“I thought Kedar Massenburg (former president of Motown and current head of Kedar Entertainment) was adorable when we first met. We crossed paths [in the mid ‘90s] when I performed at South By Southwest in Texas. I had cassette tapes and a folder with my bio and I gave one to a chick named Tammy Cobbs. She was managing Mobb Deep at the time and I gave her a package and I guess she actually listened to it because she handed it off to Kedar. He was starting off his career managing D’Angelo and Tammy felt something kindred between our spirits and music, although our music sounded nothing alike. The only thing D’Angelo and I had in common was the person who believed in both of us: Kedar.
But I remember when I first heard D. I was working at a coffee shop. Actually, I had three jobs at the time [laughs]. They had D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar CD playing at the coffee shop and when I heard it I was like, ‘Oh, okay…this is it! This is what’s happening!’ Kedar gave me a call and told me that D’Angelo was coming to Dallas to do a show and wanted to know if I could open up for him. At the time, I was in a group called Erykah Free, which consisted of myself and my cousin Free. And most of that demo ended up on Baduizm. It was rough around the edges; the sound was grimy. We were pretty much hip-hop more than soul.
But before I met Kedar, I went to New York and auditioned for Puffy, for Sony and different people, but they all didn’t know what to do with me. I got the, ‘Hold on…let me figure it out’ speech. They didn’t know exactly what I was about because I didn’t fit a particular category or a genre. But Kedar felt it. He called me back after he invited me to open up for D’Angelo. At first he told me, ‘I don’t think the show is going to happen because…’ And I was like, ‘Oh, hell no!’ [laughs] I’m opening from D’Angelo…I’ve already told my mom and grandmamma…I’m doing the show!’ And I did. And I confirmed what Kedar felt and we went forward with a production deal that was used to get Kedar’s job at Universal. One of the first songs we did was [a cover of Marvin Gaye’s and Tammi Terrell’s] “Your Precious Love” with D’Angelo. And we didn’t like it. The singing was cool, but it was the musical aspect…it was too perfect, which to me meant that it lacked an element that wasn’t there; which made it not edgy enough for artists like D and myself.
I really don’t know how it happened but we both got labeled as Neo Soul, which was a term coined by Kedar Massenburg to describe our music. I don’t think he was trying to say that our music sounded alike. But it was a rebirth of something familiar to him. It touched his soul. I didn’t hate the Neo Soul title. But I never really considered myself a singer. I wasn’t the kid in church that made you cry. No one ever said, ‘Oh my God…she’s a great singer!’ But I had something.
The ‘On & On’ that you hear today did not sound like that originally. It was really grimy. The bass was sinister; the loop was hypnotic. It put me more in the mind of DJ Premier producing D’Angelo’s ‘Devil’s Pie.’ When we were recording Baduizm, I remember being disappointed sometimes because the demo, in Kedar’s and some of the engineers’ opinion, wasn’t ready. It wasn’t big enough. And I felt like, ‘Wow…but this is my sound…this is who I am.’ I’m really I’m a loop chick. But because I wanted to really make it and I wanted to have an album come out we made the instrumentation a little bigger. I started working with live bands and that expanded my sound. But I still kept elements of that loop-driven sound. Success happened so quickly for me. But I knew ‘On & On’ was dope though.
I knew that if people heard it there was a great possibility that they would also get it. I had a lot of confidence. I did not know of failure. I didn’t understand that concept. I just knew it was my time. Yes, the headwrap was all me…it was my creation. I don’t have the horror story about a record label that imaged me or taught me dance steps or paired me with producers. Everything that I’ve ever done was because I was given the complete freedom to be who I am. And James Poyser? He’s my studio husband. From the day I met him to today, we complete each other musically. We were instantly lovers, musically, and we still are to this day. If I’m writing a song like ‘Out My Mind Just In Time’ or when you hear those early ballads like ‘Green Eyes,’ ‘Other Side Of The Game,’ and newer songs like “Window Seat,” that’s me and James at the piano.”