Marsha Ambrosius
Courtesy of Marsha Ambrosius

Marsha Ambrosius Reflects On The Joys That Music And Motherhood Have Opened

Marsha Ambrosius speaks about family, being a fly on the wall for mythical studio sessions, what rapper she would make a Best of Both Worlds album with, and finding closure after Floetry.

Marsha Ambrosius has a way of putting herself in great company. Since entering the industry as half of the renowned R&B/soul duo Floetry, the English singer/songwriter has been in the studio with Michael Jackson (she penned the King of Pop's beautiful 2001 single, "Butterflies"), Dr. Dre, and everyone in between, writing songs for them and being one of the most reliable chorus singers in the game. And in July, she performed in a tribute to Anita Baker at the 2018 BET Awards. “My Wikipedia is not enough,” she laughs while sitting down for an interview in the VIBE office this summer, wearing a purple sequined shirt with distressed jeans.

Now, after a nearly 20-year career of lending her musical talent to the most renowned artists in the industry, she has another area to exert her wisdom: family. The last two years have seen her marry her boyfriend, Dez Billups, and welcome a daughter, Nyla. Her new music video for “Old Times” shows Ambrosius at home with her daughter, praying that her husband comes home safely without falling victim to police brutality. Family has its joys, but it also comes with a different set of fears and her upcoming third album, Nyla, taps into some of those new experiences. “Creating, if I was thinking five steps ahead before, it’s ten steps ahead now,” she said, “'cause I have so much to be accountable for.” She'll also be joining Maxwell on the 50 Intimate Nights tour.

Here, Marsha Ambrosius speaks about being a fly on the wall for mythical studio sessions, what rapper she would make a Best of Both Worlds album with, and finding closure after Floetry.

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VIBE: Your new video "Old Times" stars your real-life daughter and husband. What made you decide to put them in the video, instead of casting actors?
Marsha Ambrosius: I've never really done your stereotypical video. I've always managed to keep it true to life and what better way to do it with this one because it's so personal and being a wife and mother. It's that ongoing feeling that your loved one goes out to handle business and you just hope they make it home to dinner, you know? I've always envisioned the visual to this audio clip that is "Old Times" to be me just sitting at home rocking my baby side to side, singing it to her as a lullaby. I know my husband grinds every day and works hard every day to provide for us and make sure that we're safe, but is he safe? I can't pretend with someone else's husband, someone else's kid.

I remember writing the hook and I was like, how do I paint this picture? I was turning on the news and scrolling through my social media, and seeing #RIPwhoever. I was like if I name one, I have to name them all. It's these mini funerals that we as people get to have far too often with people that we don't know.

Should we expect more social commentary on the album?
My social commentary is love. I think once you give away your art, people interpret it to be as deep as they want it to be. There are songs like "Old Times," there's a song called "Flood" which is when you hear it pretty self-explanatory – it’s really sexy. Flood. Water. Deep. (Laughs) I think I've always managed to create music like that. It may be deep to you but I remember writing a song called “If I Was A Bird” and everybody was like, "Oh my god that's like–" [insert their personal meanings]. And I was like, "I wrote it about tearing ligaments and not being able to play ball anymore." So that's what it was for me. For someone else, it was their spiritual awakening.

You brought up “Flood.” You're married now, and you're a mother. Have you felt any pressures to tone down the sexuality of your music, whether it's from fans or elsewhere?
Nah. I've never felt pressure how to create. It's, "hey Marsh, what's going on with you?" "You know, chilling, enjoying my life," and whatever song stems from that, cool. Or it might be, "I'm not too good right now. I just had to bury a friend and say my goodbyes to someone I care about." What music comes with that? If you’ve been riding with me for the past what is about to be two decades, my narrative hasn't changed. It just remained consistent and I've always spoken about what I'm going through in life. So tone down the sexy? Why? I just had a baby, I feel all glorious like I can do anything! So it's empowering. It's more so empowerment and now if it was toned-down before, it's turnt up now.

How have motherhood and marriage affected your writing and your perspective on your music?
I have a swear jar in the house so I keep it PG-13 language wise in front of my daughter. But other than that it's finding room in my heart to love at the level that I do now because of being a mother and being a wife. I didn't know I was capable of loving and being loved like this. Creating, I'm thinking ten steps ahead. If I was thinking five steps ahead before, its 10 now 'cause I have so much to be accountable for, and I know Nyla will one-day press play on songs I've done prior to her being here. So now you have Nyla, and it's all the steps that it took to let go of the negativity and baggage or everything I felt I needed to let go of to move forward. In doing so, all of these songs and all of these amazing concepts and musical moments happened as they were happening in my life.

What were you looking to do with this album?
The album started to shape itself right after I recorded what I considered the last song for the project. Myself and Focus…, who is the executive producer of the album, came together and we listened to everything and he was like, “there’s a story here.” The intro starts with a conversation I had with my best friend in Philly, Angie, when I saw my husband for the first time. I didn't know he was going to be my husband but I was on tour, I hit her up and I was like "yo he is fine." (Laughs) So we're laughing with each other, but then here I am in this predicament and I'm trying to do better. I'm trying to reconcile and forgive any wrongs that I felt I’ve ever done and I'm attempting to reunite and reignite for other people, but what do I want out of this? All of these songs started to come together. I cried my eyes out in the studio cutting “Old Times” and another song called “Glass,” I thought I wasn’t gonna make it through.

Conceptually, they brought something I didn’t even know I felt. I was like, wow I’m really this upset? I’m really hurt over something. You know when you cry and you don’t know where it’s coming from? It was one of those moments. Once that was out the way and I could let go, everything else started to fall into place.

You’re one of the most reputed singers when it comes to choruses on rap songs. Which ones stand out to you, either as your favorite songs or the ones that were the most fun to make?
I'll start with “From Scratch” with The Game. I just remember the reaction of Dre when I sent it back. They were like, "Look we need to get Game's album out. He has this record and he don't have a hook yet." I remember sending it back and I was like, "Yo, I'm on the Game album? Like THAT album, The Documentary? I'm on that album? Okay, crazy." And then I remember "Get You Some." I could only hear, "money, cars, clothes, sexy broads." So I sent that back with the intent for them to put someone else on there. I was like I'm just writing it, I’ll reference it. Before I know it, I have a record with Busta Rhymes and Q-Tip. I was like, "I can throw in the towel. I’m going to hang it up, I quit. This is all I ever wanted to do."

I'm almost the female Nate Dogg. Almost. I didn't know I was striving for that title if there's ever such a title. "Why You Hate The Game," doing that with Just Blaze. Even the more recent stuff like with Damian Lillard of the Portland Trailblazers. He really has bars, and when I met him in the studio he told me he wanted the song conceptually to be an ode to his grandmother. I was like, "Okay, I’ma write this hook as if I'm her talking to you." So it's, "I need you to say your prayers, do the right thing and I'll be watching over you at all times." I remember him getting really emotional. I was seven or eight months pregnant at the time trying to keep my breath together spittin' in the booth but that was definitely a memorable moment to see how happy he was to see that song come to light and hear his grandmother's perspective of where he is as a young man.

If you could make a Best of Both Worlds album with one rapper, who would it be?
Oh man! Don't do that to me, cause there would be different ones. I would love to do something with Q-Tip, ‘cause we did a bunch of songs that's crazy and I was thinking about that the other day. That's the first thing that comes to mind. Who else? I've worked with everybody—this is everybody here. I've worked with absolutely every rapper. Oh, I haven't worked with Drake. That'd be fun. Well JAY-Z, Kanye. Kendrick? Like a full-blown Best of Both Worlds with Kendrick? That might be dumb. I'll get the clan together. Terrace Martin, Robert Glasper, me and Kendrick, and it'd be dumb as hell. So that's cool. I'll call him.

Where are these Q-Tip songs?
They're nowhere to be found. Let's just say that. They're unreleased. Complete unreleased work and I was doing a lot of stuff during the making of the new Tribe record and got a hook on there which is nuts as well. But we did a couple of other things that no one's seen yet and should.

Dr. Dre dropped Compton a few years ago, but Detox never came out. What is the best song that you heard by Dr. Dre that never came out?
(Sits silently) You hear it? That was amazing. The song is so fire like it’s the most fire-est beat. (Laughs)

I’ve heard Dre just plays all these random songs while hanging out with people, and they're better than anything that's come out in recent years.
Yeah. My privilege of having this—I am the fly on the wall. I get to be in these rooms where I'm seeing these great things created firsthand and then see the reaction of the world as it drops. If Dre does it, he wants to do it on his time, his dime, his way. There might be a possibility that you never even hear half of what's being created and he'll be okay with that. Us on the other hand? Not so much. We'll just have to live and die by, "remember that day when me, you, Snoop, Kendrick and Anderson and came thru and said, “you know what let's use that Teena Marie sample.” We'll just have to live with being the ones that know.

I've been very consistently the only one that knows. We didn't have Instagram or Twitter or Facebook Live when Michael Jackson was in the booth and I'm seeing his reaction firsthand while singing "Butterflies" back to me for the first time. That's something I have to go, "I was there.” I was there with Prince in his house as we're jamming and The Time is performing and then when they finish, The Revolution is there and Prince is like, "Marsh, come up and sing that song I love you to sing," and I'm singing "Lay Down" back to Prince because he loves that particular song. There's no Instagram for that. There's no blue check verification for that. These are all things that you just have to go, "I'm here for a reason. I have to acknowledge that and live in the moment.” We're talking Dr. Dre, Michael Jackson, Earth Wind & Fire, Patti Labelle, Jamie Foxx, Alicia Keys. Like, my Wikipedia is not enough. There's no room for what I’ve actually done. Standing at the White House with the first family that I acknowledge–Barack Obama and Michelle–and the kids looking at me singing Christmas carols to them. There's no award for that.


You just recently performed for Anita Baker. Had you met her before this happened?
That sounds ridiculous to say out loud. See what my life is like? Yes, I met her a few times and it's crazy. We follow each other on social media also and a week and a half or so prior to the BET Awards she tweeted, "Old Times" and hashtagged something like “old music is coming back.” She passed the torch. This is someone I respect on too many levels. So come BET Awards weekend and I get the call that there's a slight chance that I may honor her. I'm just waiting on the callback, like, "Just tell me when it's real."

It's real when I'm sitting in rehearsals and there's Jamie Foxx on keys and Adam Blackstone and the BBE band playing the arrangement, and knowing that Ledisi and Yolanda Adams are gonna be there. On one hand, it's like, "I have to sing Anita to Anita?" But then it's all ultimately a celebration. I just remember getting on stage and seeing her face and her reaction to me and it was like no one else was in the room. And I just saw her rise from her seat with tears of joy. And I'm seeing my daughter’s face and my husband in the audience and I was overcome with emotion. I was like, how do I even sing this song? I don't even know how I got through it.

Multiple fans wanted me to ask you if you have plans of making a live album.
Absolutely. Absolutely. Without question. I think once people hear Nyla the album, even past work that I've done, period. Anyone that's seen me tour or been to these shows are like, "I have to experience what I felt in that room again and again and again." So, it's only right and will be done.

Also, a lot of people asked about Floetry, of course. I think fans are always gonna want you guys to get back together.
We did, in 2015 and 2016, and that was that.

How did you find the closure to move on from the group?
I think–well it really was the end of 2015 but ultimately 2016–the second reunion tour. One weekend I find out that I'm pregnant and I'm terrified and excited all at the same time but I get through the end of the tour. The closure really was in knowing that over a course of years–if you viewed and you knew a friendship one way and you're told it was exactly the opposite, it kind of shifts your focus a little bit. I came to forgive, reconcile, admit my fault or flaw or what I could've done to better a situation. You can't change how the other person feels about you. So if I'm your permanent trigger of who you wanna forget, there's nothing I could do to change that and vice versa. There are certain things that I’m not saying can't change, but it'll take time. And I knew in my heart, I don't have room nor the capacity to take aboard somebody else's mishap or feeling. I can only go on with what I feel, and there's too much living to do. So it's like counting down somebody's days. I don't have the time to worry about what somebody else is worried about. My worries had to disappear and once they did it was blessings on blessings on blessings. Then I meet my husband, now we're pregnant, now we're engaged, now we get married, now I don't have to do life alone and that's all because I could then let down all of these guards that I had up. All these worries, all these concerns, all of this baggage. It was tough, but once you come out the other side there was that silver lining and that light. I'm glad I did that for me as hard as it was and still is at times, but it's way easier.

Someone also pointed out that the video for "Say Yes" had Omari Hardwick, now popular for his role on Power.  How did you guys connect for that video and what is it like to see him now on one of the bigger shows on TV?
Every time we see each other it's all love, but he still says that that was his real first gig in Hollywood. That's back then when people had real record deals and real budgets. We had a casting agency with a folder full of headshots and I remember sitting there going, "I'll take that one. That one's mine." And it's Omari Hardwick. Get to set and I'm sitting here on the train kind of doodling away having him look at me and we're flirting and all that other good stuff, and years later, he's freaking Ghost. Amongst many other amazing things and just an all-around great human being.

Thankfully, having written that song in all of two minutes that it took to do and Andre Harris and myself in the B room of [Philadelphia recording studio] A Touch of Jazz. I was supposed to give it to Ron Isley, 'cause he was doing his solo project, but he passed on the record. No one wanted this demo, it was never a Floetry song. Natalie did not write it, she was never even in the room. So it was literally a demo and I remember Babyface comes to the studio and we try and play it for him; he passed on it. So then it stays on this 10-11 song demo that then becomes the Floetic album, and I remember doing the video for Floetic. We do that, go back home, grab visas, and come back to do "Say Yes." So when "Say Yes" hits, it's pandemonium. I didn't see that coming. I just knew it was a really nice, sexy song coming from a female's perspective. I don't think the industry was ready for very strong, very bold black women to portray that type of record. Then lesbian rumors came out. So I was like wait! I picked Omari! Like what? I didn't understand that part. I guess this all comes with the territory.

Is there anybody still on the collaboration bucket list?
I never had a bucket list. I just wanted to make good music and for someone to go, "I like you, I like that." It’s all very fake, an aspiration wish list or bullet points. Like Michael Jackson? Who writes that down in real life? Like, get over yourself, it's never gonna happen. But it did, so I never, ever, ever call out who I'm gonna roll with next 'cause I just don't know what's gonna happen.

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Rapper Flavor Flav, director Spike Lee and Chuck D of the rap group 'Public Enemy' film a video for their song 'Fight The Power' directed by Spike Lee in 1989 in New York, New York.
Michael Ochs

Music Sermon: How 'Fight The Power' Saved Public Enemy

It was “1989, the number, another summer,” and in New York City, the racial tension was thick as the season’s heat. For New York, it wasn’t just “another summer” - 1989 was a defining year for the city, and for its black and brown youth. The swift persecution of five black and brown boys for the Central Park Jogger attack, with little evidence, is in the national conversation today, but divided the city along racial and class lines that spring. The August murder of 16-year-old Yusuf Hawkins by a group of teens in Brooklyn’s Italian-American Bensonhurst neighborhood sparked protests across the city. In the middle of these two events, both of which are tightly woven into the fabric of New York, Spike Lee released one of his most provocative films: the prophetic Do the Right Thing.

At the time, Lee intentionally chose Public Enemy, the most radical group in rap, to set the movie’s tone. Their seminal anthem “Fight the Power” was not only one of hip-hop’s most monumental songs, but also Gen X’s first taste of movement music. The group’s 1987 debut It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was unlike anything anyone had ever heard in music, let alone the still very new rap genre. Public Enemy’s sophomore album combined the tight flow of battle rappers, the spirit and energy of the Black Power movement, and the aesthetic presentation of the Black Panthers with their paramilitary backing group, Security of the First World (S1W), all packaged up with a logo featuring a black man in a sniper’s crosshairs (can you imagine all of that today? The “If a white group did that…” comments would be insufferable). PE didn’t just start the conscious rap movement, they sparked the gangsta rap movement – NWA’s Straight Outta Compton was directly influenced by Nation of Millions (Chuck sent an early copy of the album to the group, and you feel the inspiration in “F*ck the Police” especially. Along with the defiant social commentary in the lyrics, Dre channeled The Bomb Squad’s sonic chaos in the track. Cube went on to work with The Bomb Squad for his solo debut).

“When I wrote the script for Do the Right Thing, every time when the Radio Raheem character showed up, he had music blasting,” Lee told Rolling Stone. “I wanted Public Enemy.”

But at the time of the movie’s release, PE had technically broken up; sidelined by controversy impacting their reputation not just domestically, but abroad. On June 29, one day before Do the Right Thing hit theaters, Russell Simmons announced: ''Public Enemy is disbanding for an indefinite period.”

THE STORM

Public Enemy was made up of distinctively different personalities: Chuck D, the leader, the voice, and the “adult” of the group; Flava Flav, the blueprint for hip-hop hype men and comedic levity to Chuck’s booming gravity; and Professor Griff, the “Minister of Information,” a black Muslim who didn’t actually observe any of the tenants of Islam but subscribed to the most incendiary rhetoric The Nation of Islam offered. As the Minister of Information, Griff sometimes spoke publicly on the group’s behalf and had been known to stir up controversy with comments that were just over the line, but not far enough to cause a mainstream firestorm. Then, on May 22, 1989, he sat down with reporter (and later writer for The Wire and Treme) David Mills for an interview with The Washington Times. Because he was talking to another black man, Griff got way into his bag, and sh*t went left, quickly.

“Griff opined that ‘the majority of them [i.e., Jews]’ are responsible for ‘the majority of the wickedness that goes on across the globe,” recounted LA Times rock critic Robert Cristgau in his summation of the controversy, properly titled “The Sh*t Storm.” “He… raved about how ‘the Jews finance these experiments on AIDS with black people in South Africa,’ observed that ‘the Jews have their hands right around Bush's throat,’ and concluded that he must be speaking the truth because if he wasn't the Jew who owned CBS would long since have forced him, Griff, out of the group.” It was a mess, but it still flew largely under the radar until the story was picked up by The Village Voice (pours out liquor). You know how the timeline gets when there’s controversy? Imagine that in real life amongst the music community and media.

Even the most esteemed music critics had praised Nation of Millions, many even included the LP on their 1987 Album of the Year lists. Now they were being called on to defend or condemn the group they’d once praised.

Nelson George was one of the lone hip hop writers at the time aside from Harry Allen (which is why you will always find Nelson George references in my work), and as a black man in a space where we were still fighting for voice and position, he was careful to distinguish Griff’s comments from what the group stood for. "There's no question they say Farrakhan's a prophet," George told the LA Times at the time, "but Chuck D was very specific about what they like about Farrakhan. That Prof. Griff is a (jerk) doesn't invalidate the record. And Public Enemy was signed by Rick Rubin, who is Jewish, and one of their first managers is Jewish, as is the photographer that shot most of their album cover pictures, and (so is) their publicist Bill Adler."

Chuck was torn. He first backed Griff, then seperated the group’s stance from Griff’s personal stance, then banned Griff from speaking on behald of PE, before finally condemning Griff and apologizing for his comments, stating: “We’re not anti-Jewish or anti-anyone at all. We're pro-black. To use the same mechanism that you're fighting against definitely is wrong. We don't stand for hatred. We're not here to make enemies. We're apologizing to anyone who might be offended by Griff's remarks.” Griff was expelled from the group on June 21, 1989.

The continued pressure from the Jewish Defense Organization – including calls to boycott Do the Right Thing, Def Jam and Columbia/CBS, who distributed the group’s albums, and Rick Rubin even though he wasn’t involved with the group anymore – finally wore Chuck out. He told Kurt Loder during an MTV interview that the group was done. ''He (Griff) transferred misinformation, and it was just wrong. You can`t back it,” he explained. “But we got sandbagged, and being as I got sandbagged, the group is over as of today. We`re outta here. We`re stepping out of the music business as a boycott . . . against the music industry, management, record companies (and) the industry retailers.”

In Robert Cristgau’s earlier-referenced article, written shortly after that MTV interview, he opined of PE’s future: “…it's reasonable to hope that three or six or nine months down the road, after Spike Lee returns to the set and Chuck's label flops and Flavor Flav staggers under the weight of his own album, PE will regroup.”

Instead, it only took about a month. “Fight the Power” became a hit; The song and movie combined birthed one of the biggest cultural statements of the decade.

THE ANTHEM

Spike told Hank Shocklee (of The Bomb Squad, Public Enemy’s famed production unit) and Chuck he wanted an anthem, but already had an idea in mind. “Spike originally proposed a rap version of a negro spiritual, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” to be produced by someone else and with just Chuck D rapping,” Shocklee told the Guardian. “I was like: ‘No way.’” Hank found an example right out of Do the Right Thing’s world to make his point. “We were in Spike’s office on DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn, by a busy intersection. I pulled down his window, stuck his head out, and was like: ‘Yo man, you’ve got to think about this record as being something played out of these cars going by.’” Spike knew he wanted the power of Chuck’s voice, but Chuck and Shocklee knew that the moment called for something bigger, sonically. Gen X is now considered a generation without a social movement. Boomers were engaged in the Civil Rights Movement, Millennials led Black Lives Matter, Gen X’ers were chillin’ - except we weren’t. Police brutality, the overcriminalization of black and brown people (hi, stop-and-frisk), the rise of the crack epidemic… these were our issues, and hip-hop was our movement: our way to give voice to the systemic injustices and bleak realities black people faced daily.

With “Fight the Power,” Chuck, Hank Shocklee and the Bomb Squad captured the energy of black resistance in a rare, perfect way – sonically and lyrically. It sounded aggressive, it sounded urgent, it sounded defiant, it sounded confident. It was the protest music of black Gen X’ers. “The song could have gone a lot softer, a lot neater, a lot tighter – but it would have lost the chaos,” Shocklee went on to explain. “When something is organized and aligned, it represents passivity. But any resistance, any struggle to overcome, is going to be chaotic. So the hardest part was making sure the track wasn’t monotonous. Lots of the samples appear only once, and a lot of stuff isn’t perfectly in time. I didn’t just want white noise and black noise – I wanted pink noise and brown noise!”

The title and thematic direction came from Ron Isley and his brothers’ 1975 song of the same name. The song struck a chord with 15-year-old Chuck D. Last year, Chuck and Ernie Isley (who, by the way, is the most criminally underrated guitar player in music history) compared notes on the two "Fight the Power's" for NPR: “I was 15 years old, so it was ingrained in me, but it was a record that I thought represented us. ‘I tried to play my music, they say my music's too loud’: That spoke loud to me,” Chuck shared with Ernie. “And I didn't even curse at the time, but that was the first time I ever heard a curse on a record.”

I can't play my music They say my music's too loud I kept talkin about it I got the big run around When I rolled with the punches I got knocked on the ground By all this bullsh*t goin’ down

Like the 1989 version, The Isleys’ joint catches you up in the undeniable bop of the track even while delivering power through the lyrics.

PE’s “Fight the Power” was also a big f*ck you to “American” pop culture, disparaging white icons Elvis and John Wayne, who in the late ‘80s were both damn near deified. It was a declaration that we black folks have our own history and culture.

'Cause I'm Black and I'm proud I'm ready and hyped plus I'm amped Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps Sample a look back you look and find Nothing but rednecks for four hundred years if you check

A song that feels and sounds like Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” will never happen again, because the Bomb Squad’s trademark sampling methods would be a legal headache and financially crippling today thanks to changes in copyright laws spurred by the growing rap industry in 1991. “It was a totally different process from today, when cats listen to a finished track then put rhymes on top – that separates emotion and content,” Shocklee shared when discussing how the song came to be. “All the samples have to work with Chuck’s emotion. We’d have to find something from all our hundreds of records to fill a second, and it all had to be done by ear, without computers or visual aids.”

THE MOVIE

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a song used as many times as “Fight the Power” is in Do the Right Thing. I can’t even tell you what other song is on the soundtrack without looking it up. Honestly, the entire soundtrack should have just been a “Fight the Power” maxi-single. Also, shout out to one of the most iconic opening title sequences ever. It’s like James Bond level. Better.

The song and the movie are inextricably linked. As mentioned earlier, Spike wanted “Fight the Power” playing whenever we saw Radio Raheem. Since Raheem is the movie’s pivotal character, PE underscored some of the movie’s most powerful moments.

Shocklee explained to Rolling Stone why using Radio Raheem as the vehicle for the song worked so well. “The track intensified the story. When Radio Raheem was with the boombox playing that song, that’s what was happening at that time, exactly. You could have walked out the theater and into a pizza shop, and that would have happened at that moment.”

Even before they retreated into self-imposed career exile, Public Enemy weren’t radio artists. The film was their only real promotional vehicle for the single – but what a vehicle. “When I heard Spike Lee put it 20 times in the movie, I was like, pssh,” he shared with Rolling Stone. “We realized early that film was probably going to be our outlet to deliver sh*t. We couldn’t rely on radio.” While the group laid low, “Fight the Power” shot to No. 1 on the Billboard Rap chart and cracked the Top 20 on the Hip-Hop and R&B chart (Hammer would break down the barrier for rap on the Hot 100 and Pop charts about a year later). In August, PE came out of “retirement” to announce their renowned third album, Fear of a Black Planet.

THE VIDEO

The music video for “Fight the Power” goes down as one of the most satisfying visuals for a song, ever. In the history of music videos. It is the perfect accompaniment to the track’s energy and power. For the video, Spike created a modern-day version of the March on Washington in Brooklyn, which he called "The Young People's March on Brooklyn to End Racial Violence,” featuring Public Enemy. The march was Chuck’s idea, and Spike did the video as a favor, on the strength of them letting him use “Fight the Power” for free. If Chuck D wasn’t already firmly positioned as hip-hop’s political leader, watching him leading throngs of young people through Bed-Stuy did the trick. “It was like a rose really sprouted in Brooklyn,” he later shared about the day. “It was seriously a black movement of just being able to stand up and demand that the systems and the powers that be don’t roll you over. And this was a threat to America and it was a threat to the record companies at the time. That video was really powerful.”

Flav added, “That was one of the most craziest days of my life. But it was so amazing. It was my first time ever really doing a video shoot… (W)e had Jesse Jackson there, Al Sharpton was there, Tawana Brawley was in the video, too, as well. And the whole of Bedford-Stuyvesant…I would give anything to live that day one more time.”

Like the movie and the song, the video is on multiple “best of all time” lists.

While echoes of the controversy of 1989 followed PE through the early ‘90s, the sheer power of Fear of a Black Planet prevented it from slowing them down in any way. Nation of Millions blew the music community away, but Fear of a Black Planet surpassed it.

This has nothing to do with anything, really, except that I want y’all to peep how completely off the chain Flav is in this interview. Chuck and Fab 5 Freddie just gave up.

THE LEGACY

The legacy and impact of Do the Right Thing are perhaps immeasurable. The movie garnered two Oscar nominations, including Best Original Screenplay, was deemed one of the most important movies of the year, then later one of the most important of the decade, and is still largely considered to be Spike’s greatest and most complete work. It inspired a new generation of filmmakers, including John Singleton, who went home and wrote Boyz N The Hood after seeing the film. Radio Raheem’s boombox is on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). “Fight the Power” is still one of the most important songs in hip-hop, has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and is ranked by multiple lists as one of the greatest songs in music, period. Public Enemy went on to be inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. But as I said before, the power is in the two - movie and song - together. It’s hamburger and bun. Peanut butter and jelly. Milk and cereal. Neither are as strong if they’d been presented to the world without the other.

In any other year, the movie and song just wouldn’t have hit the same. Do the Right Thing was one of the first “day-in-the-life” black movies that showcased the routine and connectivity of community - how we rely on each other, how we interact with each other, and the line between business owners integrating with the community and just making money from the community. “Fight the Power” came just as conscious rap was gaining a commercial foothold. Despite the group’s assumptions, the song did get radio play - lots of it. A year earlier, radio wouldn’t have been ready. A year later, the song wouldn’t have felt as special. Thirty years later, the movie and track aren’t just a snapshot of 1989, but they both still feel incredibly relevant and accurate. But without this partnership, the self-proclaimed Rolling Stones of hip-hop may have had an entirely different musical legacy - one smashed to bits the way Sal smashed Raheem’s boombox. Instead, they proved the galvanizing power hip-hop could have. 1989 was not just another summer; it sparked a hip-hop revolution.

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#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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Tobe Nwigwe wowed the crowd with a live musical performance at the McDonald’s Black & Positively Golden experience at BETX.
BET Expereience

Tobe Nwigwe's Southern Raps At The BET Experience Are Marinaded With Purpose

Thanks to Tobe Nwigwe, Houston’s presence could not be denied at this year’s batch of BET Experience events in Los Angeles. Sporting his signature sock/slippers combo and a mic in his hand, the Nigerian-American storyteller took the stage Friday (June 21) to perform some of his most revolutionary and captivating tracks.

There’s the lyrical strike that is “Ten Toes” and “Against the Grain” made popular from his #GetTwistedSundays series, a keen exploration of Houston. With a new batch of ears and hearts open to his music, the Nigerian-American rapper is at ease with his new purpose.

“I understand my purpose now. I understand that to do what I’m doing now is all of my life,” Nwigwe tells VIBE before taking the stage for McDonald’s Black & Positively Golden event which showcases music’s ability to continue the cultural narratives of the Black experience in America.

Before he was shining on BET Cyphers, performing at the Roots Picnic or delivering projects like Three Originals, Nwigwe had dreams of entering the NFL. Those plans were redirected after a physical injury during his senior year at the University of North Texas. The incident served as a catalyst for the rapper to transform his energy into purposeful rap for his hometown, Houston.

“That’s why I’m due diligent, persistent, and focused on what I’m doing because I understand the call of my life,” he added while speaking about his partnership with McDonald’s platform. “I just really like what the Black and Positively Golden theme is. Being bold, being brilliant, being resilient. I like the black community, I love it. I feel like black people are the most influential people in the world.”

 

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HISTORY WAS MADE AT THE @ROOTSPICNIC 🙏🏿 YASIIN BEY - - 📸: @tynie626

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Houston’s re-emergence into mainstream hip hop culture, from a cultural enclave to an emergent regional capital in Southern rap lineage is evident acts like Megan Thee Stallion and Tobe Nwigwe. Draped in diasporic apparel and perched on a horse in the Texas countryside, Nwigwe is representative of the city’s rich ethnic demographic, and fusion of two Black sub-cultures into one told through the oral traditions of hip hop.

Nwigwe is currently dressed in all black, but it wouldn’t be without purpose. In small but noticeable text, his shirt says, “Mental Health is Crucial.” The fit speaks highly of intentions as an advocate for black youth. Nwigwe’s love for his community extends beyond the reaches of rap into the worlds of non-profit advocacy and mentorship. He’s the co-founder of TeamGINI, “Gini Bu Nkpa Gi?,” an Igbo saying meaning, “What’s Your Purpose?”

“I understand what people where I come from need,” he explains. “I feel that. I understand the void, so I do my best to play a role in being a part of the solution.”

His spiritual beliefs were highlighted in The Rap Map: Meet 5 Talented Artists From Houston featured on DJBooth. An ideology rooted in community-based upliftment drew motivational speaker Eric Thomas to sign Nwigwe for ETA Records, and establish a partnership focused on the implementation of solutions-focused rap for youth in neighborhoods across the United States, impacted by the terrors of community disinvestment, and high rates of violence.

Nwigwe recalled the outpouring of love experienced at one of his recent hometown shows. “I had the biggest crowd ever on my court at home," he proudly boasted in a Houston drawl. "I had over 3,000 people at a show with no openers, none of that. The mayor came out and gave me a dap, so it’s just a lot of love at home. There's like nothing better than being received well in your hometown, where you grew up and got all your influence from. It’s, wherever I go I wear Alief, I wear SWAT, I wear Houston on me like a badge of honor.”

His authenticity is felt throughout his setlist, a musical arrangement with a live band, background vocals from Beaumont-raised LHITNEY, and surprise guest performance from NELL, a frequent collaborator and producer on his music projects.

Nwigwe's purpose for the weekend was complete–he brought Houston to Los Angeles. “Make purpose popular,” Nwigwe’s mantra for his musicality sounds like a tagline from your local conscious rapper, but the intention in how the Houston rapper uses music as a space for community messaging is rooted in genuine Houston hospitality.

Stream Nwigwe’s latest release, “Searching” below.

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Queen Of Hip-Hop Soul And Hits: 15 Of Mary J. Blige's Best Songs

Since bursting onto the scene in 1992 asking us What’s the 411?, Mary J. Blige has kept her foot on our necks and provided the soundtrack for most of our lives. Although she’s faced her fair share of heartaches, heartbreaks, and hardships, Mary never let her personal life or the pressures of the music industry keep her from becoming a master of her craft. Who knew the little girl from Yonkers would go on to be not just music but entertainment royalty? She has secured numerous endorsement deals with M.A.C., Pepsi, Target and more while also conquering both the small and big screen, even being nominated for two Academy Awards for her role in the critically-acclaimed film, Mudbound. After countless nominations over the years for categories like Best R&B Artist and Best song, an unprecedented number of Billboard and Grammy Awards, over 75 million records sold worldwide and so much more, she shows no signs of stopping.

This Sunday (June 23), she will add to her repertoire when she’s honored at the 19th annual BET Awards ceremony with a Lifetime Achievement Award for her exceptional body of work across genres and industries. And the undisputed ESSENCE Festival favorite will also hit New Orleans to commemorate the festival’s 25th anniversary while also celebrating 25 years of her iconic 1994 album, My Life.

To honor the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul and her indelible catalogue of hits, let’s take a look at 15 of our favorite MJB songs through the years.

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