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Paras Griffin

Music Sermon: How Kirk Franklin Remixed Gospel Music

In honor of Kirk Franklin's 49th birthday, #MusicSermon chronicles how the former VIBE cover star remixed gospel for a generation that may not have found christianity through church pews.

#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.

In this era of music, there’s “trap gospel,” one of the biggest rappers of the last several years wears a “3” on his hat to represent the holy trinity and holds his own version of the altar call at the end of his shows, and the song “Jesus Walks” is an old school classic. But it’s easy to forget that way back in the 90s when Kirk Franklin’s music first hit MTV, the pop charts and the cover of this publication, church folks were scandalized. Easy to forget that a gospel artist dressed like a rapper or member of your favorite male R&B group wasn’t common. There was a wide chasm between gospel and secular music. Until Kirk. In honor of his birthday, today’s Music Sermon takes a look back at how he changed an entire genre--maybe two.

Gospel and secular music have a decades-old love/hate relationship. The genres have always influenced each other even as they’ve denied each other. Up until relatively recently, the best of black music’s singers, musicians and producers developed their craft in the black church, bringing the oil with them into the world to sprinkle some anointing on soul and R&B tracks. Then there were the greats, like Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin, who turned away from presumed gospel careers to seek pop success, but who had the spirit so imprinted in their voices they made everything sound like worship anyway. R&B has always reached back to acknowledge the church, in the way you swing by on event Sundays even if you haven’t been to service in a while: artists participated in gospel tributes, featured choirs on big songs and performances, and in the 90s it was an unwritten rule that an R&B album contained at least a gospel-feeling interlude. But gospel’s foray into secular music was much less frequent. It happened occasionally; The Hawkins Singers, The Staple Singers, and The Clark Sisters all had singles land on the pop or R&B charts. Then Andraé Crouch laid the foundation for contemporary gospel music in the 70s and 80s, using secular influences in his sound and working with pop and R&B stars including Elvis, Michael Jackson, El Debarge, Stevie Wonder, Madonna, Elton John, and Chaka Khan. (And composing/performing one of the livest TV theme songs of all time for Amen!) And then, Kirk. Kirk Franklin didn’t just bridge gospel and secular music, he combined them. The title “gospel rap” still isn’t commonly used, but Kirk Franklin is to whatever that hybrid genre would be called, what Puffy is to “hip hop soul.”

In the 90s, even young Christians were feeling disconnected from the gospel music they heard at church and on gospel radio. And the gospel that had a life on R&B radio, like BeBe and CeCe Winans, Take 6 and Sounds of Blackness, was more inspirational. Messages of agape love and hope. Not a lot of Jesus. Kirk came with Jesus, seeking the ears and hearts of the young churched and unchurched alike. He didn’t just aim for secular influence, but a full secular sound, with songs that sampled the Beastie Boys, Rufus and Chaka Khan, LTD, The Jacksons, Tears for Fear and even Scarface. Remaking hits from the 80s (yeah, yeah) to make it sound so crazy (yeah, yeah)…crazy for the Holy Spirit! It was kinda how parents blend vegetables into their kids’ favorite dishes on the sneak, except with Jesus instead of broccoli. Franklin created gospel that not only moved you to praise and tears, but made you wanna dance. Not just praise dance. Dance, dance. In the club. And while you were bankhead bouncing you realized you were getting a word. “They don’t come to gospel for the production or the beats,” Franklin told The New Yorker regarding his penchant for pushing sonic boundaries in gospel, “I wanna give you Jesus, but I wanna give you Jesus with an 808.”

While his career has been dogged with a mixture of praise and criticism, accused sometimes of having one foot in the world and one foot in the church, Kirk has remained one of the biggest contemporary gospel stars of all time – definitely the biggest of his generation. And still, continues to stand in the gap.

Franklin was a prodigy, and was writing, composing and directing the adult choir at his church as a minister of music by age 11. But unlike some children from strict christian households, he listened to and loved secular music. He established his name in traditional gospel circles working with various mass choirs, and simultaneously formed his own group, which he called The Family. His intention was to move gospel closer to secular music from the beginning. Not the message, though; just the music. “I’m trying to change the way people look at gospel music,” Franklin explained to the LA Times in 1996. “It’s not corny, and it’s not hokey. We’re not just running around here with some choir robes on, yelling and screaming. It’s not about that anymore, kid.”

At non-church audience performances, Franklin and The Family would flip current hits to get and keep the crowd’s attention, adding Christ-centered references where appropriate. Not just R&B hits, hip hop hits. “When the holy spirit comes, you know it comes correct…woo ha!! It gots you all in check!” Sound familiar? That type of flip, where you don’t distill the essence or the energy of the original, just the language, has become one of Franklin’s signatures.

Kirk and The Family’s breakthrough hit, “Why We Sing,” was a traditional contemporary gospel song, but still a remix of sorts. It was an update of the classic hymn “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” with another of Franklin’s signatures: his voice guiding us through the song as combination worship leader and hype man. Over time the song rose to the top of the Gospel chart and the Contemporary Christian chart (The first black act to do so), and crossed over to the R&B chart. Kirk Franklin & the Family became the first gospel album to crack a million units in sales (unheard of prior, even with gospel’s biggest acts), and the first gospel album since Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace to land in the Top 10 of the Billboard R&B chart.

“Why We Sing” kept Kirk Franklin & the Family at No. 1 on the Billboard Gospel chart for almost a year (42 weeks), so they dropped Kirk Franklin & the Family Christmas as a way of giving fans new music in advance of the sophomore album. The LP produced instant choir classics, like “Now Behold the Lamb,” but also spawned the jingle jam “Jesus is the Reason for the Season,” in which a Kangol and leather vest-clad Franklin informed us, “Santa Claus ain’t got nothin’ on this!” Then he broke it down towards the end about how “(He) love(s) it when (we) call Him (our) savior.”

We talked about Kirk being the gospel inverse of Puff already, right?

The second album Whatcha Lookin’ 4 established Franklin songs as a staple for any youth or young adult choir worth their salt. They were easy to teach and easy to recall, with simple three-part vocal melodies--guaranteed to get the entire church rockin’. Enough so that the elders will ignore hearing Tony! Toni! Tonè!’s “Anniversary” during the modulations.

You know your part. Sing along.

By the way, there’s also a “Crush on You” remix for “Melodies…”
Yes, Junior Mafia.
Yes, for a gospel song.
Yes, it’s an entire bop.
Yes, Kirk is milly rocking.

Whatcha Lookin’ 4 was another platinum success, but it was the follow up that broke Franklin wide open in the secular space and made him a gospel’s biggest superstar. Jimmy Iovine, who was hipped to Franklin’s music by an employee, offered Franklin a production deal through Interscope Records. He believed Franklin would be for gospel what Bob Marley was for reggae. Franklin decided to build something outside of The Family that he could be more experimental with, and tapped a young Fort Worth choir called God’s Property to work with him.

The debut single was “Stomp,” and it changed everything. The single that went to radio was a remix, with a Funkadelic sample, featuring a rapper (Salt of Salt-n-Pepa), and was released on the same label that housed Death Row Records. The song’s intro was a declaration from Franklin – with another Biggie reference thrown in for good measure:

“For those of you that think that gospel music has gone too far, you think we’ve gotten too radical with our message…well I got news for you; you ain’t heard nothin’ yet. And if you don’t know, now ya’ know.”

(I’m positive Big never thought that hip hop would make it that far.)

God’s Property From Kirk Franklin’s Nu Nation debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard Top 200 and No. 1 on the Billboard R&B charts: both firsts for a gospel album. The single was a No. 1 hit on the pop charts and the first gospel video put in regular rotation on MTV. The project eventually sold three million copies, the largest selling album ever in the genre at the time. This was not your grandmother’s gospel.

Son, they were goin’ down the Soul Train line on this.

The saints weren’t really feeling it. While Kirk was still beloved as a gospel artist, some thought he was going too far to translate God’s word to young audiences.

VIBE’s October 1997 issue featured a cover story on Franklin’s unprecedented mainstream success – a story in which, among other things, he referred to himself as “the holy dope dealer” peddling “Jesus rock.” Some of the resulting letters to the editor were scathing.

“I was a Kirk Franklin fan until I read your story,” one read. “I commended him for being a young man who really loved the Lord. Now, I think he uses the words “Hallelujah” and “God” over bouncy beats to appeal to GenX, not to the traditional churchgoers. You can’t straddle the fence when it comes to serving God.”

“If I can go to a club and ‘stomp’ on a dance floor, then what’s the purpose of going to church? Mr. Franklin is little more than a pimp, prostituting a new style of gospel music that sounds no different from hip hop and R&B. Once (you’re saved), your life does not become a ‘holy ghost party.’”

But was this a fair assessment, or out of touch? After all, music is a form of ministry, and the point of ministry and evangelism is to bring souls to Christ. Why should the message not go forth in a way to reach a younger audience? Why can’t it be a “holy ghost party?”

This has been Franklin’s counter-argument as he’s faced this criticism continuously over his 25-year career. He responded to detractors in a 1998 interview with Jet magazine, explaining, “Gospel music is not a sound; gospel music is a message. As long as the message is still the good news about Jesus loves you and He died for you. He’s coming again for you.” The bottom line, “No matter how radical my music may seem, does the music say Jesus or does it not say Jesus?”

Franklin once expressed in an interview that he felt like he could be a 27-year-old with God’s Property. He didn’t have to temper his energy and excitement. Didn’t have to dress in suits to perform. Didn’t have to be a church elder. The success of “Stomp” and the God’s Property album left him free to push boundaries even further. He was all in. Shiny suit, fish-eyed lens, bubble coat and ski goggles, Darkchild production (and feature! With a Mase flow!) late-‘90s bling-era all in.

This is the greatest video in the entire history of music videos. You should watch it multiple times. ALL MY REAL LIVE SAINTS THROW YOUR HANDS UP!!

Kirk wasn’t just churning out party gospel, either. As great as Franklin was and is as a hype-man and ad lib master, his prevailing talent has always been his songwriting. He used his newly solidified multi-genre crossover appeal to round up Mary J Blige, Bono, contemporary Christian artist Crystal Lewis and he-who-shall-not-be-named for “Lean On Me,” an incredibly moving anthem for humanity and community.

To his point in the Jet interview, no one could argue that the doors of the church had opened that much wider, thanks to Kirk. Not only were all welcome, be they in traditional Sunday best or streetwear fly; people wanted to be part of it. Gospel’s reach outside of Sunday morning radio programming, AM stations, BET’s beloved Bobby Jones and gospel conventions saw continued growth following the two God’s Property albums.

In 1999, gospel duo Mary Mary (and producer Warryn Campbell) followed Franklin’s 80s sample, hip hop influenced formula to score a multi-genre hit with “Shackles (Praise You).” The sample of Dennis Edwards’ “Don’t Look Any Further” drove the single to success not only on the R&B and Pop charts, but also on the Dance chart, which propelled it internationally. Production virtuosos Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis scored a Top 10 R&B hit for Yolanda Adams with “Open My Heart.” A remix of the track cracked the Top 40 on the Dance chart. Gospel artists scoring No. 1 R&B hits and selling platinum albums were no longer anomalies. Secular producers working with gospel artists became more common.

TV was getting into the gospel game as well. After decades of being relegated to the Stellars, The Doves, and maybe one BET Awards performance, gospel was getting fresh looks. In 1999, VH1 added Franklin, CeCe Winans, and Shirley Caesar to a televised concert special. "Gospel music is no longer relegated to just the churches in the South," network exec Robert Katz told CNN at the time. "There is an emerging gospel music, a pulse that is all over the country.”

The game had changed.

This next part is far too familiar in stories of skyrocketing success: after the highest heights, there is conflict, because mo’ money, mo’ problems. And that goes double when you’re supposed to be about the Father’s business (just ask John Gray). On the heels of The Nu Nation Project, Franklin faced multiple lawsuits and a public battle with porn addiction. His next album, The Rebirth of Kirk Franklin, was a throwback to the sound and style of the early Family albums; traditional contemporary gospel. But it didn’t sell as well as his previous projects. Franklin found himself in a spiritual identity crisis. In a 2003 interview, Franklin revealed that he was unprepared for the success. “Selling a lot of albums and crossing over made me famous, and it gave me an audience. It gave me validation.” Abandoned by his parents at a young age, he was seeking attention and adoration, and when it came in the form of celebrity, it was addictive. “It was almost like I was the worst person God could have ever chosen…It’s like sending a crack addict to be a missionary in a crack house.”

Fortunately, Franklin bounced back, and relatively quickly. He didn’t go as hard as he had previously--he was older, youth culture had changed, and Kirk in a 4XL tee doing snap rap gospel would have been a bridge too far. But he went back to the formula that worked for him. The days of 17-person choirs were gone (thanks, label budgets), but flipping familiar hits is evergreen. Soul/R&B (Patrice Rushen, “Haven’t You Heard”), pop (Kenny Loggins, “This is It”), rap (Scarface feat. 2Pac “Smile”), all could be used to glorify and edify.

 

There’s more, though. Much like Puffy was once blamed in part for hip hop going too pop and getting too shiny, Franklin bears some weight in steering gospel music away from the traditional format of scripture-based gospel sung by choirs to the modern praise and worship format. The songs are simple and repetitive, and usually sung by small praise teams instead of choirs, led by worship leaders or soloists, and can be backed by tracks instead of musicians. In an attempt at being more radio-friendly, more gospel artists also stay in a Jesus-free inspirational lane. Is it a love song? Is it a gospel song? Who knows?!

Shortly after Andraé Crouch’s death, Franklin shared on his personal blog that he was embarrassed he’d dismissed Crouch’s style of gospel when he was younger, and expressed amazement at the wide recognition and respect Crouch enjoyed and how his music touched people of all walks of life. Things Kirk implied he’d thought only possible with crossover success. And now, the sound of gospel music had shifted completely. Arguably too much so.

“Our music doesn’t affect people the way it used to. It doesn’t create movements like it did during Andrae’s time. Is it because today’s worship leader is too busy trying to get the record deal, the applause, a higher church salary, and that crossover song? [The guilt is all over my hands, people!]”

Franklin may be more mindful now of the balance between blending and distilling, as many career gospel artists are tackling the question of how to restore their genre to former greatness – a question echoing throughout R&B and hip hop as well. Now, a gospel influence in hip hop and vice versa isn’t so foreign. There are even thriving Christian rappers. But Franklin is still one of the go-to’s when secular urban artists need a gospel OG. In 2016, almost two decades following the angry VIBE write-ins, Franklin found himself again facing questions about the appropriate line for gospel crossover when he recorded “Ultralight Beam” with Kanye. When asked about the backlash, Franklin’s answer to the The New York Times sounds like it applies to all the ups and downs of his career. “What I always have to remember is motive and intent: ‘Kirk, you know why you’re there, you know what God has put in your gut. Some of that will come and you will weather it.’ Christianity ain’t something you signed up for like a vacation. It’s not a first-class trip to Fiji. You’re signing up for the ridicule.”

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Brent Faiyaz Channels International Life Into New Musical Gems

Finishing up his summer in Europe, Brent Faiyaz (born Christopher Brent Wood) indulges in spiked mimosas and enticing conversations with his team after handling business for the day. Jet-setting overseas to add more memories to his life’s reel, the singer-songwriter and producer just celebrated his 24th birthday days before. “I think anytime you go places internationally you get a different perspective," he says. "I felt like creatively, it would bring out some more shit.” Many doors have opened for the DMV crooner since he first appeared in front of the public’s eye with his single “Natural Release” in 2014. Pulling pages out what seems to be his journal entries, Faiyaz shares his autobiography through the dynamics of string ballads, haloed hymns, and tinder timbre.

The Columbia, Maryland R&B talent has shared his soothing vocals with fans ever since. Studiously making beats from the age of 12 or 13, it wasn’t until after graduating high school and moving to Charlotte with his parents that he began to invest in music full time. His rhythmic resonance and gut-punching lyrics turned into his first five-track EP speaking to women, relationships, and sex in A.M. Paradox in 2016 with his hit single “Poison.” He formed a group called Sonder with fellow musicians Dpat and Atu, and released a group EP with them called Into before dropping another solo project, Sonder Son. The 12-track project delved into his childhood: he brought his fans right into his living room in “Home,” gave them a seat at the table in his classrooms in “Gang Over Luv,” and walked his newfound Los Angeles streets with them in “L.A.” He then unleashed his tightly knit six-track EP Lost with standouts “Trust,” and “Around Me.”

“I come from a very real place. I think that I can give a lot of people around me a lot of real perspectives. I’ve been seeing a lot of people in certain avenues gravitate towards a nigga,” the LA-based artist said.

The indie artist truly received a standing ovation after organically co-creating the 2018 Grammy-nominated single “Crew” with GoldLink and Shy Glizzy. “I’m going to be real; I didn’t go into music with the intention of being an independent artist, especially not this long. But then [I] hopped onto “Crew” and we fucked around a got a hit record without even being signed to a label. After that I started getting paid so I was like ‘Fuck it, we really don’t need that,’” he said.

His first 2019 summer single “Fuck the World (Summer in London)” opened a perspective of contronyms that approached both the literal and lustful world. What he calls “the woes and the woes.” “Meaning the shit that I hate. [What] is terrible about life right now that’s fucked up, fuck the world on the negative end, middle finger fuck the world,” he says. “And then it’s ‘Fuck the World’ where it’s like the girls and the money and the clothes and the bullshit.”

He later dropped his latest track a month later. “Rehab (Winter In Paris)” mirrors a story when the singer was balancing his personal time while being addicted to a person who is addicted to a substance. With “Rehab” already penned, Faiyaz went to producing the track alongside No ID, known for his work with rap greats like Jay-Z, Common and Kanye West. “He’s an OG. I soaked up a lot of game from him. I locked in with him for a whole week and cut a bunch of ideas.” Observing the producer's process, Faiyaz implemented some of No ID’s ways into his own. “I would take certain shit he said and put that in my own shit. Real talk, he is one of those niggas that will put you on game.”

With a uniqueness to his voice that is charming yet elusive, the singer has raised eyebrows by not resembling the stereotypical genetic makeup of a rhythm and blues artist. “I don’t really know how a sound is supposed to look. If somebody tells me how a sound is supposed to look, I will understand,” Faiyaz chuckled. “I don’t really connect the two. I can’t change how I look; I can’t change how I sound. I’m going to keep doing me.”

During what one could consider a hiatus, the vocalist used that time to focus on his craft, give back to his mom, jump on A$AP Ferg’s album Floor Seats, and walk in Pyer Moss’s New York Fashion Week Show. As he has geared up for a musical return that will unveil a different side, Faiyaz is under renovation. “I [don’t] want to give people the same sh*t that I’ve been giving them this whole time. I’m not about to put out a new project and it sounds the exact same as the last project. I want to keep reinventing myself as this sh*t goes on.”

“Right now, I am probably the most creative that I’ve ever been.”

Brent has successfully left his fans longing for more all while remaining authentic, not purposefully trying to create any kind of enigma around himself. “It’s not a goal of mine to be on the tip of everybody’s tongue all the time.”

With the year wrapping up, the 24-year-old is “pushing boundaries” as he prepares to release more original melodies. While he experiments with the production elements of his music and strengthening his vocals, the artist is effortlessly surprising himself in the studio. “I’m kind of saying whatever the fuck I want to say on the track and somehow it’s coming out pretty good. I know how to put it in a way where it comes off ill.”

Plotting his next moves, the creative has become enthralled with art all across the board in his performances as it translates to visual art. “I’m really learning how a bunch of different avenues go aside from just music. I’m on my young renaissance man shit.”

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Robert Glasper performs at Blue Note in New York City on Saturday, Oct. 5 during his residency.
Dennis Manuel

Robert Glasper Talks 'F**k Yo Feelings,' Yasiin Bey, And Lessons From Herbie Hancock

“This second set, bro...”

Robert Glasper mischievously smiled and widened his eyes as I began to turn off my recorder. We’re wrapping up an interview and sitting side by side near a soundboard at the historic Blue Note jazz club in New York City, where fans are packed downstairs for the third night of Glasper’s month-long residency. He had a previous residency at the Blue Note last year, and it was a hot ticket: acts such as Black Star, Anderson .Paak, and Lupe Fiasco shared the stage with him, while celebrities like Chris Rock, Cornel West, and Chadwick Boseman came to enjoy from the audience.

For the start of this year’s residency, the elusive, expressive Yasiin Bey joined him for four nights in a row, with two shows each night. On Saturday (Oct. 5), the Brooklyn renaissance man wore a black hoodie over a solid black tee, wielded his signature bright red retro mic, and went through fan favorites like “The Boogie Man Song,” “Auditorium” and “Casa Bey,” all over fresh, warmly layered interpretations by Glasper and his bandmates Derrick Hodge, Chris Dave and DJ Jahi Sundance. Bey is visibly impressed by the band, and at one point, dances and spins in place for 10 minutes while vibing to the music. But with Glasper’s reputation and relationships, other artists are prone to just show up, and that’s why Glasper was so excited about the second show: god-level MC Black Thought and soul singer Bilal both made surprise appearances, leaving members of the crowd hyperventilating. Thought exhibited his otherworldly lyricism and breath control, dropping sets of what felt like 100 bars at a time and trading rhymes with Yasiin while the band played a rendition of Madvillain’s “Meat Grinder.” Bilal performed his timeless 2001 single “Reminisce,” with Yasiin spitting his verse from the song. Main Source cofounder Large Professor slipped in the door before the show as well, though he didn’t take the stage. For much of the show, Glasper goofily joked with the crowd, often prompting Yasiin to flash his own bashful, dimpled smile. It's just one night of more to come: the rest of the residency will continue through the beginning of November with Esperanza Spaulding, Luke James for a Stevie Wonder tribute, T3 of Slum Village for a J Dilla tribute, and the original Robert Glasper Experiment, with more guests sure to pop up unannounced.

That same spirit of spontaneity fueled Glasper’s new mixtape, Fuck Yo Feelings. Glasper arranged a two-day jam session with his band and invited artists and friends to keep company. What began as a good time with loved ones resulted with a mixtape that features YBN Cordae, Buddy, Rapsody, Herbie Hancock, Bey, Muhsinah, and many more. It's the latest release in a career that has seen Glasper simultaneously carry on jazz traditions and buck its conventions. As a pianist, bandleader and musical director, he’s excelled with making jazz records for the iconic Blue Note Records that traditionalists can love; but he’s also earned two Grammys for his two Black Radio albums, which employ raps and vocals by Yasiin Bey, Lalah Hathaway, Erykah Badu, and more. He's consistently lent his talents to other musicians’ albums as well – most notably Kendrick Lamar, for his game-shifting 2014 LP To Pimp A Butterfly. Regardless of the platform, Glasper is always making jazz cool, and adding victories to his own belt in the process.

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VIBE: You’re back at Blue Note for your second residency here. How was last year, and what made you come back?

Robert Glasper: Last year was amazing, with all the guests that came through and the turnout. We sold out 44 of 48 shows. The shows, the people, the guests following out that were in New York. It was just epic shit. And Blue Note was like, “we definitely need to do this next year.” So I was like “cool, let’s do it.” I get to be home for a month, and I’m never home for five weeks straight. Gives me a chance to be home, hang out with my son every week, and the money ain’t bad either. (laughs) It’s kind of like being on tour without being on tour.

Last time we spoke, you were telling me that even though you live in NYC, that most of the creative energy is in LA because that’s where everyone records.

There’s more recording in LA, because everybody moved there. But the creative energy is still here. From my experience, you learn how to play and create in New York, you get all those skills. And then you move to LA to make money with it. (laughs) New York’s the place to go when you’re dope, kind of for most things. The competition is so crazy. In other places, it’s slim pickings of who’s dope, so it’s not something that’s going to push you hardcore. But when you’re here, everywhere you go, muhfuckas is dope. I went to college here, there’s motherfuckas here who made me scared to play piano. They would call my name, and I’d sit at the drums because I’d rather sound bad on drums than piano in front of these people. It really chiseled my shit to be dope as fuck.

LA is the place with a plethora of everything you need to make money. All the studios, the producers, all the film stuff. The opportunities are in LA. Before you used to go back and forth from New York to LA for opportunities because there were still a lot of artists and producers here. But it’s so expensive, everybody moved out to LA. It’s more stuff out here, you get more bang for your buck, get some sun. You might die in an earthquake, but you know, see where it takes you. (laughs)

You’re very intentional with how you label records: you have ArtScience, you have Black Radio and Black Radio 2. Why is Fuck Yo Feelings a separate mixtape, and not in one of those other series?

All my records start off one way, and end up another way. I always say the universe produces half of my albums. Originally this was going to be a jam session with my band, and we were just recording it. I ended up being like, let’s bring people to listen to the recording. Not even artists, just tastemakers, friends, VIPs, to come hang out and put a bar in there, 15-20 pairs of headphones so they can be in the room and be part of the experience. It wasn’t an album; it was just, let’s record for two days and see how it sounds. But people started falling through the studio, and it just became a thing. As we kept recording –- we were only there for two days – I had the amazing singer/songwriter SiR come through. He’s a super-fast writer so I said, “while we’re jamming, if you have any ideas, just write them down, and maybe they can become songs later.” One of the songs he had an idea for was “Fuck Yo Feelings.” That was early on the first day. The singer YEBBA was there, and I’m like, “let her sing that.” And that became the premise of the whole shit.

I feel like that’s a great mantra for today’s times. Where I’m coming from, Fuck Yo Feelings can mean so many different things. This is a time where everybody’s fighting for their place in the world to be who they are, whether you’re LGBTQ, whether it’s the females trying to get equal pay and equal rights, black people trying to finally be equal and end racism. Fuck Yo Feelings is a mantra saying, respect someone else’s plight that’s not your own. Take your feelings out of it and just respect their fight, understand what it is, and hell, fight with them. Just because it’s not your fight, it doesn’t mean they don’t need allies. Or, just get out of the way. Also, feelings can lie to you. You get in your feelings about shit, and a lot of times, feelings aren’t going to be what propels you to the next chapter. Sometimes, feelings can hold you back and give you a false sense of reality. Sometimes, you have to say “fuck how I feel, I need to do this.” There’s so many angles you can go with it, and this is something that so many people feel like saying, or say in their mind.

I hear that, but I can’t front: the cover has you sitting on a throne with your shirt off. So I thought the title was basically saying “fuck these artists who think they’re fucking with me.”

(laughs) Well, humbly speaking, I don’t think there are dudes that think they’re fucking with me. (laughs louder) In a real way, I don’t know the pianist that’s arguably in the top five in the jazz world, top five in the hip-hop world, is arguably the top five in the R&B world in terms of playing my instrument. I don’t know that guy, but me. You can have your little argument, “I’m better than you at jazz,” sure. If you want. But all three? And I have the Grammys to back each one of them up? I put in work out here. So it wasn’t that. It’s more like fuck your feelings when it comes to all the stuff I just said. But also, people have an issue with how I’m crossing all these genres and doing what I do. The average jazz musician doesn’t look the way I look, talk the way I talk, or behave the way I behave. Most jazz musicians are in a box, and it’s a box that people are comfortable with and a box you’ve seen before. People got some shit to say about my shit all the time, and I’m definitely saying fuck your feelings to that, too. Because I’ve done the box you like, I’ve proven I can do that. So what’s next? I don’t need nobody’s approval because Herbie [Hancock] loves me, so I’m good. (laughs) If Herbie’s down with me, I don’t need one other person’s approval in the world.

This mixtape also has a lot of younger rappers: Denzel Curry, YBN Cordae, Buddy. Was that intentional?

Yeah. I want to keep my hand in the young pot, too. I’m not getting any younger. I wanted this record to be something that everybody could love and like, even different generations. I felt it was important to have younger cats on here, and to put younger cats in situations they wouldn’t normally be in. YBN Cordae wouldn’t normally be on a track with Herbie Hancock, but he’s so dope. YBN Cordae is an old soul, and he respects the people that came before him, while he’s making new things. Terrace Martin hooked me and YBN up, and Terrace is all about that too. People always associate me with the backpack rappers, and they should, because that’s what I’m dwelling in all the time. But I like other shit, too.

I want to talk about your relationship with Yasiin. I know he was on the first Black Radio, and you’ve worked together before that too, right?

Live, all the time. He basically used my band for his live stuff all the time. I was his music director, starting in like 2006. Whenever he would do things with a live band, they’d be with my band. At first, something happened and his piano player couldn’t make one gig. So when I sub a gig… (laughs) I went in there and put the kitchen sink in that mufucka.

He got fired on his day off?

It was a wrap. So I start putting my guys in his band. “I see what you’re going for. You need Chris Dave. You need Derrick Hodge.” But I’d met him before because he was around Bilal all the time. He was on Bilal’s first record, and I was his music director the whole time till 2007. But I started doing my own thing and we’ve been rocking ever since. We just have one of those connections on stage, bro – he’s like another instrument. He’s always comfortable to the fact that we play shit that most rappers would not rap over because they don’t know how. It’s not your average four-bar chopped beat. He’s like, “I love that. It’s got 32 different changes in it, and I want to rap over the whole thing.” Or odd time signature shit that’s not normal, he’s comfortable. He can go anywhere on stage, and that’s why every show we do is different. It allows me to still be free and not have to worry about, “we have to stay in this box for him.”

He seems to be a recluse in a lot of ways, especially in the past five or six years. But he’s on your new project, he’s doing four nights in a row with you with two shows per night, and he did shows at the Kennedy Center with you recently. How do you get a hold of him?

I got the bat phone, my nigga! (laughs) Nah, we have mutual respect for each other. He tells me this: this is the highest musical level, I feel, you can possibly be in when it comes to rocking with a band. It may be different, but it ain’t gon get no higher. He has such a love for jazz and hip-hop and other styles of music, he knows we can go anywhere. We’ve done pop songs together. I’ve done Cyndi Lauper stuff with him, Neil Young, Radiohead, we go all over the place because he loves to sing too. He has a respect for what I do and respect for the musicians I have. And he wants to do it. It’s different when it’s a gig, versus, I want to do this, because it feeds him musically, too. Some gigs are just gigs; you show up and you might not, because you’ve done this before. We could do the same songs and it’s going to be totally different than last night. I think he feeds off that.

But he’s definitely a recluse, and sometimes he won’t show up every now and then. (laughs) He’s never stood me up. It was never, “where’s Mos?” He can do that to people, but he’s never done that to me. He may say, “ah, missed a flight,” so we have time to figure shit out. It’s a respect thing.

What are the chances you two make an EP, or a full album together?

We’ve been talking about that for years, and that’s super, super duper most likely going to happen. Without a doubt. He wants to, every time we talk, we talk about that. All these shows are being recorded every night, by the way. So it could be shit from here, live.

He was supposed to drop multiple albums over the past few years. He had the album with Mannie Fresh, and another solo, Negus In Natural Person. He dropped the album with Ferrari Sheppard, December 99th, on TIDAL in 2016, but that wasn’t my speed.

I give him shit about that every day. (laughs) I give him shit about most of his last albums. “Fuck that shit, my nigga. What are you doing?” That’s my dude, I can talk to him like that. “What are you doing, my nigga? You know what this is. This is magic! That shit ain’t magic!” He looks at me like (curls top lip and lowers voice to impersonate Yasiin Bey) “nah you right, you’re right, Ron.”

His second album, The Ecstatic, isn’t on streaming services anymore.

He doesn’t believe in all that. We talked about that last night. He’s not necessarily in with the new times like that. “I gotta give away my shit for free, just because you’ve got Wifi? Nigga, you know how hard I worked on this shit?” He ain’t even got a cell phone, so getting him to understand the new wave of shit is different. (Ed. note: at the beginning of both shows, Yasiin Bey requests the crowd not use their cell phones during his performance, and promises to “enforce” if they don’t get with the program. ) He’s very much anti all that shit. It’s going to be something to gradually get him to understand. We put “Treal” (from Fuck Yo Feelings) out and he’s like, “yo. I just saw a video of our song on YouTube. For free?!” Mos, no one buys music. That’s just not what it is. These days and times we’re in, you get out there and try to be popular as you can, and when you do shows, that’s where your money comes from. But no one is baking cake off of music anymore. That's not the day we’re in. Unless somebody like Taylor Swift. I know at one point she was like “fuck that shit” and it wasn’t on Spotify. But her fan base is millions of people; she puts something out, and they’re going to pay for it. Our people, eh, not so much. (laughs)

You also said a few years ago that you’d be forming a group with Terrace Martin and James Fauntleroy. Is that still going on?

We did like one or two songs, fucked around. This is one of those things where everybody got busy. I’ve had a few groups go like that. But it takes a while for a group to do a project. You do a song this month and then three months later you do another song, so the album may not come out until two years later sometimes. But that’s still something we want to do. It was hard to do August Greene, with Common [and Karriem Riggins]. That was hard to get done, and it’s not easy to tour that. We all have our respective things happening, so we’re looking in the cracks like “let’s try to do a show here.” Rashid’s doing movies and that kind of stuff.

What would you say you’ve learned from Herbie Hancock, and do you think you’ve given him any gems that he didn’t have before?

There’s two things I learned from Herbie. You’re a person first, and you’re a musician second. No matter what you do in life, you have to remember that you’re a human being first, and what you do is secondary. What you do can always be taken away from you, and then you’re just left with who you are. I was at his house doing chants with him, because he’s a Buddhist, and I just listened to him talk and that’s one of the things he said. The music is connected to the person and the music, person and spirit are all combined. If you’re a good person, that can come through the music. You just have to remember you’re a person first, and a musician second. That’s how he is, how his aura is.

Second thing I’m learning from Herbie, you can learn from anybody. No matter how high or great you think you are, you can learn from younger people. That’s something that he saw firsthand with Miles (Davis). Miles got Herbie in his band when he was like 19. And Miles trusted the young cats. When he saw these young people got something to say. All Miles’ bands were young people. Miles was a genius at knowing what situation to be a part of because he saw they were on the brink of something. Miles put himself in that and could help grow that, but he knew he could learn from young people. That’s why Herbie hangs out with us. Where we be at, he be pulling up. So I learned that from him: always have your ears open. Even if you’re a master at something, masters can learn.

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Lil Kim performs onstage at the BET Hip Hop Awards 2019 at Cobb Energy Center on October 5, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

BET Hip Hop Awards 2019: Watch All The Performances Here

There were awards given out at the 2019 BET Hip Hop Awards, but this year's festivities were all about the performances. Hip-hop's biggest up and comers (Megan Thee Stallion, DaBaby, YBN Cordae, Saweetie), more established names, (Rick Ross, Rapsody, Chance The Rapper), and flat out legends (Lil Kim) all blessed the stage.

This year also saw the return of the annual Cyphers and connected with URL to integrate battles into the show for the first time. Look below for the performances from the 2019 BET Hip Hop Awards.

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Lil Kim Performs Medley Of Hits with Junior M.A.F.I.A., O.T. Genasis, and Musiq Soulchild Megan Thee Stallion And DaBaby Perform "Hot Girl Summer" And "Cash Shit" Lil Duval, TOM. G, And KaMillion Team Up For City Boys Performance YBN Cordae And Anderson .Paak Perform "RPN" Saweetie Performs "My Type" With Lil Jon And Petey Pablo Rapsody Performs "Nina" And "Serena" Chance The Rapper Performs "Sun Come Down" DaBaby Performs "Intro" And "Baby Sitter" With Offset Rick Ross and T-Pain Perform Medley Lil Baby and DaBaby Perform "Baby" T-TOP Vs. Shotgun Suge – Battle DNA vs. Geechi Gotti – Battle
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