Soul Train 30th Anniversary Television Stills
2001 Tribune Entertainment

Music Sermon: 'Soul Train' and the Audacity of Blackness

In advance of the premiere of BET's series American Soul, VIBE revisits how Soul Train became a symbol of black flair, style, entertainment, and culture in the ‘70s and ‘80s. 

In 1971, a funky, little-animated train got rolling for “sixty nonstop minutes through the tracks of your mind into a world of soul,” and black America lined up to get on board. More than just a music entertainment show, Soul Train was the first national television show conceived and created completely for us, by us, and it struck such a chord that it became the longest-running nationally syndicated program in TV history. Cornelius welcomed viewers to the first episode promising, “If the sight and sound of soul is your pleasure and what you treasure, you can bet your bottom, we got ‘em.” Soul Train delivered on that promise for 35 years, until 2006. Now, Jesse Collins Entertainment and BET are highlighting Don Cornelius’ challenges, successes, and failures as the visionary creator, owner, producer, and host of the culture-shifting show with the series American Soul, premiering Tuesday night.

In the immediate years following the civil rights movement, there was little to no representation of black youth culture in media. White teens, on the other hand, were drivers for music, fashion, print, and TV. Cornelius had “a burning desire to see black people presented on TV in a positive light,” and conceived of Soul Train as a black spin on Dick Clark’s teenage-centric music and dance show, American Bandstand. An activist himself, Cornelius knew the platform needed to serve a greater end than just entertainment – it needed to uplift, and to combat mainstream media’s narrative of black existence, which in the late '60s painted black youth especially junkies, criminals, and degenerates. Cornelius made Soul Train remarkable with details that elevated it from a showcase for black music to a showcase of black culture and excellence: the black staff and crew; the dancers sporting naturals and bell bottoms or dashikis and braids; the black advertising sponsors; the Scramble Board game which highlighted notable and historical black figures. It was the first black-owned and controlled entertainment on national television, the first time advertisers looked at black consumers as a target demo worth spending to reach.

In short, Soul Train was intentionally black AF. It gained a wider audience with its success, but that was never the goal; it was black for the glory of blackness. “We’re not trying to do a gerrymandered black show that appeals to white people or competes with the so-called general market efforts,” Cornelius explained to the LA Times a decade into the show’s run. “We’ve had to make a decision about what we want to be in character, in style. And we want to be a show about black music.”

Soul Train is now symbolic of black flair, style, entertainment, and culture, especially for the ‘70s and ‘80s. Over the years, Cornelius’ passion spawned a record label, the first black entertainment awards show, several acting, and singing careers, and black America’s favorite family dance tradition. Let’s take a look at the show’s wide-reaching legacy.

THE THEME SONG

For the first couple of years, Soul Train used blues and soul artist King Curtis’ “Hot Potato” as the intro, mainly serving as a bed for Cornelius’ mellifluous voiceover. Then, Cornelius reached out to the soul producers - Lenny Gamble and Leon Huff, architects of the Philadelphia soul sound - to create something original. Gamble, Huff and the band MFSB (Mother, Father, Sister, Brother) came up with Soul Train's theme groove during a jam session, and Cornelius loved it. The group Three Degrees added vocals, putting out the call for “people all over the world” to get down. In the version used on Soul Train, the ladies also sing the title, but Don was adamant the show not be referenced in the commercial single. Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International had a distribution deal with Columbia Records, and Cornelius worried that a single titled “Soul Train” jeopardized his ownership of the name. He later called the decision the “dumbest move (he) ever made.” The single was released as “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)” 1974 and hit the top of the R&B, Adult Contemporary, and Hot 100 charts. It was the first TV theme song – and arguably the first disco song – to do so. The theme was adapted and changed a couple of times as the sonic landscape evolved, but the show returned to the original version in its final years. “TSOP” also stands on its own as a trademark for the early disco sound and the Philly Soul sound.

Before the show had the pull to land big-name acts, the young, fly, sometimes outrageous dancers - eventually known as the Soul Train Gang - carried the program. They were the true stars of the show, and in time, breakout talent was identified and featured prominently, like Soul Train legends Damita Jo Freeman, Shabba Doo (later of Breakin’ fame), Tyrone Proctor and Cheryl Song (known to viewers for 14 years as “the Asian girl with the long hair”). The Soul Train Gang also launched careers beyond dance, including the hardest dancer in the entire world, Rosie Perez; pop star Jody Watley; and pop-locker extraordinaire Fred Berry, better known as Rerun (who Cornelius once called “the best big man in the business”).
Kids and teens watched on Saturday morning to study the moves (and the fashions), then broke them out on the block or at house parties on Saturday night. Dance is Soul Train’s most enduring trademark; give someone direction today to get it in like a Soul Train dancer, and they’ll either serve you all kinds of pops, locks, pumps, and kicks with energy and precision, or give you dramatic dance interpretation to an R&B groove. We all know that Soul Train = dance performance. Ain’t no two steps. The show introduced and spread dance crazes like popping and waacking into living rooms across the country, and the foundations are still evident today in regional dances like juking.

THE COMMERCIALS

Soul Train’s move to national television came around the same time as the founding of two of foremost black advertising agencies in the country, Burrell McCain (now Burrell Communications) and UniWorld (now Uniworld Group). Before Soul Train, print media was the only medium to directly target black consumers; the show presented an opportunity to get real reach through television. For the first time, companies were developing creative campaigns just for the black demographic. Sears and black-owned hair care company Johnson Products were the two primary sponsors when the show launched, and Johnson’s spectacular Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen ads, created by Burrell, remain as iconic representations of the black pride and black is beautiful movements of the 70s. Just think; if not for Soul Train, we’d never have seen Frederick Douglas tell somebody to tighten their fro up before class. #BlackHistory

THE RECORD LABEL

In 1975, Cornelius and Soul Train talent coordinator Dick Griffey founded Soul Train Records as an offshoot of the show. The label’s initial roster included talent from the show, including Shalamar, a group made up of dancers Jody Watley, Jeffrey Daniels and Gerald Brown (replaced by Howard Hewett in 1979). Splitting focus between the label and the show was too much for Cornelius, who was still involved in every detail of Soul Train including hosting, and he left the label in 1977. Griffey changed the name to SOLAR (Sound of Los Angeles Records). The dominant black-owned record labels were going through a tough transition as majors started opening black music divisions. Stax closed in 1977, Motown had lost a significant number of marquee acts and was figuring out the next direction, and Philadelphia International’s peak was waning with the end of the disco era. This left SOLAR room to thrive. In addition to Shalamar, the label was home to The Whispers, Klymaxx, The Deele, Midnight Star, and Lakeside. With noted producer Leon Sylvers (of the Jacksons-esque Sylvers family) and a gang of talent in their roster of musicians, SOLAR became the home of the post-disco boogie music sound.

Shalamar, "A Night To Remember"

The Whispers, "Rock Steady"

Klymaxx, "Meeting In The Ladies Room"

Griffey and Cornelius shared the mission of expanding black empowerment on the business side of the music industry, and Griffey encouraged artists and producers towards ownership of their product. SOLAR’s offices included in-house studios and rehearsal space, and Griffey shared the resources openly, providing studio space to LA Reid and Babyface (who bought the building for LaFace records when Solar folded), Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and Dr. Dre and Suge Knight as they were getting Death Row off the ground. In fact, The Chronic was recorded in SOLAR’s studios, and the Deep Cover soundtrack, which introduced the world to Snoop Dogg, was released through the label.

THE AWARDS SHOW

Cornelius’ vision continued to grow, and he launched The Soul Train Music Awards in 1987 as the first awards show devoted specifically to black entertainment. As with Soul Train, Cornelius wanted to create something that didn’t exist; a platform to celebrate black creative excellence. “We (black people) tend to get ignored as a group of creative people,” he told the Chicago Tribune before the inaugural awards broadcast. “Black music is too big and too powerful to not have its own awards show. It’s overdue.” Black music was indeed fighting for proper recognition at the major awards shows, even in black music categories (George Michael scandalously won best R&B/Soul Male at the 1989 American Music Awards) and hip-hop wouldn’t be a Grammy category for two more years. Before the BET Awards existed – before BET was even a national network – The Soul Train Music Awards provided a place for our artists to shine.

Radio executives, music producers, and recording artists voted for awards in 12 categories, and winners were presented with a trophy modeled after a traditional African mask.

Dionne Warwick and Luther Vandross shared hosting duties for the first awards, and for years the event drew the biggest names in black music, entertainment, and even sports to the celebration. Frequent attendees included Janet Jackson, Anita Baker, Magic Johnson, Mike Tyson, Eddie Murphy, even Michael Jackson just months after pulling a no-show at the 1990 Grammys.

Hell, Whitney met Bobby at the Soul Train Music Awards!

The growth of the MTV Video Music Awards and BET Awards created challenges and a bit of an identity crisis for the Soul Train Music Awards (and the spin-off awards show, Lady of Soul, which aired the same weekend as the VMAs), but they’ve found their lane again. The Soul Train Music Awards are now branded for the old heads – or at least the old souls. They provide a destination for folks who don’t know who any of the “Lil’s” are, want to dance and sing along to songs they know, and only watch the BET Awards for the legend tributes and twitter commentary (like me).

THE SOUL TRAIN LINE

People who have never seen a single episode of Soul Train know the Soul Train line; it’s become bigger than its origin. There’s an unwritten rule that when a large collective of black people is gathered for celebration, some type of group line dance formation must happen. Sometimes it’s a slide or a hustle, sometimes it’s the Soul Train line - and when those two rows of people form, you know you gotta have your best moves together to come down the center. It has become a cultural institution, referenced in countless TV shows, movies, and videos.

Cornelius created the line to highlight the dancers, and as the dancers were the true stars of Soul Train, the line was the centerpiece of the show. The Soul Train Gang continuously upped the ante over the years with props, costumes, and tricks to maximize their moment.

Cornelius came down the Soul Train line only once in the history of the show, with former Supremes member Mary Wilson, shocking dancers and viewers alike because he was always so controlled and cool. Don dancing and laughing was the rarest treat.

THE PERFORMANCES

Of course, the heart of Soul Train was the performances. In the first season, Cornelius hustled to book established talent, but by season two the show was a must-visit for any black artist, and eventually also for white artists with black audiences.

It was especially essential for those acts who didn’t have a mainstream draw and couldn’t easily get booked on shows like American Bandstand. Conversely, at a point in the ‘80s, large pop-leaning black artists like Prince, Michael Jackson (although he’d come to the awards) and solo Lionel Richie were discouraged from appearing on Soul Train because it was too black. The obsession with crossover appeal was a thorn for Cornelius. He vented his frustration in an interview around the show’s 20th anniversary. “Why is there the phenomenon of a black person doing something so well enough to be accepted by a mass audience having to belong to another culture?” In the show’s golden years, however, before booking wars between music programs and when there was no Arsenio or Apollo, the biggest stars of R&B, soul, and funk would regularly grace Soul Train’s stage.

Auntie Gladys and the Pips set the tone for the show with “The Friendship Train:”
This train stands for justice,
This train stands for freedom
This train stands for harmony and peace
This train stands for love
Come on get on the friendship train

Michael Jackson debuted his first signature move on the Soul Train.

Al Green was one of a handful of artists who Cornelius let perform live instead of to track, and he always had his run of the show. Even with one arm in a sling.

Berry Gordy and Rick James strategically decided not to use Teena Marie’s image on her single and album covers – they didn’t want the fact that she was white to distract from her voice. Her Soul Train performance was her big reveal.

Over the years, Cornelius was increasingly and visibly uncomfortable with hip hop acts on the show. No doubt the dominance of hip hop in popular music led to him finally stepping down as host in 1993. But in the earliest days, rap still felt like dance music. I can’t believe they let the whole seven-minute edit rock.

For almost 20 years, Soul Train was black culture, packaged into one hour, once a week. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, as larger TV platforms for black music emerged and more mainstream platforms embraced black music, Soul Train became less influential. But the show’s Golden Era and largest period of impact – from 1974 to 1987 – lives on in “Best of Soul Train” reruns, packaged by Cornelius in the ‘90s, and still airing occasionally on TV One, Centric and Aspire. The shows are a vibrant, colorful time capsule. A love letter to blackness. Rumors floated for several years that Nick Cannon, who hosted Soul Train for a stint and in many ways is Cornelius’ heir apparent, was reviving the show. But it may serve us best as the cultural archive it is. “When the aliens come in about 2000 years and they want to see what was going down in black life, they can watch all the episodes of Soul Train,” Cannon told VH1 for their documentary, Hippest Trip in America. “That’s how we got down.”

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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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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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