FILM 'WAITING TO EXHALE' BY FOREST WHITAKER
FILM 'WAITING TO EXHALE' BY FOREST WHITAKER
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Music Sermon: The Golden Era Of Black Movie Soundtracks

In honor of this award season's love for black films and soundtracks, VIBE revisits soundtracks from the 90s: the golden era of original black movie music.

We’re experiencing a renaissance for black storytelling. A few years after #OscarsSoWhite called Hollywood to the carpet for lack of opportunity and acknowledgment of black filmmakers and actors, there’s a marked increase in visibility of our stories and the voices that tell them. Black content had a similar wave in the ‘90s. The expansion of network TV beyond the big three networks created space for black programming, and young black filmmakers were in demand for the realism and sociopolitical statements woven into our stories. More black movies were released in 1991 than the entire decade prior. Karen Grisgby Gates, who currently reports on race and identity for NPR’s Code Switch, wrote about the black movie boom for the New York Times Magazine in 1991. “The frenzy for black product…has become so great that black film properties may be to the nineties what the cell phone was to the eighties: every studio executive has to have one.”

Aside from being able to see ourselves and our lives on screen, the beauty in the abundance of black movies was the abundance of fire soundtracks that came with them. The soundtrack was a must-cop that was as important as the film. Even if the movie was trash. Maybe even if you didn’t see the movie. In this digital streaming era, movie soundtracks don’t happen as often; playlisting has almost rendered the compilation album obsolete. Soundtracks have been almost an afterthought, with little promotion and fanfare. Interest in developing musical companions worthy of great films is slowly returning, with the Black Panther soundtrack as a prime example. But for a blissful period in music and film, the soundtrack was actually a key part of a movie’s marketing. It was essential to the experience.

In honor of the love that black films and the music for black films are getting this awards season, let’s revisit some of the rich offerings from the golden era of original black movie music.

A quick disclaimer: The Bodyguard soundtrack transcends discussions of era and genre, so it’s not included in the below.

As a preamble and prelude, we must start by recognizing the catalyst for the black movie dominance of the 1990s, a filmmaker always incredibly deliberate about the scoring and soundtracks for his work. Spike Lee has his own lane here.

School Daze (1986) was not only a realistic depiction of HBCU and BGLO (black greek letter organization) culture, but a delightful mix of musical show tunes and jams, plus negro spirituals, jazzy soul, and the song that took gogo mainstream. School Daze was the black college experience boiled down to 11 tracks.

God bless Spike and E.U for blessing us with the universal clarion call to get your ass on the floor. We all know what that gogo drum intro means.

I put Do the Right Thing’s opening credits in my top five. Nobody dances as hard as Rosie Perez. In the world.

Do the Right Thing = “Fight the Power.” There’s a whole soundtrack, yes, but don’t ask me what else is on it. “Fight the Power” is heard in the movie 15 times. That’s the soundtrack.

Great music is a signature of a classic Spike Lee Joint. He has two movie soundtracks from our greatest musical geniuses, Stevie Wonder and Prince. He has one full of contemporary jazz. One full of ‘70s soul classics. The music is always perfectly suited to the film.

Spike proved to Hollywood that movies made on small budgets could be very profitable: not only would black people would go out to see stories created for and about them, but white people would, too. Studios were intrigued and in need of original ideas. Young, edgy studio New Line Cinema gave directors Reginald and Warrington Hudlin a $2.5 million budget for the 1990 teen comedy House Party. The movie grossed $26 million. We showed up. On opening night, not only were the seats full at the theater I went to (I went to the black movie theater, of course), folks bought tickets to other movies, snuck in, and were standing against the walls. A movie about a high school house party starring two rappers and an R&B group (Full Force), had to have the right music. Early new jack swing was on deck.

This is one of my favorite movie scenes. Back in the day, you and your crew had to have your steps together, because there was always an opportunity to show off on the dance floor.

The soundtrack wasn’t huge commercially, but it was a preview of the more evolved merging of music and film on the horizon.

Public Enemy is not a group you associate with dance tracks, but “Can’t Do Nuttin’ For Ya Man” goes. I have this on my workout list now.

In 1991, New Jack City renewed the urban soundtrack game. In the ‘70s, the blaxploitation era was a similarly big moment for black cinema. Film soundtracks were extended elements of the story. The music from Shaft, Superfly, Claudine, Sparkle and more still maintain their critical and cultural importance years later. The Curtis Mayfield-led Superfly soundtrack even made more money than the movie! New Jack City brought back the importance of extending the feeling of the movie through its music. Giant Records was a brand new label and had something to prove. “The strategy was simple: to get hot! It was about making this look like the most exciting black urban compilation record possible,” A&R Gary Harris shared with OkayPlayer. “I envisioned a record where we would put our artists on…and then surround them with stars, exciting music and that would give a platform to our artists as well as give us some billing very quickly."

New Jack was a tipping point for ‘90s culture. It was the first film about the crack era, and the announcement of a new youth movement. Screenwriter Barry Cooper coined the phrase “new jack swing” in 1987 about Teddy Riley, and since then it was used in the street and some circles, but the movie presented new jack as a culture, not just a music genre. A culture based on lifestyle: music, fashion, partying, street savvy. So, the music had to be on point.

The soundtrack was a masterful mix of established and new artists.

It also incorporated the two artists starring in the movie, Christopher Williams and Ice T. The album reached No. 2 on the Billboard Top 200, and No. 1 on the Hip Hop/ R&B chart, where it stayed for over a month.

The floodgates opened for black storytellers. At the same time, black music – specifically, new jack swing and hip hop - was growing and breaking into the mainstream; a perfect storm for soundtrack excellence.

Uptown Records was a major force behind the evolution happening on the music side. Uptown was first real lifestyle label, the home of new jack swing, and the parent of Bad Boy Entertainment. Andrè Harrell called it the new Motown, and like Berry Gordy with Motown, he wanted to expand Uptown’s entertainment reach beyond music to TV and film. Strictly Business (1991) was Uptown’s launch into multimedia, and a precursor of sorts to Boomerang, as one of the first films centered around successful young black professionals, and as the film that introduced young Halle Berry.

The soundtrack was centered around Uptown’s roster. Father MC, Heavy D & the Boyz, Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” more than six months before What’s the 411 was released, and the debut of Jodeci.

The soundtrack also featured acts outside of the Uptown system including LL Cool J, Stephanie Mills, and Nice & Smooth. My favorite track - one of the only songs released as a single – is still a favorite in an uptown party. (New Yorkers call Harlem and areas north of Manhattan “uptown.” That’s the inspiration for the label’s name.)

What I’m about to say next is controversial, but I must speak truth to power. Juice is an urban classic, but Tupac and the soundtrack are the only reasons to revisit the film (and to look at young Omar Epps and Khalil Kain). It aged terribly.
The album, however, is still one of the best hip-hop compilations ever.

The Juice soundtrack is super “up top,” super hip-hop, with classic emcees like Kane, Eric B. & Rakim, EPMD and Too Short (for some west coast representation).

It also featured one of Naughty by Nature’s greatest joints. I think we sleep on Treach, but that’s another sermon.

Really though, beloveds, you can drive a mack truck through the movie plotline.

In June 1992, Eddie Murphy gifted the world with Boomerang: one of the smartest, funniest, most well-written ensemble romantic comedies ever. Of any genre, any demo, ever. And God opened the heavens above Kenneth Edmunds’ house and told him to go forth and produce R&B soundtracks.

L.A. Reid and Babyface were already OG songwriter and production hitmakers, but this was their first movie project. The relatively new label heads were inspired by the success of New Jack City, and used the soundtrack as their benchmark. They spent time on set, watching while creating, which is why all the songs fit so perfectly with the film.

Uptempo love bops. A severely underrated Johnny Gill jam. Emo, heart-wrenching ballads. An unintended launch for Toni Braxton – both of her songs were written with Anita Baker in mind. Plus a little hip-hop - Tribe’s inclusion was Eddie Murphy’s call.

Music from motion pictures became a vehicle to introduce new artists to the marketplace before their solo debut.

We met Snoop and his laid-back flow on 1992’s “Deep Cover” before he jumped on The Chronic later that year.

Little bitty baby Usher was mackin’ on the Poetic Justice soundtrack.

Puff put new signee Biggie Smalls on Uptown’s Who’s the Man soundtrack right before breaking camp to start his own label and taking Big with him as the anchor artist.

The Above the Rim soundtrack (1994) is G-Funk greatness. Death Row slammed the album down on the table like a big joker after whoppin’ ass with The Chronic in ‘92 and Doggystyle in ’93. The compilation was for west coast hip-hop what Juice was for the east, and it had some solid R&B joints.

“Regulate” alone is enough to land this soundtrack in Top 5 of the decade. Warren G. put his foot in the track (even though it’s hard to jack up “I Keep Forgettin’”), and I think this is the best display of Nate Dogg’s gangsta-soul vocals. The single’s success was a large factor in the compilation’s ten-week run at the top of the Hip-Hop/R&B chart.

We rocked rough and stuff with our afro puffs (holds out mic).

Side note - Death Row drama got in the way of Rage having the shot and support she deserved and it makes me sad. Her verse on Doggystyle’s “G Funk Intro” is better than some entire albums.

SWV was good for a soundtrack remix, and the version of “Anything” with Wu-Tang Clan was everything. (Wu-Tang isn’t in the video edit.)

Above the Rim is also like Juice, in that Tupac and cast plus the soundtrack are the only reasons the movie still holds classic status. Because, man, that plot… (Imagine the shakinghead.gif of your choice here.)

Soundtracks were also a great opportunity for artists to experiment with classic covers. The complete Jason’s Lyric soundtrack isn’t available on streaming services (as is the case with several soundtracks and compilations from the ‘90s, due to publishing issues), but it had some highlights. Most notably, the male R&B supergroup Black Men United and the early D’Angelo composition “U Will Know,” Brian McKnight’s endearing “Crazy Love,” and the cover that I believe in my soul K-Ci Hailey was put on this earth to sing.

When Waiting to Exhale arrived in theaters in 1995, it was first a moment for black women. Then, it quickly became a moment for all women. There’d never been a female ensemble cast like this: middle-class black women navigating universally relatable issues in love and life, not struggling to find a way to survive in or get out of poverty and violence. When Forest Whitaker tapped Babyface for the soundtrack, ‘Face assembled an all-star roster of black female artists of all ages and career stages, anchored by Whitney Houston, for a collection that invoked love, loss, and sisterhood.

The movie was an event, and the soundtrack was the after set. People wanted to go home and hold onto everything they felt in the theater – even the sadness. There were several go-head-and-cry-it-out-and-then-move-on-girl cuts.

The soundtrack was a massive hit. It topped the Billboard Top 200 Albums for five weeks, and the R&B album chart for ten weeks. The album went seven singles deep (rare for a soundtrack) and spawned five Top 10 hits on the Hot 100, and two No. 1s.

There was something for everybody. Brandy for the young’uns.

CeCe and Nippy for the wholesome.

Toni for the chill aunties.

Plus, Chaka, Patti, Aretha, Chantè Moore, Faith Evans, TLC, and a few debuts. It remains one of the best-selling soundtracks of all time.

I’ve gone on multiple twitter rants about people who (have no taste and) don’t like Love Jones. But at least everyone seems to universally agree that the soundtrack is a banger. The term “neo-soul” was coined right around Love Jones’ release in 1997, but the movie represented the era perfectly, as did the music.

I’ve always loved the usage of music in this movie, from jazz to classic reggae to funk to James Brown at the steppers set (when have you seen a date like that depicted in a movie?).

Before the movie had even opened, I was pressed to see it, because this was the best song I’d ever heard in my life. Even though “The Sweetest Thing” was credited as The Refugee Camp All-Stars, it was really our first taste of Lauryn’s solo style.

Love Jones combined classic jazz compositions, contemporary jazz vocalists, and the as-yet-unnamed neo soul genre artists, and it felt cohesive.

Maxwell was a late ‘90s/early ‘00s soundtrack staple.

Rounding out the decade is 1999’s The Best Man. The movie’s biggest musical impact is probably establishing Cameo’s “Candy” as the new official electric slide song (we weren’t doing that before this movie came out, real talk).

The soundtrack was a great mix of chill R&B (including an early Beyoncè duet that I always forget is Beyoncè), and good hip-hop.

Where is Jaguar Wright, by the way?

Lauryn was reveling in her new Marly-ness, doing updates of her father-in-law’s classics.

This is the video that should go in a time capsule for early 2000s R&B. For the hood and the highrises, or the mansions with the maids (LOL, RL thought that was deep).

Again, Maxwell was present and accounted for.

There are so many more albums I could have touched on: Boyz n’ the Hood, The Five Heartbeats, House Party II, Menace II Society, Mo’ Money, Higher Learning, Low Down Dirty Shame, Friday, Life, Bad Boys, The Nutty Professor, Rush Hour, Romeo Must Die, Don’t Be a Menace, Panther, How to Be a Player, Belly, Hav Plenty, Soul Food, Love and Basketball (even though that’s 2000), and probably at least ten more that spawned one or more hits from the soundtrack. And that’s just taking original music under consideration. There were also dynamic compilations of classics like Crooklyn and Dead Presidents.

The thing is, the story of the golden era of soundtracks is the story of the golden era of black films. It’s overwhelming to remember the sheer volume of output from black directors, producers, and/or actors during this span of time, and sad to consider that decades later we had to start all over again and are just now seeing progress with representation (and with acknowledgment; the earlier movies were largely ignored by mainstream awards bodies). Yet it’s still only a fraction of what we had. In the 1991 Times article referenced earlier on the increasing demand and opportunity for black filmmakers, Warrington Hudlin realized a change in the media landscape was due, pointing out that “(i)f, within the next thirty years, America is going to be predominantly a nation of people of color, then white studio executives had better begin to understand who their consumer is going to be.” That thirty years is almost up. Last year, there were soundtracks for The Hate You Give, Creed II, A Wrinkle in Time, the Superfly remake and of course, Black Panther. Maybe by the time we reach 2021, the black movie and soundtrack game will be back in full effect.

#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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Trae Patton

J.Lo’s ‘World of Dance’ Proves To Be A World of Opportunity

For two years, Jennifer Lopez, Ne-Yo, and Derek Hough have introduced some of the world’s best dancers to viewers across America. Their NBC weekly competition series, World Of Dance, fills living room television sets with high-flying stunts and out-of-this-world routines. The show’s multicultural acts each bring a distinct flavor to their every step, tracing back to their native homelands.

Now in its third season, the dance tournament is divided into various categories befit for each act’s demographic. The brackets are divided into levels: Upper, Junior, Upper Team, and Junior Team and they’re all in the race for a hefty $1 million. Yet with all that talent in one room, you can bet the competition is stiff. It’s also nerve-wracking trying to impress superstars like Lopez, Ne-Yo, and Hough for a qualifying score.

There’s The Kings, a group from India that flies across the stage in lightning bolt speed. Their precision is just as massive as their dash, everything is carefully coordinated into perfection. Then there’s The Heima from Seoul, South Korea that offers an incredible fusion of Asian culture paired with beautiful choreography.

Surprisingly, if J.Lo would’ve had the chance to compete in a show like her own at the beginning of her career in the early ‘90s, she admits she would’ve passed on it.

“If I was on In Living Color, I probably wouldn’t try out for World Of Dance,” she says seated on a leather couch at a private party room at Los Angeles’ NeueHouse Hollywood. “I probably would more be watching World of Dance and cheering on my friends. The level of tricks and technical skills is not something that I had when I was coming up. Even though I know my flips and tricks just a little bit, I’m in awe of what they are able to do.”

It’s also exciting to learn from the contestants, some of which she says end up working with her after the show is over.

“I’m from The Bronx. I’m a hip-hop girl at heart so I’m always looking at what the young kids are doing, and trying to do that too,” she notes.  “Let’s get some young kids here so they could teach us the new steps.”

While the new generation of dancers are exciting, it also isn’t taken lightly by the judges—especially for Ne-Yo. The award-winning R&B artist is known for his tough criticism, and he isn’t generous when it comes to scoring. His methodology is earnest yet simple: show and prove.

“If I’m going to give you a million dollars you’re going to earn it,” the 39-year-old says flatly. “Whether you’re an eight-year-old or a 38-year-old, your skill level is what makes me go, ‘I’m going to talk to you like a person who wants a million dollars from me.’ It is what it is.”

Hough adds that the judges often disagree when it comes to scoring.

“We’ve had full-blown arguments after a performance where we’re behind the desk and I just straight-out disagree with some of their things, and with their opinions,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “But that’s what makes us judges. We’re going to have different opinions, and we’re going to have conflicting ideas. I think ’cause we’re so passionate about it, we’re so invested, and we love dance. We’re all fans of dance, and we want to make this the best we can possibly make it.”

Amid Ne-Yo’s tough rubric, there’s no denying that working alongside Lopez has a positive effect on his work ethic.

“J.Lo is over here killing the game,” he says. “It makes you go up because she’s the ultimate. She comes in sharp, alert, charismatic, every single time,” despite having a million other things to do the second the show is done taping.

World Of Dance is something Lopez also enjoys with her family. She watches it with her children and says her son Max wants a chance to compete to win the million dollars. “They love the show and they love the electricity of the show. It’s powerful, it’s young, it’s fun,” J.lo says.

What gives the show its power is the exposure that it grants contestants whether or not they win the grand prize. “Getting on that stage in itself is a victory,” Ne-Yo says. “You’re in people’s houses every week. If you can’t parlay that into something whether you win a million dollars or not, you’re not hustling right.”

World Of Dance airs on Sundays at 8 p.m. EST on NBC.

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Courtesy of Rialto Pictures

The Ying and Yang of ‘Yardie’ Star Aml Ameen

There’s a scar above Aml Ameen’s right eyebrow that he got when he was three years old. Thirty years later, the British actor can laugh at running face first so ferociously he split his head open. The victim he was charging at, his cousin, walked away without a scratch.

Cracking himself open is what Ameen did in order to embody the role of D, the lead in Idris Elba’s directorial debut Yardie. Adapted into a screenplay from the 1992 Victor Headley novel of the same name, viewers see Ameen take on a character who’s more morally ambidextrous than he is ethically ambiguous. The film spans two decades and locations—Jamaica and London—as D grapples with his brother’s murder and enacting revenge while diving deeper into a treacherous drug world.

To become a true yardie, Ameen who’s British-Jamaican and Vincentian, went full method acting. After living in Bob Marley’s homeland for three months, when Ameen returned to London, friends, family or whoever met him anew.

“People met me as D, they met me as the part. The mindset, I was only speaking patois. All the cast and crew met me as D. And so, by the time I came back I had gotten out of my own way to a large degree in terms of any trepidation I might have,” he says. “When you immerse yourself fully into a world and you give over to a part often you start by feeling like you’re faking it. But after a while, your body doesn’t know you’re telling it something. It just starts to believe it. So let’s just say you’re telling yourself every morning ‘I’m ugly! I’m ugly! I’m ugly!’ Your body will start feeling that. It can be a bit traumatic, but you don’t have to do as much work. So that foundation of playing D gave me a lot of confidence.”

Ameen isn’t unattractive. In fact, he’s handsome. Standing a hair above 5’6” his tall personality supersedes his actual height. His toasted almond skin is clear. His lips full. He smiles often but there’s a resting smirk that gives way to slight mischief or an undetected superpower. It could be his ability to transform to a spliff smoking badmon, or maybe it’s the courage he mustered the night before this interview to perform at New York’s famed Nuyorican Poetry Cafe. Either way, something’s there.

D and Ameen however, couldn’t be any more different. Ameen is measured, deliberate with his words and tidy. His Ray-Ban sunglasses accent his blue striped button-down and his tan wool coat. D is unpredictable, shaggy; his locs an orchestra of controlled chaos. D also isn’t opposed to shooting first and to channel his character’s demeanor, Ameen channeled his Uncle Kirk.

“My Uncle Kirk is one of them stoic, handsome, men from his time in the 80s. There are loads of pictures I have of him and he’s just one of them men who didn’t really smile but when he smiled it was like is he smiling because he’s happy with what you’re saying or not?” he says. “I’ve got a lot of British in me and we tend to be polite by default. You see Jamaicans, they’ll look you in your eye and talk to you like this [with a straight face] for all of the interview and it’s fine with them. There’s an intensity.”

As a first-generation Jamaican, I can attest to the seriousness that runs through the island. Despite the sun, the rum and the savory oxtail gravy, Jamaicans don’t joke around, or as we say: we nuh romp.

Serendipity was at play when Ameen and Elba first met in an elevator both heading to the same Los Angeles-bound flight. They discussed the book and Elba’s script. Ameen’s verbiage of choice is “sanitized” when describing the difference in the brutality of D on screen compared to the novel. Over time, the young rebel develops a coke habit and to bait Clancy, his brother’s killer, D rapes the mother of his children. In the movie, however, after breaking into their home and points a gun at Clancy’s girlfriend, D grants privacy when she pretends to breastfeed her child.

And while D doesn’t explicitly say it, he has a death wish. If you watch the film properly as Ameen suggests, you can see moments in which D is chasing after his own demise. Ameen’s only desire is to live his life fully, a reality he better understands isn’t a luxury afforded to many.

“I’ve experienced people who died who were my age, and not died from like the usual gangs or that sort, but like a heart attack, 33 years old, dead. Another friend pushed off a balcony by his girlfriend. Uncle died three days ago, my dad’s brother,” Ameen says. “When my two bredins died, it was a certain feeling, but with my uncle dying I had more of an understanding of D’s journey, which I had to imagine now, than 18 months two years ago during filming. It’s very hard to fill the void of a family member dying. You never know when your card is going to get pulled, so you want enough time to do stuff, but at the same time once real people die in your life that you love you fear it less.”

D also never worked with The Sexiest Man Alive. Ameen describes Elba’s directorial hand as less controlling and more freeing. Elba would later invite Ameen to his home while filming The Mountain Between Us where the two shaped the character. Once the two-time Golden Globe winner yelled “action!” Ameen said he was granted the autonomy to do what he wanted.

“[Elba] wanted me to method act and we discussed the general mindset of D, the look that he wanted to achieve. He wanted a uniform accent, things like that. And then he just set those parameters and left me to go in and do it,” he says. “He knows the type of actor I am. He wasn’t like, ‘All right, this is how I want you to do it.’ I’ve worked with first-time directors before. I never worked with an actor-director and he gave a lot of space. There were only so many moments when he was like, ‘This is what I want’ and he allowed me to create this world where I lived.”

While going full method was the approach that made for the best performance, it wasn’t always easy for some on set. Ameen rarely broke character and admittedly held others “hostage to his process.” He was so intrinsically D, it took him roughly eight months to let go of him once the film wrapped.

“Not like talking patois all the time, but the state of being. Every morning as D I’m waking up to gunshots as my alarm clock. Every morning I’m sitting in bed for an hour or two imagining the murder of my brother. If you’re a person with a conscious, that’ll run on your mind. It took me a while, definitely.”

I forget my follow up question and the room gets quiet. We’ve been talking for close to 40 minutes. Ameen uses this chance to turn the tables and question me. We discuss zodiac signs and Miles Davis. There’s a younger version of the late jazz legend Ameen believes is equally complex and intriguing. He admits he’d love to portray him. Instead, he’ll have to settle for Netflix’s forthcoming Inside Man 2, a departure from the Spike Lee-directed crime-drama which starred Clive Owen and Denzel Washington.

“Those are some big shoes to fill,” I tell him.

“I ain’t tryna fill em. That’s the goat,” Ameen says of Washington as he chuckles. “I could be the ram if they want. I can be the little lamb.”

He opens his Spotify app and plays “Blue In Green.”

“What’s your star sign?” he questions.

Every man I’ve ever loved (whether reciprocal or not) is a Leo, so when I learned of his July 30th birthday, I was...annoyed.

VIBE: We don’t get along.

Ameen: Who don’t?

VIBE: We don’t.

Ameen: Why do you say that?

VIBE: I looked it up. We don’t get along.

Ameen: Is that the attitude you came to the interview with? That’s terrible. What’s your sign?

VIBE: I’m a Gemini. I find Leo men are, it’s almost astonishing, how confident they are, and like unjustifiably so sometimes.

Ameen: And that’s what I remind you of?

He takes a sip of water and leans back. He crosses his legs and continues to listen to Miles while scrolling through social media on his phone. A smile emerges on his face. Like his Uncle Kirk, I’m not sure if he’s smiling because he finds our banter fun and playful, or if his unknown superpower is bubbling at the surface.

“Interesting,” Ameen says.

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American musician Millie Jackson performs onstage at the Park West Auditorium, Chicago, Illinois, May 30, 1980.
Photo by Paul Natkin

Music Sermon: Millie Jackson - The Original Bad Girl

You know that auntie who you were nervous to bring your young male friends around back in the day because she might proposition them in the kitchen when nobody was looking? Or the auntie liable to cuss out a family member or two after dinner for something that happened 12 years ago? The one that women in your family whispered about, warning not to leave men around alone? Who your mama didn’t want you to spend too much time with, but you were always excited to see because she was entertaining and was gonna slip you a little pocket change?

That auntie listens to Millie Jackson.

Millie Jackson is not just an R&B singer. She’s a Rhythm & Blues singer. She’s card party music. Your parents having people over and you’re not allowed to come downstairs music. Working class black folks hanging out down at the VFW after a long week with some well liquor music.

She’s been called “the queen of raunchy soul” and “the Godmother of rap,” because of her signature, no-holds-barred lyrical content and her long “raps” – profanity-laced, sexually explicit stories and jokes – interwoven through her songs and live sets. Auntie Millie is part singer and part outrageous comedienne – but don’t take her as a joke. She’s a deceptively serious artist, with career highlights that went largely unnoticed because of the raunch.

In our continued celebration of bad-ass women in music for the month of March, we present 11 essential Auntie Millie facts.

1. Her Singing Career Was an Accident

One Thursday night, Millie Jackson was hanging with friends at the Psalms Café on 125th Street in Harlem. The restaurant hosted an open mic on Thursdays, and Millie was clowning a young woman for her terrible singing. Her friends bet her $5 to get up herself and sing, and she did it – even though she had no training as a singer. A club promoter in the audience offered her a gig the following week, someone saw her there and offered her more gigs, and that continued. She sung around New York and New Jersey for a couple of years while still working full time, and eventually landed a spot touring with Sam Cooke’s brother, LC. After one short-lived recording contract, she signed with funk and soul label Spring Records (co-founded by the father and uncle of Loud Records founder Steve Rifkind). She was so unsure her career would stick, she asked for a leave of absence from her job instead of quitting. It became an extremely extended leave.

Her trademark “rapping,” the long intros, interludes and dialogue breaks Millie masterfully blends into her songs and live sets, was also an accident. Millie had no formal vocal training, so she wasn’t a strong singer at the beginning of her career. When people in supper clubs and lounges would start talking to each other and turning their attention away from the performance, she started talking to them to keep them engaged. It became a key part of her artistry. Millie doesn’t just sing you a song, she tells you a story.

2. She Developed Her Raw and Raunchy Style Because of Gladys Knight

Millie and Gladys sound alike. It’s hard to hear in Jackson’s grittier songs; in those, she sounds more like Teddy Pendergrass’s voice and Tina Turner’s voice had a vocal baby. In her ballads, though, you can close your eyes and imagine Gladys. Or at least Gladys after some brown liquor. Comparisons started almost immediately in Millie’s career. It was potentially a problem– the label held back a single because they thought people would hear it and ask for a new Gladys album – so she began to separate herself from Knight with her raw sound and lyrical content.

Over time, that separation also included cursing. “Gladys started rappin’ on (“Help Me Make It Through the Night”) and I’m like ‘Ok, now she’s gonna rap? I guess I’ll just cuss,’” Millie once explained. “She’s too much of a lady to curse.”

Jackson leaned all the way into the explicit language and topics - the Washington Post called her “a veteran virtuoso of vulgarity” in 1986 - until those two factors nearly overshadowed not only her raw talent, but the fact that her songs were also technically fantastic, complete with incredible arrangements and expert live instrumentation provided by the Muscle Shoals Swampers, one of the best rhythm sections in music history.

3. She Flipped the Concept of the Concept Album

Caught Up is the concept album "Trapped in the Closet" wanted to be when it grew up.

While Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye were creating cohesive bodies of work that reflected community, racial and environmental turmoil, Millie focused on what was happening in the home. Spring Records paired the singer with producer Brad Shapiro, whose credits include Wilson Pickett and James Brown, and he took her to the famed Muscle Shoals to record with the studio’s legendary session musicians, the Swampers.

Millie knew she wanted to make an album where “one song keeps going into the next song,” like a long story. Caught Up is a narrative about an affair, but from two perspectives: the first half of the album is from the mistresses point of view, the second half is the wife’s.

“We knew we were onto something (after “If Loving You Is Wrong”),” Jackson explained in an interview. “Then somebody in the studio asked ‘what now?’ And I said, ‘we finish the story. We’ve heard from the girlfriend, but what about the wife?'”

Concept albums were still new, and Spring Records didn’t know what to do with a project featuring nine-minute songs and no clear radio tracks. They brought in one of the most influential black radio DJs in New York, WBLS’s Frankie Crocker, and played it for him. He left the label with the only pressed copy of the LP so he could play “If Loving You Is Wrong I Don’t Want to be Right” immediately.

Jackson has admitted to being the other woman multiple times in her own life, but wanted the representation on the album to be “fair,” and include the wife’s experience. Her interpretation of the betrayed wife wasn’t a broken-down woman crying into a pillow, either. The songs cycled through a full range of emotions, from shock and anger to sadness, defeat, defiance and pettiness.

The label’s skepticism was unfounded; Caught Up reached No. 4 on the Billboard R&B album chart and No. 21 on the Pop chart. The success prompted a follow-up album, Still Caught Up, but the original is considered Jackson’s definitive work.

4. She Helped Turn Cheating Into an R&B Genre

Torrid affairs and adultery weren’t new topics in music, but they were relatively new to R&B. In the early ‘70s, songs about cheating – not about the aftermath, but basically celebrating cheating - were mostly found in juke joint blues and country western music, and were rarely from the woman’s perspective. “These were conversations that women had with each other on the laundromat. You didn’t hear them on records,” Millie explained in a recent interview about Caught Up. “You especially didn’t hear them on the radio.” Billy Paul, Luke Ingram, Johnny Taylor, and Millie – all singers who straddled the line between blues and soul - helped change that. By the mid-70s, adultery R&B was a full-blown subgenre, with songs like “Woman to Woman” and “From His Woman to You” (because “Woman to Woman” apparently required a reply), then later came “As We Lay,” “Secret Lovers,” and a long list of others. Songs about the wife calling the side, the side responding to the wife (the temerity!), the husband talking to the side, the wife proclaiming love to her side. It was a mess. But the songs were hits, so you might need to ask your parents and grandparents some honest questions about exactly what the hell was going on in the ‘70s and early ‘80s.

Millie’s unfiltered and uncensored take on cheating was the centerpiece of her career. “(Infidelity is) my whole repertoire,” she explained once when asked about crafting the stories for her songs. “Do you decide whether or not you want to talk about a certain part of an infidelity? Is it a man? Is it a woman? Is it both of them? Or do you want to go and start talking about what infidelity calls to life, or how it ruins a relationship, and not pertaining to anybody in particular. But, see, just like that you can write 25 songs on infidelity.”

5. Millie Was a Women’s Advocate

The primary topic of Millie’s music, after infidelity, was sex. Not making love. Sex. As in, “you got to handle this.” Like infidelity, sexual demands from the woman’s point of view was topical fare for dirty blues, not R&B.

Don’t start something you can’t finish Frustration ain’t no fun Half way lovin’ just don’t get it Stay there ‘til the job is done.

I would be remiss to not point out the breakdown in “All the Way Lover,” wherein Auntie Millie plants seeds that bore fruit for future generations, advocating for enthusiastic participation in oral sex, or what she called “parteè.”

We thank you for your service and advocacy, Millie.

With the songs hitting close to home about husbands cheating, wives kicking those husbands out, side chicks getting fed up, and calling men out to get focused in the bedroom, Millie believed she turned the male demographic off. “Men did not want my records in their house,” she claimed in an interview. “They wouldn’t come to see me live. Because I spoke truth to women, I got a reputation for being rough on men.”

But Miss Jackson would get at women sometimes, too. She took time, often, in her live show to address “saditty b**ches” who were being too lazy or too uptight to take care of business at home. This was also a form of advocacy, though, in the form of “Sis, stop bullsh*ttin.’”

Millie was a new kind of voice for women’s independence and agency. “Women loved it. I was speaking to them,” Jackson explained to her hometown Atlanta Magazine. But she was talking to women in a way some didn’t consider proper or respectable. She didn’t care. “I didn’t sell record to bougies. It was the poor people who bought my music. The women who bought Diana Ross did not buy Millie Jackson. The people in the projects understood me. I was down and dirty. I told you like it was.”

She once compared men to bad credit, which I’m laughing about even as I type this because it’s so genius and perfect that I can’t even. It’s an analogy all women understand too well – and we also understand the plot twist on the end when she gives it up anyway (Kanye shrug). She kept it real.

6. Low Key, She’s a Hip-Hop OG

Millie had already established a reputation for her “rapping,” which in the ‘70s meant long dialogue during song breaks, a style made popular in soul music with Isaac Hayes. Millie expanded the technique, telling full narratives that connected her songs. After “Rapper’s Delight” became a hit, her label wanted her to give the new style of rap a shot. In 1980, she recorded a track called “I Had to Say It” that she meant as a spoof of “Rapper’s Delight,” but she was spitting bars on the low. The subject: black men who start dating white women once they’re successful. It would set the timeline on fire today.

She told Song Facts in a frank 2010 interview that the song’s inspiration came unexpectedly. “I was thinking of what the next album (was) gonna be, and I had run out of things to talk about,” she shared, “So we’re on the tour bus and I’m going through Jet Magazine, and I’m saying ‘Okay. There’s Arthur Ashe – with a white woman. There’s the guy that plays Shaft on TV with a white woman. Damn, there’s O.J. Simpson – with a white woman… Somebody needs to say this. Why don’t I say this? I have to say this.” And she said it with her signature IDGAF delivery and candor.

Now I got your attention again I wanna speak to you about white girls On the arms of our black men

Millie was just playing around, but Coca Cola explained to her, when they reached out for Sprite's 1999 Obey Your Thirst campaign, that she technically held the distinction of being the first woman to cut a rap song. The campaign, “5 Deadly Women,” featured rappers Eve, Amil, Angie Martinez (remember when Angie was a rapper?), Mia X and Roxanne Shante.

Jackson makes a surprise appearance at the end of the series as The Master, and I applaud Sprite for doing their homework and including her. She was kind of an easter egg, because not many people in the spot’s target audience knew who she was on sight.

Her hipping and hopping on “I Had To Say It” aside, Millie’s been credited as the foremother of Salt-n-Pepa, Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, and all female rappers who didn’t take no sh*t from the boys and unabashedly harnessed the power of sexuality in their music. She’s also been heavily sampled in hip-hop for decades: J. Cole, Prodigy, EPMD, Too Short, Poor Righteous Teachers, 50 Cent, Memphis Bleek, Lil’ B, Boogie Down Productions, Young Jeezy, Trick Daddy, Blacksheep, Cam’ron, Geto Boys, Yo Gotti, and Fat Joe have all cut Millie a publishing check.

At least three rap acts have sampled/covered her “Phuck You Symphony” alone, which I understand because it’s perfect for hip-hop – just like she is.

7. Her Live Show is Off the Chain

Millie doesn’t just give you a stage with a spotlight and some crooning (and I say “doesn’t” because Auntie still performs). No ma’am, no sir. There’s a full band, including a tight ass horn section, background singers, the whole nine. Also, she doesn’t just sing, it’s part comedy act. She’s a cross between Richard Pryor and popular ‘90s comedian Adele Givens (I truly believe Adele studied Millie).

Millie Jackson’s Live and Outrageous album is essential listening. The show’s energy is palpable even through audio. At her peak, Jackson’s concerts were regularly sold-out. She served costumes, flair, choreography, dramatics, and powerful vocals. Even as her stage show scaled down in later years, Millie Jackson live was no less of an experience. She’s also known for audience participation - if you’re sitting in her line of sight you might become part of the show. Be ready.

8. She’s a Boss

Millie Jackson is absolutely not a contrived artist. Her image is all hers, her musical choices are hers, her career path is hers. There are no Svengali stories, no tales of the label pushing her in a direction she didn’t feel comfortable with. None of that. Millie did what she wanted. Her label did try, in the beginning, to change her sound. They sped her vocals up on records so her voice would be in a higher pitch than her deep, earthy alto. But after “Hurts So Good,” they let her fly.

Millie has been self-managed her entire career. Her one marriage, at the beginning of her success, lasted only eight months because her husband tried to control Jackson and her business. “He thought we were gonna be the next Ike and Tina Turner. He thought that he was gonna tell me what to do with my life, and I decided that was not gonna happen. Case closed.”

Millie has also always maintained a large degree of creative control. She co-wrote most her songs from the beginning, and starting with Caught Up, she also co-produced her albums. And she fought when her record label tried to minimize her contribution. “I went down to Muscle Shoals to show (Brad Shapiro) how I do what I do, and co-produced the album. And when the album came out, it said ‘Album concept by Millie Jackson,’ and I hit the ceiling,” she shared in an interview. “I stood up in the middle of the floor and cussed like a banshee. And finally (Spring Records co-head) Roy Rifkind said, ‘Can we please go to lunch? You gonna be the death of me yet.’ And (Spring Records co-head) Bill Spitowski said, ‘We’ll put it on your tombstone: Produced by Millie Jackson.’”

Self-management is a choice Millie realizes probably held her back from big deals and moves that would elevate her to a higher level of stardom, but it as one that allowed her to follow her career on her own terms. In the same interview just mentioned, she explained her unconventional decision. “I write a lot of songs, and I publish them, and I go to work when I feel like it. That’s why I never had a manager; I don’t need anyone to tell me when to go to work. I know if I want to work or not.” She’s also enjoyed a normalcy that her peers who reached higher heights of fame had to sacrifice. “I like being able to go shopping for myself. I go to the supermarket and nobody bothers me. I don’t have a bodyguard. I like that. I think I live a very decent life. I’m a long way from starving, and I’m still me.”

9. She Can Sing Anything

Jackson has half-joked often in her later interviews that people don’t pay attention to the more diverse aspects of her catalog.

“If you listen to Millie Jackson on the radio, you ain’t gonna hear nothing but ‘Back in Love By Monday,’ ‘Hurts So Good,’ and ‘If Loving You is Wrong.’ Like I haven’t made any more songs,” she once complained. “I’ve got thirtysomething albums, only got three songs to be played!” Well, a lot of her songs aren’t exactly radio-friendly, but she’s right. With the expansive discography she has (Millie kept recording until 2001), the cheating songs and the raunchy songs are most popular and well-known. Ironically, while critics bemoaned her resistance to growth over the years, she quietly released two country-inspired albums and a rock-inspired album, in addition to more weighted material. “I write a lot of meaningful songs, but nobody ever heard them,” she’s said. “Because in my case most people would rather only listen to infidelity.”

Her very first single, in fact, leaned more towards the social commentary that ‘important’ soul artists were embracing at the time.

Millie has always said she didn’t want to be a crossover artist, but she didn’t want to stay in an R&B lane sonically, either. Millie always wanted to explore rock and country. “Rock and roll is my spirit, really, but nobody cares,” she shared in a conversation about her lesser-known music. “Tina Turner came through and (everyone) forgot about that.” We’ll get to Millie and Tina in a minute.

Because of her willingness to explore a wide range of music, Jackson’s cover song game rivals that of Luther Vandross. Starting with Luther Ingram’s “If Loving You is Wrong, I Don’t Wanna Be Right,” Millie has put her stamp on hits from Prince, Toto, The Stylistics, even country artist Merle Haggerd. Jackson released her version of his hit “If We’re Not Back in Love on Monday” less than a year after its release, changing the title to “If You’re Not Back in Love by Monday,” and switching up the song from a story about a husband wanting to work it out with his wife, to a mistress encouraging a husband and his wife to try and reconcile.

10. She Intentionally Didn’t Seek Crossover Success

One of the reasons Millie is damn near an obscure artist given her long career and tremendous output is her is because she stayed in a blues and R&B pocket – on purpose. “I was never looking to become that crossover pop star,” she once explained. “Let white folks cross over to me.”

Critics searched for explanations over the years why such a talented singer with Muscle Shoals production wasn’t reaching the pop stardom soul singers like Gladys, Aretha and Tina had achieved, and they usually blamed her language and lyrical content. In 1977, the New York Times opined “…with just a bit more attention to hooks, she could have consistent hits. That wouldn’t constitute selling out, if she’s worried about that, and it would help convey the underlying seriousness of her art to a broader public.”

But Millie was happy to fly under the radar. It gave her more freedom. “When you had all the problems with profanity in the music, nobody mentioned me. The senator’s wife never knew I existed. So I didn’t have to go to Congress.” Jackson was talking about the 1985 congressional hearings spurred by the Parental Music Resource Center, an organization founded by Tipper Gore after she purchased Purple Rain for her daughter, and “Darling Nikki” made her clutch her pearls. Most remember the hearings for the eventual result of Parental Advisory warnings on albums just as rap was emerging, but pop artists were the initial target. Prince, Madonna, Frank Zappa, even the Mary Jane Girls were in the roundup. But not Jackson. “Nobody mentioned my name. Nobody knew I was doing it. I didn’t have to deal with any of that.”

She did enjoy some pop success with Caught Up, but her biggest potential moment for a breakthrough was a 1985 duet with Elton John. Pop/soul duets were in fashion, but though the single was a moderate success in the UK, it never broke in the US.

11. She Has (Possibly One-Sided) Beef with Tina Turner

The two contemporaries Jackson has most been compared to vocally are Gladys and Tina – for example, Elton John approached Jackson for “Act of War” after Tina declined. Millie adores Gladys and counts the fellow Georgian among her favorite vocalists, but there’s something about Tina that just doesn't sit right with her. It’s unclear what the source of her dislike is, but I suspect it’s centered around Tina entering and dominating the rock/soul space as a solo artist just as Millie was plotting a move in that direction.

Jackson did finally record her rock-inspired album, titled Rock n’ Soul, in 1994. She told her audience at a Howard Theater show in 2012 she made the LP because “I wanted Tina Turner to know she wasn't the only black bitch to sing rock’n’roll.”

But then, according to Millie, Tina jacked her single. “I recorded (John Waithe’s) ‘Missing You,’ and I was all excited about it, it was gonna be my next single. And the guys at Muscle Shoals said, ‘Boy you got the song out quick! I heard it at a truck stop.” And I’m trying to figure out how in the world did they hear my song when it won’t be out for two week. And of course, it was Tina Turner, and we had to pull the single and come back with a different one.”

That was in the ‘90s, but Millie was throwing subs at Tina in the ‘80s. Jackson’s 1988 album The Tide is Turning included a song called “You Knocked the Love (Right Outta My Heart).” Listeners will easily hear the Ike and Tina influence in the song, but the track, a song about a passionate love turning into domestic violence, was a shot. “I did that one messin’ with Tina,” Jackson admitted in 2010. “It was about Ike and Tina, and the proceeds for that are supposed to go to battered women. But I didn’t call any names.”

After Millie stopped recording in 2001, she didn’t retire. She spent 13 years hosting a drive time radio show, continued to tour (when she felt like it), and wrote and produced a stage play based on her album Young Man, Older Woman which toured successfully for four years.

Now she’s posted up at home in Atlanta, and a few years ago she was working on a reality show concept for her family (please, contents gods, let this happen while she still has the capacity to do it).

But Millie should be out here at these awards shows and tributes with her contemporaries. She should still be mixing it up with younger artists who emulate her energy without even realizing it (she loves Rihanna, by the way). Auntie Millie is deserving of far more recognition and praise than she’s received. Not just for her outrageous and explicit music and performances, but as a complete artist: as a writer, a producer, a businesswoman, a creative, a pioneer. Alladat. Just because she didn’t go the route of No. 1 hits and stadium tours doesn’t make her any less accomplished. Respect Millie Jackson’s gangster.

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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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