Grits and Biscuits party
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The House Party Is The New Festival

Built in 1920, Coney Island’s Wonder Wheel is as much of a Brooklyn signature as the bridge. It’s overlooked the borough’s many lives from its southern tip; after the Jackie Robinson years, the crack epidemic, and the Bloomberg era, the “WONDER WHEEL” sign pledges to glow red every summer night. There’ve been two nights this summer when the 150-foot landmark is the second-most significant ferris wheel on this beach.

For those two rare occasions, it’s the ride a five-minute walk west that garners a second look; the smaller one boasts the words “The Greatest Day Ever!” in cursive font at its axis. It’s past 10 p.m. and its bulbs eminate green as the festival’s attendees twerk to the DJ’s Jersey Club mix, oblivious to the blackout that has paralyzed Midtown Manhattan. Past the other amusement rides and fried Oreo stand, inside the Ford Amphitheater, EDM producer Carnage is hyping the crowd in his guttural voice with every other bass drop as they’re bathed in their own red light. The scene is just the latest edition of Irvin Benitez’s brainchild, an amalgam of EDM, hip-hop, and carnival attractions inspired partly by the big time music festivals that have become ubiquitous.

The audacity of placing his annual amusement park next to the Wonder Wheel isn’t lost on Benitez as he talks about GDE in an Astoria Starbucks a little over a week later. The New York native doesn’t look back on that sight with that much awe; he’s already well-aware of the minor strokes that built this portrait. Benitez remembers GDE’s growth with a boyish energy that only betrays his age as his wide grin pushes his eyebrows into the wrinkles on his forehead. By his account, Benitez invested his life savings in throwing the festival, a mix of DJ acts and games produced by the same company Alicia Keys used for her child’s birthday party. The banker-turned-event organizer took a picture of the site and at one point sent the image to an Adidas executive in hopes of getting the brand as a sponsor. He refused to consider a social media pitch.

However, the first GDE did well enough for Benitez to be able to afford to have a ferris wheel the following time. That same executive saw an image of the ferris wheel and decided to reach out to him unaware that he was the sender of that DM. But Benitez remembered when they sat down in Adidas’ offices to discuss a partnership.

“At the end of the conversation, I’m like, ‘Yo, I wanted to show you something...I DM’d you,’” Benitez says, recalling that he took a screenshot of the slight with him to that meeting. “He was like, ‘Wow, I guess that I should pay more attention to my DMs.”

Benitez’s first famed event—the still-running Brunch Bounce, which became one of the first to bring the day party experience to Washington Heights after originally being just a shindig to bring his friends together—was created with just a three-figure budget from his own pocket. The Greatest Day Ever! is Adidas sponsored with costs that run upwards toward $2 million.

Though the ferris wheel is unique, the story of GDE’s rise has familiar themes. DussePalooza, formerly HennyPalooza, grew from an invite-only house party for friends that thrived on endless Hennessy. It now subsists on D’Usse and a partnership with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, boasting Pusha-T, and Jay-Z himself as a few of its famed guests. Grits & Biscuits started when two HBCU alumni bonded over a southern hip-hop mixtape while living in New York. They did not realize how many New Yorkers had love for the subgenre until over 500 people showed up at that first party at Park Slope’s Southpaw in 2010. “It was almost like someone getting high for the first time,” third founder Maurice Slade, who co-founded the party alongside VP Culture, LiveNation Erika Lewis, and his brother Alzo Slade, says. The ecstasy was too high for them not to do another one—and eventually tour nationwide.

They’re all gatherings that grew into entertainment brands that pride themselves on democracy instead of clout. In a sense, they rebel against the exclusivity that’s been a signature of New York City nightlife. Many of the city’s clubgoers have stories of bouncers defending the door against a growing line, VIPs jealously guarding their bottle service spoils, or becoming hyper aware of one’s poverty thanks to a celebrity’s presence. DussePalooza was of a similar sort of guardedness during its early HennyPalooza days: attendees needed either invites from founder Kameron McCullough or be well-connected to get in before it became a public event at the 2013 Howard Homecoming after years of social media buzz.

“They felt that energy from us coming in to just know that it was a safe space, to know that there wasn’t any bullshit happening, to know the women were there just to have a good time,” says McCullough. “It was just a really fun house party that a lot of people have been craving and looking for and didn’t have the opportunity to have. When we opened it to the public, yeah we were nervous because at that point it was like, ‘I don’t really know this person.’ Probably can’t account for 500 people I don’t know personally. But in that same space, people just kind of felt that energy and what ended up happening was even with the people we didn’t know, we ended up creating a community.”

Benitez has a distaste for party hosts who don’t actually host and just exist in a glorified air in a roped-off section; at GDE, it’s him that’s greeting guests at the door. DussePalooza’s lore includes an ex-New York Giant whose publicist pitched the idea of him showing up as a star guest. (And tellingly, Grits & Biscuits’ merchandise include “No VIP” clothing.)

“He kind of angled it like his presence would make the party bottle service or whatever,” says Cory Townes, an early HennyPalooza guest and host. “Kam and [co-founders Kazeem Famuyide and Nile ‘Lowkey' Ivy] and them were like, ‘No, that’s not what this party is about.’ The party ain’t about VIP. This is everybody just being in the mix just listening to good music, dancing, and having a good time.”

The parties destabilize that dynamic; the absence of bottle service and similar perks evoke a large scale house party that appeals to its attendees’ shared love of expensive cognac-made-affordable and, in Grits & Biscuits’ case, Jeezy. The appeal isn’t only to everyday people, either. YG endearingly called DussePalooza “just some black sh*t” during a recent Hot 97 interview.

 

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“D’usse Palooza some black shit” - @yg during his interview with Ebro in The Morning at @hot97 😂 🗽#dussepalooza

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His point was that was when black culture is presented on a large scale—his 2019 Coachella set for instance—there’s usually a predominant audience consuming it. (YG: “When you do your tour and sh*t, you put your tickets up on the internet, black people is not the first ones to go buy it.”) DussePalooza is one of those spaces where the fact that it’s cultivated by people of color is seen in the faces of the audience and the room’s very air.

“That’s the message,” says ChriStylezz, DussePalooza’s longtime host. “It’s just us in one place having a great time, singing along, electric sliding, rapping, dancing, getting to it. It’s just some black sh*t.”

The scene is a small one that vies for the same demographic—college-educated people of color—but it’s not necessarily competitive. They come with their own worldviews; Benitez notes GDE draws more of the big festival Lollapalooza experience than G&B’s more communal vibe. The organizers also maintain they’re supporters of each other’s brands—the DussePalooza crew are no strangers to G&B’s gigs and are getting ready to co-host an event with Brunch Bounce at the Brooklyn Mirage in August.

“There’s no reason for it to be competitive,” Lewis says. “We’re all just trying to elevate the culture in a way that’s meaningful and respectful.”

The festival’s increasing crowd sizes parallels the founders’ ambitions. Benitez described himself as “dog tired” when the Greatest Day Ever became a Monday. When he started Brunch Bounce, he was a banker who was breaking even doing it as a side gig, when it took no longer than a week to plan. While planning those events still takes a short amount of time, the Greatest Day Ever’s schema dates back to the prior autumn, when the Wonder Wheel is less wondrous and the more lively lights are the yellow ones on the projects that overlook the beach. He said he’d already started thinking about the next artist lineup when this year’s GDE went down.

 

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Thank you for to everyone that rocked with us this year ... see you guys in 2019 #DussePalooza

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ChrisStylezz, Chief Operations Officer Benner Hall, and the rest of the crew already had their big We-Made-It moment: “Last December. Hammerstein Ballroom, Jay-Z came to DussePalooza.” His starry eyes and seconds-long silence make the significance of Hov’s appearance—not just as a cameo, but as a guest staying for hours—obvious. But Mr. Carter is a supporter instead of an end goal. Chris is still looking upwards toward becoming a boutique festival, where instead of touring over 20 cities, DussePalooza expands its scale in three or four major ones, while McCullough is considering moving it to other countries. Whatever the height or continent, they’re convinced it’s in reach.

“We’ve looked at it like we could do whatever we wanted because nobody has really done what we’re doing at this moment,” Hall says. “It’s up to us to define what our path is in being trailblazers in the real time. The difference is [the goal] isn’t high in the sky anymore. We’re looking at it like it’s obtainable.”

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Kobe Bryant sits alone on the bench before a basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs at the Staples Center on Sunday, April 4, 2010 in Los Angeles.
Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG

Where Have You Gone, Kobe Bean Bryant?

I am in shock and I am traumatized. Any death hurts you, if you have any sense of humanity, and especially if it is not expected, out of the blue, and clocks you with a ferocious uppercut, between the eyes, in such a way that the tempo of your day, month, year, is completely concussed, knowing that you will never—never—forget this particular passing of a life. It was the Brooklyn rapper The Notorious B.I.G. who said, like the prophet he was, “Sometimes I hear death knockin’ at my front door.” It was the English poet John Donne who said, like the church cleric he was, “death diminishes me...therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Well, as we used to say in hip-hop, let the poppers pop and let the breakers break and, my Lord, let the grievers swoon and let the choirs sing sad spirituals because the bell is tolling for Kobe Bean Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and the seven other passengers aboard the helicopter that crashed in Calabasas, California, into hilly, rough terrain, after trying to steer its way through a syrupy fog on a West Coast Sunday morning. When I awoke home in New York, I did what I normally do: I scanned both my cell phone and my laptop for news of the day. It was amazing to see that LeBron James had just passed Kobe to become the third-highest scorer in the history of the National Basketball Association—after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at number one and Karl Malone at number two. It was doubly amazing to note that the top four scorers in NBA history had all played, at some point, with the Los Angeles Lakers, with Kobe’s the longest tenure, at 20 years, from his debut in 1996 to his retirement in 2016. I next read Kobe Bryant’s tweet congratulating LBJ publicly for surpassing him. Little did I know, little did any of us know, that that would be his last tweet ever. I assumed it would be just another mundane Sunday until the evening when I was set to watch Lizzo and Billie Eilish and others at the Grammys.

But then I got an urgent text from a trusted friend and fellow journalist, asking me if I had heard about Kobe. I gasped; I was speechless; the tears came, and I wanted to shove them back into my eye sockets. I did not dare believe Kobe Bryant, born on August 23, 1978, was dead, at the still tender age of 41. My first social media post could not utter the words; I simply said I had heard distressing news about him. Then I texted back and forth with several others, hoping, praying, for some sort of miracle. It is not that I am celebrity-obsessed. I am not. But the reality is that stars, be they entertainers or athletes or politicians or “The Royals,” take up space in our collective mental, in our collective soul—if they are around long enough—like blood relatives, like a father, a mother, a sister, a brother, an uncle, an aunt, a cousin. They become parts of us, and we are a part of them. Be they James Dean or Marilyn Monroe or Dr. King or John Lennon or Natalie Wood or Princess Diana or Aaliyah or Amy Winehouse or Kobe Bean Bryant, when they go, pieces of us go with them. We rise and fall with them, we laugh and cry with them, we win and lose with them. So when a person with the level of global recognition of a Kobe Bryant dies and dies so tragically, we feel as if we have lost a beloved family member. We are immediately in mourning, as everything about us has faded to black, as black as the lethal Black Mamba snake Kobe channeled as his alter-ego on the court. We are there at the funeral or memorial service, a-hootin' and a-hollerin’, as parts of our being attempt to climb into the coffin, the way Kobe climbed into the heads and over the outstretched hands of helpless opponents. We double over in pain as our bodies slump to the floor, the way Kobe’s did when he shredded his Achilles near the end of his career.

And what a career it was. I first learned of Kobe Bryant when he was a high school phenomenon in a suburb of Philadelphia in 1995, 1996. I learned that his father was former NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, a journeyman athlete who once played with the legendary Dr. J and the Philadelphia 76ers in the mid-1970s. I learned that Joe never became a star player, so he bounced around a lot, in Philly, where Kobe was born, to places like Italy, where the only boy of three Bryant children would pick up Italian and other languages along the way. I learned that he was named after the famous beef in Kobe, Japan, and his middle name, a cosmic chopping of his Dad’s nickname. I learned that Kobe worshipped NBA superstar Michael Jordan, who was then in the middle of his six championships with the Chicago Bulls. Indeed, Kobe fanned out on MJ so much that he would stick out his tongue in a similar manner when going for a shot, and also wore a wrist band high up on a bicep just like Mike, too.

It was hard to say what Kobe Bryant would become in those first years, particularly since he was only 17 and straight outta high school when drafted. Kobe took soul-pop princess Brandy to his senior prom and even made a hip-hop record that did not do much. He was a teen idol project of Mr. NBA logo himself, Jerry West, acquired in a trade with the Charlotte Hornets on draft day, pairing Kobe with the league’s reigning big man, Shaquille O’Neal, and eventually Michael Jordan’s Bulls coach, Phil Jackson.

As Kobe morphed from close-cropped hair to a wild and angled afro to nearly bald during his 20-year career, I cannot say that I always understood or appreciated him, at least not in the beginning. It was obvious he was a gifted natural scorer, but there were also his nasty feuds with Shaq and Coach Jackson, and allegations that he was a selfish, just-give-me-the-damn-ball player in a team sport. No matter, because first came three straight championships with Shaq, then two more with Pau Gasol, proving the point that Kobe, the most dominant alpha male hoopster of his times, could win without O’Neal. Wedged in there are two Olympic gold medals with Lebron and company in 2008 and 2012; a regular-season MVP; two scoring titles; the second-most points in an NBA game ever (81); four All-Star game MVP awards; a slam dunk contest title; 18 All-star game appearances in his 20 years; and the dizzying epilogue to it all: 60 points in his very last game.

Indeed, there is an ancestral baton-passing from Dr. J, to Michael Jordan, to Kobe Bryant, to LeBron James. Unbelievable and unapologetic work ethic, stunningly fearless leadership, and a charisma coupled with a killer instinct that defined each of their eras. While Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest basketball player ever, fact is Kobe Bryant is the bridge from MJ to LeBron, a top-3 to top-5 player, easily, and also the player most like Mike that NBA players of recent times have seen, as many were too young to have witnessed Jordan, and regard MJ as an unreachable and mythical God. While Larry Bird and Magic Johnson retrieved basketball from the trash-bin of late-night tv reruns, and Michael Jordan made it crazy, sexy, and cool and an international religion in that Jesus sort of way, I would argue that Kobe Bryant took the sport to the promised land of becoming the national past-time that baseball once was, paralleling the sped-up society America was becoming because of the tech revolution. Put another way, Michael Jordan was crisp, after-work R&B with massive pop appeal while Kobe was defiantly hip-hop, a Negro with an attitude and a gigantic boulder on his shoulder.

He came into the league the same year as Allen Iverson, who was selected number one overall, and of the twelve picks ahead of Kobe at number thirteen, it’s only Iverson and Ray Allen that are Hall of Fame level, like Kobe. Kobe Bean Bryant simply outworked and out-hustled every single player of his class, stretching his mandate from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, from Tupac and Biggie to Drake and Meek Mill, from SkyPagers to iPhones, from CDs to Spotify, from MTV to Netflix.

Scrape and strip away all of that, and there Kobe Bryant was, the Black Mamba I saw play in person on more than a few occasions: a six-foot-six specimen of a humanoid who came into the NBA as a teenager, tall and lanky and wide-eyed, and left it muscled and statesman-like, having willed his frame from every manner of finger and hand and shoulders injuries, including his miraculous return from that torn Achilles. He had the encyclopedic IQ of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the Cirque du Soleil flexibility of Michael Jordan and Dr. J, and the insatiable appetite to win of Bill Russell and Jerry West. Watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like watching The Nicholas Brothers tap and contort and leap through the most brilliant dance routine in film history in “Stormy Weather,” defying gravity and common sense in spite of the many ways Black men had been told to stay in their place. No, watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like being there when Langston Hughes spit blood poetry from his Harlem veins, putting to words what the eyes and heart done seen, carrying the dreams of an entire people across rivers, with no shame. No, watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like James Brown live on stage singing, scatting, screaming, dancing, splitting, freestyling his Blackness in mid-movement as if he were an ordained Yoruba priest refusing to be stuck at the bottom of a slave ship. No, watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like watching African ballet, except with a basketball and baggy shorts, where Black male minds and Black male bodies like Kobe Bryant’s acted as if they, not a White man, had invented this game, cutting, slashing, hanging on rims, up on their toes, back on the heels of their feet, basketball representing a freedom for Kobe that could not even be explained by a Langston Hughes poem.

I saw Kobe drive past people for lay-ups. I saw Kobe dunk. I saw Kobe shoot mid-range jumpers. I saw Kobe hit three-point daggers. No matter what you, I, anyone thought of Kobe’s way of playing basketball, you simply could never take your eyes from him. He whipped his chiseled body, the way we colored folks were whipped on those steamy Southern plantations, except he had full control of his brain, and his body, and understood that he was going to be a different kind of man, a different kind of Black man, one where sports was merely a means to the prize, not the prize itself. And the big prize for Kobe Bryant was to be his own boss for the rest of his life—

But, if there is one major blemish on his public record, it is the sexual assault allegation by a young woman who worked at a resort in Eagle, Colorado in the summer of 2003. Kobe had at this point been married a few years to Vanessa and was the father of a daughter. The case damaged his reputation at the time badly, ended several corporate endorsement deals, soured many from him, and foreshadowed the #MeToo movement. But, interestingly enough, Kobe Bryant remains one of the only famous accused men to say words like these in the aftermath of such an allegation, and after the accuser had refused to testify:

"Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter."

The accuser filed a separate civil lawsuit against Bryant, which the two sides settled privately, and Kobe apologized, something which is rare for most men to do, particularly with that kind of allegation. But I thought of the incident when, two years after he had retired, his movie, “Dear Basketball,” was both nominated for and won the 2018 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. Was Kobe Bryant given a pass because of his celebrity and status and long allegiance to the Los Angeles community, which included Hollywood? Or did someone take note of that admission and apology made around the sexual assault case and believed Kobe had learned from that horrible mistake?

I do not know, I am not here to judge, and I think about the fact that Gianna and two other daughters would be born to Vanessa and Kobe after that incident. I think about the ultimate alpha male living in a female-centered household and what that must have done for him, for his growth as a man, as a father, as a husband. And I think about the many photos I have seen of Gianna and Kobe at basketball games, the obviously beautiful and effortless love between father and daughter, and what it must have meant to Kobe to be able to mentor Gianna’s clear passion for the sport that had made her Dad a world-wide superstar, a filmmaker, an author, an entrepreneur, a philanthropist, a millionaire several times over, an ex-athlete who was sprinting full speed ahead into the second act of his life. A mentorship that led to their being on that helicopter together when it crashed.

I ache for this loss, for our loss, for Kobe, for Gianna, for the seven other human beings on that ill-fated copter ride. Ash is to ash and dust is to dust, and the physical being of Kobe Bryant has been snatched from us, forever. I ache for his wife, Vanessa, I ache for his three remaining daughters, Natalia, age 17, Bianka, age 3, and Capri, not yet 1, and whose middle name happens to be Kobe. Forget what Kobe Bean Bryant means to us as a champion athlete. I cannot imagine what it is like to lose a partner, a parent, a sibling, in such a cruel and barbaric way. There is just something very perverted about experiencing this in real-time. There is just something very maddening about the fact that there is nothing we can do to bring him, her, them, back.

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Merry Christmas 🙏🏾🎄🎁

A post shared by Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) on Dec 25, 2019 at 11:20am PST

Finally, I think of a song Simon & Garfunkel wrote long ago called “Mrs. Robinson,” where they ask whatever happened to a once-great athlete who represented the spirit of an entire people. As America and the planet mourns the passing of Kobe, as we cry tears for a person who was trying to do the right thing in a time of many doing wrong, I reimagine those lyrics for the Black Mamba and I end it here because I have no other words—

Where have you gone, Kobe Bean Bryant

A nation turns its lonely eyes to you

Woo, woo, woo

What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson

Kobe Bean has left and gone away

Hey, hey, hey 

Hey, hey, hey

 

Kevin Powell is a poet, journalist, civil and human rights activist, public speaker, and author of 14 books, including his autobiography, 'The Education of Kevin Powell.'

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D'Angelo at the VH1 Men Strike Back concert at Madison Square Gardens in New York, USA on April 11, 2000.
James Devaney/WireImage

The Incantation of D'Angelo's 'Voodoo'

“Envision this: a lone man in a haunted room surrounded by glowing instruments. What sounds are evoked from a room where Jimi once slept? What are the rewards of those who tend to their God-given talents as they would have the Creator tend to their spirits and daily lives? What happens when the artist becomes the conjur man?”

Twenty years ago, poet Saul Williams posed this question in the liner notes for D’Angelo’s sophomore offering, Voodoo: notes that served as a listener guide while exploring the long-awaited follow up to 1995’s Brown Sugar. Voodoo is considered by most as D’Angelo’s definitive work. (In fairness, he’s only graced us with three studio albums in his 25-year career.) Upon release, the LP was widely celebrated; it landed near the top of every major year-end list for 2000, and garnered the Grammy for Best R&B Album in 2001. In the years since, living up to its name, Voodoo has become something spiritual for many – a totem of musical greatness and genius. Okayplayer declared it “neo-soul’s most salient creation,” and no doubt this month there’ll be a flood of pieces examining the project’s importance in R&B music. Indeed, D’Angelo’s debut and sophomore albums each marked turning points in R&B. The Virginia native’s first outing came two years before the phrase “neo-soul” was coined. Add Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite (1996), Erykah Badu’s Baduizm (1997), and Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998), and you have the four musical horsemen of neo-soul. Baduizm inspired executive Kedar Massenberg, who also oversaw Brown Sugar, to create a descriptor that came to define a subgenre. But when Brown Sugar first hit the streets, it simply felt like an extension of the jazz and classic soul influences found in the work of D’Angelo’s future collaborators from A Tribe Called Quest and The Roots.

Five years later, Voodoo bowed at the top of a new millennium, at a time when the R&B genre was evolving and fracturing in ways that R&B and soul purists are still lamenting today (Hi, it’s me. I’m lamenting). In 1999, TLC’s Fanmail and Destiny’s Child’s Writing’s on the Wall signaled the pop-leaning, bounce and tempo-driven, slickly-produced direction R&B was heading toward to maintain a presence on hip-hop dominated airwaves. Voodoo was a collective resistance, a labor of love from some of the finest artists of the era. A harkening back to musical foundations. Rolling Stone dubbed it “an ambitious record that seeks nothing less than to unstick black music from commercial considerations and leave it free to seek its muse.” Questlove wrote of the album effort shortly before release, “It was a love for the dead state of black music, a love to show our idols how much they taught us. (T)his was the love movement. (A)nd this was the beginning.”

“We have come in the name of Jimi, Sly, Marvin, Stevie, all artists formerly known as spirits and all spirits formerly known as stars. We have come in the tradition of burning bushes, burning ghettos, burning splifs, and the ever-burning candles of our bedrooms and silent chambers. We have come bearing instruments and our voices: Falsetto and baritone, percussion and horns…We speak of darkness, not as ignorance, but as the unknown and the mysterious of the unseen.”  - Saul Williams

The Avengers-esque origin story of Voodoo is part of the album’s power and mythology. The project inspired the formation of the Soulquarians collective, a superhero music taskforce that began with D’Angelo, Questlove, J. Dilla and James Poyser (all Aquarians), taking over the long-dormant Electric Lady Studios – former studio home of Jimi Hendrix – to create something new and real. The crew expanded as Common and Erykah also camped out at Electric Lady to work on their upcoming projects, and other collaborators including Q-Tip and Raphael Saadiq fell through in regular rotation. Quest, D and camp went full music nerd, using the studio’s vintage equipment and keeping everything as organic and analog as possible to create a retro energy and sound. They studied old performances of Prince, Stevie Wonder and other Yodas -  their name for the masters - obsessively, channeling the spirits of their heroes. Voodoo was the start of a legacy.

Famed music critic Robert Christgau said Voodoo is “widely regarded as the greatest R&B album of the post-Prince era.” And it is…but are we puttin’ too much on it? I do believe D’s lack of visibility and minimal output since Voodoo adds a preciousness to the album (not unlike Miseducation, which might be discussed differently if there was more work to talk about).  But also, Voodoo is not an R&B album; it’s some unnamed sh*t (calling it neo-soul is reductive) that the Soulquarians pioneered and mastered. You can’t approach it casually; you’re not gonna just throw this joint on while cleaning the house. Quest additionally said of Voodoo in his (admittedly biased) review, “Music lovers come under 2 umbrellas. (N)umber one: those who use it for growth and spiritual fulfillment and number two: those who use it for mere background music. (T)he thing is, this record is too extreme to play the middle of the fence. (T)his record is the litmus test that will reveal the most for your personality.”

“Here is a peer that is focused wholly on his craft and has given himself the challenge of bettering himself. I mean really, D could have come out with any ol’ follow-up album after Brown Sugar dropped so that he could double his sales “While he’s still hot.” You know, an album that sounds just like Brown Sugar, uses all the same formulas, so that audiences don’t have to think….or grow, they just keep liking the same shit. He could even sample songs that you’re already familiar with so that you don’t have to go through the “hard work” of getting used to a new melody or bass line. Y’all don’t hear me.” – Saul Williams

Voodoo is without question a superior album to Brown Sugar, technically and sonically. It takes the formula D’Angelo created in his mama’s Virginia home, blending soul, funk and a dash of hip-hop, and elevates it. Late trumpeter Roy Hargrove added jazz’s controlled chaos. J. Dilla’s beat alchemy and Premier’s deft precision rendered the few samples used almost unrecognizable. Pino Palladino contributed his legendary bass lines. Rounded out with Tip and Ray Ray, plus Quest steering the ship as co-captain along with D’Angelo – it was a soul fantasy league. Yes, Voodoo is a stronger album, but I’d argue Brown Sugar is more focused (though some would say it’s just more formulaic). It’s definitely a more accessible work. The New York Times, examining how the Soulquarians brought Voodoo together, said the process was “vague, halting, nonlinear.” Voodoo is a long jam session – literally. They approached much of the completely original material through retro engineering: long jam sessions of hero material - Prince, Curtis, etc - would evolve into a new song. You can especially pick this up in “The Line,” which feels like it was maybe going to be an interlude and just kept going, and “Chicken Grease.”

The transitions between songs can be jarring, and the songs are so gritty and raw that some give a bootleg or demo feel – undoubtedly intentional, as Questlove and D’Angelo were studying bootlegs of their faves. Rolling Stone’s reviewer declared the album sounded “loose and unfinished” (but worth noting that it was No. 4 on their top albums of the year list later). The highest praise for a single universally went to “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” D’Angelo’s outstanding homage to his and Questlove’s most esteemed Yoda, Prince. It’s one of the more familiar-sounding tracks, along with “Send it On,” “Feel Like Making Love” and “Left and Right,” which feel the most like Brown Sugar follow-ups.

Those aside, Voodoo is to Brown Sugar what Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly is to Good Kid m.A.A.d City in terms of expansion and departure from the sound fans originally fell in love with. Some embraced it, some couldn’t get all the way with it. I can testify firsthand that when D’Angelo brought that jam session energy to Essence Fest in 2012 to launch his first tour in over ten years, folks were less than thrilled that after waiting so long to see him on stage again, he was prioritizing the un-danceable, less melodic cuts like “Devil’s Pie” and “Chicken Grease” on the setlist, and then didn’t play the album versions of the hits so they could hit a two-step and sing along.

What Voodoo is, is grown. As hell. Not only is it not music for a casual fan, it’s not music for a casual love thing, either. Brown Sugar is adoration expressed publicly; let me tell folks how much I’m digging you. Brown Sugar is dating. You can let it rock at a kick back with a crew. Voodoo is intimate. It’s a relationship. You don’t play “How Does It Feel” or “Send it On” in a house full of people (and if you do, I have questions).

Which brings us to the gift and curse of Voodoo: D’Angelo becoming a sex symbol. The 20-year old, lip licking, possibly blunted D’Angelo was sexy in a dude-off-the-block way with his baggy jeans, Avirex coats, and timbs. But 25-year old D’Angelo took the baggy clothes off, and had cut abs, a v-line, and the bold audacity to showcase it, on the album cover and in the visual for the project’s third single…and nobody knew how to act. This is where Voodoo simultaneously goes left and becomes legend all at once. Also, why we can’t have nice things.

Twenty years ago, there were no blogs, no social media and no such thing as going viral. Music video channels still specialized in… music videos. And D’Angelo’s manager Dominique Trenier, and director Paul Hunter conceptualized a visual for “Untitled (How Does it Feel)” that The New York Times called “the most controversial video to air in years.” The clip, eventually referred to in conversation as simply “the video,” was a four and a half minute-long, single shot of D’Angelo wearing nothing but a gold chain and cornrows. And sweat. There were no shiny suits, no dancers, no fish-eye lenses. Just Michael Archer staring into our souls through the camera.

The success and notoriety of the video propelled Voodoo to a No. 1 debut on the Billboard Top 200. The plan was to break D’Angelo out of the R&B/neo-soul space to a broader audience, and it worked. Too well. By the time D launched the Voodoo tour in the Spring of 2000, the attention, grabbing, catcalling and screaming were overwhelming. As an artist, he’d put painstaking time and effort into creating the greatest piece of work possible; art that would impact hearts and minds. Spent grueling hours preparing a live show that would measure up to James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic -  and fans were just yelling incessantly for him to take his shirt off. “It feels good, actually, when I do it,” D ‘Angelo told Rolling Stone near the beginning of the tour. “But I don’t want it to turn into a thing where that’s what it’s all about. I don’t want it to turn things away from the music and what we doin’ up there…I’m not no stripper. I’m up there doin’ somethin’ I strongly believe in.”

(Shout out to Anthony Hamilton’s background vocals coming through all loud and clear)

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened, and D grew so self-conscious and uncomfortable he eventually suspended the tour three weeks early, and retreated from the public eye. Over the next several years there were multiple arrests (with bloated mugshots looking kind of like Thor when he took his hammer and went home in Endgame), at least one trip to rehab, and several tentative returns before he surprised the world with Black Messiah in December of 2014 – almost 15 years later.

“Untitled (How Does it Feel)” is still a highlight in Voodoo conversations, it still evokes immediate remarks about D’s body and sex (I’m guilty of this), and it’s still a sore spot for the artist. So much so that when he reemerged in the public eye in 2012, he and Paul Hunter insisted the video’s inspiration was D’Angelo’s grandmother’s cooking and the Holy Ghost. (Insert side-eye gif here.)

But this is the challenge of a great artist: put everything you have into the work, then give that work to the world, and by doing so relinquish control over what the world does with it. So is Voodoo the millennial answer to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme? Is it the centerpiece of the neo-soul movement? Is it the Soulquarian stone? Is it just an outstanding groove? Is it just D’Angelo in leather pants and no shirt and you really don’t care about all that other stuff? The answer, according to our original Voodoo guide, Saul Williams, depends on us.

“D’Angelo has made his choices, carefully weaving them into his character, and has courageously stepped into the void bearing these sonic offerings to be delivered to the beckoning goddess of the new age. I do not wish to overly dissect this album. It’s true dissection occurs in how it seeps into your life shapes your moments. What you were doing when you realized he was saying this or that? How it played softly in the back ground when you first saw him or her. How you kept it on repeat on that special night. You’ll see. These songs are incantations” – Saul Williams

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Mike Coppola

Back For The First Time: How 'We Are The Streets' Captured The Raw Essence of The LOX

First impressions are often lasting and can crystalize our view of people, places or things, but those initial experiences can be deceiving. At times, wolves dress in sheep's clothing, and a dog's bark may be bigger than its bite – everything isn't always what it seems. One example in hip-hop of an appraisal that proved to be misleading was the rap world's initial reception of The LOX, who went from being cast off as sell-outs to being hailed among the most revered purveyors of hardcore lyricism this side of the new millennium.

Comprised of Jason "Jadakiss" Phillips, David "Styles P" Styles, and Sean "Sheek Louch" Jacobs, the Yonkers-based trio started off as a duo, with Jada and Sheek's battles alongside one another on the gridiron as kids evolved into lunchroom ciphers in high school. With Styles P later joining the fold, the trio, originally known as the Bomb Squad, settled on the name the Warlocks and began catching wreck dominating the local rap scene. Scoring their first appearance on wax in 1994 after Jada and Sheek appeared on the song "Set It Off" from Main Source's sophomore album F**k What You Think, the break that would change The LOX's fortunes for the better was when fellow Yonkers native and R&B star Mary J. Blige passed the group's demo to Sean "Puffy" Combs, who had built his imprint Bad Boy Records into the most successful and popular rap label in the game.

By then, the group, which was being guided under the tutelage of then-management company Ruff Ryders, had already built a reputation as spitters during their time on the local freestyle and battle circuits but would see their buzz skyrocket in fall of 1996 with a pair of appearances on DJ Clue's Holiday Hold Up mixtape. In addition to the song "Thumbs Up" featuring Richie Thumbs, the tape included the original version of "All About The Benjamins," which paired Jadakiss and Sheek Louch with Puffy. A string of guest spots on subsequent Clue mixtapes like Triple Platinum, ClueManatti - The Clue World Order, and Show Me The Money, as well as high-profile features alongside The Notorious B.I.G. ("Last Day"), Mary J. Blige ("Can't Get You Off My Mind"), Ma$e ("24 Hrs.To Live"), and Mariah Carey ("Honey Remix") brought their approval rating to a crescendo. However, it would be their contributions to Puff Daddy's No Way Out album, which included the star-studded remix to "All About the Benjamins," that firmly put The LOX on the mainstream radar and paved the way for their own wildly anticipated debut, Money, Power & Respect.

Hitting shelves on January 13, 1998, Money, Power & Respect, the third rap album released in the aftermath of the murder of Bad Boy's flagship artist The Notorious B.I.G. the previous year, was significant because it was the first release from a rap group in the label's history and it looked to keep the house that Puffy and Big built on solid ground. Despite being a commercial success, peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and earning platinum certification, the album was considered a mixed bag that relied too heavily on the glossy bells and whistles that had made previous Bad Boy efforts platinum sellers, particularly at a time when the Shiny Suit era was drawing to an abrupt close. The songs "Livin' The Life," "Everybody Wanna Rat," "So Right," "I Wanna Thank You," and the Lil Kim and DMX-assisted hit "Money, Power, Respect" are all quality inclusions that trend closer to The LOX's realm of reality rap, but Puff's influence and finger-tips can be found all over lackluster cuts like "Get This $," "Start Rap Over," "Can't Stop, Won't Stop" and the ill-advised single "If You Think I'm Jiggy."

The LOX may have enjoyed chart success, music videos in rotation on BET and MTV, and the cache that came from being down with Bad Boy, but they also felt the subtle backlash from a large portion of their core base. Given their street roots and raw lyrical talent, many felt the group had failed to meet expectations with Money, Power & Respect and were destined to succumb to the whims of the music industry, such as donning Shiny Suits, designer shades and penning contrived singles built around disco loops. This disdain slowly bubbled over, with Jadakiss, Sheek and Styles P. requesting to be let out of their contract with Puffy and Bad Boy to pursue other opportunities, most notably the chance to reunite with the Ruff Ryders, who by then had secured a distribution deal with Interscope Records based off the breakout success of DMX. A fellow native of Yonkers and frequent collaborator with the group, ironically, DMX had brought the streets back to the forefront of mainstream rap with his own 1998 debut, It's Dark & Hell is Hot, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and transformed the underdog into super-stardom.

With their sights set on an alliance with their management team and its promising roster of talent, The LOX approached Puffy for a release from their contract. A notoriously shrewd businessman, Puffy and his team of lawyers initially balked at the idea of letting the prized trio go, leading The LOX to rebel. In 1999, at New York City radio station Hot 97's annual Summer Jam concert, Jada, Sheek, Styles P. and their entourage sported "Let The LOX Go" t-shirts, a public denouncement of Puffy and Bad Boy Records. In an age when rap acts often languished in obscurity due to bad contracts, the move was unprecedented. "We was the first rebels, man," Sheek noted during a sitdown with Tim Westwood. "You didn't have a lot of guys going at major people like that." With the beef now public and tension brewing between The LOX and Puff, a deal was brokered between Darrin "Dee" Dean and Puff to terminate The LOX's contract, allowing them to sign with Ruff Ryders through Interscope Records. "He said, 'All right, you know what, if they're not happy here, I'll release them," Dee recalled in an interview. "Just pay up whatever they owe."

As for Puffy, he took a more diplomatic approach while speaking on the group's split from the label with MTV News. "The LOX situation, it just didn't work out," he said. "That's nothing new to any record company. Hopefully, the press won't try to dramatize that. Any record label and you have twenty acts, one, two, three of the acts aren't going to be happy. And it may be a situation that you can work out. We tried to work the situation out; it didn't work out. So we're in the process of selling them right now. And they are still to me some of the hottest rappers out. I wish them the best of luck. I'm sorry it didn't work out." With a steep price tag of three million dollars, Jada, Sheek and Styles P. were now down with one of the hottest movements in hip-hop and primed to revert back to their roots as hardened, no-frills lyricists.

Released on January 25, 2000, The LOX’s sophomore album We Are the Streets doubled as a rallying cry, with the trio thumbing their nose at all of the glitz and glamour synonymous with their former home. The album cover alone, which features each member's face cast in concrete, is a stark contrast from Money, Power & Respect, which saw them rocking shimmering leather coats and designer shades. The change in scenery was also reflected in the sound of the album, with producers Swizz Beatz, DJ Premier, P.K., and Timbaland exchanging rehashed loops and plush instrumentation for screw-face inducing drums, haunting keys, ghastly synths and more inventive usage of samples. Not oblivious to the critiques of their debut, The LOX kick off We Are the Streets with a skit in which disgruntled fans diss them, challenging their street cred and levying threats against the crew. This self-deprecatory moment is upended as the rapid snares on "F**k You," the album's introductory number, sets in, which finds Jada, Sheek and company wasting no time in addressing the haters and naysayers. Barking "If you hoped we wouldn't make it, f**k you/Talk with a heart full of hatred, f**k you" in unison, the label castaways proceed to attack the Swizz Beatz -produced track with a fervor that makes it evident that these weren’t the same guys rapping about getting jiggy just two years prior.

This message was driven home throughout the album, starting with "Breath Easy." Produced by P.K., who proclaims "No more shiny suits/None of that sh*t" at the beginning of the track, Jada and Sheek deliver the hook, with Sheek shouting "We gonna R.U double F.R.Y.D.E,"  in a show of allegiance to their new label. One of the premier offerings on the album, "Breath Easy" finds Styles P. stepping to the forefront, delivering a stanza full of nihilistic quips that foreshadowed the aggressive content he spewed on We Are the Streets and subsequent projects. As the more reserved member of The LOX, Styles P.'s succession of standout performances helped propel his reputation as a rhyme pugilist to another level, silencing any questions of him being able to flourish in the confines of a group or otherwise. Considered the de facto frontman of the group due to his elite lyrical exploits, Jadakiss had slowly crept into conversations debating the best spitters in rap, talk that he solidified with his highlight reel of verses on We Are the Streets.

Like Money, Power & Respect, We Are the Streets included a solo selection from each artist, the best of which is "Blood Pressure" by Jadakiss. Crowning himself as the streets' favorite, the baby-faced rapper scoffs "Who really the best rapper since B.I.G. ain't here," before alluding to his bad blood with Puff just a few lines later. While The LOX focus the bulk of their efforts towards terrorizing the competition and slaughtering instrumentals on We Are the Streets, their strained relationship with their former benefactor is alluded to on numerous occasions, particularly "Rape'n U Records," a scathing skit poking fun at Bad Boy's shady business practices. The skit is also notable for being the introduction of J Hood, a teen from Yonkers who would become one of the hottest young artists on the mixtape circuit just a few years later. We Are the Streets is short on guest appearances, save for a handful of features from Drag-On and Eve, the latter of whom's vocals appear on the album standout, "Recognize." Produced by DJ Premier, the song captures the synergy between the three members as they seamlessly bounce off one another, while a chopped up sample of Eve's verse from the Ruff Ryders posse cut "Ryde or Die."

In terms of singles, "Wild Out," a raucous Swizz Beatz-produced anthem, was a minor success, but its follow-up single, “Ryde or Die B*tch,” fared much more favorably, peaking at No. 22 on the US Rap chart. Produced by Timbaland, who also appears on the hook alongside Eve, "Ryde or Die B*tch" finds Jadakiss, Sheek Louch and Styles P. professing their desire for the type of woman that will please them sexually and stay loyal regardless of the consequences or circumstances. Other highlights from We Are the Streets include "Can I Live," solo efforts from Styles ("Felony Niggas") and Sheek ("Bring It On"), and "If You Know" featuring Drag-On, Eve and Swizz Beatz, which all touch on the rules of engagement and harsh realities that transpire when one lives off of experience.

Peaking at No. 5 on the Billboard 200, We Are the Streets was eventually certified Gold and was regarded as one of the stronger group efforts of the year. Although the album failed to eclipse the success of Money, Power & Respect or their previous hits, We Are the Streets is remembered as a body of work that thrived off of the sheer fact that the artists involved were unleashed from the constraints of balancing pleasing the label with retaining their artistic integrity. In the years following its release, each member of The LOX would release solo albums, branching off to pursue careers individually, but never straying too far from the fold. The LOX would continue to record together and release material on a consistent basis, but contractual limbo would prevent the trio from crafting a proper commercial release as a unit until 2013, when they released The Trinity independently on their own label, D-Block Records. Having dropped classics in three different decades and counting, with no signs of hanging up the mic anytime soon, Jadakiss, Sheek and Styles P. are regarded as ambassadors of the streets. And while they will always be remembered for their tenure, and subsequent war with Bad Boy, in their hearts, they'll forever be Ruff Ryders, and We Are the Streets will forever be their magnum opus and shining moment.

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