sports. It was bittersweet with for the Saints not to be there. They should have been playing and it would have been a more exciting game too. It was disappointing and we should have been there. But at least one New Orleans native made it to the Super Bowl.

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Singing group New Edition (Michael Bivins, Ricky Bell, Ralph Tresvant, Ronnie Devoe and Bobby Brown), poses for photos at the Hyatt Hotel in Chicago, Illinois in JANUARY 1984.
Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Music Sermon: The Evolution And Extinction Of Male R&B Groups

Male vocal groups were a mainstay in black music for decades. Whether it’s gospel harmonizers, the lockstep, perfectly blended Motown, or Stax and Philadelphia International sounds; the synth, glossy, dance and pop-infused ‘80s; or the last great decade for R&B groups in the ‘90s, there had always been two or more gathered in the name of multi-part soul harmony. And then – there weren’t.

Music fans were in heavy debate a couple of months ago about the current state of R&B – male R&B artists, specifically - and whether real R&B music exists anymore. (Puffy chimed in with a pretty definitive answer.) The decline of R&B artists has been noted, but R&B groups have been damn near extinct since the early 2000s. Girl groups (do we still call them that in the woke era?) are still on the endangered list and tagged for monitoring by music conservationists whenever a new group emerges, but the guys are feared gone for good. The last year male R&B groups had a presence at the top of Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip Hop Songs chart – not even a crossover chart, the R&B chart - was 2001, during 112 and Jagged Edge’s last strong album runs (“Where the Party At” peaked at No. 1 on September 15, 2001).

King of R&B

— Diddy (@Diddy) December 11, 2018

How did such a staple in black music just go away? How did we go from your granddaddy and ‘nem doing doo-wop on the street corner in the ‘60s, to your uncles and ‘nem doing talent shows in the ‘70s and ‘80s, to your cousins and ‘nem singing in school cafeterias and bum-rushing established artists at shows to audition in the ‘90s…to nothing?

To talk about what went wrong, let’s explore R&B groups over time.


I don’t have scientific evidence to support this, but you can trace all R&B back to a handful of artists/acts. Every vocal style, performance aesthetic, production technique, and sound evolved from someone and something that came before. This is especially obvious with groups, because R&B groups are a formula. They’re a musical equation of members, style, presentation and song. You couldn’t just pull four random people off the street – even singing-ass people – and put them in a group. The chemistry had to be right. The voices had to blend well. And there had to be at least one star. This formula was, of course, perfected at Motown – Berry patterned the label after an assembly plant, duh - but ‘60s acts laid blueprints and instructional guides. And ‘60s groups had the best names; The Temptations, The Impressions, The Platters, The Spinners. How did they come up with those joints?

The Temps are the male vocal group template. They’re one of the defining acts of the Motown sound, one of the best-selling male vocal groups of all time, and subjects of the best TV miniseries ever (“Ain’t nobody comin’ to see you, Otis”). The Temptations were tight and precise, with effortless vocals and footwork.

The Miracles championed the smooth, sensitive front-man style. They were the first Motown group to land a No. 1 hit, and the first to start the trend of changing the group’s name to highlight the star. I can name everybody in the Temptations, I can’t name anybody but Smokey Robinson from the Miracles. Smokey was also a quintessential music man, wearing multiple executive and creative hats. He was not only one of Motown’s first artists and first stars, he was also the company vice president and one of its key writers during the formative years.

Sam and Dave may the greatest soul duo of all time, powered by Stax Record’s legendary session band, Booker T. and the M.G.’s, with Black Moses himself, Isaac Hayes, writing and producing. They brought all of the black church into their vocal performances.


With the emergence of funk in the ‘70s, bands moved to the forefront. A strong frontman was still necessary, but the band was the star. Complex choreography was replaced with high energy production and performance. It was about the jam. By the mid-‘80s, however, the black band was already dwindling. Advances in production were slashing recording costs, time and effort. It’s much easier to throw a producer and an engineer in a couple of studio sessions than travel musicians in, pay for rehearsals and schedule multiple days to record live in the studio. Sadly, this created a cycle. As music production continued to advance, lessening the need for session musicians, fewer new musicians were coming up anyway.

Tuskegee natives The Commodores started as a jazz band (musicianship!), but made their name with the funk. Several members played multiple instruments - for example, Lionel Richie also plays the sax. Shout out to my actual, real-life uncle on drums in this video.

The Isleys get the Male Vocal Group MVP award as the longest running group that managed to stay relevant and chart hits from the ‘60s through the ‘00s (do you know how hard that is?!). I’m going to back up a little: most music fans know the Isleys first as a funk and soul group, but they started as a doo-wop group, and even had a stint on Motown.

Also, there will be no Ernie Isley slander in my earshot, ever. Not never.

The prototype for all young black male groups of four or more members to follow. I don’t even need to say anything else.

First thing’s first, James “J.T.” Taylor is not “Kool.” With that out of that way, Kool & The Gang also started as a jazz band and evolved into funk, then disco, and eventually contemporary R&B. A lesson here is that if you know musical foundations and theory, you can adapt to almost any genre - ask all the producers who grew up playing in the church. Their evolution of sound over the years was such that a lot of folks under 40 still don’t realize that the group behind “Summer Madness” is also behind “Ladies Night” and “Celebration.”


The biggest problem with the group/band structure since the history of recording groups of any genre is, someone is inevitably identified as the star. Then the balance shifts, and eventually it falls apart. It happened routinely at Motown, and the ‘80s was maybe the most successful era for breakout frontmen. Michael and Jermaine from the Jacksons, Lionel from the Commodores, Smokey from the Miracles (although it took a while), Jeffrey Osborne from LTD, Teddy from The Bluenotes, Babyface from The Deele.

Bands that survived the funk and disco era (like Kool & the Gang and the Isley Brothers), and the new groups on the scene, adapted to the new quiet storm sound taking over R&B in the beginning of the decade.

In the mid-late ‘80s, a new crop of young groups emerged, mixing contemporary R&B sound with classic four and five-man group style and harmony.

The new jack swing sound emerged in the late ‘80s, and tempo, rhythm and 808s make R&B party-ready again.


The ‘90s was the saturation point for Male R&B groups. There were fifty’lem groups. That’s an actual number. You can find lists of the 20 greatest Male R&B groups of the ‘90s. I don’t think I could put together a list of 20 R&B singers. The ’90s was also a massive decade for the expansion and evolution of the R&B genre. New jack swing, hip-hop soul, neo-soul, gospel-infused inspirational R&B. Whatever flavor you wanted was available.

There were classic groups with doo-wop inspired style.

Young, high energy new jacks with choreography for days.

I always say that Troop is the physical embodiment of new jack swing.

There were also groups that were a little more mature in content, what the old heads used to call mannish. (We had no business singing along to "Come Inside" so hard!)

The ‘90s also introduced R&B artists that moved like rappers, complete with combat boots and group chains.

By the ‘90s, commercially successful black bands were basically defunct. There were only two still standing. (For the purposes of this discussion, The Roots are solely hip-hop.)


The last class of successful male R&B groups debuted in the mid-late ‘90s, and carried over into the early ‘00s. The shift in the landscape was clear early in the decade. The neo soul movement, while triggering a brief return to live music production, spawned mostly solo stars. And hip-hop was like the new fish you add to your lively aquarium, only to wake up each day and discover it’s eaten another of its fellow tank-mates, until it finally had the tank to itself. R&B songs were rarely sent to radio without a version featuring a rap artist. Contemporary R&B got less mainstream airplay; songs needed to have some bounce. A staccato flow. Something other than standing flat-footed and singing over melody. For the past decade, the lines have become even more blurred between the two genres, leading to the R&B debate mentioned earlier. These bops went out of fashion, but they went out with a bang. Shiny suits and leather, big budget videos, 25 dancers. Sigh…I miss those days. #BringBackVideoBudgets

So, what happened? On the business side, the rise of digital piracy hit the formerly recession-proof music industry unexpectedly, and then it was slow to adapt to digital downloads and streaming, which very quickly upended a long-standing business model. The cost and effort of developing a group, paying for vocal training, choreography, styling and travel, plus dealing with headaches from group dynamics (the term “herding cats” could be changed to “herding recording artists” and still be a perfectly apt analogy) was netting an increasingly diminished return on investment.

On the talent side, infighting between group members has always been a problem; resentment towards whomever was being groomed for solo success, fighting over name ownership, fighting over money, or just getting sick of each other. It’s broken up families: Raphael Saadiq and brother Dwayne Wiggins seemingly don’t rock with each other - or, rather Ray doesn’t rock with Dwayne. (Editor's note: Raphael Saadiq told VIBE why he doesn't see a Tony! Toni! Toné! reunion in the cards.) It’s broken up childhood friendships – the members of New Edition hashed out their differences and reunited for a tour and BET’s The New Edition Story, just to fall right back out and split in two factions, with Ralph and Johnny holding the name New Edition hostage.

The mid-00s featured a big youth culture moment thanks in part to 106th and Park, and black boy bands – like B2K and Mindless Behavior – were central to that. Even with R Kelly’s pen game on “Bump Bump Bump,” however, B2K were bigger at crossover radio than R&B, which was probably the desired result. Puffy tried to restore the feeling with Day 26 in 2008, and they landed a #1 Billboard 200 debut, but had no hit singles.

The shift was even visible in music recognition. From 2003 to 2011, the Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group was awarded to collaborations. Destiny’s Child was the last group to win, for “Survivor” in 2002, but the last male R&B group to take home the trophy was Blackstreet for “No Diggity” in 1998. The recording academy eliminated the category altogether in 2012.

Shout out to Teddy Riley, by the way, for having three successful groups in the ‘90s (even though he can’t perform under the name Blackstreet anymore because Chauncey Black owns it. I told you, messy).

There’s been a nostalgia-driven ‘90s revival in music and culture for the last few years, and R&B groups from the era are having their moments. BET’s The New Edition Story was a ratings bonanza and a generated buzz and marketing moments for over a year. Anniversary pieces about classic R&B records and singles from 20 and 25 years ago seem to hit every other week. DJs who were babies in the ‘90s have added new jack swing and hip-hop soul classics to their sets. The last few male R&B groups to release albums to any fanfare were – wait for it - ’90s R&B groups. Jodeci’s reunion album The Past, The Present, The Future in 2015, and Bell Biv DeVoe’s Three Stripes plus 112’s Q Mike Slim Daron in 2017.

These groups still tour. Hell, you can catch almost every group listed above in some type of iteration. It might just be one original member and three strangers at a supper club, but you gonna get them hits. The audience is there for the classics and the nostalgia, but mainstream labels still aren’t interested in new music from established groups, or sinking the money into developing new talent. It hasn’t made sense, financially, to the powers-that-be. The label mantra for the past decade has been “R&B doesn’t sell.” Ballads or mid-tempos with no rap features and no autotune are usually only programmed on Urban Adult radio, which is a slow-moving format listened to by mostly physical album buyers. And oh, look at that, there’s almost no place to buy physical albums anymore! Digital streaming hit R&B hard. Streaming is a singles and playlist format, R&B is an album game. Brick and mortar record stores have closed (except for specialty shops), and big box stores pull albums from the shelves because CDs don’t sell much. But then they don’t sell because fans can’t find the music. Thankfully there is, finally, a shift back to contemporary, soulful R&B in progress – about a decade later than music cycles usually happen – led by artists like H.E.R and Daniel Caesar. Artists who play instruments! And write songs about love instead of sex! And sell records and win Grammys doing it! But it remains to be seen whether there’s room for the eventual return of the group. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

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

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Don Cheadle On The Good Insanity Of 'Black Monday' And Battling Twitter Trolls

Don Cheadle isn’t insane; he just acts like he is, really well, on Showtime’s Black Monday. On the Wall Street dramedy about the 1987 stock market collapse, Cheadle has made fun of the AIDS epidemic and snorted cocaine off of a video game accessory as Maurice “Mo” Monroe, star trader on the show. As offensive as Mo is, Cheadle joined the cast after he “read the pilot, it made me laugh and I thought it was a good way,” according to the actor speaking with VIBE.

The 54-year-old Grammy-nominated director wasn’t rocking the Jheri curl and polyester threads like his character does in the show when the actual 1987 stock market crash occurred. At that time, he was a broke, struggling actor who admittedly could fit all of his worldly possessions in his car. Black Monday lets Cheadle experience the cocaine binges, robot butlers, and Jheri curl juice he never had in his past. But, fake or not, Cheadle doesn’t want to be on camera saying all of the absurdities Black Monday creators Jordan Cahan and David Caspe think up.

“Jordan and David are always pushing it and it's often up to us to say, 'Yeah, that's a bit too far. If you're going to say the line on camera, that's fine. I'm not going to say that on camera' (Laughs).”

With VIBE, Cheadle recasts Black Monday’s lead roles with rappers, talks smuggling blackness into a show about Wall Street, and why he doesn’t back down from Twitter exchanges with trolls.


VIBE: What are some things you share with your character Mo?

Don Cheadle: That's a good question. I don't know. I know I'm nowhere near as intense as he is. I'm not as ambitious at all costs as he is. My sense of humor can kind of be on that level. But, never in public. You know how you could go in with your friends and be like, 'Please don't ever tape this' (Laughs).

One of the characteristics you two share is being confrontational. Do you ever worry that your personal opinions on Twitter could affect TV ratings?

Naaaahhhh. I've never had anybody of any position come to me and say, “You're really risking something and you got to knock that off.” No employer has ever said anything to me. There's a lot of bots on there, for one. A lot of people -- presumably people -- that come at me and say stuff like, “You just lost a fan.” I’m just like, “You were never a fan. Let's be real.”

On the show, Mo and Regina Hall’s character, Dawn, are the only prominent Black characters, yet their blackness has yet to be the focal point of an episode since the series’ premiere. Was that intentional and will the show explore blackness in the ‘80s?

It comes up in the second episode when they're in the store. Mo is telling her, “Those white boys will f**k you, they'll date you, but they won't give you a spot.” We want to pepper that stuff in, kind of smuggle it in and not lead with it. That's not something the characters talk about every day. They know who they are, they know what they're dealing with, and it comes in and out of the show. It's not the focal point of the show, which I like. They are black and it is front and center, but it isn't the subject matter.

The second episode has the classic back and forth negotiation scene between you and Dawn. Were there ever scenes where you and Regina couldn't get through it because y'all kept making each other laugh?

We would crack each other up a lot. Both of our desire was to always get it on camera, so we never really lost it during a shot. Maybe once or twice. But, most of the time we would get the take and then we would crack up. I'd always be like, “When you said this line.” She would be like, “When you said this.” We kind of improv a lot on the show and some stuff gets in there. When she said, “Who wants to titty f**k Keith” [in the series premiere], Regina just improv’d that.

So it was all Regina Hall's idea to mount Paul Scheer and thrust in the air as if she was titty f**king him?

Yes, that was her (Laughs).

The third episode starts with the most ‘80s scene we'll probably see on television this year: you snorting coke off of a Nintendo Duck Hunt gun while talking about Michael Jackson and Brooke Shields dating.

(Laughs) Yeah.

Are those moments intentionally put into the show to show that Black Monday is set in the ‘80s?

I think, absolutely, we're trying to juxtapose that time period to now and see the things that remain and the things that change, and see how far we've come in some instances and how far we still have to go. Absolutely, all of that cultural stuff is very fun to play with. We always want to make it a part of the show. We don't want to full out do something that has no bearing on anything just to make fun of the ‘80s.

The music for the show has been great. Knowing what you know about Mo and the ‘80s, what would be his morning playlist before a day of kicking a** on Wall Street?

Oh, he would definitely listen to Run-DMC. I think he's into all of that early hip-hop with [Big Daddy] Kane and LL Cool J. He's deep into that. He probably also listens to some of the stuff that was coming out of Europe at that time. Stuff like the Eurythmics, Annie Lennox, a lot of that stuff. UB40 (Laughs). At one point in the show, he's like, “Don Henley's coming to play. I don't really f**k with his music, but he's number one, so I'm listening to it.” He likes what's popular.

You once said you wanted to cast Kendrick Lamar for the role of Junior in the film Miles Ahead.


If you had to cast the roles for Dawn, Mo, Blair, and Keith with rappers, who would they be?

Oh, wow. Who would Dawn be? I think Dawn might be Queen Latifah. I like Dawn as Queen Latifah. I don't think Keith and Blair would be any rappers (laughs). I can't think of any rappers Keith and Blair would be. Not that there aren't some. I mean, they might be 3rd Bass. Who would Mo be? That's a good question. Who do you think Mo would be?

Mo is so out there I was thinking…

Ol’ Dirty Bastard?

Or a really animated Leaders of the New School Busta Rhymes.

Yeah. Definitely, a young Busta Rhymes. Kool G Rap also.

If they're going to be doing as much cocaine as Mo does on the show then it has to be someone from Wu-Tang.

(Laughs) It has to be O.D.B.

I did a little bit of IMDB digging and saw that Kevin Arnold is listed as your stunt double for 5 episodes of the second half of the season. Is Mo about to get crazier in the second half of the season?

No comment (Laughs). Things get crazy.

With a show titled after and centered around an event that it appears will be reached by the season finale, is there any way this show could come back for a second season?

Fingers crossed. I think the jumpoff is Black Monday, and the show is still going to still be about the stock market, Wall Street. That one day was just what started a lot of stuff. Things kept going on from then and are still going on.

Catch 'Black Monday' on Sunday nights at 10p/9c on Showtime.

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