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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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Lil Wayne Talks ‘Ghost Recon Breakpoint’ Game, ‘Funeral’ Sessions And More

When Lil Wayne released his long-delayed Carter V and resolved his legal differences with Cash Money Records a year ago, he could have walked into the sunset and ended his career as one of the greatest artists ever. He’s put more than 20 years of his life into music, starting his career as a fresh-faced teenager in the mid-90s and going nonstop with more than 30 albums and mixtapes, an all-time great run of guest verses, a relentless touring schedule, and an indelible impact on the other rappers who have come after him. But Tunechi is still staying just as active, both in the booth and outside of it. 2019 alone has seen him launch a collection with American Eagle, continue his annual Lil Weezyana Fest for the fifth year, and tour with Blink 182 while releasing mashups of their previous work.

But today, Wayne is speaking with VIBE about another one of his passions: video games. He’s doing commercials for Ubisoft’s upcoming Ghost Recon Breakpoint, the 11th game in Tom Clancy’s tactical shooter franchise, slated for an Oct. 4 release. The ads see Wayne showcasing his hilarious personality, playing online with a team of other players and throwing jokes while consistently letting them down with phone calls and other distractions.

“That’s happened more than a few times, when you play games a lot, especially with your homies, and everybody’s on some sort of team and everybody’s counting on everybody,” Wayne tells VIBE over the phone. “It doesn’t even have to be a phone call. It can be somebody at the door, it can be your mom screaming at you, anything.”

Artists have historically relied on video games to pass the time during their tours, and Wayne has always been known for his adoration for the Madden NFL series. He’s a die-hard sports fan, as seen from his social media and his appearances on sports talk shows with his friend Skip Bayless. Years ago, T-Pain said he saw Wayne and Cash Money co-founder Birdman bet up to $10,000 on games, while letting the computer battle it out to see who wins – like sports betting, but you get to pick each other’s competition.

“I don’t recall that,” Wayne laughs when asked if T-Pain’s statements were true. “I don’t recall letting the computer play for no $10,000, but we definitely probably played each other for something like that. … I’m sure I didn’t lose that $10,000 bet whenever it happened. I don’t think I’ve lost too much. I’d say about $500 would be the biggest loss I’ve had, if anything. Maybe $1,000. But I’m putting the [cheat] code in on you and everything for that $10,000.”

These days, while Wayne says that Drake and Birdman have made games tough for him in terms of other artists, he admits that his biggest competition is at home.

“If I’m playing an artist, I’m only practicing against you to get better against my kids. You gotta stay superior on stuff like that,” he chuckles. His sons are aged 10, 9 and 9, “but think they’re 21 and 22.” “My sons, they like to play vintage, so I have to go back and get a team that was great in the year of the team that they pick. My middle son’s vintage team is the LA Rams, my youngest son, Meatball, is going to go with the Atlanta Falcons from the year that Deion Sanders was playing, and my oldest son, Tune, is going to go with the Bengals when they had Boomer Esiason.”

Wayne also spoke about the Top 50 rap lists that have been circulating this summer. While he’s cited Jay-Z as his GOAT before, he took time to give credit to Missy Elliott as one of his favorite rappers and described her impact using another sports analogy.

“A lot of people, their eyes widen up when I say that. If I placed her, there may be a question. It shouldn’t be, though,” Wayne says. “When Missy came out, everybody was rapping about the same things, and everybody [in each region] was trying to get better at the same things, one type of style, in my eyes. … Missy came out way from Virginia on some other shit, making sounds. Her and Timbaland were like Tom Brady and Bill Bellichick.”

His rap bonafides are unquestionable, but Wayne has also dabbled in rock: his tour with Blink 182 was paired with a mashup of his song “A Milli” and the band’s “What’s My Age Again,” and he released his own rock album Rebirth in 2010. When asked if he would consider making another rock album, Wayne said he liked the idea.

“I would definitely want some help on it this time. I did that one by myself. The most help I got, I consider her like another mom, is [soul/R&B singer] Ms. Betty Wright. She taught me a few strings, a few chords on the guitar, how to hold a few notes,” Wayne reveals. “I would definitely fuck with Blink, I’d let Travis go crazy on one or two of them bitches. … I would love to go back and do some vintage songs on it this time as well. I would have to get some clearances on one or two songs from a band or an artist we all love, and do it like that. I’m trying to see what’s up with a Nirvana song or something. Try to get my Kurt Cobain on.”

The Young Money Entertainment founder also says that despite a lack of updates, he and Drake still plan to make an album together.

“We’re both doing what we do, but he already know,” Wayne says. “We still text and send songs here and there, change a verse because he killed me or change a verse ‘cuz I killed him. It’s still the same competition.”

While those two projects are good interview fodder, Wayne’s 13th studio album Funeral is further along – he’s said in the weeks after this interview that he plans to release it by the end of the year. It’ll be his first collection of new, timely music in at least four years, and he says his recording process has changed drastically since his prolific mixtape days.

“I love the difficulty of trying to fit in with what’s going on today, making sure I sound likable to the ears today and having to remind myself that it’s not about what it was back then. Going to the studio now, for me, is awesome. I used to go to that mufucka and do 12 songs a night. Cut a beat on, I’m going to go and you let me know when to stop,” Wayne says.

“It’s different now. I can’t wait to get in the studio now every night, just to see what I can come up with. [Before] it was just me going to the studio and saying, let me kill ten more songs and then I’m going to go home or do whatever I was doing. Now, it’s let me see what I come up with. Self-discovery, rebirth – call it whatever you want to call it but it feels awesome, I swear to God.”

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Stanley Nelson Lays Bare The Complicated Cool Of Miles Davis

Miles Davis had it. Whatever it was, Miles Davis was the sole proprietor. The aura, skill, and style that oozed from Davis’ pores helped propel the trumpeter to stardom. His musical accomplishments were only made more striking by the swagger that garnished them. Davis’ cool, projected best on stage, was an unwavering confidence with a dollop of syrupy charisma. Even his voice, a sandpaper-like whisper, which came as a result of yelling after throat surgery, weaved its way into the mythological-like figure Davis became. To be frank, Miles Davis was a cool-ass motherfucker and he knew it.

Yet underneath Davis’ cool was a man equally tormented by the second-class citizenship his country forced on him, as well as his own personal demons. Standing up to the racist government sometimes proved easier than defeating his alcoholism and drug abuse. Those closest to Davis felt his venom whenever he bit, and graciously allowed their love for him to be a balm for the wounds he left. How could the same man who composed and performed Kind of Blue be responsible for the cruelty of those who loved him so?

Well, it’s complicated.

Director Stanley Nelson lays Miles Davis bare—his good, bad, and beautiful—to a new generation while crystalizing the jazz musician’s legend to longtime fans with Miles Davis: The Birth of Cool. Nelson’s latest demonstrates Davis' complexity and all that he endured.

Nelson invited VIBE to his 5,000-square-foot Harlem office to discuss Davis. Before getting into the nitty-gritty of the nearly two-hour film, Nelson offers a firm handshake and an even stronger espresso. He apologizes for not having much sugar but makes up for it with a Wicker basket full of snacks that sits atop his white granite kitchen island. I opt for cookies and sneak the last bag of white cheddar popcorn for the train ride back to the office.

As we walk past the stainless steel appliances and through the dining room, the September sun shines bright through windows striking the white living room walls. Several books about Frederick Douglass are neatly stacked on the dining room table. Nelson reveals the writer and abolitionist will be the subject of his next feature, but for now, the 68-year-old director is entrenched in promotion for Miles Davis, an artist he says “transcends music.”

In between sips of tea, Nelson explains why Davis will always be a figure worth examing,

VIBE: What is your definition of cool? Stanley Nelson: I think the definition of cool changes with the times. I think cool is a certain calmness and being ahead of the times. It’s also a certain sophistication, I think Miles Davis had for so much of his life personified.

What do you think are some of the ingredients that go into making a Miles Davis? I don’t think there are very many people, across all genres, who can compare to Miles Davis. Miles Davis did what he did for five decades and was a leader in so many different movements in music and in jazz. Miles Davis transcends music.

What do you mean when you say "Miles Davis transcends music?" Miles Davis transcended the music because he was a leader in the way he looked, in the way he dressed, in things he demanded as you can see in the film. He demanded that he be treated with an amount of respect. The fact that he had black women on the covers of his albums, all those kinds of things made Miles Davis so different from so many other jazz musicians, who we love and admire for their music. We love and admire Miles Davis for his music, but it wasn’t just the music that made Miles Davis special.

Miles was also undeniably a beautiful looking man, and this was in the 50s and 60s. Miles Davis had very dark skin which was something that was not in the general public how it was thought of, so Miles kind of flipped that on its head.

This is going to sound like a dumb question but I have to ask it anyway. Why did you decide to honor Miles Davis with this film? There are a lot of reasons for making this film. There are a lot of reasons for making any film so whenever filmmakers tell you there’s only one reason they’re probably just lying, or saying whatever their publicist wants them to say. For one, his music is so incredible I would say he is easily one of the most important musicians of the 20th century, maybe the most important, you can argue that in any genre. Two, I’m a jazz lover and three Miles Davis is a very complicated individual so it makes for a better film. It’s not a simple story. I also think as we got into the film that Miles Davis’ story isn’t only about music, but it's about being a black person in the second half of the 20th century in the United States and I think that’s what makes the film work on a different level than a lot of other jazz films.

Veering off from Mr. Davis for a bit, how do you decide which topics or events you want to turn into films? You’ve done the black press, you’ve done a story about The Black Panthers, you did a story about Emmett Till. How do you choose which one to make into a film?

One of the great lessons for me was the first film I made called Two Dollars and A Dream. It was about Madame C.J. Walker and it took me seven years to make the film and I realize at that point films can take a long time to make, to raise the money and actually get the films made, so it's really important that the film be important to me, at least, that’s part of how I think about films when I think about what to do next. I’ve also been afforded the opportunity to paint on a big canvas so I’m trying to make stories that are big. I’m not just making small stories.

Did you always have this mentality of making big stories? I think so. I think part of that was unspoken, not really something I thought of. If you make something you want it to be a success, you want it to be a big success especially if it's going to take seven or 10 years of your life.

Why was Carl Lumbly the one you picked to voice Davis? Carl Lumbly is a great actor and he’s someone that I knew. Carl did the narration for one of our other films a long time ago, so Carl is someone I thought of. We sent him a bunch of tapes of Davis’ actual voice, and he practiced and we got back to him in a week and asked him to give us his Miles Davis voice over the phone and when he did, we were like, that’s good. It wasn’t perfect, but we could make it work.

What I personally loved about the film was that you didn’t glance over Miles Davis’ bitter personality. I loved the interviews with Frances Taylor, but it broke my heart that the creator of Kind of Blue forced his dancer wife to drop out of West Side Story. Miles was not an easy guy.

That’s putting it mildly. I think it was important that we tell that part of the story. I think what makes his story so rich and emotional there’s that dichotomy with Miles. The man that made some of the most beautiful music ever created and then was so rough for so many people. How do those things exist? Miles basically ruined Frances’ career by pulling her out of this show.

Yes! He was abusive to her, and after a few years they broke up. Her career had been ruined. I think one of the things that was so great for us while making the film was that Frances was so resilient and so beautiful and so funny in the film. You realize he tried but he couldn’t break her. I should say that Frances passed away Thanksgiving of last year. It was such a joy to be with Frances and interview her.

What do you hope people who don’t know Miles Davis will take away from the film and what do you hope people who do know Miles Davis will learn? One of the challenges of making any film, especially a film about Miles Davis, some people come in thinking there’s everything to know about Miles Davis. Some people come in and say "Miles who? Why’d you drag me to the theater?" You’ve got to walk that line and tell everybody something new and also be entertaining.

My mission in this film is partly to entertain. I don’t care how much you know about Miles. If you walk into this film and it’s two hours long you’re going to learn something new, or it’s going to be told to you in a different way. Certainly you’ve never been exposed to Frances. Just being exposed to Frances in and of itself is a trip. Part of the job is to entertain and frankly, that’s what we’re trying to do.

Miles Davis: The Birth of Cool is in select theaters. Click here

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Tekashi 6ix9ine attends the Made in America Music Festival on September 1, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Arik McArthur/FilmMagic

Nine Trey Trial: 6 Takeaways From Tekashi 6ix9ine's Testimony

UPDATE: 9/19 9:50 AM ET 

The second day of Daniel "Tekashi 6ix9ine" Hernandez's witness testimony provided insight into the handlings of several incidents surrounding the rapper including the attempted shootings of rappers Casanova, Chief Keef and former labelmate, Trippie Redd.

As Complex reported Wednesday (Sept. 18), Judge Paul Engelmayer noted the leak of the rapper's testimony that hit YouTube by way of VladTV. Shortly after, Hernandez explained how the Trey Nine gang began to fall apart–or split into four groups–leaving him to take sides. In the end, Hernandez was robbed and kidnapped by his own manager as video footage revealed. The rapper explained how his initial deal turned into extortion as he provided over $80,000 to the gang.

See more details from the trial below. Hernandez will take the stand again Thursday (Sept. 21).

Day 2

Tekashi Arranged A Hit On Chief Keef For $20,000

The hit against Keef was widely reported last year but Hernandez provided clarity to the incident. The rapper admitted to arranging a hit on the Chicago rapper after a dispute over "my friend Cuban," a reference to rapper Cuban Doll. Although Hernandez planned to provide the gunman with $20,000 he paid him $10,000 since the hitman fired one shot and subsequently missed.

He Credits Anthony “Harv” Ellison For Barclays Center Shooting 

 

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A post shared by Tr3y (@tr3yway_ent) on Sep 6, 2019 at 3:11pm PDT

Hernandez's brief beef with fellow Brooklyn rapper Casanova sprouted from Cas' diss song, "Set Trippin.'" After hearing it, Hernandez said he was ready to "run down" on the rapper. Seqo Billy tipped him off about Cas' alliance to the Bloods set, the Apes and how they would more than likely retaliate if Cas is harmed.

“There’s a kite out saying if any apes happen to cross ya path to fire on you or anybody around you… smarten up,” Seqo wrote in a group chat presented in court. Ellison allegedly replied, “Apes can fire on this dick… They don’t want to war with Billy’s [Nine Trey]." From there, several shootings took place in Brooklyn with one inside the Barclays Center.

 

His Beef With Rap-A-Lot Crew Caused Bigger Fallout With Trey Nine 

Hernandez went on to detail the very complicated story behind his beef with Rap-A-Lot records. The debacle started when Tekashi and the Treyway crew didn't "check-in" with Jas Prince before taking the stage at Texas' South by Southwest in March 2018. The incident was further muffled since Trey Nine members like Ellison and Billy Ato were beefing with Hernandez and Shotti at the time. In the end, Hernadez never performed. His crew would later go on to rob and attack an artist from Rap-A-Lot in New York a month later.

Footage of the robbery/fight was filmed by Hernandez. As he and Shotti fled the scene, Shotti kicked the rapper out the car forcing him to take the train to Brooklyn with a gun in his possession. All of the incidents led up to the kidnapping scenario which Herdanaez claimed was in no way staged.

“I’m pleading with Harv,” Hernandez said. “I’m telling him, ‘Don’t shoot. I gave you everything. I put money in your pocket.’ I told him that I was tired of being extorted.” The robbery/kidnapping was filmed by Ellison but also recorded by Hernadez's driver Jorge Rivera who was already a cooperating witness in the case.

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Daniel Hernandez, known widely as Tekashi 6ix9ine, took the stand in a Manhattan federal courtroom against Anthony “Harvey” Ellison and Aljermiah “Nuke” Mack who are facing racketeering and firearms charges. Acting as a cooperating witness, the 23-year-old used part one of his testimony to break down his origins with the Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods and how they've played an instrumental part in keeping up the rapper's gang image.

Pitchfork reports in addition to his testimony on Tuesday (Sept. 17) about "Treyway," the rapper made it known he began cooperating with federal agents on November 19, 2018– just one day after he was arrested on his own racketeering and firearms charges.

Answering questions from attorney Michael Longyear, the rapper "unhesitatingly" replied in full to the prosecutor about his kidnapping, how he learned about the Nine Trey crew, and why he continued to support the gang with guns and other resources.

With the rapper taking the stand again on Wednesday (Sept. 18) for part two of his testimony, here's what you missed from his first testimony.

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Day 1 1. Tekashi Testified Against Fellow Nine Trey Gangsta Blood Members

Anthony “Harv” Ellison and Aljermiah “Nuke” Mack were called out by the rapper as alleged Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods members. Prosecutors claim the men were two high-profile members of the gang who terrorized neighborhoods with gun violence. Mack allegedly sold drugs such as heroin, fentanyl, and ecstasy in Brooklyn. Both are accused of kidnapping the Hernandez last year.

2. Trippie Redd's Gang Affiliation Was Identified By 6ix9ine

Speaking on his come up in the industry, the 23-year-old shared how his hit single "Gummo" was a direct diss to former labelmate, Trippie Redd. “Me and Trippie Redd were signed to the same label,” Hernandez said. “There was a lot of jealousy involved," he revealed while sharing how Trippie's alleged affiliation with Five Nine Brims.

3. Tekashi Provided Gang With Hits In Guns In Exchange For Protection

In 2014, Hernandez worked at Stay Fresh Deli, a vegan bodega in Bushwick where he met Peter “Righteous P” Rodgers. After being told he had the "image" for a rapper, he started making music and touring. He met rapper Seqo Billy who introduced him to members of the Nine Trey to act as supporters in his "Gummo" video. Hernandez purchased three dozen red bandannas for the men in the video. "I told Seqo that I would like for them all to wear red,” he said.

From there, he met his former manager, Kifano “Shottie” Jordan, who taught him the Nine Trey handshake. After creating “Kooda” he “officially became a Nine Trey member” without going through a traditional initiation like slicing a stranger in the face with a blade.

His role in the gang was simple, the rapper divulged. “[I] just keep making hits and be the financial support for the gang... so they could buy guns and stuff like that.” When asked what he got in return he said, “My career. I got the street credibility. The videos, the music, the protection - all of the above."

After seeing the traction from "Gummo" and "Kooda," the rapper realized Treyway could change his life. “I knew I had a formula,” he said. “That’s what people liked.”

4. Tekashi Turned On Gang Members 24 Hours After His 2018 Arrest

Hernadez didn't need much time to ponder a working relationship with the feds. Just 24 hours after he and other Trey Nine affiliates faced racketeering charges, the rapper agreed to work with the feds. Initially facing 47 charges, his current testimony stems from a plea he took with the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office; under the agreement he pled guilty to nine federal counts.

“The defendant’s obligations under this agreement are as follows: That he shall truthfully and completely disclose all information of the activities of himself and others to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and that he cooperate fully with law-enforcement agencies,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Longyear said during the plea proceeding. “It is understood that the defendant’s cooperation is likely to reveal the activities of individuals and that witness protection may be required at a later date.”

5. Ellison Claims The Rapper's Abduction Was A Publicity Stunt

Ellison and Mack have accused the rapper's kidnapping in July 2018. Hernandez spoke to Angie Martinez shortly after the kidnapping and suspected people in his crew were behind the act. But Ellison’s lawyer, Devereaux Cannick, has another theory.

Calling the kidnapping a “hoax,” Cannick compared the incident to Jussie Smollet's Chicago incident. The name drop is a direct reference to the actor's claims of faking a racist and homophobic attack against himself. Cannick also claimed Ellison came up with the kidnapping as a publicity stunt in order to boost Hernandez's image.

Meanwhile, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Rebold argued that the kidnapping was real. After Ellison was fired from a "protection role" in Hernandez's camp, Rebold said, “This did not sit well with Mr. Ellison,” allowing the kidnapping plan to come to life.

6. Tekashi Nodded To His Music Videos Played In Court

Two music videos, “Gummo” and “Kooda," were played at the courthouse. Hernandez pointed out alleged gang members who appeared in the videos while nodding to his viral hits. While speaking on the creation of the video, Hernandez said he wanted the “aesthetic” of “Gummo” to reflect the "Treyway" vision.

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