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EarthGang's Globetrotting Will Play A Major Part In Their Cinematic 'MirrorLand' Album

Inspired by their extensive touring, EarthGang’s next album, 'MirrorLand,' is going to sound like a movie. Literally.

After months of extensive touring, expect EarthGang’s next album to sound like a movie.

Nobody is feeling more charged up than EarthGang right now. The Dreamville duo—comprised of ATLiens Johnny Venus and Doctur Dot (real names Olu O. Fann and Eian Undrai Parker, respectively)—is on a high. Possibly literally, judging by Dot’s low lids and Venus’ wide grin, but mostly symbolically. A few days prior to this interview, Venus and a friend were marinating in the sulfuric ice blue waters of Iceland’s Blue Lagoon—Gucci Mane, also tapped to perform at Secret Solstice Festival in Reykjavik, grinned like a Cheshire cat at the iconic attraction a day prior—getting chummy with fellow tourists. “That jawn was amazing. We really were making friends,” Venus recalls. “We were the only black folks there. The youngest folks there, too. We would just hop in there with everybody, drinking champagne, just talking. It was one family from the UK, but everybody else was from Kentucky, [Washington,] D.C., and they were just chatting it up with us.”

Dot, however, spent his afternoon a little differently. “I went out and met a bunch of people, sang some Viking songs,” Dot he says. “I went to this one Viking man's house and he was giving me the whole history behind them. He showed me maps of his people that are over here. I just had a very drug-laced discovery of the world. It was very fun. Smoked weed and just learned the history of how the first people came over here. I love just learning the history of these places.”

EarthGang aren’t just jumping in and out of seasons (“We were in Australia in December and it was hot as hell. Now we're in Iceland in June, almost July, and it's cold as hell,” Dot notes), enjoying therapeutic swims and cultural exchanges at the grand finale of their two-part Never Had Sh*t Tour with J.I.D. They’re also soaking up all the world has to offer as they navigate it, opening their eyes and ears to a bevy of people, personalities and experiences they'd categorize as life-changing.

“It was an amazing experience after all this work this whole month, just to go and relax, talk and reflect on everything that's been going on,” Venus says. “Just to be able to take that back home and be like, ‘Yo, everybody needs to come out [and travel abroad]. No matter what you do, you can do this. Make this joint happen because it's so much out in the world that you need to do and you need to see. It changes your life, for sure.”

Naturally, the serendipity of their globetrotting provides the duo with plenty of inspiration for MirrorLand, an album they’ve been writing and recording the whole stretch of the trek. In fact, much like their Spillage Village cohort’s own Hollywood aspirations, the new project is poised to sound downright movie-like by the time they’re through with it. “We studied soundtracks and scores, not in any attempts to end up on anybody's movie, but just in an attempt to make a project that feels like a movie. To make a project where the whole time listening to it is like, 'damn this could be a whole Tarantino picture,’” Dot says. The LP, which follows behind February’s Royalty, the final installation of their three-part EP series, is slated to drop later this year.

During a candid conversation before their Secret Solstice set, EarthGang shares how touring has changed them for the better, sings the praises of Ari Lennox’s new album and lists the bevy of films that inspired MirrorLand.

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VIBE: What are some of the things you’ve both picked up on since touring across Europe?
Johnny Venus: Over here people are more like accepting. People are just super nice. It’s still racism over here; we still have instances with folks [who] won't let us in hotels because "y'all aren’t guests," but it's like, we're coming up here to change. But they let some of the white folks who go on the tour with us come into the hotels, so we had to wild out on 'em and stuff. But everybody else, the people here are proud of who they are, and they’re trying to really reverse the look of racism over here. You can see that, individually, people are really like, "alright we know we get a bad rep," so people are super cool. They just wanna be a part of society and a part of the world, you know? Especially in Barcelona with so many cultures mixed. Barcelona is my favorite city. So many cultures mixed and everybody is just out having a party, a blast, EDM festival, just meeting so many people from London and everywhere in Barcelona. Like, dang this is really like a global city. That’s basically what this tour has been like for me.

Doctur Dot: They never see us over here, you know what I'm saying? They don't see black people. Whatever you wanna say or call it, they don't see the type of stuff that they see on YouTube in real life. American hip-hop, American black guys from cities, they don't see none of that. Just that alone is a phenomenon over here. It was even a big phenomenon when we were out in Australia because I guess it's even more rare. Just that alone incites a different type of curiosity as to what we’re doing. We were able to make a lot of fans based off that. Like, “I've never seen y'all before,” and everybody's jaws just drop.

JV: Even the black people that you meet over here. Their mouths drop lower than the white people. They're like, 'damn y'all over here,' like you over here, too? It's really dope being with the black folks. We met some folks over in Scotland right before we came out here just walking. We were just looking for food. I'm shouting down the street, “Hey bro! You know where you can get some food?” So he turned around—he kept walking for a minute—but he turned around and he was like, "by food do you mean weed?" I was like "Nahhhh bro, we hungry. It’s like 2 a.m., we’re trying to get some food. We’re out here performing, we’re EarthGang and we just had a show.” He was like, "You guys are EarthGang? Yo, I literally just started listening to y'all like last week!" His people were a block up, three other black guys, and they all came and we took pictures with them. I'm like damn this is so crazy running into y'all like that and just having this moment right there. That's really what this tour is about—so many serendipitous moments of just being here and just letting things just come to you. So, I really appreciate this for sure. And being on tour is like being with yourself constantly, more than when you are when you at home. When you’re home, you’re running into people that you know. You can sit down and talk, exchange stories and stuff. On tour, it's just so quick, like here, here, here, here, here, so the only thing that keeps you grounded is yourself, you know? So it's like, damn I'm really out here.

You two have an album coming out. Was it wrapped before touring, or have you been recording as you go?
JV: Nah, we’re recording, talking about it, extending ideas. We’re still fully in the album process. Fully, completely immersed in it. It's not gonna be done until it’s done.

Does the tour experience add to the process?
JV: Yeah, for sure. It adds to it—the stories, the people, the sounds that you hear. You learn how to continue to take in all this life and put this life into this album. I'm definitely glad we went on tour again before the album is done, because all this stuff is more things to put in the album, more experience of the moment and the now.

"I think hip-hop can be more dramatic." —Doctur Dot

I feel like this is shaping up to be a takeover year for Dreamville.
JV: Takeover!
DD: It's gonna be a very solid year. [J.] Cole’s a genius [Laughs]

First Cole dropped his album, then you have the Dreamville Festival that's happening later this year...
DD: We had J.I.D on the [XXL] Freshman cover. We had EarthGang’s first label album. Big sh*t poppin'.
JV: A lot of seeds coming up, a lot of seeds sprung.
DD: Ari Lennox’s project is amazing, too.

Yeah, I was gonna say where is it?
DD: I heard her whole album.

It’s done?
JV: Yeah. It's so good, it's so amazing.
DD: Well, you never know if it's done but we heard it's done. I remember the time I heard Cole’s album is done and then when it came out it was different.
JV: Different songs.
DD: We work all the time. The album that I heard is amazing. I'm sure the album that comes out is still amazing. I put it up against anybody. Not even just because I know her name, just cause she's... If I ain't never seen her in my life and heard that sh*t, it's like…
JV: I want people to hear her really give it her all because she really puts herself into the moment. I'm like, "Damn you do this sh*t so effortlessly. I want you to continue to like get all this love." Keep going and keep doing it. And this album will really…
DD: It's gonna set her apart from everybody.
JV: And it's gonna let her know that she is worthy of what she's supposed to be.

During a tour stop in London, you two debuted “Up,” a song from your forthcoming album, MirrorLand. What made you want to tease it there?
JV: We like to get people’s perspectives out there so we decided, what other places than London to premiere one of the records off the album. We recorded it in a garage and it was really one of the last songs that we added to the project—I mean the project is not done so who knows what will be on there—but it was one of the last songs we added and it just has a great energy to it that we wanna push. It's so kinetic and so like Mystery World Tour and just like a funhouse vibe, and I really wanted to put that on there.
DD: It was dramatic.

Dramatic?
DD: Super dramatic. Definitely, this whole project will be dramatic and that's okay. I think hip-hop can be more dramatic. I think if you wanna make something dramatic, you can. Who gives a f**k? Do whatever the f**k you want at any time. We very much studied soundtracks and scores and stuff, not in any attempts to end up on anybody's movie, but just in an attempt to make a project that feels like a movie. To make a project where the whole time listening to it is like, 'damn this could be a whole Tarantino picture.' We are very, very big on Quentin Tarantino vibes, Michael Scorsese vibes.
JV: Spike Lee vibes. We want people to be pulled.
DD: This project is so cinematically inspired, more than anything. I think “Up” is a good representation of it.
JV: It’s gonna hit the people. We had a couple of things coming up with that record too that gonna give us a little longer life, but it's definitely a theatrical performance.

What are some of the scores or movies that you looked at?
DD: Both Kill Bills.
JV: The Wiz.
DD: The Wiz and The Wizard of Oz. Sicario. Golden Compass. It's a wide variety.
JV: Documentaries, too. Definitely a lot of documentaries. The Nina Simone documentary. A lot of this stuff just to see how people… because, I mean, even those you can see how people live their lives and the ups and downs in the documentaries. You wanna put that into the music as well because it's not always a leveled approach. I've been watching a lot of interviews and documentaries and it's like, you want that moment and that discourse to put that in a record. People are so forthcoming and honest and you wanna put that honesty in the record.

Some movie placement would still be great, though.
JV: Oh for sure! That's definitely—
DD: That wasn't the direction we shooting for though. We’re shooting—
JV: To make a movie.
DD: To make the album a movie. Anything that gets picked up and put on any movie—
JV: That's beautiful.
DD: I would gratefully accept. [Laughs] Trying to get that check. Trying to get every check. Video games, movies, commercials, all that sh*t.

Will you be making videos to go with that, too? Your previous visuals have been pretty deep.
JV: The videos are gonna be crazy. We’ve been thinking about that right now. We have a lot of things coming, a lot of cinematic pieces. A lot of experimentation in what we got going on. We want it to be jaw-dropping. Jarring.
DD: It's the most, like, true-to-vision project we’ve been able to execute, I would say, just because team-wise it's pretty strong. And I'm not just talking about Dreamville, I'm talking about our team. Our core team. Our managers, our DJ–
JV: Our publicist.
DD: The directors we get in regard to videos.
JV: People from home.
DD: All that stuff. It feels like a presidential campaign. We got a team of people that are at the hub. Let's say Dreamville is the Democratic party, you still gotta have your team. But we actually got a full staff right now and it feels good. Everybody's in the same direction towards a common goal. Sh*t feels good. We finally got an engine, a team. This is a roster record. I think it's gonna do a lot for the project because everybody is working to make it better.
JV: And it's gonna give it that longevity, that life that we pride ourselves on with our albums. We want those to be like timeless pieces. We don't want it to just be like 'oh that's cool, that album was fire. What's next?' Nah, we want it to be very complex, to have so many things in it that you can just pick out one thing and create a video of that. Pick out one thing and create a video of that and continue to put that out and keep this thing going.

READ MORE: Meet EarthGang, The Atlanta Rap Duo Unearthing A Sound All Their Own

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D'Angelo at the VH1 Men Strike Back concert at Madison Square Gardens in New York, USA on April 11, 2000.
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The Incantation of D'Angelo's 'Voodoo'

“Envision this: a lone man in a haunted room surrounded by glowing instruments. What sounds are evoked from a room where Jimi once slept? What are the rewards of those who tend to their God-given talents as they would have the Creator tend to their spirits and daily lives? What happens when the artist becomes the conjur man?”

Twenty years ago, poet Saul Williams posed this question in the liner notes for D’Angelo’s sophomore offering, Voodoo: notes that served as a listener guide while exploring the long-awaited follow up to 1995’s Brown Sugar. Voodoo is considered by most as D’Angelo’s definitive work. (In fairness, he’s only graced us with three studio albums in his 25-year career.) Upon release, the LP was widely celebrated; it landed near the top of every major year-end list for 2000, and garnered the Grammy for Best R&B Album in 2001. In the years since, living up to its name, Voodoo has become something spiritual for many – a totem of musical greatness and genius. Okayplayer declared it “neo-soul’s most salient creation,” and no doubt this month there’ll be a flood of pieces examining the project’s importance in R&B music. Indeed, D’Angelo’s debut and sophomore albums each marked turning points in R&B. The Virginia native’s first outing came two years before the phrase “neo-soul” was coined. Add Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite (1996), Erykah Badu’s Baduizm (1997), and Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998), and you have the four musical horsemen of neo-soul. Baduizm inspired executive Kedar Massenberg, who also oversaw Brown Sugar, to create a descriptor that came to define a subgenre. But when Brown Sugar first hit the streets, it simply felt like an extension of the jazz and classic soul influences found in the work of D’Angelo’s future collaborators from A Tribe Called Quest and The Roots.

Five years later, Voodoo bowed at the top of a new millennium, at a time when the R&B genre was evolving and fracturing in ways that R&B and soul purists are still lamenting today (Hi, it’s me. I’m lamenting). In 1999, TLC’s Fanmail and Destiny’s Child’s Writing’s on the Wall signaled the pop-leaning, bounce and tempo-driven, slickly-produced direction R&B was heading toward to maintain a presence on hip-hop dominated airwaves. Voodoo was a collective resistance, a labor of love from some of the finest artists of the era. A harkening back to musical foundations. Rolling Stone dubbed it “an ambitious record that seeks nothing less than to unstick black music from commercial considerations and leave it free to seek its muse.” Questlove wrote of the album effort shortly before release, “It was a love for the dead state of black music, a love to show our idols how much they taught us. (T)his was the love movement. (A)nd this was the beginning.”

“We have come in the name of Jimi, Sly, Marvin, Stevie, all artists formerly known as spirits and all spirits formerly known as stars. We have come in the tradition of burning bushes, burning ghettos, burning splifs, and the ever-burning candles of our bedrooms and silent chambers. We have come bearing instruments and our voices: Falsetto and baritone, percussion and horns…We speak of darkness, not as ignorance, but as the unknown and the mysterious of the unseen.”  - Saul Williams

The Avengers-esque origin story of Voodoo is part of the album’s power and mythology. The project inspired the formation of the Soulquarians collective, a superhero music taskforce that began with D’Angelo, Questlove, J. Dilla and James Poyser (all Aquarians), taking over the long-dormant Electric Lady Studios – former studio home of Jimi Hendrix – to create something new and real. The crew expanded as Common and Erykah also camped out at Electric Lady to work on their upcoming projects, and other collaborators including Q-Tip and Raphael Saadiq fell through in regular rotation. Quest, D and camp went full music nerd, using the studio’s vintage equipment and keeping everything as organic and analog as possible to create a retro energy and sound. They studied old performances of Prince, Stevie Wonder and other Yodas -  their name for the masters - obsessively, channeling the spirits of their heroes. Voodoo was the start of a legacy.

Famed music critic Robert Christgau said Voodoo is “widely regarded as the greatest R&B album of the post-Prince era.” And it is…but are we puttin’ too much on it? I do believe D’s lack of visibility and minimal output since Voodoo adds a preciousness to the album (not unlike Miseducation, which might be discussed differently if there was more work to talk about).  But also, Voodoo is not an R&B album; it’s some unnamed sh*t (calling it neo-soul is reductive) that the Soulquarians pioneered and mastered. You can’t approach it casually; you’re not gonna just throw this joint on while cleaning the house. Quest additionally said of Voodoo in his (admittedly biased) review, “Music lovers come under 2 umbrellas. (N)umber one: those who use it for growth and spiritual fulfillment and number two: those who use it for mere background music. (T)he thing is, this record is too extreme to play the middle of the fence. (T)his record is the litmus test that will reveal the most for your personality.”

“Here is a peer that is focused wholly on his craft and has given himself the challenge of bettering himself. I mean really, D could have come out with any ol’ follow-up album after Brown Sugar dropped so that he could double his sales “While he’s still hot.” You know, an album that sounds just like Brown Sugar, uses all the same formulas, so that audiences don’t have to think….or grow, they just keep liking the same shit. He could even sample songs that you’re already familiar with so that you don’t have to go through the “hard work” of getting used to a new melody or bass line. Y’all don’t hear me.” – Saul Williams

Voodoo is without question a superior album to Brown Sugar, technically and sonically. It takes the formula D’Angelo created in his mama’s Virginia home, blending soul, funk and a dash of hip-hop, and elevates it. Late trumpeter Roy Hargrove added jazz’s controlled chaos. J. Dilla’s beat alchemy and Premier’s deft precision rendered the few samples used almost unrecognizable. Pino Palladino contributed his legendary bass lines. Rounded out with Tip and Ray Ray, plus Quest steering the ship as co-captain along with D’Angelo – it was a soul fantasy league. Yes, Voodoo is a stronger album, but I’d argue Brown Sugar is more focused (though some would say it’s just more formulaic). It’s definitely a more accessible work. The New York Times, examining how the Soulquarians brought Voodoo together, said the process was “vague, halting, nonlinear.” Voodoo is a long jam session – literally. They approached much of the completely original material through retro engineering: long jam sessions of hero material - Prince, Curtis, etc - would evolve into a new song. You can especially pick this up in “The Line,” which feels like it was maybe going to be an interlude and just kept going, and “Chicken Grease.”

The transitions between songs can be jarring, and the songs are so gritty and raw that some give a bootleg or demo feel – undoubtedly intentional, as Questlove and D’Angelo were studying bootlegs of their faves. Rolling Stone’s reviewer declared the album sounded “loose and unfinished” (but worth noting that it was No. 4 on their top albums of the year list later). The highest praise for a single universally went to “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” D’Angelo’s outstanding homage to his and Questlove’s most esteemed Yoda, Prince. It’s one of the more familiar-sounding tracks, along with “Send it On,” “Feel Like Making Love” and “Left and Right,” which feel the most like Brown Sugar follow-ups.

Those aside, Voodoo is to Brown Sugar what Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly is to Good Kid m.A.A.d City in terms of expansion and departure from the sound fans originally fell in love with. Some embraced it, some couldn’t get all the way with it. I can testify firsthand that when D’Angelo brought that jam session energy to Essence Fest in 2012 to launch his first tour in over ten years, folks were less than thrilled that after waiting so long to see him on stage again, he was prioritizing the un-danceable, less melodic cuts like “Devil’s Pie” and “Chicken Grease” on the setlist, and then didn’t play the album versions of the hits so they could hit a two-step and sing along.

What Voodoo is, is grown. As hell. Not only is it not music for a casual fan, it’s not music for a casual love thing, either. Brown Sugar is adoration expressed publicly; let me tell folks how much I’m digging you. Brown Sugar is dating. You can let it rock at a kick back with a crew. Voodoo is intimate. It’s a relationship. You don’t play “How Does It Feel” or “Send it On” in a house full of people (and if you do, I have questions).

Which brings us to the gift and curse of Voodoo: D’Angelo becoming a sex symbol. The 20-year old, lip licking, possibly blunted D’Angelo was sexy in a dude-off-the-block way with his baggy jeans, Avirex coats, and timbs. But 25-year old D’Angelo took the baggy clothes off, and had cut abs, a v-line, and the bold audacity to showcase it, on the album cover and in the visual for the project’s third single…and nobody knew how to act. This is where Voodoo simultaneously goes left and becomes legend all at once. Also, why we can’t have nice things.

Twenty years ago, there were no blogs, no social media and no such thing as going viral. Music video channels still specialized in… music videos. And D’Angelo’s manager Dominique Trenier, and director Paul Hunter conceptualized a visual for “Untitled (How Does it Feel)” that The New York Times called “the most controversial video to air in years.” The clip, eventually referred to in conversation as simply “the video,” was a four and a half minute-long, single shot of D’Angelo wearing nothing but a gold chain and cornrows. And sweat. There were no shiny suits, no dancers, no fish-eye lenses. Just Michael Archer staring into our souls through the camera.

The success and notoriety of the video propelled Voodoo to a No. 1 debut on the Billboard Top 200. The plan was to break D’Angelo out of the R&B/neo-soul space to a broader audience, and it worked. Too well. By the time D launched the Voodoo tour in the Spring of 2000, the attention, grabbing, catcalling and screaming were overwhelming. As an artist, he’d put painstaking time and effort into creating the greatest piece of work possible; art that would impact hearts and minds. Spent grueling hours preparing a live show that would measure up to James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic -  and fans were just yelling incessantly for him to take his shirt off. “It feels good, actually, when I do it,” D ‘Angelo told Rolling Stone near the beginning of the tour. “But I don’t want it to turn into a thing where that’s what it’s all about. I don’t want it to turn things away from the music and what we doin’ up there…I’m not no stripper. I’m up there doin’ somethin’ I strongly believe in.”

(Shout out to Anthony Hamilton’s background vocals coming through all loud and clear)

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened, and D grew so self-conscious and uncomfortable he eventually suspended the tour three weeks early, and retreated from the public eye. Over the next several years there were multiple arrests (with bloated mugshots looking kind of like Thor when he took his hammer and went home in Endgame), at least one trip to rehab, and several tentative returns before he surprised the world with Black Messiah in December of 2014 – almost 15 years later.

“Untitled (How Does it Feel)” is still a highlight in Voodoo conversations, it still evokes immediate remarks about D’s body and sex (I’m guilty of this), and it’s still a sore spot for the artist. So much so that when he reemerged in the public eye in 2012, he and Paul Hunter insisted the video’s inspiration was D’Angelo’s grandmother’s cooking and the Holy Ghost. (Insert side-eye gif here.)

But this is the challenge of a great artist: put everything you have into the work, then give that work to the world, and by doing so relinquish control over what the world does with it. So is Voodoo the millennial answer to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme? Is it the centerpiece of the neo-soul movement? Is it the Soulquarian stone? Is it just an outstanding groove? Is it just D’Angelo in leather pants and no shirt and you really don’t care about all that other stuff? The answer, according to our original Voodoo guide, Saul Williams, depends on us.

“D’Angelo has made his choices, carefully weaving them into his character, and has courageously stepped into the void bearing these sonic offerings to be delivered to the beckoning goddess of the new age. I do not wish to overly dissect this album. It’s true dissection occurs in how it seeps into your life shapes your moments. What you were doing when you realized he was saying this or that? How it played softly in the back ground when you first saw him or her. How you kept it on repeat on that special night. You’ll see. These songs are incantations” – Saul Williams

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Mike Coppola

Back For The First Time: How 'We Are The Streets' Captured The Raw Essence of The LOX

First impressions are often lasting and can crystalize our view of people, places or things, but those initial experiences can be deceiving. At times, wolves dress in sheep's clothing, and a dog's bark may be bigger than its bite – everything isn't always what it seems. One example in hip-hop of an appraisal that proved to be misleading was the rap world's initial reception of The LOX, who went from being cast off as sell-outs to being hailed among the most revered purveyors of hardcore lyricism this side of the new millennium.

Comprised of Jason "Jadakiss" Phillips, David "Styles P" Styles, and Sean "Sheek Louch" Jacobs, the Yonkers-based trio started off as a duo, with Jada and Sheek's battles alongside one another on the gridiron as kids evolved into lunchroom ciphers in high school. With Styles P later joining the fold, the trio, originally known as the Bomb Squad, settled on the name the Warlocks and began catching wreck dominating the local rap scene. Scoring their first appearance on wax in 1994 after Jada and Sheek appeared on the song "Set It Off" from Main Source's sophomore album F**k What You Think, the break that would change The LOX's fortunes for the better was when fellow Yonkers native and R&B star Mary J. Blige passed the group's demo to Sean "Puffy" Combs, who had built his imprint Bad Boy Records into the most successful and popular rap label in the game.

By then, the group, which was being guided under the tutelage of then-management company Ruff Ryders, had already built a reputation as spitters during their time on the local freestyle and battle circuits but would see their buzz skyrocket in fall of 1996 with a pair of appearances on DJ Clue's Holiday Hold Up mixtape. In addition to the song "Thumbs Up" featuring Richie Thumbs, the tape included the original version of "All About The Benjamins," which paired Jadakiss and Sheek Louch with Puffy. A string of guest spots on subsequent Clue mixtapes like Triple Platinum, ClueManatti - The Clue World Order, and Show Me The Money, as well as high-profile features alongside The Notorious B.I.G. ("Last Day"), Mary J. Blige ("Can't Get You Off My Mind"), Ma$e ("24 Hrs.To Live"), and Mariah Carey ("Honey Remix") brought their approval rating to a crescendo. However, it would be their contributions to Puff Daddy's No Way Out album, which included the star-studded remix to "All About the Benjamins," that firmly put The LOX on the mainstream radar and paved the way for their own wildly anticipated debut, Money, Power & Respect.

Hitting shelves on January 13, 1998, Money, Power & Respect, the third rap album released in the aftermath of the murder of Bad Boy's flagship artist The Notorious B.I.G. the previous year, was significant because it was the first release from a rap group in the label's history and it looked to keep the house that Puffy and Big built on solid ground. Despite being a commercial success, peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and earning platinum certification, the album was considered a mixed bag that relied too heavily on the glossy bells and whistles that had made previous Bad Boy efforts platinum sellers, particularly at a time when the Shiny Suit era was drawing to an abrupt close. The songs "Livin' The Life," "Everybody Wanna Rat," "So Right," "I Wanna Thank You," and the Lil Kim and DMX-assisted hit "Money, Power, Respect" are all quality inclusions that trend closer to The LOX's realm of reality rap, but Puff's influence and finger-tips can be found all over lackluster cuts like "Get This $," "Start Rap Over," "Can't Stop, Won't Stop" and the ill-advised single "If You Think I'm Jiggy."

The LOX may have enjoyed chart success, music videos in rotation on BET and MTV, and the cache that came from being down with Bad Boy, but they also felt the subtle backlash from a large portion of their core base. Given their street roots and raw lyrical talent, many felt the group had failed to meet expectations with Money, Power & Respect and were destined to succumb to the whims of the music industry, such as donning Shiny Suits, designer shades and penning contrived singles built around disco loops. This disdain slowly bubbled over, with Jadakiss, Sheek and Styles P. requesting to be let out of their contract with Puffy and Bad Boy to pursue other opportunities, most notably the chance to reunite with the Ruff Ryders, who by then had secured a distribution deal with Interscope Records based off the breakout success of DMX. A fellow native of Yonkers and frequent collaborator with the group, ironically, DMX had brought the streets back to the forefront of mainstream rap with his own 1998 debut, It's Dark & Hell is Hot, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and transformed the underdog into super-stardom.

With their sights set on an alliance with their management team and its promising roster of talent, The LOX approached Puffy for a release from their contract. A notoriously shrewd businessman, Puffy and his team of lawyers initially balked at the idea of letting the prized trio go, leading The LOX to rebel. In 1999, at New York City radio station Hot 97's annual Summer Jam concert, Jada, Sheek, Styles P. and their entourage sported "Let The LOX Go" t-shirts, a public denouncement of Puffy and Bad Boy Records. In an age when rap acts often languished in obscurity due to bad contracts, the move was unprecedented. "We was the first rebels, man," Sheek noted during a sitdown with Tim Westwood. "You didn't have a lot of guys going at major people like that." With the beef now public and tension brewing between The LOX and Puff, a deal was brokered between Darrin "Dee" Dean and Puff to terminate The LOX's contract, allowing them to sign with Ruff Ryders through Interscope Records. "He said, 'All right, you know what, if they're not happy here, I'll release them," Dee recalled in an interview. "Just pay up whatever they owe."

As for Puffy, he took a more diplomatic approach while speaking on the group's split from the label with MTV News. "The LOX situation, it just didn't work out," he said. "That's nothing new to any record company. Hopefully, the press won't try to dramatize that. Any record label and you have twenty acts, one, two, three of the acts aren't going to be happy. And it may be a situation that you can work out. We tried to work the situation out; it didn't work out. So we're in the process of selling them right now. And they are still to me some of the hottest rappers out. I wish them the best of luck. I'm sorry it didn't work out." With a steep price tag of three million dollars, Jada, Sheek and Styles P. were now down with one of the hottest movements in hip-hop and primed to revert back to their roots as hardened, no-frills lyricists.

Released on January 25, 2000, The LOX’s sophomore album We Are the Streets doubled as a rallying cry, with the trio thumbing their nose at all of the glitz and glamour synonymous with their former home. The album cover alone, which features each member's face cast in concrete, is a stark contrast from Money, Power & Respect, which saw them rocking shimmering leather coats and designer shades. The change in scenery was also reflected in the sound of the album, with producers Swizz Beatz, DJ Premier, P.K., and Timbaland exchanging rehashed loops and plush instrumentation for screw-face inducing drums, haunting keys, ghastly synths and more inventive usage of samples. Not oblivious to the critiques of their debut, The LOX kick off We Are the Streets with a skit in which disgruntled fans diss them, challenging their street cred and levying threats against the crew. This self-deprecatory moment is upended as the rapid snares on "F**k You," the album's introductory number, sets in, which finds Jada, Sheek and company wasting no time in addressing the haters and naysayers. Barking "If you hoped we wouldn't make it, f**k you/Talk with a heart full of hatred, f**k you" in unison, the label castaways proceed to attack the Swizz Beatz -produced track with a fervor that makes it evident that these weren’t the same guys rapping about getting jiggy just two years prior.

This message was driven home throughout the album, starting with "Breath Easy." Produced by P.K., who proclaims "No more shiny suits/None of that sh*t" at the beginning of the track, Jada and Sheek deliver the hook, with Sheek shouting "We gonna R.U double F.R.Y.D.E,"  in a show of allegiance to their new label. One of the premier offerings on the album, "Breath Easy" finds Styles P. stepping to the forefront, delivering a stanza full of nihilistic quips that foreshadowed the aggressive content he spewed on We Are the Streets and subsequent projects. As the more reserved member of The LOX, Styles P.'s succession of standout performances helped propel his reputation as a rhyme pugilist to another level, silencing any questions of him being able to flourish in the confines of a group or otherwise. Considered the de facto frontman of the group due to his elite lyrical exploits, Jadakiss had slowly crept into conversations debating the best spitters in rap, talk that he solidified with his highlight reel of verses on We Are the Streets.

Like Money, Power & Respect, We Are the Streets included a solo selection from each artist, the best of which is "Blood Pressure" by Jadakiss. Crowning himself as the streets' favorite, the baby-faced rapper scoffs "Who really the best rapper since B.I.G. ain't here," before alluding to his bad blood with Puff just a few lines later. While The LOX focus the bulk of their efforts towards terrorizing the competition and slaughtering instrumentals on We Are the Streets, their strained relationship with their former benefactor is alluded to on numerous occasions, particularly "Rape'n U Records," a scathing skit poking fun at Bad Boy's shady business practices. The skit is also notable for being the introduction of J Hood, a teen from Yonkers who would become one of the hottest young artists on the mixtape circuit just a few years later. We Are the Streets is short on guest appearances, save for a handful of features from Drag-On and Eve, the latter of whom's vocals appear on the album standout, "Recognize." Produced by DJ Premier, the song captures the synergy between the three members as they seamlessly bounce off one another, while a chopped up sample of Eve's verse from the Ruff Ryders posse cut "Ryde or Die."

In terms of singles, "Wild Out," a raucous Swizz Beatz-produced anthem, was a minor success, but its follow-up single, “Ryde or Die B*tch,” fared much more favorably, peaking at No. 22 on the US Rap chart. Produced by Timbaland, who also appears on the hook alongside Eve, "Ryde or Die B*tch" finds Jadakiss, Sheek Louch and Styles P. professing their desire for the type of woman that will please them sexually and stay loyal regardless of the consequences or circumstances. Other highlights from We Are the Streets include "Can I Live," solo efforts from Styles ("Felony Niggas") and Sheek ("Bring It On"), and "If You Know" featuring Drag-On, Eve and Swizz Beatz, which all touch on the rules of engagement and harsh realities that transpire when one lives off of experience.

Peaking at No. 5 on the Billboard 200, We Are the Streets was eventually certified Gold and was regarded as one of the stronger group efforts of the year. Although the album failed to eclipse the success of Money, Power & Respect or their previous hits, We Are the Streets is remembered as a body of work that thrived off of the sheer fact that the artists involved were unleashed from the constraints of balancing pleasing the label with retaining their artistic integrity. In the years following its release, each member of The LOX would release solo albums, branching off to pursue careers individually, but never straying too far from the fold. The LOX would continue to record together and release material on a consistent basis, but contractual limbo would prevent the trio from crafting a proper commercial release as a unit until 2013, when they released The Trinity independently on their own label, D-Block Records. Having dropped classics in three different decades and counting, with no signs of hanging up the mic anytime soon, Jadakiss, Sheek and Styles P. are regarded as ambassadors of the streets. And while they will always be remembered for their tenure, and subsequent war with Bad Boy, in their hearts, they'll forever be Ruff Ryders, and We Are the Streets will forever be their magnum opus and shining moment.

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(L-R) Cynthia Erivo at the 25th Annual Critics' Choice Awards on January 12, 2020; Scarlett Johansson at Netflix's 'Marriage Story' L.A. premiere on November 05, 2019.
Matt Winkelmeyer and Kevork Djansezian

Cynthia Erivo, Scarlett Johansson And The Oscars' Ongoing Whiteness

The 2020 Academy Awards nominations were announced Monday, Jan. 13 and, after a few years of glad-handing their supposed embrace of diversity, the Academy’s nominees were once again a distressingly predictable bunch—particularly amongst the major award categories. Bemoaning lack of diversity at the Oscars has become a punchline unto itself, but, for an Academy that is suddenly so image-conscious, this was a step backward. Alongside a Best Director field made up exclusively of men, Black actors were almost totally shut out in the top categories. Strong performances from previous Oscar winners/nominees like Lupita Nyong’o, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx seemed to be likely contenders for a nomination but were snubbed. There is the notable exception, of course, of Cynthia Erivo. The Tony-winning actress received an Oscar nod for her turn as freedom fighter Harriet Tubman in Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet, a film that seemed to engender both praise and derision well before it opened in theaters in November 2019.

The British-born Erivo was at the center of much criticism when it was announced that she would be playing the legendary Tubman, the escaped slave born Araminta Ross, who led at least 13 trips along a treacherous journey from Maryland to Pennsylvania to free first her family, then others in bondage; she also became an officer in the Union army and an activist for women’s suffrage. The casting of Erivo as Tubman became a flashpoint after tweets from the actress were widely publicized in which she appeared to mock Black Americans in a Twitter exchange with actor Joel Montague after he asked her to sing a song she’d written.

“@joalMontague (ghetto American accent) baby u know I gatchu imma sing It To you but I still gatta do wadigattado, you feel me #scene xxx.”

The tweet was screenshotted and popped up on countless media sites, as the public criticism of Erivo grew. As she began making media rounds in the lead-up to Harriet, she addressed the issue.

"I would say it took a lot of hard work to get to this place [of playing Harriet Tubman] and I didn't take it lightly," Erivo said in an interview with Shadow And Act back in October. "I love this woman and I love Black people full stop. It would do me no service, it would be like hating myself.

“As for the tweets, taken out of context without giving me the room to tell you what it meant—and it wasn’t mocking anyone really. It wasn’t for that purpose at all. It was to celebrate a song I had wrote when I was 16.”

But the bad will had taken root. Harriet had a successful opening and a strong showing at the box office, but it was met with derision on Twitter as rumors swirled about various aspects of the film’s plot and historical inaccuracies. The word of mouth reception was far from glowing, but the borderline smearing of the film on social media was more scathing than the actual reviews once the movie hit theaters. But while the critical reception to the film itself was lukewarm, Erivo’s performance was consistently praised. “The British singer and actress…nails [Tubman’s] thousand-yard glare with a furious and mournful eloquence,” wrote Owen Gleiberman of Variety; and The New York Times’ A.O. Scott felt that “Erivo’s performance is grounded in the recognizable human emotions of grief, jealousy, anger, and love.” In an age when Black pain on the big screen can make for predictable platitudes from pundits, there is an ongoing question of who such a film as Harriet is meant to speak to and speak for. In the case of Erivo, you have more than a strong performance in a middling film. You have a performer who has, in many ways, lost the audience that would’ve been most invested in that performance.

Erivo's nomination for Harriet comes alongside a double-nod for Scarlett Johannson, another actress who found herself embroiled in controversy in 2019. Of course, ScarJo is much more high-profile than Erivo, an A-lister who finds herself in any number of prestige pictures and major blockbusters. But ScarJo’s defense of Woody Allen, at a time when Hollywood is at least attempting to come to grips with how it has enabled abusers, drew gasps and derision when she made press runs for her role in the acclaimed Netflix film Marriage Story. She told Vanity Fair in November:

“I’m not a politician, and I can’t lie about the way I feel about things,” she said. “I don’t have that. It’s just not a part of my personality. I don’t want to have to edit myself or temper what I think or say. I can’t live that way. It’s just not me. And also I think that when you have that kind of integrity, it’s going to probably rub people, some people, the wrong way. And that’s kind of par for the course, I guess.

“Even though there’s moments where I feel maybe more vulnerable because I’ve spoken my own opinion about something, my own truth and experience about it—and I know that it might be picked apart in some way, people might have a visceral reaction to it—I think it’s dangerous to temper how you represent yourself because you’re afraid of that kind of response. That, to me, doesn’t seem very progressive at all. That seems scary.”

Johansson’s controversial statements surrounding Woody Allen (and earlier comments about her playing trans and Asian characters) were met with widespread criticism that was subsequently muted by the acclaim following her turns in both Marriage Story and the WWII-set period comedy JoJo Rabbit. They weren’t misguided or misrepresented tweets from six years ago, they are her expressed positions on the subjects; she’s announced that she doesn’t intend to continuously apologize or even recant where she stands. And at the end of the day, she’s now a two-time Oscar nominee.

Obviously, Erivo is also basking in the recent glow of Academy recognition. This isn’t a case of a white actress bouncing back from backlash while a Black actress fades into obscurity because of it. But when Scarlett Johansson walks the red carpet on the night of the Oscars, if she takes the stage after her name is read as Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress or both, she won’t have to contend with the idea that those who have given her the award stand in stark contrast to those for whom she wanted the film to resonate. Scarlett Johansson also wouldn’t have to wrestle with the idea that she’s only the second woman of her background to win an Academy Award for Best Actress. She won’t have to face the hurt that she and others like her were shut out in her native country’s biggest movie award. She won’t have to think about all the criticisms of “slave movies” and being nominated for being in one.

Whatever criticisms there may be of Cynthia Erivo, whatever criticisms there may be of the film in which she starred, there’s always a softer landing for those who don’t have darker skin; simply because being Black on the whitest of nights means that all eyes are on you. It also means you have to carry so much more than your white counterparts will ever be asked to shoulder. Oscar or no Oscar; criticism of Cynthia Erivo never required condemnation of Cynthia Erivo. But on a night when white actresses will once again be widely represented, from the reliable grace of Little Women to the martyr-making propaganda of Bombshell, it’s disappointing that this one Black actress being amongst them is going to be picked apart.

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