FYF Fest 2017 - Day 1
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Music Sermon: Missy Elliott's Underrated Songwriting Genius

With Missy Elliott becoming the first female rapper to be nominated for the Songwriters Hall of Fame, VIBE analyzes her eloquent, award-winning pen game.

#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. 

Since stealing the show from Katy Perry for the most-watched Super Bowl halftime performance ever in 2015, Missy Elliott has been enjoying a renewal, a renaissance, a resurgence, a reinvigoration…all the “re”s. And deservedly so.The Virginia native is one of the most innovative and groundbreaking artists of our time, and now a new generation of fans has joined the old heads in eager anticipation for the musical magic the Supa Dupa Fly one is cooking up in the studio for her new album.

Fans have been giving Missy her proverbial flowers en masse for the last year especially, including a wide-spread lobbying campaign to have her game-changing, mind-bending, budget-breaking videos recognized and celebrated, finally, with the MTV VMA’s Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award.

While Missy is indeed a visual storyteller bar-none, her ability to create a story behind the soundboard as a songwriter and producer remains under-acknowledged. Last week, Missy became the first female rapper to be nominated for the Songwriters Hall of Fame. If she is one of the six new members inducted in June 2019, she’ll be the third rapper ever to join the ranks, following Jay-Z (2017) and Jermaine Dupri (2018). Eligibility for the honor kicks in 20 years after a songwriter’s first credits, and for the last two decades, Missy has somewhat quietly stockpiled an impressive file of receipts.If you google Missy Elliott’s writing/production discography, you’ll be rewarded with the equivalent of fifteen standard 8 1/2-by-11-sized pages of work. There are titles and projects that fans are familiar with, but also many that would surprise all but die-hard Missy stans. But if you know Missy’s story, it shouldn’t be surprising at all.

Even though Missy had a previous life as part of the Devante Swing-signed girl group Sista, it was her writing and producing that put her on the map. During her tumultuous time with Swing Mob, she co-wrote and/or produced songs for former Hi-Five frontman Tony Thomspon, child star Jason Weaver, Jodeci’s The Show The After Party The Hotel album and others – sometimes credited, sometimes not.

When she left the collective, her attorney, Louise West, encouraged her to continue pursuing the writing path. That led to behind the scenes work with Bad Boy, including vocal/verse arrangements for “All About the Benjamins.” Sheek shared the story with DJ Cipha Sounds earlier this year of The LOX walking into the studio with Puff as new Bad Boy artists, only to be bossed around by a then-unknown Missy.

“Me, Kiss, and Styles walked in the room and there was this girl in there, and they was listening to that beat... She was asking me (what do you think of this beat); she was talking to me like she knew me. ‘Yo, let me hear you rap to that.’ I’m like, ‘First of all, who are you?’ She’s dancing and sh*t. She’s making beatboxing noises. So, I did my first verse…Styles did something; she was like, ‘Eh.’” Styles’ verse famously did not make the final track, and it was Missy’s call. “Jada did a verse to it. And then she was like, ‘You gonna go here. You gonna go here. Y’all two, you and Kiss, gonna write Puff’s verse.’ I’m like ‘What the f**k?’ Then she just walked off, beatboxing. Later on… that was Missy Elliott…But we didn’t know that was her. She put the whole ‘Benjamins’ together.”

Missy’s energy was off-putting for the young Yonkers rappers, but those who work with her say the innate talent for arrangement is one of her superpowers. Her current A&R at Atlantic Records, Jeffrey Sledge, has worked with artists who are also great writers/producers his entire career, including Q-Tip and R. Kelly, but says of Missy: “She has one of the greatest ears of anyone I know. She’ll listen to playback and point out the smallest thing that no one else would hear; ‘No, we should take that out. This should be different.’ She’s able to quickly figure out what will work for different artists and find the vibe. She’s really an A&R on the low.”

Diddy then tapped Missy for a guest feature on Gina Thompson’s “The Things You Do” remix, resulting in the “He He He Haw” heard ‘round the music world. A star was born. She thanked him publicly over the summer via Instagram, sharing a clip where he also praised her as one of his favorite producers, saying, “As a producer, she has a talent to create music that you feel spiritually and emotionally. And it’s really sexy and sensual, in a sense.” When Diddy says your sh*t is sexy, your sh*t is forreal sexy.

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Angelique Miles, the former publishing executive that signed Missy and Timbaland to their deals at Warner Chappell, agrees. “Lyrically she’s witty and she’s relatable, but it really goes back to old school-style songwriting,” Miles says when asked what makes Missy a great creative. “Songwriting today is very literal, and not poetic. Missy’s a poet. ‘Baby you don’t know what you do to me…’ those first lines of “One In a Million” are romantic.”

Miles signed Missy based on the success of “The Things You Do” plus her work with 702’s debut album No Doubt, including “Steelo.” It was an extremely limited body of work to base a deal on, but Miles rolled the dice on both Missy and Timbaland (she signed Timbaland based solely on “Pony,” which wasn’t yet a single), and it paid off. Missy did not yet have a record deal, but she and Tim now had unprecedented admin deals for new writers at the time, allowing them to retain control of their copyright and receive all their royalties on the back end, rather than taking a large advance on the front end. And very soon, there was a lot of money.

Missy told SPIN magazine in 1997, “I was comfortable just writing for people. And I mean really comfortable.”

Miles described it a little more directly: “Huge checks.”With One in a Million, Missy’s career catapulted out of the stratosphere, still without yet having released her own music.

For many, One in a Million is about the pairing of Aaliyah and Timbaland, with Missy there as just part of the Superfriends collective. However, it was Missy and Timbaland as a team that sold Barry Hankerson and Aaliyah on the partnership for her sophomore album. And Missy wrote on almost every single, complimenting Tim’s production with lyrics that felt incredibly familiar – like something you’d said in conversation, or written in your diary - and yet like nothing else in music at the time. In his book The Emperor of Sound, Timbaland described Missy’s writing as in-the-know, juicy, Peyton Place-style storytelling. “You feel like she knows what’s going on behind all of the closed doors, what women say they want, what they really want, and the lengths they’d go through for Mr. Right and Mr. Right Now.”

By the time Missy was finally preparing her solo album, she was one-half of the hottest songwriting and production team in music. She and Timbaland were everywhere, and she became legendary for her larger-than-life features and clever, infectious hooks on outside projects. But she was also writing, arranging and/or producing much of what she was featured on.

SWV’s “Can We:” co-writer and co-producer along with Timbaland. Total’s “Trippin:” co-writer and co-producer (she also was an executive producer on the entire Kima, Kisha & Pam album). The massive hit “Lady Marmalade” remake featuring Christina Aguilera, Mya, Pink and Lil’ Kim: co-produced with Rockwilder. And that’s only songs she’s featured on in some way. “Missy’s worked with all the top female artists of the last 20 years,” says Sledge. Indeed, the roster runs like a who’s who for the 90s and 00s:  Aaliyah, Mariah, Whitney, Janet, TLC, Destiny’s Child, Monica, Trina, Mary J., Ciara, Fantasia, Jazmine Sullivan, even gospel great Karen Clark Sheard. That’s not including the artists she signed directly to her Goldmind imprint with Elektra Records, Nicole Wray, and Tweet.

You were sometimes hearing Missy and didn’t even realize it. Through Mya’s “My Love is Like…Wo;” through Fantasia’s “Free Yourself;” through Monica’s “So Gone;” through Jazmine Sullivan’s “Need U Bad.” Once you realize she’s behind the track, however, you can pinpoint certain signatures in the vocals.

With her own music, Missy is still described by many who work with her as “shy,” both in and outside of the studio. No one knows exactly how she creates, because she’s never let anyone see her write or record vocals. Not even Timbaland. “No one’s seen it,” says Sledge. “She’ll listen to the track, take it home, and come back with it done. I couldn’t tell you her creative process.”

While not quite pulling the curtain all the way back, Missy’s been sharing snippets and sneak peeks of the new material she’s working on through social media, and often shares stories of the tracks she wrote and produced, both the hits and the lesser-knowns. She’s also happily stepping up to receive her praise and accolades, realizing that this level of relevance at this stage in her career is rare. It’s safe to say the shy, quiet artist is not staying humble for her second act. Keep them receipts coming, Missy!

READ MORE: How Missy Elliott's Music Videos Were Ahead Of Their Time

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Uzo Aduba, Debra Lee And More Honor Nelson Mandela's Life And Legacy

I was 5-years-old when Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island. It would be another 20 years or so before I learned what got him there. Mandela was a distant figure throughout my youth, but I knew he was deserving of respect. His salt-and-pepper hair, his slow yet deliberate walk and his booming voice made sweet by his African lilt informed me, even as a child, he wasn't just some guy.

Growing up in Queens in the 90s, however, made South Africa seem about as distant as Saturn. All the country's woes and its wins wasn't a concern for a shy kid, turned boy-obsessed teenager. "Whatever's going on in South Africa is South Africa's business," I foolishly said to my teenage self.

But as I got older, and injustices became too blatant to ignore, pieces of Mandela's teaching orbited their way from my peripheral to my direct line of sight.

Then, in 2013, when news outlets reported on Mandela's touch-and-go health I learned of his lofty sacrifices, his world-changing accomplishments, and grace made more resolute with his warm smile. During his last year of life, I understood Mandela was actually more than any of us could imagine.

To honor the 25th anniversary of the first Democratic election in South Africa, Mandela's legacy organizations hosted a luncheon at Washington, D.C's Marriott International Hotel. The affair, which celebrated Mandela's becoming the first black president in South Africa, was attended by dignitaries, entertainers, guests and all those inspired by South Africa's resilient leader.

BET Chairman and CEO Debra Lee opened the two-hour event and assured everyone it's her mission as a Mariott board member to execute all of Mandela's ideals.

“I lead the company’s committee to ensure excellence in diversity and inclusion Globally. #LoveTravels – the cornerstone of our purpose-driven marketing program – represents our celebration and support of inclusion, equality, peace and human rights and we cannot think of anyone who embodies these values more than Nelson Mandela.”

Orange Is The New Black's Uzo Aduba took to the stage following Lee's welcoming statements. The Emmy-award winning actress and gifted orator delivered a passionate rendition of Mandela's May 10, 1994 inauguration speech.

"Our daily deeds as ordinary South Africans must produce an actual South African reality that will reinforce humanity's belief in justice, strengthen its confidence in the nobility of the human soul and sustain all our hopes for a glorious life for all."

Aduba, 38, continued, "We, the people of South Africa, feel fulfilled that humanity has taken us back into its bosom, that we, who were outlaws not so long ago, have today been given the rare privilege to be host to the nations of the world on our own soil."

After guests dined, Graça Machel, stateswoman, activist and Mandela's widow spoke. Donning a small blonde Afro, a pink silk scarf and a navy blue knee-length dress, Machel expressed her appreciation to all those who continue to champion her late husband's work and even quipped about her love for leaders.

Aduba returned to the stage this time as a moderator leading an intimate conversation with representatives from the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Nelson Mandela's Children Fund, and the Nelson Mandela Children's Hospital. Before the afternoon was over, guests were treated to live entertainment from Grammy-award nominated singer-songwriters, Chloe X Halle.

Two hours wasn't enough time to appreciate Mandela's legacy or even come to a full understanding of his life, but guests left thankful, full and gracious to have spent the afternoon honoring a man who showed the world, "It only seems impossible until it's done."

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Take Five: DJ Khaled Talks ‘Father of Asahd’ And #Summergram Partnership

DJ Khaled started the summer off right with the release of his 11th studio album, Father of Asahd. It’s the second consecutive album where his two-year-old son serves as executive producer after 2017’s Grateful. Although Khaled’s rollout remained quite a mystery, the mega-producer is now in the midst of a heavy promotional schedule, jam-packed with guest-heavy Saturday Night Live performances and summer collaborations with the likes of Lil Wayne, Meek Mill, SZA, and more. Possibly his most appropriate partnership is with Pepsi and Instagram’s #SummerGram.

#Summergram has introduced customizable, reality filters and digital stickers to enhance the digital experience for consumers. Quirky summer-themed catchphrases like "Tropic Like It's Hot," "Turnt Not Burnt," "Catching Rays," and "Call Me On My Shell Phone" will appear with graphic icons and QR codes on Pepsi bottles that will help get fans in the mood for summer fun– pool parties, cookouts, and beach days. In celebration of the new launch, DJ Khaled joined social media maven, Chrissy Teigen, for a week of #Summergram events throughout major cities, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Miami.

“We are so excited to work with Instagram and bring some of their newest technology directly to our most loyal consumers. We know our fans love sharing their favorite moments on social media, and the summertime lends itself to so many post-worthy moments and occasions,” Todd Kaplan, VP of Marketing, Pepsi said. “The breadth of our Pepsi #Summergram statements and custom AR filters will ensure that there is something for everyone – no matter what you’re doing this summer – to help people unapologetically enjoy their best summer moments.”

No one knows how to make a summer anthem or amass a faithful social media following quite like Khaled. DJ Khaled briefly spoke to VIBE about his latest partnership and walked us through his vision for Father of Asahd.

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VIBE: What are your thoughts about your new partnership with Pepsi's Summergram? DJ Khaled: This seems like the perfect fit. I am excited to work with Pepsi – they are always spreading positive vibes and the Pepsi #Summergram collection is a lot of fun to play around with. You know I’m always posting to Instagram and these new AR filters help bring my content to the next level. Look out for more Pepsi #Summergram filters from me all summer long.

It seems like you’ve been intentional with this album rollout even more so than your past projects. What can you tell me about your strategy for this rollout? I decided we can’t do anything dinosaur anymore. For this album, everything had to be big. From the music to the rollout, everything had to be big! And watching it all come together is just beautiful. And I love to see the excitement from my fans! At the end of the day, it’s all for my fans.

What was the toughest song to create? To work with so many different artists and so many moving parts, I imagine it can be challenging. Every challenge is a blessing. The toughest ones to make are usually the biggest ones. I’m blessed to work with great artists and be able to create beautiful music together.

Can you speak to your intentions on beginning the album with “Holy Mountain” and ending it with “Holy Ground”? Me and Buju have a special relationship and have been friends for years. The whole album is very spiritual so it seemed right to start and end the project with those records. The message of the album is to not only receive our blessings but to protect them, as well. Everything for my son, Mama Asahd (Nicole Tuck) and fan love.

How did you go about securing the ‪Buju Banton features? He’s been relatively absent for years, so what were those early conversations like to get him on the album? Buju is family to me - and when he came back, I went to Jamaica to welcome my brother back home. He met my son and we were just vibing. Then Buju asked me to “play a chune” and I played him the “Holy Mountain” beat and Buju finished it in one take. We caught that take on film which is now in the “Holy Mountain” video. Then Buju said play me another one. I had this idea for “Holy Ground”—I played it for him and he loved it. The rest is history.

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Courtesy of Think BIG

How CJ Wallace Turned His Connection To Notorious B.I.G. Into A Cannabis Brand

Christopher Jordan “CJ” Wallace was exposed to the music industry at an early age. As the son of Notorious B.I.G. and Faith Evans, the 22-year-old recalls growing up with countless musicians stopping by his family’s home studio. “We had a studio in our house when we lived in Atlanta. This is around the time [of] Bad Boy South,” he tells VIBE during a visit to our Times Square office. “Any given Tuesday, Usher might come over. It would be crazy.”

While his childhood home served as a revolving door to legends, his family members purposefully delivered a reality check in the form of life-altering questions about his future. CJ’s mom, stepfather, Todd Russaw, and paternal grandmother, Voletta Wallace, constantly reinforced this idea of purpose and responsibility. Though he was only five months old when his father was fatally shot in 1997 in Los Angeles, he was expected to uphold Big’s legacy.

“[They] would talk to me very truthfully, like, ‘hey, it’s not fair, but this is how it is,'” he explains. “'You have a responsibility that a lot of people don’t have and that a lot of kids your age don’t have. You could f**k it up, or you could do something right.’”

This jolt of truth unfolded into a mission to discover what he was meant to do. His options were relatively limitless. The obvious path would be to get into music or maybe fashion. While CJ still had many of his dad’s artifacts – including freestyle videos and at-home footage – he wanted to learn what connected him not only to Notorious B.I.G., the persona, but to also Christopher George Latore Wallace, the man. “For me, it was figuring out how I can develop a brand that can honor the legacy of my father, be something I’m proud of and can pass down to my kids and grandkids. And yeah, something my grandma will definitely support at the end of the day.”

And that’s when it hit him. CJ remembered the relaxed and joyful vibe that overcame his family’s old Atlanta studio. “It’s all about the energy and that’s kind of where for me – sitting next to the speaker, smelling the cannabis, smelling the incense – that was what started it for me,” he says.

Wallace went on to found Think BIG, alongside Willie Mack and Russaw. Think BIG, he explains, is a brand and social movement encouraging society to embrace the cannabis industry and realize its potential to heal and stimulate creativity. In its first plan of action, the brand launched its first product: The Frank White Blend, named after one of B.I.G’s many aliases.

Right now, there is a common focus on the recreational use of cannabis; consumers are flooded with images of kids, middle-aged adults, and celebrities sparking up to escape their realities or “have fun.” Prior to the arrival of Psalm West, Kim Kardashian threw a CBD and meditation-themed baby shower for her fourth child in April 2019. In addition to lifting you off the ground, however, Wallace, Mack and Think BIG want to introduce society to the healing and creative benefits of cannabis. Mack learned about cannabis’ healing powers in a major way during his youth.

“As a kid, watching [how] the AIDS crisis ravaged the world and seeing the LGBT community fighting for cannabis to help them with nausea during AZT [antiretroviral medication used to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS] was my first indication of [thinking] cannabis was a drug, but people are actually using it to try to stay alive,” Mack said, noting that he had several family members who were dealing with HIV/AIDS.

Similarly, Wallace uncovered the alternative nature of the plant when his family experimented with it as a form of medication for his younger brother, who was diagnosed with autism. After testing various strains, Wallace confirms they found the right balance, but since cannabis isn’t an approved medication, his brother is unable to use it publicly. “This is helping my youngest brother every day,” he insists. “It’s unfair because we can’t give it to him and let him take it to school and have the school nurse actually prescribe it to him so he’s constantly getting that regular medication. You can’t take it to school, but the kids in his school are being given opioids, which has crazy after effects.”

Creatively speaking, Wallace and Mack consider cannabis to be the “ultimate ghostwriter.” It’s no secret B.I.G. was an advocate. From numerous consultations with his family members, he learned his dad often smoked while recording. (Mack also notes famous smokers like Johnny Cash, Louis Armstrong, and Bob Marley.) Just about every corner of the music industry has dabbled in recreational smoking, but no genre has been hit as hard as hip-hop. While fans love to watch Snoop Dogg smoke on Instagram Live or share a spliff with Kid Cudi during a concert set, the hip-hop community as a whole is met with backlash and often times targeted by police due to cannabis.

“I feel like anything associated with black men is just immediately going to be deemed bad or evil,” Wallace says, referencing the negative connotation rappers receive. It’s Wallace’s mission, however, to adjust that perspective. “I feel like it’s really up to us to change that narrative. That’s why I try so hard to stop saying words like ‘weed.’ Cannabis, it’s actually a plant," he continues. Both Wallace and Mack noted the terms "weed" and "marijuana" hold negative connotations and are commonly used in connection with minorities. "We were lied to for so long. If we were given proper knowledge from the start, I feel like the entire hip-hop community and the entire way we talked about it would’ve changed.”

Beyond educating consumers with their message and products, Think BIG also seeks to improve the criminal justice system as well as launch charitable projects. According to “The War on Marijuana in Black and White,” on average, a black person is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person. Such racial disparities reportedly exist in all regions, states, and counties around the United States and largely contribute to today's mass incarceration crisis.

In recent years, the U.S. government has made significant strides to correct this injustice. California, Nevada, and Maine are among the first states to legalize cannabis; states such as New York have already begun the process of exonerating offenders convicted of nonviolent charges and marijuana possession. Despite the steps forward, Wallace and Mack say there is a long road ahead.

Not only is it difficult to eradicate a vicious cycle that has left many black and brown people behind bars, but it is also hard to forge spaces for them to succeed in a rapidly changing industry. “Being able to understand how to navigate the industry that’s constantly changing and to do it without a bank account or full funnel of money, makes it that much harder,” Mack says. “Then on top of that, you got people sitting in jail who should be out of jail for nonviolent possession of cannabis. So, we’re faced with having to work four times as hard to make half as much because of the color of our skin. It’s a constant fight and we look at it as how can we set an example, share our knowledge, [and] show more information?”

It takes a group effort, Mac says. While Think BIG is setting a place at the table for black businesses in the cannabis industry as well as shifting the conversation around the plant, Mack suggests other ways to get involved that ultimately uplift the black community. “It’s much easier to enter into the market based on something you already know,” Mack insists, pointing out the opportunities for design firms, packaging, and communication firms to join the movement.

Wallace and Mack know the journey ahead is going to be a roller-coaster ride fit with many twists and turns, but they’re ready. “You got to dream big, as your dad said, and think big,” Mack says. “Everyone else in this industry is thinking about global billion-dollar companies, why shouldn’t we?” As for Wallace, he understands how difficult the process is and will be, “but, it wasn’t more emotional than the first 21 years of my life.”

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