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Michael Ochs Archives

Music Sermon: The Forgotten Voices of ‘80s R&B

The ‘90s is the last decade of R&B dominance, but the ‘80s was the last pure R&B era. Vesta Williams, Phyllis Hyman and Lisa Fischer had to sing forreal.

In 1990, singer Phyllis Hyman complained to Donnie Simpson during a BET Video Soul interview about record labels shifting their focus from talent to artist “packaging,” using production to supplement raw talent. “They’re picking up kids off the street, pretty much, and producers are producing these albums. These kids have literally no talent. But they look right. I’m telling you, get a girl, get the hair weave on, make her lose 30 pounds, (snaps) you’ve got a hit record. Can’t sing a lick!” In the shift from substance to style, which started gradually happening in music in the mid-’80s, Phyllis and other singers with big voices got shelved, dropped, or simply ignored in favor of younger, more pop-friendly and video-friendly acts – with arguably less ability. “(It) pisses me off. It makes me big time angry because I have spent so many years developing this talent,” Phyllis added. She wasn’t alone.

The ‘90s is the last decade of R&B dominance –the genre grew and evolved from new jack swing to hip-hop soul to neo-soul – but the ‘80s was the last pure R&B era. The end of disco and the rise of the quiet storm format made room for big vocals over lush productions. Mid-tempos and ballads reigned supreme, and vocal production tricks like autotune were the exception, not the rule. You had to be able to sing forreal. Only a handful of female artists who were strong in the ‘80s – the ones with crossover success, including Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston – made it past the early 1990s, but the decade had sangers. With multi-octave ranges. Trained in the background vocal trenches of soul singing masters. As we continue to celebrate Women’s History Month, VIBE looks at three of the critically under-celebrated female voices of ‘80s soul and R&B.

Vesta Williams

Vesta Williams started her career singing for Bobby Womack, Jeffrey Osborne, Anita Baker, Sting, and most notably Chaka Khan. The similarities in Vesta and Chaka’s tone and style are immediately noticeable, and rumors persist that Vesta actually laid some of Chaka’s session vocals in later recordings.

Side note: Vesta liked to clown, and was a wildcard in live interviews, especially with men. She’d have them just flustered and giggling and not knowing where to go next.

A&M Records originally wanted Vesta to lose weight and sing lead for a girls group, but she held out until they extended a solo offer. Her first single, “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” was a moderate hit, cracking the Top 10 at R&B radio. The lead single from her sophomore debut solidified Vesta’s spot in R&B history. Another Vesta rumor is that “Congratulations” was inspired by Bruce Willis, her alleged long-term but semi-secret beaux, calling off their relationship and marrying Demi Moore within months. Allegedly.

Vesta was sultry and sexy and representing BBWs (big, beautiful women) in a major way, but not quite intentionally. As is a theme with the women in this group, stress and insecurity over her career and her image led her to battles with her weight. Behind the scenes, she was fighting with her label over support, but on camera and on stage she exuded confidence.

She also brought the lively energy seen in her interview with Arsenio on stage. It was a signature part of her act. “I do like to interject…as much of myself as possible (into my show), because it’s terrible when you go to see a lot of these artists, and you pay your money – and you pay a lot of money now - and the show is terrible,” she told Donnie Simpson in an interview (Donnie got all the tea). “They can’t sing. They can’t reproduce what they did on the record because they punched in every line. You know it’s terrible… Those people shall remain nameless.”

Vesta also complained to Donnie, as Phyllis did, about the focal shift from vocal talent to production.

Vesta and Phyllis’s frustrations – which are still echoed today by singers who possess wide range, power, and vocal control, but can’t get their careers off the ground – were valid. Vesta’s voice was transcendent without even singing lyrics. She invoked the emotional gamut from struggle and loss to hope and triumph just through some “Oooohs” in the Women of Brewster Place theme.

Vesta recorded through the ‘90s, but only had one more hit of note, 1991’s “Special.” She never got the push she wanted from A&M Records, but always had the support of “home” – the R&B community.

Convinced that her weight was holding her career back, Vesta lost over 100 pounds after the Special album. “This is a very visual era,” she told Ebony in 1996. When I lost my record deal, and my phone wasn’t ringing, I realized that I had to reassess who Vesta was and figure out what was going wrong. I knew it wasn’t my singing ability. So it had to be that I was expendable because I didn’t have the right look.”

The recording jumpstart she was hoping for didn’t happen, but Vesta worked. She had a couple of on-camera roles in film and on TV, and you would often hear her distinctive voice luring you towards certain food or consumer good.

This commercial sounds like a take on the Women of Brewster Place theme, and I feel a way about it.

Shout out to Burrell Advertising, one of the oldest black-owned media companies in the game – for all the extra-black McDonald’s and Coke commercials you remember from the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Vesta continued to perform, but never staged a full come-back. She released one final studio album in 2007. She was found dead in her apartment in 2011 - ironically, while in the process of filming her episode of Unsung for TV One. An overdose was initially suspected; Vesta was taking anti-depressants, and pills were found in her room. But final reports revealed hypertension as the cause of death, a tragic plot twist for someone who’d worked so hard to improve their health.

Lisa Fischer

Lisa Fischer is one artist happy she didn’t become a bigger solo success. As with Vesta, the pressures that came with being a woman in entertainment - to be thin and glamorous - were overwhelming. She was more comfortable where she started, in the background.

Lisa began her career with Luther Vandross. Luther famously began as a backing vocalist himself, and as a world-class vocal producer and arranger, was known to only have quality talent behind him. He was not only her first gig, but her longest. Lisa sang on every tour and album with Luther from the mid-80s until he stopped working.

It’s going to be too hard to describe Lisa’s hair and sequin dress in a way that differentiates from the other female singer’s hair and sequin dress in this clip, so I’ll just say Lisa is on the left in the beginning and on the left again at the end.

As Lisa became a sought-after session vocalist and background singer - including joining the Rolling Stones on tour in 1989 - Luther pushed her to pursue a solo career, as singers like Patti Labelle, David Bowie, and Roberta Flack had pushed him. “He saw me in a way that I couldn't see myself,” she once shared. “He made me feel like a diamond though I felt like a grain of sand.”

In 1991 Fischer landed a hit out of the gate with her first single “How Can I Ease the Pain,” a tormented ballad that showcased her full four octaves, including a whistle register to rival Mariah’s. This song makes me think I can sing.

“How Can I Ease the Pain” spent two weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip Hop chart, propelling her album, So Intense, to Gold status. Lisa also won the 1992 Grammy for Best Female R&B Performance – with a catch. 1992 was the only year the win was tied; Lisa shared her award with Patti LaBelle for “Burnin’” – a song which featured Lisa as background personnel. I believe the Academy wasn’t trying to catch the wrath of the established divas by giving a newcomer the award in a category containing Patti, Aretha, and Gladys that year, especially when Patti didn’t have an award yet. It would have been a scandal! But it also proved that Lisa belonged with the powerhouses.

Next, it was time for Lisa to claim her spot in the diva ranks, right? Nope.

She never released a follow-up. “I felt like I just wasn’t ready,” Lisa shared revealed in an interview. Stress from the pressures of the business eventually manifested for Lisa as an eating disorder. “Not making the second album was disappointing at first, but then after that it was a sense of peace, because back then I couldn’t deal with the expectations that came with even that teeny bit of fame. There was so much to sort out that I hadn’t sorted out.”

As a background singer, Lisa could just be in the moment and sing, without worrying about content, messaging or image. It was easier than being the focus. She went back on tour with the Stones, and has been on almost every tour with them since. Hardcore Rolling Stones fans know Lisa almost as a member of the group, since she steps out during every show for her lead on “Gimme Shelter.”

Lisa also toured with Tina Turner, and still toured with Luther, even when dates with the Stones threatened to conflict, which when Luther taped his famous live concert at Royal Albert Hall. “I was touring with the Stones in Chicago, and then Luther had a private plane waiting for me to make it to London in time to do sound check, makeup and dress for the performance,” Lisa told a local publication when asked about a standout show memory. “I was so exhausted, but his music and teachings were so a part of everything I had become that doing the show was real and surreal all at the same time. His voice, his melodies, my fellow background singers (Kevin, Ava, Tawatha and Pat) and the choreography that I’d been doing for years was so joyous. … It was like a public family reunion.”

I know we’re talking about Lisa, but you have to watch this whole performance and soak in the genius of Luther’s vocal arrangements. First of all, only Luther would have first string and second string background singers. Lisa is a starter, of course. She’s on the far left. Second, this is a slightly gentler arrangement than the studio recording of “Here and Now”, but that little bit of softness/easiness makes it so much better.

Lisa was thrust even further into the forefront than she was during her solo run with 2013’s 20 Feet From Stardom, director Morgan Neville’s award-winning documentary about the lives and journeys of career background singers. The movie was the first time I’d seen a visual of Fischer in years, and I was surprised at the natural, kind of boho chic woman on screen, miles from the very glamorous and coiffed Fischer of the ‘90s. Then it clicked – that wasn’t really her. That was never her. That’s why it didn’t work.

Lisa did finally get comfortable enough to launch a solo tour, but she performs now in draped, flowing garments, often in bare feet, always with bare face and natural hair. Easy, relaxed, in a way she can focus on the music and not the package. But I think she’ll forgive me if I don’t readily let go of this. Yes, we already talked about “How Can I Ease the Pain,” but her live performance is a masterclass.

Phyllis Hyman

If I have to select one case study example to illustrate the damage and challenges an artist can face trying to mold themselves into a form that will lead to success, it’s Phyllis Hyman.

Phyllis was a naturally outstanding and immense vocal stylist. She had a four-octave range that blended jazz and soul, and a regal stature that demanded attention and notice (Hyman was 6ft tall with striking features), but a psyche that was torn apart through the course of her career. The music business destroyed her.

On paper, though, she had the elements to be a massive star, and she had a promising start. Her first label, Buddah Records, landed several modest hits for her including “You Know How to Love Me.”

Her 1976 collaboration with Norman Conners for “Betcha By Golly Wow” introduced that merge of jazz and soul which became her signature sound.

Her Tony-award winning turn in Duke Ellington’s "Sophisticated Lady" positioned her to embark on an acting career.

But Phyllis would reach the brink of big success and lose it, sometimes by her own doing. Sometimes it was poor business decisions, like when she passed on the song “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” Sometimes it was bad luck, like when she recorded a theme song for the movie The Doorman, and then the movie was released straight to video. Or when she was tapped to sing the James Bond theme for 1983’s Never Say Never Again - a huge benchmark for any singer – then Warner Brothers reportedly nixed the song under threat of lawsuit.

Oftentimes, though, it was her own insecurity showing up. Phyllis was known to be combative; she fought with producers, with people who worked with her, and most famously with label head Clive Davis. She and Clive were in a battle of the wills from the beginning of Buddah’s absorption by Arista Records - something Clive, known for his magic with female singers, was unused to. Phyllis called him a plantation owner, would speak ill of him in the press, show up late for meetings and blow off commitments, but she was fighting him out of fear. “Control equaled comfort to Phyllis,” said biographer Jason Michael in his book Strength of a Woman: The Phyllis Hyman Story. “It was what she needed to feel safe…She did the same with (husband) Larry and, in the years to come, she would succeed in doing the same with not just her romantic interests, but also her close friends and staff members.” The tactic didn’t work with Davis, however, and contributed to her stalling during her years at Arista. Her strongest songs from the Arista period were recorded before the transition from Buddah, like “Somewhere in My Lifetime.”

Part of the problem was also that Clive, whose formula was to position his singers for pop success, didn’t understand the kind of artist Phyllis was. “Clive never had a feeling for black music,” A&R Gerry Griffith shared with Michael in Strength of a Woman. “He didn’t understand that black connection of jazz and R&B as it relates to black folk…he couldn’t make that connection. That’s why he had to have people around him that understood it; and most of the time, in the early days, he didn’t listen to us either.”

Philadelphia International’s Thom Bell wrote an album’s worth of songs for Phyllis’s second Arista release, but Clive scrapped some of them in favor of songs he felt would work for crossover, like the heavily-produced uptempo “Riding the Tiger,” and designated the pop/dance options as the album singles. It didn’t work. “The audience just couldn’t understand why she was recording a song like ‘Riding the Tiger,’” said her musical director Barry Eastmond. “It just didn’t fit her at all. It was an attempt at a dance hit, but you can’t fool the audience. They love you for a certain thing and they really want to hear that from you.”

Between the power struggle and the lack of hits, Phyllis soon found herself at the bottom of Clive’s priority list as he turned his attention toward a young new starlet, Whitney Houston.

Phyllis’s fight or flight instinct also cost her opportunities that could have changed her career. Phyllis was in the lead to play Shug Avery for the movie adaptation of The Color Purple. The casting directors loved her, but when she joined Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover and Oprah in a meeting with Steven Spielberg, she blew it. Her former co-manager Sydney Harris recounted the day to biographer Jason Michael, recalling Glover emerging from the meeting and telling her, “Your girl acted out. She was trying to run the audition. She was ordering Steven around.”

“That was Phyllis’s M.O.,” Harris explained. “When she got scared, she tried to take over things so she could regain control. She lost the part because they could not wrap their heads around being with Phyllis for five months in North Carolina while they shot the film.”

There was a cycle – Phyllis would get insecure and self-sabotage, then be resentful of her failure compared to the success of women she knew weren’t more talented than she was, and then lash out. But Phyllis was equally frustrated with failure and scared of success.

When finally released from Arista, she joined Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records. It was an ideal situation for her: a smaller label where she could feel important and attended to, led by men who understood soul music. But even as she was working on her strongest material in years, she was brooding and inconsistent. “Living All Alone” co-writer Cynthia Biggs told biographer Jason Michael, “I remember her saying, ‘Here I am again, recording another album that’s not going to go gold.’ She just felt like ‘why do I keep trying?’”

She’d suffered from depression for years, and was finally diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, but she preferred self-medicating through drugs and alcohol to taking lithium, the most common treatment at the time. Living All Alone was well received, but Phyllis’s depression continued to deepen, slowing down the process of recording her follow-up, The Prime of My Life. During the time between the two projects, she was featured in Spike Lee’s School Daze and on the soundtrack.

Released in 1991, The Prime of My Life was Phyllis’s biggest career success. She finally charted on the Billboard Hot 100 with “Don’t Want to Change the World,” which was also her first career No. 1, and the album had additional R&B hit singles including “Living in Confusion.”

At Philadelphia International, Phyllis had started to become part of the writing process, contributing more and more with each subsequent album. She had just finished the most autobiographical work of her career when she took her life in 1995, days before her 45th birthday and hours before she was scheduled to perform at the Apollo.

Her emotional state was no secret to her inner circle, nor was her eventual suicide. “Phyllis was an advocate of suicide,” Glenda Garcia, her manager at the time of her death, told the Chicago Tribune. “I was not surprised or shocked that she took her life. It was her philosophy that she was in charge of her body because it was hers, and in charge of her life because it was hers. Her position was, if she didn’t like the pain, didn’t like her life, she had the right to get out of the pain.” The Tribune observed, “...never has an artist produced an entire album that reflects so hauntingly on her life and hints so broadly of her imminent demise as does Phyllis Hyman’s I Refuse to be Lonely.”

Hyman’s suicide note read, in part, “I’m tired.” The album felt like a more extended goodbye message. Songs like “Why Not Me,” “This Too Shall Pass,” and “Give Me One Good Reason to Stay” spoke of finality and resignation, disappointment and loss. Phyllis may have meant it to be her farewell. We can never know for sure, but Garcia wouldn’t rule it out. “Phyllis loved drama, so I wouldn’t put it past her,” she said in the same conversation with the Chicago Tribune. “Let’s face it, she was on her way to a show the night she died. She had a performance to do at the Apollo Theater. I don’t know that Phyl was so conniving she said ‘OK, I’m going to commit suicide so now I’ll get my Grammy and it’ll be multi-platinum,’ but I won’t say she didn’t intend to make a statement. She absolutely felt this record was her best. Clearly her timing was dramatic.”

Lisa, Vesta and Phyllis all had raw talent in spades, they even had beauty and glamour - but had to push themselves to sometimes unrealistic physical levels to stay marketable as artists. In the late ‘80s, singers like Jody Watley, Pebbles, Cherelle and Karyn White came into the game with model looks and voices that could easily work over heavier production, and that trend continued for solo artists into the ‘90s. There wasn’t another successful solo female vocalist of substantial voice and body until Kelly Price came along in 1998. It wasn’t just about fitting a "look," though. There were other dynamic vocalists in this era - Stephanie Mills, Miki Howard, Angela Bofill - who were also eventually left behind as R&B moved out of the soft and warm quiet storm into the high energy new jack swing era. Their voices were too soulful to crossover, and artists without crossover potential weren’t attractive to labels; they wouldn’t sell as many records. In the ‘80s, a gold album was cool, but the ‘90s, platinum became the benchmark for success. While we’re waiting for the music industry to get it together and return to the R&B standards of the ‘90s, I’ll lift a prayer that there will one day additionally be room for sangin’ sangin’ on the charts again. For the Vestas, the Phyllises, the Shirleys (Brown or Murdock, take your pick), to sing their hearts out - and for the world to be able to hear.

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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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Melyssa Ford

Melyssa Ford: 'My Mother Died During This Pandemic And I Have Nowhere To Put My Grief'

Editor's Note: In a heartwarming tribute, former model now TV/radio host, Melyssa Ford details the final days she shared with her beloved mother, Oksana Barbara Raisa Ford (10/12/1950 - 5/19/2020). Understanding that we have all been connected to COVID-19's tragic reach, this essay explains the plight of one person's experience that represents the pain so many are dealing with in these times around the world.

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COVID-effing-19. This pandemic has been a moment of reckoning for a great many of us. How many of you have been confronted with the hard truth that we took EVERYTHING about our lives and freedoms for granted? The freedom to call up a few friends and go for Happy Hour drinks after a long day at work? The freedom to start our day by going to the gym; the freedom to temporarily vacate our lives by getting on a plane and heading off to some tropical destination? Or the freedom to gather at a burial or memorial service to pay love and respect to a loved one who has passed, as a means of helping to process our own grief? 

My mother died last week. Not from COVID-19, but from colon cancer. But COVID-19 and its endless complications directly affected my family’s lives and, ultimately, my mother's death. 

It was less than a year from diagnosis to her last days. She lived in Toronto (my hometown) and I currently live in Los Angeles. Traveling during this pandemic presented some incredible challenges. Quarantine and shelter in place rules. Closed international borders. Fear and uncertainty. I was terrified that I wouldn’t get to her side in time, since Canada mandates that anyone getting off a plane has to self-quarantine for 14 days (threats of fines and jail time were there to incentivize you to adhere to the new rules). And I knew my mother had very little precious time. 

Months before, when there was still some hope that surgery and chemo would prolong her life, she decided to sell the house I grew up in. I was furious. I looked at this as her giving up; resigning herself to the control of this insidious disease called cancer. But my mother, the truest form of a pragmatist, was preparing for the inevitable and getting her affairs in order. She wanted to leave me with nothing to do except mourn her without the burden of packing up a home with all of her belongings in it after her death. She knows me so well, she knew I’d NEVER pack it up, that I’d have left everything the way it was as a shrine to her and, therefore, never really moving through my grief in a purposeful and healthy manner. 

Cancer ravaged my mother's body but left her brain fully intact. And it was with full cognition, pragmatism and a whole lot of gumption, that she decided to end things on her terms by scheduling her passing with a doctor's assistance via MAID (Medical Assistance in Dying) — a legal policy in Canada that allows a terminally ill patient in palliative care to choose the days or weeks remaining in their lives. 

She didn’t want to spend her last months laying confined to a bed, immobile, unable to even take herself to the bathroom. The most basic form of human dignity had been stolen from her and replaced with a catheter and a colostomy bag that my aunt had to drain several times a day. I watched as her skin turned yellow from jaundice, signaling her liver was failing. I watched as her urine went from a dark yellow to crimson, a signal that her kidneys were no longer functional. My mother, the strongest person I had ever known, both physically and mentally, was now frail and seemingly melting into the bed, her skin sagging from her skeletal arms and legs. Her face was gaunt, her head bald, her breastplate visible and bony...in her last days, she was an empty shell of the 5’10” beautiful Viking she had been. With her long blond hair, green eyes, and imposing physical stature, I used to joke that if you gave her a hat with horns, a shield, and a sword, you could send her out to battle. 

The day I arrived in Toronto from L.A., I approached my mother’s bedside after going through a rigorous disinfectant routine. My mother had been discharged from the hospital as there was nothing left to do for her medically except keep her as comfortable as possible. She was sent home to my aunt’s house for the remainder of her days. My aunt’s home was a place of comfort and joy for me, as I’ve spent a great many holidays and family occasions here; this was the best place for my mother to be. With a mask and gloves on, I sat down next to her bedside and tried with all my might not to cry. My Mom had passed on that British “stiff upper lip” mentality to me; it’s rare you will see me expose my emotions. But as of late, I’ve been pretty transparent about it, in an attempt to sort through my competing feelings of grief and guilt. Guilt of not having been the perfect daughter. Grief of being her only child with no one to share the burden of immeasurable sadness with. Guilt of not working on our relationship or attempting to understand her as a person until it was close to the end. Guilt and grief kept coming in waves, threatening to drown me. 

On that first evening, I sat with her for a few hours and we talked more frankly than we ever had about things I had always been scared to ask. Topics such as her tumultuous marriage to my father and why she stayed in such misery. What was HER mother like, who died when my mother was only 15 years old? Was she proud of me and the choices I had made in my life, one of them being never having children?

Eventually, I had to let her sleep. I went upstairs to her bedroom (she was now in a bedroom on the main floor of my aunt’s house since she could no longer walk). Once in her room, I found a journal titled 2019 and began to read. What I read, in between all of the activities she enjoyed such as Aquafit and her book club, was her documenting her disease before she even knew she had it, describing the symptoms that began as uncomfortable that would soon become excruciatingly painful. 

It broke my heart to read this, being on the other side of understanding where this story would end. I found myself wanting to move through the dimension of time and yell, “Go to the hospital!” Reading this only made me wonder if she had caught it during the early days of symptoms, would the outcome be different? Excuse me as I add more guilt and more grief to the already unbearable weight upon my shoulders. 

Our final day was spent much like the last six days I had with my mother, laying beside each other in bed, massaging her, and either watching movies or talking. We would go from walking down memory lane as I showed her old pictures to discussing last-minute details about the Business of Death: the transfer of everything into my name, where certain sentimental pieces of jewelry could be found, who she wanted to receive small tokens of remembrance of her. As sad as I was for myself, my heart broke for my mother. She’s losing EVERYTHING AND EVERYONE. She expressed to me that she was shocked at how quickly her cancer spread throughout her body. It didn’t give her a chance. No amount of holistic remedies or prayers would have changed this (thanks to all my friends who suggested a plant-based diet with sea moss, soursop, and bladderwrack but her colon, GI tract, and bowels had been decimated). 

The few days leading up to her doctor-assisted euthanasia, I found my heart racing in a panic as the end was creeping closer and closer. I don’t know what’s worse, a loved one's death being a surprise or knowing when it’s going to happen with the hours counting down. I know both intimately. My father went the first way, my mother the second. I still can’t tell you the answer.

With plans in place for the funeral home to come and take my mother's body in order to cremate her, I’m left with a feeling of such remorse and sadness. Because of COVID-19, my mother’s friends and I are being robbed of the opportunity to congregate at a memorial service to properly mourn and pay homage and respect to the woman we all loved and admired. My mother deserved that.

I’m so angry. I’m angry at cancer. I’m angry at, as a society, our collective circumstances. I’m angry at the thought that this pandemic could have been controlled if our government officials had reacted swiftly. I’m angry that there are so many people who are experiencing the same thing I am—the death of loved ones, and the inability to gather together for a ceremony that celebrates their lives and sends them off properly.

Trauma changes you. Less than two years ago, I almost died when a truck hit my jeep on a California highway. I spent almost a year recovering. I’m a different person than I was moments before the impact of that crash. And now I’ve got to sort out who I am without my mother on this earth. People report a feeling of disconnectedness after the death of their parent(s); like what kept you tethered to the earth is gone and you are now hurtling through time and space, searching for something to grab onto.

I lost my father many years ago and now my mom is gone. I’m praying that I find something soon to ground me; but for the time being, the search to make sense and meaning of my mother's life and, ultimately her death, shall continue for me, like a room with endless doors or a road that disappears into the horizon. 

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A native of Toronto, Canada and now residing in Beverly Hills, California, Melyssa Ford is a syndicated radio show host on Hollywood Unlocked via iHeart Media's stations nationwide and also hosts her own podcast, I'm Here For The Food (available on all streaming platforms).

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Beenie Man (L) and Bounty Killer (R) in 1995.
David Corio/Redferns

A Look At Beenie Man And Bounty Killer's 'Verzuz' Battle Scorecard

Why was this night different from all other Verzuz battles? Streamed live from Kingston, Jamaica, the Memorial Day “Soundclash Edition” of Swizz Beatz and Timbaland’s flagship IG Live series was easily the most exciting and entertaining yet, as well as the first to delve into dancehall reggae.

Considering the fact that Jamaican sound systems pioneered the sort of “beat battles” have made Verzuz a social media sensation well over half a century ago, the creative decision was more than fitting. By pitting two icons of the genre, Bounty Killer and Beenie Man, in head-to-head competition, this Verzuz battle did not just showcase two of its most respected lyricists ever to hold a microphone, it also tapped into an epic rivalry that stretches back more than a quarter of a century.

At that time the youth born Moses Davis in the Waterhouse section of downtown Kingston was already on the second leg of his career -- having released his first album a decade earlier at the age of ten. Young Rodney Price, formerly known as Bounty Hunter, had just started to make noise under his new artist name Bounty Killer, recording hardcore hits for the legendary Waterhouse-based producer Lloyd “King Jammy” James.

Like all young aspiring artists, Killer had looked up to Beenie as an inspirational figure -- until he felt that the artist had borrowed his style. Beenie and Bounty’s face-to-face clashes, especially their Boxing Day battles at the storied Jamaican stage show Sting in 1993 and 1995, are the stuff of dancehall legend. Despite whatever differences may have existed between them, both artists channeled all that energy into great records -- many of which were played in the heat of the Verzuz battle.

Arguably the most exciting and spontaneous edition of Verzuz yet, the Beenie and Bounty battle was not a “clash” in the traditional Jamaican sense, but it was hardly a conventional beat battle either. Predictions that the island’s WiFi might not be able to handle the strain were soon dismissed -- in keeping with Jamaica’s long tradition of raising the bar when it comes to using technology to create next-level musical entertainment, this was the best-produced beat battle of them all. On the other hand, this was also the first time a Verzuz competitor has had to take a break in the action to negotiate with police officers.

This was surely also the first Verzuz battle to be live-tweeted by a prime minister: PM Andrew Holness took to his official Twitter to declare “Jamaica’s culture is global” and share a screenshot of the action. In keeping with the national pride, the battle opened with a rousing rendition of the Jamaican National Anthem.

When Beenie and Bounty came through VIBE’s IG Live one day before performance, they both declared that they would not be preparing for the battle as the art of war should be spontaneous. This has had people on tender hooks as no one really knows what would happen on the night. But of course all celebrities were out in full force for this highly anticipated battle, as everyone from Diddy to Swizz to Rihanna came through to catch the vibes. It was the only place to be if you were on IG, with more than 400K people checking in at the event's peak.

Here’s Billboard's tune-for-tune breakdown from the top to the very last drop.

ROUND 1: Beenie Man's “Matie” vs. Special Ed feat. Bounty Killer's “Just a Killa”

Beenie kicked things off with his first No. 1 hit (on the Jamaican charts) in honor of the late great Bobby Digital, the legendary producer of this song and countless more, who passed away May 21. Bounty opted to open on an international note, leading with his first hip hop collaboration, a 1995 single by Brooklyn rapper Special Ed featuring a guest verse from young Bounty.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 2: Beenie Man's “Memories” vs. Bounty Killer's “Suspense”

Sticking with the hardcore dancehall, Beenie reached for one of his fan favorites, a mid-’90s banger on the “Hot Wax” riddim that was recorded during the height of his great lyrical war with Bounty Killer (and sampled by Drake on the album version of “Controlla”). Killer responded in kind with a track on the same hard-hitting riddim, making this round feel like a flashback mid-'90s dancehall session.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 3: Beenie Man's “Slam” vs. Bounty Killer's “Living Dangerously”

Shifting into another gear, Beenie drew for his first Billboard hit, a tribute to the sexual prowess of “ghetto girls” recorded on Dave Kelly’s irresistible “Arab Attack” riddim. Bounty responded with one of his most popular songs for the ladies, a collaboration with reggae vocalist par excellence Barrington Levy. Counteracting a classic with another classic, this round was too close to call.

WINNER: Tie

ROUND 4: Beenie Man feat. Chevelle Franklin's “Dancehall Queen” vs. Diana King feat. Bounty Killer's “Summer Breezin’”

Keeping the energy high, Beenie unleashed this soundtrack cut from the movie Dancehall Queen (in which he also appeared). Bounty responded with a relatively obscure guest verse on a record by Jamaican pop hitmaker Diana King.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 5: Beenie Man feat. Lil Kim's “Fresh From Yard” vs. Bounty Killer ft. Jeru the Damaja's “Suicide or Murder”

For his first international selection, Beenie chose a DJ Clue production featuring the Queen Bee in her best Brooklyn Jamaican patois mode. Killer kept it BK with a grimy Jeru collab produced by New York’s own Massive B productions.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 6: T.I. feat. Beenie Man's “I’m Serious” vs. Bounty Killer ft. Mobb Deep's “Deadly Zone”

Sticking with the hip hop collabs, Beenie dropped T.I.’s first major-label single featuring a hard-as-nails Neptunes beat and a street-certified Beenie Man hook. But he should have known that badman business is the Killer’s wheelhouse. Bounty clapped back with a grimy Mobb Deep collab off his My Xperience album and took the round.

WINNER: Bounty

ROUND 7: Guerilla Black feat. Beenie Man's “Compton” vs. Bounty Killer feat. The Fugees' "Hip-Hopera”

Beenie dropped his third straight hip hop crossover track, this one a guest verse for Biggie soundalike Guerilla Black over a bouncy Stalag Riddim. Bounty brought out the big guns, returning fire with a Fugees collab. As the Warlord would say, “People dead!”

WINNER: Bounty

ROUND 8: Beenie Man's “Romie” vs. Bounty Killer's “Worthless Bwoy”

Returning to straight-up dancehall, Beenie served up one of his worldwide club classics, a song about a girl named “Romie” set to Shocking Vibes’s hard-driving version of the Punany Riddim. Killer replied with a Dave Kelly banger burning out the guys who lack the stamina to satisfy their significant others.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 9: Beenie Man “Old Dog” vs. Bounty Killer “Stucky”

Beenie Man has plenty of classic dancehall joints, and this Dave Kelly sure shot is one of the most ubiquitous. “Old Dog” recounts his exploits with the opposite sex, shouting out female dancehall stars Patra and Lady Saw along the way. Bounty replied in kind with his own kind of “gyal tune,” more rough than sweet, just the way Killer likes it.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 10: Beenie Man feat. Mya “Girls Them Sugar” vs. Bounty Killer ft. Nona Hendryx & Cocoa Brovaz “It’s a Party”

Beenie closed out the first half of the battle on a strong note with one of his most beautiful records, a Neptunes remake of one of his immortal dancehall classics adorned with a sweet hook sung by Mya. Bounty’s response was strong, but the Wyclef-produced party joint (with a hook by the former member of Labelle and bars from Boot Camp MCs) fell just short of Beenie’s selection.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 11: Beenie Man feat. Wyclef Jean's “Love Me Now” vs. Bounty Killer feat. Swizz Beatz' “Guilty”

Flipping catchy lyrics over Naughty By Nature's classic “O.P.P.” beat, Beenie sounded strong on this Wyclef collab, but Bounty countered with a hard-hitting Swizz Beatz track featuring a blazing guest verse from the Killer.

WINNER: Bounty

ROUND 12: Beenie Man feat. Barrington Levy's “Murderation” vs. Bounty Killer's “Look”

The vibes were sweet right up until the moment when officers of the Jamaican Constabulary Force interrupted the action. Beenie took care of the situation, informing the police that there were hundreds of thousands of people watching internationally. He then asked his DJ to run one of the hardest tracks in his catalog, a song about the abuse of authority in the ghetto streets. It was such a perfect segue the whole thing almost seemed planned. Killer had no choice but to counter with one of the most powerful songs in his catalogue, another Dave Kelly masterpiece, just barely winning what was arguably the strongest round of the entire battle.

WINNER: Bounty

ROUND 13: Beenie Man's [Showtime Juggling] vs. Bounty Killer's “Fed Up”

Still charged up by the unexpected visit from the police, Beenie felt a vibe and decided to perform his next song live. Starting out with “Hypocrite,” a blistering broadside against haters on Dave Kelly’s “Showtime” riddim, Beenie’s performance inspired Bounty to join in for what became a multi-song medley that included snippets of Killer’s “Eagle & The Hawk” and “Bullet Proof Skin” as well as Beenie Man’s “Done Have We Things,” “Badman Medley,” “Bury Yuh Dead,” and “Fire Burn.”

After they wrapped up their explosive tag-team performance, Beenie calmly stated “My song dat,” indicating that he wanted the whole extended set to count as one song. Bounty retaliated with “Fed Up,” one of his signature reality tunes that cemented his reputation as Jamaica’s “Poor People Governor.” Another close round, and highly unorthodox. Advantage Killa.

WINNER: Bounty

ROUND 14: Beenie Man's “World Dance” vs. Bounty Killer's “Gal” 

Beenie Man took it back with one of his biggest early hits, a “buss the dance” selection on Shocking Vibes’ Cordy Roy Riddim. Killer’s response was another hardcore tune for the girls, explosively energetic and lyrically intricate.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 15: Beenie Man's “Modeling” vs. Bounty Killer's “Model”

Taking it back to the early days of his career, Beenie served up a song designed to inspire all the “bashment girls” in the dance to show off their freshest outfits and dance moves. Killer responded in kind with a similar type of song, every bit as lyrically precise as Beenie’s was melodic, making this round a dead heat.

WINNER: Tie

ROUND 16: Beenie Man's “Oyster & Conch” vs. Bounty Killer's “Benz & Bimma”

Sticking with the “gyal” segment, dancehall’s “Doctor” prescribed a musical aphrodisiac, stressing the importance of seafood in your diet. Killer responded with a dancehall smash likening his appreciation of the female physique to his fondness for expensive European automobiles.

WINNER: Bounty

ROUND 17: Beenie Man's “Dude” vs. Bounty Killer's “Greatest”

Beenie delivered yet another Dave Kelly sureshot, this time on the festive Fiesta Riddim. Killer responded with a little-known 2003 track on the “Hydro” radio, basically conceding this round.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 18: Beenie Man's “Mm-Hmm” vs. Bounty Killer feat. Cham's “Another Level”

As the battle neared its final rounds, Beenie played this hard-hitting Tony Kelly production and grabbed the mic to chat his lyrics live and direct, showing that dancehall artists of a certain age are still in top form lyrically. Bounty replied with a musical killshot on Dave Kelly’s Clone Riddim, joining forces with Cham to take things to “Another Level.” Feeling the spirit, Beenie grabbed the mic and spit a verse over Bounty’s record.

WINNER: Bounty

ROUND 19: Beenie Man “Nuff Gal” vs. Bounty Killer “Cry For Die For”

Beenie changed up the pace with a jazzy tune for the ladies featuring a swinging horn section. This 1996 Jamaican single could have been a bigger hit for Beenie if it had the right promotion, and still sounds great all these years later. Bounty Killer responded in similarly eclectic mode with a jaunty track on a Riddim based on The Champs' 1950s rock chart-topper “Tequila.”

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 20: Beenie Man's “I’m Drinkin’ (Rum and Red Bull)” vs. Bounty Killer's “Smoke the Herb”

Beenie closed out his regulation 20 rounds with one of his biggest crossover hits, a collaboration with Fambo that somebody at Red Bull should probably sign up for an endorsement deal. Bounty Killer responded with perhaps his greatest ganja anthems. This one was too close to call. Pick your poison.

WINNER: Tie

EXTRA TUNES

After running a couple of exclusive dubplate specials -- “War Uno Want” by Bounty Killer and a Buju Banton and Beenie Man collab on the M.P.L.A Riddim -- Beenie and Bounty served one final tune. ”Why Beenie saved one of his signature songs, 2004's "King of the Dancehall," for the 21st round is anybody’s guess. Bounty’s response ("Nuh Fren Fish") was something for the hardcore fans only.

Winner: Beenie

BONUS ROUNDS

Wider Catalogue: Beenie Man

While both artists did a good job displaying the breadth of their respective repertoires, blending hardcore dancehall hits with international collaborations, Beenie Man showed off his versatility with a mixture of old and new dancehall hits as well as mixing moods and tempos.

Biggest Snub: Beenie Man (Point to Bounty Killer)

Beenie Man opted not to play “Who Am I” (aka “Sim Simma,”) perhaps his best known international hit. Not to be outdone, Bounty Killer also neglected to play “Hey Baby,” his high-profile collaboration with No Doubt from their Grammy-winning 2001 album Rock Steady. Still Beenie’s oversight was the more inexplicable of the two.

Best Banter: Beenie Man

When police stopped by in the middle of the session and Beenie Man somehow kept his cool telling them “Officer, the whole world is watching… do we have to do this right now? Do you really wanna be that guy?”

Biggest KO: Bounty Killer

Not long after the police stopped by, Beenie and Bounty joined in on an eight song freestyle, venting their frustration at the police. But Bounty’s response, “Poor People Fed Up,” trumped an extended live performance, demonstrating just how much of a punch that song still packs.

People's Champ: Bounty Killer

While Beenie proved the more strategic selector, Bounty Killer’s off-the-cuff adlibs an manic energy -- especially when he noticed Rihanna in the IG audience -- kept the mood up. Even when he played unexpected selections, the Warlord’s respect levels were on 11.

FINAL SCORE: 13-10-3, Beenie Man

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This article originally appeared on Billboard.

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Jonathan Mannion

Iconic Photographer, Jonathan Mannion, Details Shooting Eminem's 'Marshall Mathers LP' 20 Years Later

This story, in its entirety, is posted on Billboard.com and is written by Carl Lamarre.

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Saturday (May 23) marks the 20th anniversary of Eminem's third album, The Marshall Mathers LP. His magnum opus not only shattered records on the Billboard 200 (debuted at No. 1 with a whopping 1.78 million copies its opening week) but highlighted his abilities as a raw and gifted storyteller. With Em looking to shed light on his real-life persona of Marshall Mathers, he hired famed photographer Jonathan Mannion to help capture his vision.

Mannion, who previously shot legendary album covers such as Jay-Z's 1996 Reasonable Doubt and DMX's 1998 Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, relished the task of teaming up with one of rap's polarizing acts because of their commonalities. Like Eminem, Mannion was a young, hungry creative from the Midwest, whose affinity for hip-hop ran deep, dating back to DJ Quik's debut single, "Born and Raised in Compton." 

Em and Mannion's tag-team expanded to over two continents. Not only did they shoot photos for MMLP in Amsterdam but also Detroit. From the pizza shop that Eminem used to work at to even his old childhood home where he sat on the steps for the album's classic cover art, nothing was off-limits.

READ MORE 20 Years of 'The Marshall Mathers LP': Ranking Every Song From Eminem's Third Album"

It was great," recalls Mannion of the shoot in from of Em's old house. "It was him in his element and delivering his journey. You know, the humble nature of him and his process of getting to be this megastar, which is rooted so clearly in talent. His talent and his relentless drive was it.

"Mannion spoke to Billboard about the 20th anniversary of The Marshall Mathers LP, where the album cover ranks in his collection and Em's dedication to delivering the best shots. 

What does the number 20 mean for you having been involved in the Marshall Mathers LP?

It's really hard to put into words how important this album is for the world, for Eminem (and) for me. There's an endless amount of stories. We shot in Amsterdam and Detroit. Originally, this album was meant to be called Amsterdam. I was like, "We have to go to Amsterdam. We have to all get on a plane and go there. That's the only way we're doing this album." He happened to be performing out there and said, "This is going to sync up perfectly.

"We did a phenomenal session out there -- really poured out hearts into it. Then, I think there was a realization that he wanted to present this trifecta of who he was: Slim Shady, Marshall Mathers and Eminem. This is how genius this guy is. He's thinking farther down the road to be able to craft these versions of himself. Slim Shady was the gimmick to get everyone's attention, which was still rooted in something phenomenal.

Then, he was like, "Let me tell you about my journey. Let me allow myself to be vulnerable within the space and deliver 'me' and how I really got here [with] my struggles, my pain," and I think that's when everybody really connected with him on a different level. It wasn't just this pop phenomenon that he was rooted in reverence for the culture. He obviously felt like he had to prove himself probably more than the next MC just because he was from Detroit and a white boy. He had something to prove and he was clinical on the album, delivering masterpiece after masterpiece.

READ MORE20 Years of 'Stan': How Eminem’s Epic 2000 Hit Relates to the Fan Culture It Inspired

When it was time to dig into who Marshall Mathers was, we had to do another session in Detroit. So we flew to Detroit to kind of continue [the shoot]. It kind of became this nice balance of Amsterdam and all of these lax drugs laws and all of these experimental moments that he was pursuing at that time to kind of ground himself. We shot outside the pizza shop that he used to work at with people that he still knew from there.

I remember you said in a past interview that you shot him in his boxers and trench coat in the freezing cold towards the end of the shoot.

It's dedication. I was with him entirely, pushing and wanting more, but he one-upped me in this session. We did that and I was like, "OK. He's going to be tired." He's in boxer shorts, combat boots and a trench coat being the fullness of the character that he was presenting as this Amsterdam version of Em. He pushed it and I was like, "Man, this is incredible. What we achieved out here was beyond comprehension. I can't wait for when we get back to see the session and go through it."He was like, "Man, I was thinking I want to do one more shot. Can we go back to the hotel? I want to be in my hotel room writing to my daughter." Usually, I'm the one begging rappers to go a little bit farther because I want to give them the world, but it flipped on me. It wasn't begrudgingly that I went there to that place. I was like, "I'm with this. Thank you." It made another really phenomenal image that we got to share with the world because of that effort.

Continue reading the original article by Carl Lamarre at Billboard here.

 

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THE MARSHALL MATHERS LP. Congratulations to @eminem on an absolutely brilliant project that celebrates 20 YEARS today. There were 2 sessions that yielded the campaign around this album, one in Detroit and the other in Amsterdam. It is one of my top 3 covers of all time. Art direction & Photography, @jonathanmannion. Designed with the masterful @morningbreathinc’s own Jason Noto.

A post shared by Jonathan Mannion (@jonathanmannion) on May 23, 2020 at 11:20am PDT

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To get a feel of Mannion's deep love of hip-hop, check out his Spotify playlist of the many legendary artists and their music from the album covers he's shot. "I did a playlist on Spotify based on a random sampling of 65 of my favorite album covers. Pulled 90 tunes that were bonafide bangers and complied a little vibe," Mannion details. Enjoy the vibes!

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