VH1 Presents The 4th Annual VH1 Hip Hop Honors - Show
Honorees Jarobi White, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Consequence of A Tribe Called Quest perfom at the 4th Annual VH1 Hip Hop Honors ceremony at the Hammerstein Ballroom on October 4, 2007 in New York City.
Scott Gries

V Books: Hanif Abdurraqib Tributes A Tribe Called Quest In 'Go Ahead In the Rain'

Essayist and poet Hanif Abdurraqib has captured the authentic feeling of fandom in his latest book, 'Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest.'

A Tribe Called Quest were already icons when founding member Malik Taylor, the rapper known as Phife Dawg, died in March 2016 from diabetes complications at the age of 45. When the group capped their career by releasing their final album We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service that November, they completed one of the greatest comebacks in music history. Fans who had grown up listening to Tribe shape the sound of hip-hop in their ‘90s prime rapturously received their final work critically and commercially. Essayist and poet Hanif Abdurraqib, author of acclaimed collection They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, has captured the authentic feeling of fandom in his latest book, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest.

Go Ahead in the Rain is an efficient summary of Tribe’s history, from their origins on Queens boulevards through their occasional contentious live reunions in the ‘00s and into their finale. But the heart of Go Ahead in the Rain is the author’s own relationship with the group and their work. The book’s cover calls it a “love letter to a group, a sound and an era,” and entire chapters are written as letters to principal figures such as Q-Tip, Phife, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad.

Abdurraqib ambitiously blends the universal and the personal: the first chapter traces the roots of hip-hop and jazz back to rhythms preserved by enslaved Africans in the Americas, and the author crystalizes those centuries of history into a story of his father rebuking a micro-aggressive middle school jazz teacher. Tribe’s albums, infused with the jazz from their own parents’ record crates, were among the few hip-hop works approved by Abdurraqib’s parents in an era where media scaremongering around N.W.A. and 2 Live Crew made the genre taboo.

Go Ahead in the Rain further functions as a pocket history of a hip-hop golden age, illustrating Tribe’s importance through collaborators and rivals. It’s illuminating for fans of the group, but even hip-hop novices will be moved by Abdurraqib’s book. It’s a tribute to A Tribe Called Quest and a tribute to the power music has to grow with the listener. It’s a book for anyone who has secluded themselves in headphones, pressed play, and heard themselves singing back in someone else’s voice. VIBE spoke to Hanif Abdurraqib by phone from his native Columbus, OH about grieving for Phife, paying tribute to Tribe, and the deep cut that gave his book its title.

--

How did your work on this book begin?
The work on the book began when Phife died. At the time I was working for MTV News, and I had to write a quick elegy to Phife. I thought about how uniquely specific A Tribe Called Quest was in shaping a part of my identity that I've held onto for most of my life: my comfort in the weird, or comfort in the absurd. Or comfort in the things that don't feel quite right to everyone. I found myself wanting to celebrate that, even more by the year of 2016.

Because our new normal, especially around news cycles and political violence, is understood as a low, kind of consistent hum that has interwoven into our everyday lives, it can be forgotten that 2016, at least for a lot of folks, was really draining. It was especially violent, and especially heartbreaking in numerous ways. And I think 2016 saw another reshaping of the current political protest movement, and what I saw as a shift in people's very clear demand to turn their attention towards protecting those they love, right? Protecting their people first.

I think Tribe's album coming out, they spoke to every corner of this. I don't know what I was expecting in 2016 when the album dropped. But I think what I took away with this album was, speaking not only to a singular political moment, but speaking towards the whole of these moments we've been living in for a while.

So do you see this book as preservation of that Tribe myth?
Yeah. It all came to the forefront for me because in the weeks before the last album came out, I was in a high school doing a reading to some 15 year olds. And they had really no access point for A Tribe Called Quest.

I needed to write about what A Tribe Called Quest meant to me, as someone who was young, and who for a while could not have a lot of rap in the house, but could have A Tribe Called Quest in the house. How they catered toward an era before theirs. How they catered towards jazz, and sounds that, at least in my house, my parents could appreciate and welcome in. N.W.A. wasn't getting in the house.

And so, I wanted to write my way to an understanding that what I lived through was real, because I think if I didn't do that, I would take it for granted.

Take for granted your own memories of your relationship with Tribe?
Yeah. And take Tribe for granted themselves, right? When someone dies, musicians particularly, the question that comes around is “how good a job did people do to honor this musician while they were still here?” I saw myself asking that after Phife died, and wanted to start that path of reconciling that.

Because I loved Phife. Phife was immensely important to me. Not just as a rapper, but how he sat in the makeup of A Tribe Called Quest, and how he was in some ways rebellious, and hard to control, but magical all at once. All those things meant such a great deal to me, but I didn't articulate that nearly enough when he was still alive.

And with this book I am thinking, what can I do beyond the grief to honor a group I love? In doing that I wanted to also be clear in saying, yes, this is about Tribe, but it's not only Tribe. It's Native Tongues, it's Mobb Deep, it's N.W.A., it's Wu-Tang. It is inside an ecosystem in an entire era that truly shaped me, and deserved my returning to it in a state beyond grief.

So you returned to the sound of that entire era, not just Tribe?
Because so much of Tribe is at the beating heart of what has happened in hip hop ever since they became prominent, they've been pace-setters for the genre, and particularly for a lot of production techniques that exist and are still being utilized now. I found myself returning to hip-hop from '87 to '96 primarily, because I think I had to do that in order to make sense of the A Tribe Called Quest album trajectory. How do we get from People's Instinctive Travels to Beats, Rhymes and Life?

You have to immerse yourself in the music happening around Tribe. I'm a Beats, Rhymes and Life apologist or whatever. I don't think it's as bad as people suggest it is. I also understand that it's not their seminal work. But in a way, that album was made in response to what was happening around it in hip hop. I write about this in the book, that album failed for some as a Tribe album because it was the first one that wasn't setting trends, but it was responding to trends.

Listening in this context, listening to bridges I wasn't getting to hear before was important. It was important for me to listen to Mobb Deep, and see how Mobb Deep is kind of like A Tribe Called Quest in a funhouse mirror. It was critical listening that I had never thought to apply to this particular musical lineage.

In the book’s conclusion you mentioned quite a few modern acts that you see as sort of descendants of Tribe: Anderson .Paak, Joey Bada$$, Isaiah Rashad, Danny Brown. Is there any one common thing that they all share with Tribe?
I think that, even beyond what they share with Tribe sonically, all of them are invested in risk. Tribe made a template for risk taking. Risk taking was the idea that failure is an impossible thing, right? When you look at old interviews of Q-Tip, especially around the making of The Low End Theory, at no point did it occur to him that there would be failure. There's that iconic Q-Tip quote where a reporter asks him if he was afraid of a sophomore slump. And he responds, "Sophomore slump? What the f**k is that? I'm making The Low End Theory." It's like, I can't even fathom a sophomore slump because I'm making the most important thing I've ever made.

I think that there is something about that energy that's on Malibu with Anderson Paak, where he was like, "Why are you talking about anything else? I'm making the most important thing I've ever made." Especially for him, someone who was homeless, who is actually trying to build a legacy that will sustain him for a long time. I see that urgency in him, and in Danny Brown and Isaiah Rashad, where even their misses are coming off the back of a really big swing.

I think the overarching critical response to Beats, Rhymes and Life and The Love Movement felt like some kind of drop-off because failure is fine if you're taking a big swing in the process. But if you're kind of just coasting and you still kind of stumble, it's not as appealing. It doesn't look as sexy.

What is the difference between We Got It From Here versus their last two records, in terms of the swing, the effort that they're putting forth?

I think We Got It From Here is more monument than album. They spent a career climbing the mountain, and We Got It From Here is them chiseling themselves into the mountain one last time.

What's amazing about We Got It From Here is that it's so angry. A lot of people don't think of Tribe as an angry group, at least not explicitly angry. Even though The Low End Theory is teeming with political commentary, it's also balanced by the very basic tongue-in-cheek nature that comes with being in Native Tongues. We Got It From Here balances anger and grief in a very uncanny manner. When you spend an entire career, an entire life playing to the very intricate subtleties of the sonic landscape Q-Tip was shaping, and the very aesthetic landscape Tribe sat in, lengthwise you just run out of fucks. When Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were murdered on back to back days of the year, when the American political system sold people yet another bad cheque. I was so heartened by the unbridled anger that exists on We Got It From Here, because I think so many other groups would have chosen a lot more gentle send-off.

They put out an album that viscerally responded to the absurdity of the times we are living in. And that's what they chose to ride off into the sunset, very literally. The last music video “The Space Program” ends with three of them walking off into the sunset. In the grand kaleidoscope of black emotion, anger is one of many that America wants to reckon with least. So to see that with a face and with those songs was beautiful.

One of the most compelling ways the book works is the way that you continuously tie yourself to the group, and I think one of the through-lines of that relationship is that, in a lot of ways, they were underdogs in the same way you were. They're willing to be weird and absurd. After some of the accolades and success that they've had, do you still see them as the weird and absurd group, or do you think that they've taken a more central codified place in the culture?

Oh, they're more central in the culture. The things that made them weird are the things that now make people beloved. They were one of the handful of groups that were pushing their shoulders up against a seemingly immovable door of weirdness, and whimsy, and not always wholesome but somewhat trying idea of black liberation. And then that door got open and they were one of the first in the room. Now the room is overcrowded, but they’re still the ones who got the door open.

I don't think of them as underdogs, because their legacy is so built on several moving parts that are still driving the culture forward. But I do think that in a certain time in my life, when I most felt like an underdog, I relied on them to chart a course for me.

How did you decide which portions to write as letters addressed to individual people?

I think all of the time about if I'm doing a good enough job of very plainly saying, “I love what this person has done for my life. I have lived a better life because of the way this person I do not know has enhanced it.” Which on its face is a kind of silly thing. But I wanted to make that sentiment stand up. The way that I found I could do that was to somewhat foolishly enter into a conversation with the central growing heart of this whole affection I have.

I did want to talk to Tribe as if they were responding to me, because for me it feels like we've been in conversation for our whole lives, and I wanted to represent that on the page. The only way I knew how to do that was to write those letters to them as if they would respond, or I might be getting something back, or as if I am responding to something they've told me. Some incredible secret that I've carried for a long time.

Have you sent a copy of the book to Tip, or Ali, or Jarobi?

No. Cheryl Boyce-Taylor has a copy. I might send one to Ali, and then I think I'm just going to let the chips fall where they may, you know? I know this sounds a bit ridiculous on its face, but I didn't write this for Tribe to read it. And I didn't write it intentionally as a strict biography that placed me as an expert on Tribe, because they're experts on themselves.

I wrote this book particularly for people who are fans of a single artist, and have spent any time in their life trying to untangle what it means to honor someone and all their complications, and all they've meant for your own complications. How to best articulate the way you see yourself reflected in the songs you love. That's who the book was written for.

What was it like to get clearance to republish some of Cheryl Boyce-Taylor’s work in the book?

She read an excerpt and approved it based off the excerpt, which was really kind, because I was very nervous. I think she's an incredible poet. And it felt irresponsible to write about Phife as a writer without also writing about the fact that he came from a writing mother, who undoubtedly influenced his relationship with the sound, and with metaphor, and with punchiness, and with his clever maneuvering of language. So it felt really irresponsible for me to write about all these glowing things about Phife's skill set without also stressing that that skill set wasn't born out of nowhere. And so, yes, she read an excerpt and gave us permission for the poems. I was incredibly thankful for that.

I'm currently in the process of trying to track down Ventilation, Phife’s solo album, after reading your discussion of it. It's been a while since we've heard more, but there were announcements that Phife had another solo album ready to be released. Do you have any expectations around it if it does ever come out?

My opinion around posthumous releases has changed as I've gotten older, because I've seen so much music come out that seemed as though the artist maybe would not have wanted it in the world. And I've become more immersed in the creation of my own art, and I know that so much of that creation comes down to the final moments.

Last night I sat in my living room and laid out all the poems for my next manuscript on the floor so I could see them, and adjust them, get them into place. If I were not here, if I were not living, I would have to trust someone else with that. And who else has that particular vision but me who wrote those poems, and has a feeling for where they should move, right?

And so I don't know how done Phife's rumored solo album is. But if it's not done, if it's not like mixed and mastered, I maybe don't want it at all, because I don't want to remember anyone I’ve loved by the half-finished art they left behind.

How did you decide on Go Ahead in the Rain as the title?

I loved the lyricism of it, and I love the finality of it as a title. I love the idea of water in that which can make a person clean. I like the imperative of, go ahead into the unknown. That song is like a deep, deep cut. I like that it was asking of a reader. I wasn't necessarily interested in a known entity. I'm interested in what's most lyrical and speaks to what the book is asking.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

From the Web

More on Vibe

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.

Continue Reading
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.

Continue Reading
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.

--

#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.

Continue Reading

Top Stories