Aaliyah Week: What The Songbird's Music Meant To Singers And Producers
August 23, 2016 - 12:27 pm
Artists and producers share how Aaliyah's music was ahead of its time.
As part of VIBE's Aaliyah Week, we're rolling out a collection of stories focusing on the legacy of the "One in a Million" singer.
From majestic covers to "Unforgettable" samples, Aaliyah's music provided a nostalgic feel that took those familiar with her sound back to the days of its premiere, and prompted others to get familiar with her discography. Her vocals added that extra spice to a producer's instrumental, or served as a chilling background voice on any singer's melody.
Above, leading artists and producers share their encounters with Aaliyah's music, and how she paved the way by sticking true to her talent while creating a new sound that'll probably live on well into the future.
Aaliyah emerged as a music prodigy who was discovered and signed at a very young age. A number of years later, child prodigy JoJo’s story was beginning to be written in a similar manner to that of Ms. Haughton before her. Ironically enough, both musicians were signed to the same label, Blackground Records, before the age of 15.
Founded by Aaliyah’s uncle Barry Hankerson, Aaliyah was the very first artist signed to the label, and JoJo was the youngest artist on the label to have recorded a number one hit song (“(Leave) Get Out”)). Although the two never met, JoJo considers Aaliyah’s legacy and her career one of the reasons why she initially signed to the now-defunct label. Keep reading about JoJo’s thoughts on Aaliyah after the jump. - J'na Jefferson
VIBE: I was wondering if you could touch upon what you believe Aaliyah’s legacy is? JoJo: I mean, her legacy is so far reaching. You see how she was so ahead of her time, the work she was doing with Timbaland and Missy and Static. You can still listen to it and it still sounds future forward. The message that she conveyed, her brand of sexiness and coolness, we're still trying to touch that today. It was effortless, but it was so controlled and concise at the same time, if that makes any sense. She was a powerful woman in her subtlety and her femininity and her dope style. There will never be another one like her, and we're all inspired by her. As far as musically, she was just ahead of her time.
Although you guys were two different artists, in what ways do you believe that your careers had similar trajectories, since you both started out so young? That's one of the reasons why I felt comfortable signing to Blackground, because they found Aaliyah when she was 14, and I signed with them when I was 12. So, they had experience in doing something that people said was impossible, 'cause they were like, "no one's gonna listen to a 14-year-old, no one's gonna listen to a 12-year-old." But they were able to do it. So, in that sense, we have that similarity, and also, in our dealings with Barry Hankerson, who was her uncle and the president of Blackground. That will be a unique experience that most people will not understand [laughs].
Is there anything about her legacy in her short life that inspires you to keep pushing forward in your own career? After the scandal of her being married to R. Kelly and finding new collaborators to help support her vision and her voice, it just goes to show you that there's always a next chapter. And also, just knowing what it was like for me to be at Blackground, I just imagine that it was hard for her because that was her family, and it felt like family to me as well. I think we're bonded in that way.
What else do you think she could have offered us as an entertainer? If Aaliyah had not passed away, everything would literally be different. I think that she would have continued to be at the forefront of the evolving sound of music, and she would have continued to kill the acting game, we knew that she was gonna be involved in the Matrix series. I think it would have been different from a lot of other female artists had she been able to stay with us. She was so young, she was just coming into herself. She was 22, right? I'm 25 and I can't imagine...I can't imagine. I have grown so much in three years, imagine if she had just a few more years. The sky was the limit for her.
Child actress turned grown-up triple threat Keke Palmer has discussed and displayed her appreciation for Aaliyah on more than one occasion. The video for Palmer’s song “Yellow Lights” was inspired by Aaliyah’s “4 Page Letter,” and her ground-breaking replica of the late-musician’s outfit and choreography from her “Try Again” video for Halloween last year got everyone talking.
“I love Aaliyah,” she explained after her “Yellow Lights” video was released. “To me she was a true artist in every sense of the word and I continue to just be inspired by her and let my heart guide me as always.” Never one to color in the lines, Palmer also credits Aaliyah for showing her and others that it’s okay to be yourself and for inspiring her not only as an artist, but as a person as well. - J'na Jefferson
VIBE: What do you think about Aaliyah in particular that resonates so strongly with R&B fans? Keke Palmer: She was an R&B pop star. Aaliyah defines what an R&B pop star is because I think so often, people feel and love elements of R&B, but they don't always credit what R&B is. For me, Aaliyah, R. Kelly—especially their combination—it set that tone for what R&B is. That sexy, that cool, that relaxed thing. Aaliyah really brought that true representation of R&B to the forefront in a major way that a lot of people weren't able to do. It just wasn't them, and Aaliyah is known for that. She brought that real R&B flavor and she made it something that broke beyond genre.
When do you think you became an official fan? Was there a song or video that did it for you? I think the "One In A Million" video was great. That was the one where she was laying in the dark on that chair? There was the rhinestoned, crystallized eyepatch! That was the one where I became an ultimate, ultimate, ultimate, ultimate fan. Then, when I was around 13, I bought her whole Age Ain't Nothing But A Number album, and I understood more so the depth of her foundation as an artist. It helped me understand her totality.
When you were thinking about dressing up as Aaliyah for Halloween, did you know you wanted to do more with it with the dance video from the get-go, or did someone influence you to take it a step further? I thought about doing the costume, and when I was doing the costume, I was like, why don't I just do a little video to it as well? In my mind, from being in costume, I figured why don't I take it a step further and pay homage in this video in a way? I think it's just the inspiration of Aaliyah off top. When you're doing something with Aaliyah, as a fan of Aaliyah, and thinking about the fact that her life was taken much too soon, anything that touches her name, you want it to have a certain respect to it. But, I have to say, my admiration for Aaliyah is what made me take it to that level. I love her so much that I was like, it's not enough to just do this, I have to do a little video and take it to another level.
How was her choreography different from some of the choreography we see in both your other dance videos and with artists who dance today? Well, I think that Aaliyah definitely has that old-school hip-hop, bounce with it club-type dance. It’s, of course, got a strong influence today, and it's definitely something that's influenced my dance style. But, also, I'd have to say the Usher-era of hip-hop also influenced my dance style, where it's a little more lyrical and I'm telling more of the story of the actual song, but I do still implement those same old-school kinds of hip-hop moves and groove. So, the dance today, I'd say, is an inspiration of both, because we have the ability to see these different eras of dance, specifically hip-hop, so we can take a collection of all and bring it to today's time. I'd say I've taken bits and pieces of all of that. But I think Aaliyah epitomized her era in that way. She was totally giving you that club sh**, that club, cool, groovy sh** [laughs].
Giving a totally different feel than we're used to today, and it set the tone for what we do today with dancing, too. It totally set the tone! It also set the tone for women being able to handle such choreo. It was such a guy thing to do, you know what I mean? That wasn't something that often that you saw. She would bring things to the forefront. She was the voice of her generation in the sense where she epitomized what was happening right then and there, and she did it with such quality. The people of her generation were like, "hell yeah, girl! You did that! That's exactly what it is! That's exactly what it needs to be!" When she did "Age Ain't Nothing But A Number," she wasn't saying, "I'm the only person going through this," she was like, "ladies, I feel you." That was always what she was doing. She was always epitomizing the time that we were in, and she did it so effortlessly.
The fact that she was timely with her work and did her art in a classy way, do you think that made her a role model? I think people get role model confused. I think often we believe role model means being perfect or something like that, but a role model represents somebody that can push on and inspire someone else to do something grand for themselves. To me, there was a lot of levels to her, and I think she was [a role model]. Her sexuality... she was able to be cool and laid back, but at the same time, she could be feminine and sweet. I loved that there were those different sides to her, and it inspired me to have sides to myself. I was always a bit of a tomboy. I couldn't help it that I liked girly stuff, but at the same time, I liked to get dirty and play with the boys, I liked to do that too. So, when I saw Aaliyah, she made that feel like a possibility for me. That's what role models are. These people that we think about. Prince told everyone that, hey, it's okay to be ridiculed. You can still be ridiculed and you can still move on and do your thing.
And also the way she went about carving her place as an entertainer and actress, she inspired women in the industry to do the same thing. I definitely think that Aaliyah always was the type of person who was always the first within her time to do many different things. I definitely think that seeing her go and do television and film and entering into that other side of entertainment, once again, set the tone. You don't have to just be a singer, you don't have to be just this, you don't have to be just that, you can be everything! That's who she was, she was that everyday girl while still being aspirational at the same time. The reason why she was aspirational is because she lived in that truth. She wasn't trying to be nobody but Aaliyah. She never said she was this or that, she said "this is me, this is who I am." She made sh** sound cool. She released it at a time and in a way that it made sense to us.
Do you believe she would have expanded her brand even further, outside of entertainment, or she would have kept building as an actress and singer? I don't think we could have even known what she would have done. Aaliyah had our full attention. From the way she dressed to the way that she hooked up with Timbaland, and they inspired those beats and those tracks. She was always on some other sh**! I remember she was the first to ever say "Aaliyah is in a competition with Aaliyah." It's just like, damn, she was giving it to us and it was real. She was like, "I'm not coming for you, Aaliyah is competing with Aaliyah." That's why I don't know what she could have done next, because only she could have predicted such things.
The world was her oyster. It's sad that we'll never get to see what could have been. It really was! She was really sharing with us. She shared what she learned in her life and what she knew. If you look back at those old MTV clips, she's in all these different places and she's talking about what she's tried. She always was opening up and making herself not so reclusive. Not everyone had a relaxed air about them, but she did. She was so beautiful and so perfect, but she wasn't above us, she was still the girl next door.
Exactly, she was never trying to impress anyone. She was just living life and doing what she wanted to do. Period. It was so inspiring. When you looked at her, you couldn't help but be like, "oh my gosh," because you wanted to be like her.
You're 22 as well right? I'm 22 yeah, I'll be 23 at the end of August [August 26].
So, as a 22-year-old woman yourself, you could probably recognize how life comes at you fast, especially in the industry that you're in. In Aaliyah's short 22 years, how do you think that she lived her life to the fullest? I believe she lived her life to the fullest by never stepping down. I think she always was going for it, I don't think Aaliyah was ever afraid to try anything. I really don't think that she was, and that's why I think she remained such a huge force amongst the people, and definitely the young people. We're trying to find ourselves and I think that Aaliyah represented being able to be a force in the world, being a young woman having an opinion and standing for something, but not being hard. Not being f**ked over by her experiences. I wouldn't say it was a perfect life, she shared her feelings on different things in her songs and stuff, but I feel like that never allowed that to harden her. You knew at the end of the day, she was still gonna be cool. Her confidence was exuded.
Nothing broke her spirit. It seemed like she was really purposeful. Even if something would hurt her, she knew that she had a purpose, and that's what she was mostly worried about not fulfilling. She worried about her dreams, but she made them into a reality and used them as a way to inspire other young people that were just like her.
If she was still alive today, what's the one thing you'd want to tell her? Oh my goodness! "Thank you for being you." Thank you for being you, honestly, that's what I would say! Because without her, I don't know where I would be. You know what I'm saying? Truly. Her influence, I'm not kidding, has changed my life. If there was a world without Aaliyah, I would totally be different. She influenced me, and I appreciate her influence greatly.
As she makes her way back up to the top of the charts, Ameriie continues to ascend her vocals like no other. From the outside looking in, one might think the R&B songstress went incognito, but her passion to create music never left, and she continued to do just so. Engaging in one of her other several endeavors, fiction writing, is what actually helped her blossom into who she is today, musically. It enhanced her storytelling in the recording booth, giving her words and sound a polished finish.
With the release of her latest EP, 'Drive,' the comparisons of her R&B chords and slightly edgy vibe to the late heavyweight, Aaliyah, continues to linger. The talented beauties that resemble one another are often linked for not only their similar features, but for sharing the same aura and love for R&B music and its culture.
While speaking to Ameriie, she soaks it all in, having heard it all before, and looks to the likeness as a compliment, while also discussing what the Princess of R&B’s demeanor taught her. - Jenelle Taylor
VIBE: Were you a fan of Aaliyah growing up? Ameriie: Oh yeah, I was definitely a huge fan and I remember from one of my BET appearances, I think it was 106 & Park, I had a shirt, it was an Aaliyah tank top which had her face on it. I always admired Aaliyah because I felt like, number one, she seemed like a really sweet person, she seemed really kind, and she took what she did very seriously as a child, but she didn’t take herself too seriously, and she seemed like she had a lot of love. She also had an appreciation for the art. I love that she didn’t try to fit into any box, she didn’t try to be in any box where she thought that she couldn’t fit in this or she couldn’t sound like this, whether it be her gender, or her just being black. I felt like her music couldn’t just be captured into one category. And the way she dressed, it was kind of sexy, but it was also a little edgy, a little bit of rock and roll. And a lot of people weren't really doing that at that time. You didn’t really have a lot of women giving that ethnic, a little hip-hop with the rock and roll, you didn’t really see that. And she was also doing acting and that was the time when, I think people were just beginning to cross over into acting. Not that entertainers had never done it before, go from music to acting, but you just didn’t see it as much, and I think she helped break down that door a little and she showed that music artists really have a lot to give. And I love the way that she carried herself.
Did she influence your career or R&B in any way? I don’t think she influenced me so much musically, but she did give a great example of staying true to yourself, and not letting someone else dictate who you should be. I think that was the biggest lesson. But her music was amazing. And I believe she was really beautiful but she didn’t lead with her beauty, she led with her intelligence, and I really appreciated that.
And the media often compares you to Aaliyah. Growing up did you seek to quiet those comparisons by staying true to yourself? Well, you know I’ve always been hard headed anyways. That’s just me. I have my vision and I just know what I want, and I’ve always been like that. As far as the comparisons, I didn’t hear those until obviously when I came out professionally, because no one told me before that. But later I did hear that and I took it as a total compliment because she’s one of my favorite artists. So of course I like everything she stood for so any kind of comparison to me was an absolute compliment.
I know you write your own music. If you had a chance to create a record for Aaliyah, what kind of record would it be? Hmmm… Well I know she really had such an excellent smooth sound, but I feel like I would probably be very typical to create something in that lane. You know, I think I would probably do something with her signature vocal, but that might play a little bit with her falsetto. I think that would be really pretty. I think that would be interesting. It would be her but it would be a little bit unexpected, but still very much her sound.
Aaliyah also did an interview with VIBE in 2001 and she discussed her love for being an entertainer, but she also discussed her love for taking breaks. Seeing as though you took a break from music, can you relate to her statement in any way? Well, for a lot of people it looks like I took a break but for me it doesn’t really feel like I took a break because I’ve still been creating music, traveling, performing, and booking, so it’s not so much of a break, as far as what it feels like. I feel like it’s just more about beating your creativity, I do think that’s important. I also think it’s important not to lose touch with other people and "real life." I think that’s important whether it’s music, or whether you’re writing a movie, or you’re writing a book. You are so isolated and your life becomes really removed from what I think [is] the kind of life most people probably live. You actually have less to think about. Like if you think about when people were first coming into the music industry and how they had all this material, because they’ve been struggling, whether it’s financially or coming into their own, it’s like a struggle, but when you don’t have that it can be kind of hard because what are you going to think about, what are you writing about, what do you have to say that can resonate with other people because really we’re all creating art that resonates with other people. But when you’re isolated from other people and you’re like living on a mountain, you know not an actual mountain, but living on a mountain somewhere you’re like removed, you actually don’t really have the material, and it’s not as fresh.
Another thing that was really wonderful [about Aaliyah] was that she was so graceful and her dancing was really graceful, but she also was really effortless. There’s not a lot of artists whose dancing was really effortless. You know how Michael Jackson was so effortless. When she danced it just felt so fluid.
During the mid-90s, well into the 2000s, there was a whole era of R&B music shaped and molded around three female artists: Aaliyah, Brandy, and Monica. And although the media may paint this image of an ongoing competition or a "battle of the divas," Monica Brown remembers it differently.
The Georgia-born, church trained, singer-songwriter definitely has the credentials and a lengthy career in the industry to earn the pioneering title in the R&B genre. The singer has a lasting influence of her own, one so powerful that it has inspired generations of kids to revive and remix her 2003 single, "So Gone." But she is mature and humble enough to share the spotlight with the other female artists that grew up with her.
Now, she reflects on her friendships and journeys with both Brandy and Aaliyah with great admiration, and when informed that it's Aaliyah week at VIBE, she is more than willing to share her greatest memories and experiences.
Aaliyah was someone she knew personally, a friend that she watched grow and inspire young women right beside her. Although they may have differed in style and sound, their legacy and impact on the genre is consistent in a way. "We always felt like it was dope that we were so different," Monica says. "I think the greatest thing between she and I was respect."
Here, Monica touches on her relationship with Aaliyah and her contribution to R&B. - Jessica McKinney
VIBE: What did you think of Aaliyah's sound and style at the time? Monica: I think her style and music was a reflection of who she really was. Her personality was very laid back. I never heard her raise her voice. If you look at her music, it was calming and soothing. Her music is such a true reflection of her that even the people now that didn’t get the opportunity to grow up with her, you still see and feel exactly who she was.
You had the opportunity to meet Aaliyah and forge a relationship with her. Can you talk about her personality and what she was like? Quiet [and] always laughing. If something was funny, she would be the first to laugh. The first to say everything would be okay even if it weren’t okay at the moment. We weren’t very close when we were extremely young. We started to talk more as we got older because every time we would come in contact with each other, we always had such a good time. And then we shared a very special person in common, which is Missy Elliott. And she and Missy were extremely close. So a lot of our interactions were always through her at first. And then we started to speak some more. I remember her place in New York, and she was talking to me about what it took to move around in New York traffic and things like that. So as we got older, we connected. But us sharing such a close person in common, one thing that I did learn is that what you saw was exactly what you got at all times. And something that happens a lot when you become successful is that their personality changes. And with her, it never did. And every person that loved her, always knew that they could count on her for whatever it was, and that she could always be the calm in the midst of the storm.
How did you feel she pushed the R&B genre forward at the time? I think the greatest thing between she and I was respect. She always had this sheer coolness and calmness about her that just never left no matter what the situation was. That’s something that’s hard to keep in you. It stands out so much. But she let the music and her talent be her guide. When she talked about doing movies, she didn’t just talk about it, she studied and prepared. And then she did it. When she was changing from a visual as far as her production and show wise, she would always be about it. You really got to see her go from being a young lady to a grown woman.
The media will always try to paint a picture, especially among female artists, of a competition. But do you feel like there was any between you two at the time? The funny thing is, it never felt like that. We never felt like that. We always felt like it was dope that we were so different. Our backgrounds are very similar. We both have a brother; we were both close to our mothers. We shared a whole lot in common. Never have I read a story where people were putting us against each other.
Do you remember when you found out that she had passed? I remember being in L.A. and I remember not just how I felt, but how every one that loved her felt, the devastation. The conversation, even when we were just trying to understand why and get through those difficult moments and accept that. It didn’t change what had happened, but what a lot of people that were really close with her weren’t worried about, is that she knows how much they loved her. She knows how much they supported her. They got a chance to share a great thing. It was just a difficult moment. And her funeral was even more difficult. You got to see how much she was loved and respected. The people that truly cared about her, were there in that moment. They shared in each other’s pain, and they still do today. What happens when you lose somebody you love, it’s not the moment that hurts the most, it’s your life without them moving forward. She’s so missed even today. But I love the fact that she was able to see how much they all loved her, including myself even before she left.
People who’ve never met Aaliyah or some who weren’t even old enough to have grown up with her music are extremely emotional when it comes to her. Does that sort of impact amaze you? Not at all. I think that’s the thing about legends and people that have history that really creates the best of times. None of it surprises me. The fact that you now see hair done much like hers pretty consistently, that was something that she was known for. She loved the crop top and had the most beautiful body to pull it off. Those are things that will never go away and that to me, is what being legendary means.
From bumping Aaliyah's debut album 'Age Ain't Nothing But A Number' in high school, to kicking it with the singer herself in various studio sessions, Kameelah Williams cherished her full circle moment.
She developed a friendship with the late artist that garnered Williams and super girl group 702 to make an unforgettable appearance in Aaliyah's "If Your Girl Only Knew" video. With effortlessly chic ensembles and intimidating motorcycles, Williams treasured her screen time and still gets chills whenever she catches the visual on television.
Below, Williams describes the atmosphere on set, and how Missy Elliott served as a bridge between her and Aaliyah. - Camille Augustin
What’s your first memory of Aaliyah? Kameelah Williams: I was a fan of hers because Aaliyah had an album out while I was still in high school, I used to play her very first album Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, I had that cassette tape [laughs]. This was before I was even a part of 702, so it was crazy how it was full circle. I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I used to listen to you in high school in my hoopty car’ and then to be in her presence in her sessions was really awesome. I remember one time in particular, we were just chatting during one of her sessions, and she said, ‘You know, people always ask me in my interviews why don’t you write? And I say, if I wrote then there would be nothing for the writers to do!’” I thought that was so funny, I said, ‘Girl, you got a point.’ She was really cool, a really sweet spirit.
What was it like listening to her debut album? She definitely stuck out to me. I felt like I hadn’t really heard anybody like her, the soft silky soprano, that’s when she was working with R. Kelly so it had a Chicago vibe, a Midwest vibe. She had the whole tomboy thing going and I dug it. I was kind of jealous, like, ‘Dang, I wish I would’ve thought of that.’ [Laughs] It was very chill. Even though it was talking about relationships and a guy, it wasn’t cheesy. It didn’t feel corny, she was just cool, like who is this chick with these shades on?
How’d you get to be a part of the “If Your Girl Only Knew” video? I don’t know if Missy asked us to come or Aaliyah invited us, but we were invited and when we got there we didn’t know what to expect. We were just told that we were going to be on motorcycles and everybody had on all black. We thought this was true Aaliyah, something super cool. The vibe was great. She was really pleasant, always in good spirits and high energy. She gave me a little cameo so I was like, ‘Okay, that’s my home girl.’ She let me do a little scene by myself with this guy fighting in the elevator so that was my little Aaliyah cameo. I always have that memory of her, so anytime that it comes on, I’m like wait where’s my little scene. For two seconds if you blink you might miss me!
When the video was complete, what was it like seeing it in full? I was excited, it was one thing to be on the back of the motorcycles with the guys. I was scared out of my mind because I don’t like motorcycles, I was so nervous. But then to see myself in the scene with her leading male actor, just like us fighting, it was really cool. I was like, I’m an actress now. It was really sweet of her to let me do that.
You also worked on the song “Take Away” that Missy and Ginuwine dedicated to Aaliayh. What was that process like in the studio? It started out as a record with just Missy and myself, and then she later added Ginuwine. Aaliyah ended up passing away and then it became a tribute to her. That’s when she shot the video and a remix and put Tweet on it. At the time it was made it was a regular love song, it wasn’t the tribute to her passing. But that’s what it ended up becoming, which was sad, but it’s such a beautiful record. Now every time I hear it, I definitely think about that.
I know you worked with Missy hand-in-hand throughout your career, what was it like first meeting her and how’d you guys build that creative relationship? When I first met her, I thought she was so silly. She’s such a comedian and always jovial and loving to joke. She’s goofy and she instantly became my big sister, we just clicked. She took me under her wing and made me her baby sister. Throughout the years we kept that relationship, and she’s still today like a big sister of mine. I admire her. From the first studio session I ever had with her to seeing how far she came to blow up and become this freaking icon is like ‘Wow!’ To know I was part of her story is pretty dope.
What do you think is the greatest quality in Missy’s songwriting? It’s just so effortless. It doesn’t seem like it’s over thought. It’s not too deep but it’s not so bubble gum where you’re like it’s super wack. It’s a happy medium between the two, so it doesn’t feel like it’s somebody that’s trying too hard to be super deep or it’s too gimmicky that we’re never going to hear that again. It’s clever, she’s very clever. Clearly it’s God given because there’s no sound out there like her. She’s just always been one of a kind, that’s for sure.
Growing up in the Bay Area, producer DrewByrd said he was encompassed by the sounds of E-40, Tupac, and other West Coast veterans including Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. But it was the sound of a rising singer from the Midwest that took over his hometown’s radio waves.
DrewByrd was first introduced to Aaliyah’s music once “Back and Forth” debuted, but it was “One in a Million” that grasped his ears and turned him into an instant fan. After linking up with Dom Kennedy on the 'Yellow Album,' he received the chance to sample one of Aaliyah’s deep cuts to add his own flair to it.
Here, DrewByrd describes how he came to flip “Never Comin’ Back” on Kennedy’s 2012 song. - Camille Augustin
VIBE: Do you remember the first Aaliyah song that made you an avid listener of hers?DrewByrd: I know she came out with her album Age Ain’t Nothin But A Number, then she came out with that song “Back And Forth.” I remember hearing that, but I wasn’t really into it, but what really got me listening was “One In A Million.” In the Bay Area, they supported R&B heavy so I remember every week they would have the top seven songs at 7 p.m. and “One In A Million” was always number one for like two months straight. When that music video came on, that really put me onto Aaliyah and I started listening to more of her stuff.
What was it about “One In A Million,” whether it's the lyrics or the instrumental, that made you stop in your tracks when you heard it?
It was definitely the beat. I think that’s just the DJ and producer in me, but the beat caught my attention and just her melody, how she sings, meshed really well together. The production and her melodies are what caught me.
I saw on your SoundCloud page that you remixed her “We Need A Resolution” song. What about that melody stood out to you that prompted you to put your own spin on it?
For that one, it was just her voice and I happened to have it a capella and I was just messing around with it. I really liked her voice on it and I chopped up certain parts of the song that I really liked and I built it from there. I was just having fun.
You also sampled one of Aaliyah’s deep cuts, “Never Comin’ Back” off her One in a Million album. What made you select that track to use as a sample on Dom Kennedy’s “Gold Alpinas?”
It goes back to what really drew me to her, which was her voice, her real soulful, angelic, smooth voice. That song “Never Comin’ Back” is overlooked a lot. When I heard that break in it, the loop for the beat for “Gold Alpinas,” I just knew right away that I had to slip it right there. When I went back and I was listening to it, I thought I could make a beat out of this. That’s why I came back, made that beat, and then Dom got on it. He was in Miami at the time because Rick Ross wanted to work with him. He was flipping through some beats and I know Dom saved that one and he played it. That’s the one Rick Ross liked, and they made it.
I know you said her song “Never Comin’ Back” is very underappreciated, not a lot of people gravitate towards it. What do you think people might’ve missed about that song?
To be honest it’s kind of tough because when I say people overlooked that song I’m talking about where it is now where people just listen to one song, the singles, but for me and some of the people that I was around, we really listened to the album from the beginning to the end. It’s just one of those things where I listen to the whole album, and I was just talking on behalf of where I see some of my younger homies who just skip to everything else.
Why did you decide to just loop her ad-libs?
That was just a break that I found as a producer and a DJ. For me, I try to find a perfect part of the song. In this instance when I was making this beat, I knew in my head that was the perfect break because she wasn’t singing over it, and it was the perfect melody that she was doing during that break so I said I got to take that part because anyone can rap on it too. If she had different vocals or she was actually singing over it, you can still sample that but you would have to do some filtering for it. But for that part it was perfect. It was just her doing that melody. That’s why I took it, it was a perfect break to use to make a beat out of it.
What do you think about Missy Elliott and Timbaland’s songwriting/producing on that album?
It’s amazing. For me it’s game-changing. When Timbaland, Missy and Aaliayh came out and they all had this sound, they were killing it. One in a Million was definitely crafted, you can hear them on that album, and it’s the same thing with Missy Elliott’s album, Supa Dupa Fly. hey all had that sound and it just worked real well. That’s probably what it was, just having Missy Elliott and Timbaland’s sound behind it. That’s what made me gravitate towards Aaliyah. Like what I said earlier about "One in a Million," when I heard that single, the track hit me first.
Why do you think producers or artists today sample her past deep cuts from her albums?
She puts out fire music. Her voice is amazing. People like Sango made a remix of “Are You That Somebody?” and I think also because it’s a nostalgic thing. The music we grew up listening to and it makes us want to recreate it and have our versions of it. She’s just a classic artist and her sound is amazing, and if I can add on to it and make it sound cool and do it my way, for sure I’m going to do that. I’m sure that’s how other producers feel.
If you could sample any other Aaliyah song, what would it be and why?
I don’t know if I can anymore to be honest, because I’ve done two already and I feel like other producers have sampled a lot of her stuff too, just one of those things I want to leave it how it is because I don’t want to overdo it. A lot of producers feel the same, you don’t want to overdo it with the same artist in sampling, but if she had some unreleased stuff that not many have heard and I’m able to get my hand on it, then yeah for sure. If it’s something that I can flip, then I definitely will.
"If there were no Aailyah, there would be no Sevyn Streeter." It's such a bold statement for a singer-song-writer that carries such a unique sound and boasts collaborations with R&B icons. But even as Sevyn sits on the opposite end of a cellphone, you can tell she genuinely means what she’s preachingIt's Aaliyah Week at VIBE and at first mention of the fallen angel's name, Sevyn Streeter’s voice lights up. For Sevyn, Aaliyah didn't just inspire her career, she helped make it a reality. While the Florida–raised songstress has brought her own flare and energy to tracks like “I Like It,” and her most recent single, “Prolly” featuring Gucci Mane, she definitely has a little bit of ‘baby girl’ in her.Her soothing duet with Chris Brown, “It Won’t Stop” is a testament to her own vocal range, but is also reminiscent of Aaliyah’s sexy and mysterious vibe. And the singer’s cover of the 1996 hit, “Come Over,” is the melodic and beautiful rendition that does her idol justice. “There was something about her swag, her vibe, and her effortlessness that made us feel very close and able to relate to her,” Sevyn says. “I carry all of that with me literally every single day.”And like her musical influence, Sevyn is bubbly and sincere. Often without warning, she breaks out into song, singing her favorite Aaliyah tracks before recounting other memories. It’s been 15 years since the Princess of R&B passed, but Sevyn remembers her voice, talent, and style like it was yesterday. - Jessica McKinneyVIBE: How did Aaliyah inspire you and your career? Sevyn Streeter: Without Aaliyah, there would be no me. And I know a lot of artists are hesitant to say that, but I really do mean that. If there were no Aailyah, there would be no Sevyn Streeter, along with a lot of other female artists, truth be told. She was the first black girl that felt like us. And I’m not saying that to discredit anyone that came before her. There was something about her swag, her vibe, and her effortlessness that made us feel very close and able to relate to her. From the way that she dressed to the way that she moved, nothing about Aaliyah was too complicated or too hard for us that was in the country or the hood to relate to. We felt like we could become her, go in our closets, pick out clothes and dress like her. Her dance moves – shout out to Fatima, who I just had the pleasure of working with for one of my videos. The way that they choreographed her, we really felt like we could watch the video, press stop, rewind it, and learn it. And that did something for us; it did something for our confidence. So that’s what she is to me; I carry all of that with me literally every single day, even when it comes down to my decision-making for how I want to appeal to young women. That effortlessness is something I think we all as artists aspire to have.
Do you remember your first time hearing Aaliyah’s music?
The first song that popped in my head was “If Your Girl Only Knew.” Or “Back and Forth.” That was her first one. I remember that like it was yesterday. That sh** was so hard! It made you feel like the coolest girl in the world. It made you feel pretty enough to be a pretty girl, but cool enough to hang with the dudes.
Your personal style seems to mimic Aaliyah in the sense that it mixes sexiness with a boyish look. Now, that’s trendy, but what did you think of Aaliyah’s style during a time when pasties and mini dresses were hot?
I think that her style has inspired a whole generation. On Instagram one day you’re in sneakers, the next day you’re switching up to thigh high boots. We have a lot of artists these days, myself included, [that] have fans and kids who look up to us [for that fact] that we can wear J’s and the next day be in heels. But they don’t know we didn’t create that. We get that from Aaliyah, honey. She was the first girl that I could think of that was tomboy sexy.
You’ve covered “Come Over” by Aaliyah. Why did you choose that particular song?
I initially did it because I was going on the road with K. Michelle, and I actually needed some covers to put into my show because at the time, I only had one or two songs out. And I was trying to find [a song] that I felt like everybody would know and that was cool. That was one of the songs that came to mind obviously because I’m a huge Aaliyah fan and just the way she rode that beat. It was perfect. And it fit perfectly within my set because I’m always inspired by her. I just always loved that record. A lot of people don’t know but that was written by Tank. He’s singing on the bridge in the background. I’m a huge Tank fan as well. So it was just perfect.
Do you remember when and where you were when you found out Aaliyah had passed? What were some of the emotions or thoughts going through your mind at the time?
Absolutely. I was at home in Haines City, Florida. We lived in a blue house at the time. I was sitting on the floor after school watching TV, and my cousin Amber called me. I answered, and I remember she was boo-hoo crying. And I said, ‘wait what’s wrong?’ And she said Aaliyah died in a plane crash. And I just remember gasping for air, and I kept saying no. ‘No,no,no! What are you watching? What are you looking at?’ And I turned to MTV and true enough, it came flashing across the screen. I think I hung up on her or just dropped the phone and sat there in front of the TV and lost it. My mom came in there because I could not stop watching. At that point, I was watching every news outlet. And I remember flipping through the channels, trying to find a channel that maybe said it wasn’t true. I don’t know what I was in search of. But I cried so bad and so hard to the point where I couldn't breathe. And my momma took the remote from me, took me outside, and made me walk around our neighborhood so I could breathe fresh air because I hyperventilated. I couldn’t take that. The next couple of days were a blur. I couldn’t believe it.
There’s plenty of people with stories similar to yours. People who’ve never met Aaliyah or some who weren’t even old enough to have grown up with her music are extremely emotional when it comes to her. Does that sort of impact amaze you?
Yeah. That’s the power of God and music. There’s something about singing. And I say that not because I’m a singer, but I say that because God willing, we’re all born with the ability to talk and learn to walk and crawl, and all those things. And we’re all equipped with the same equipment – vocal chord, wind pipes. But singing is a spirit. You can’t look at someone’s x-ray and go, ‘oh that person can sing.’ And the beautiful thing about that is that’s because God placed it there. So vessels like Aaliyah, what God chose to give her - a certain type of voice, a certain type of gift that sits right there in her vocal chords, it does not surprise me that what he placed in her still lives here today. Even though she’s no longer physically here with us, he put that in her for a reason. She was special on some whole other level. That’s why her music still lives, her spirit still lives. And it’s always going to live; it’s never going to go anywhere because that is the beauty of God and music.
"Who wasn’t an Aaliyah fan?" Ashanti asks with a very distinct laugh. The "Foolish" singer was around 16 when Aaliyah first popped onto her television screen, which prompted her to follow in the star's footsteps and forge her own mark on the music industry. But still today, she is able to reflect on Aaliyah's impact on her own life with some clarity.
Throughout Ashanti's nearly 16-year career, she's often been connected to baby girl. Although the singer has definitely created a name for herself, separate from the other female artists in the game, she still carries certain characteristics that are reminiscent of her musical influence. The visuals of her 2003 music video for "Rock Wit U" mimic Aaliyah's final video, "Rock the Boat" in the most flattering of ways. And her performance of her single with Ja Rule, "Always On Time," also adds her own spin onto Aaliyah's signature "tomboy sexy" look.
In honor of VIBE's Aaliyah Week, Ashanti and her sister, Shia took some time to remember the late icon and pay homage to her impact on their careers as well as many others. - Jessica McKinney
VIBE: How did Aaliyah influence you and your career? Ashanti: I was a huge Aaliyah fan. I remember rocking the baggy pants and the dark lipstick and the pink tops back in high school. I loved her music. I loved her as an artist. I just think she did so much for hip-hop and R&B and our culture. Who wasn’t an Aaliyah fan? Nobody that I know [wasn’t one]. Just the sound and the swag, I think so many girls were influenced [by her]. That was a great era for us.
How do you think she influenced the R&B music genre at the time? I think it was her confidence and being sexy and different, and being boyish. She had a sense of realness that was so relatable. And I think that’s why so many girls loved her because she seemed like your home girl. I know that’s what it was for me. It just felt like she was someone that was relatable and knew about what the girls were going through.
Can you remember the first song or first memory of hearing her music play on TV or the radio? “Back and Forth” was definitely the bar-b-que jam. For me, that was outside in the back, uncle such-and-such on the grill. And “One In A Million,” I remember hearing that for the first time and I was like 'Oh my God, the drums on this record are crazy.'
What about Aaliyah’s personal style really stood out to you? What made it so different at the time? It was tomboy, but sexy. And that’s really how girls dressed. I guess sometimes when you think industry, you think glamour and heels, and glitz and sparkle. And she was like baggy jeans, sneakers, either Timbs or High-Tecs, [and] the sports bra. It was very sexy, swaggy, and relatable. But when it was time to hit the carpet, she did that too.
Do you remember some of the thoughts going through your mind at the time that Aaliyah passed? I think I was at the movies. And I don’t even remember what movie we went to see, but it came across the Skytel pager. And I thought it was a lie. But then when everyone started to confirm, it was such a shocking, numb feeling. You know, like that can’t happen. It was very stunning. How could something like that happen? You don’t think things like that. So it was a very shocking moment.
Aaliyah’s impact has affected so many different people, old and young. Some people weren’t even old enough to listen to her music while she was alive, but still idolize her. Does that type of legacy amaze you? I think she has very timeless music. For me, that’s how it feels. I don’t think it’s weird that people that were too young before her time know her music or find it, and love it and sing to it. Even when I see five-year-olds in my audience singing “Foolish,” I’m like 'Oh my God, how do you even know this?' But when you're in your environment, your mom, your sisters, are listening to music, it catches on.
There’s always a conversation of ‘what if’ when people talk about Aaliyah. But based on the influence that she made while she was here, would you consider her a legend? I think that she has inspired and touched so many people around the globe, and I think that her life and career were cut way too short. I think that she would have been something amazing now. It’s weird to talk about. I can appreciate her as an artist and as someone I looked up to. We were around the same age, and I remember being in high school and her being one of the artists that I really loved. And the effect that she had on men, women, young, and old, I don’t think anybody or anything could ever take that away.
Shia, Ashanti’s sister also started a women’s lifestyle brand called Dymes Only. The brand, which was launched by Shia and her girlfriend, to preserve and maintain the culture, is comprised of custom pieces, which marry Aaliyah’s signature boyish and sexy looks. “My brand is basically raised off of Aaliyah. It’s that tomboy swag that you can wear from day to night. You can wear it in the day, and still go out to the club and be comfortable and breathable, and not feel like you have to wear a body-con dress to be cute,” she says.
"Aaliyah was important to us, then and now, in fashion and music. She always seemed like a sweetheart with a good heart and a light around her," she continued. "And as a brand, that’s something we are trying to do right now. We are trying to take our culture back. Right now we’re living in a time where black girls want to be Kylie Jenner, but they don’t realize that Kylie Jenner wants to be them. What we’re trying to do right now, bring our culture back to us as black women. And I feel that Aaliyah was a person who was not a culture vulture; that was who she was."
The golden era of hip-hop traveled overseas to Sweden where a rising producer studied intricate beats and wordplay from A Tribe Called Quest to Dr. Dre. Tommy Black, who said he started off writing rhymes, deemed hip-hop as his greatest passion and that knowledge led him to become one of TDE’s most well known producers since 2009.
Working with that creative bunch can spark an idea at any moment, and that was the case for one particular recording session with Kendrick Lamar for his Section 80 project which was inspired by Aaliyah’s “Four Page Letter” song. The moment was birthed out of a feeling of her energy that both Lamar and Black experienced once the instrumental played.
Here, Black details how “Blow My High” came to be. - Camille Augustin
VIBE: Do you remember the first time you heard one of Aaliyah's songs? Tommy Black: I can’t really remember the time it was, but Aaliyah is a great inspiration. That legacy lives on. I can’t really remember when I first heard an Aaliyah track, but when I was growing up everybody was playing Aaliyah. She’s a great inspiration to this day.
What inspired you to select the "Four Page Letter" sample for Kendrick's song? It wasn't actually a sample. It's kind of hard to figure it out, but it wasn't a sample at first. I started to work on this beat, and after a while when I came into the process of that track, I got that feeling, like an Aaliyah feeling, and I sent it over to Kendrick and he said, 'I need this song.' He was all hyped up when he heard the beat, he got that feeling too. We didn't even talk about it, we didn't even talk about Aaliyah, but he felt that spirit. We were thinking the same in that kind of way.
What specifically grabbed your attention when you heard "Four Page Letter?
I can't even explain, that's an inspiration right there. It's hard to explain great music, it's something you feel. I can't even put words on it because it's so good, it's hard to describe it. I feel music, I feel it in my soul. It sounds cliche, but it's hard to explain.
Kendrick also repeats the line ‘R.I.P. Aaliyah' so was that on Kendrick’s behalf preceeding the instrumental, or while you guys were recording it?
I can’t really speak much about what he did. He was doing his thing and I was doing my thing on the production. He’s a genius and he was catching that vibe that I got even though we weren’t speaking about Aaliyah. It was also his idea.
Why do you think so many producers gravitate towards Aaliyah’s music for sampling?
Good music is always timeless. Good music is good music, it just evolves. Everybody like great musicians recognize great music. From every style of music has its own, like Aaliyah had a sound with Timbaland and Missy and everybody on the team and people just recognized that, like that’s good music. Still to this day, everybody is going to listen to her music past my time, until I die. It’s a hard question, but it's real good music.
If you could sample another Aaliyah song, which would it be and why?
That’s a hard one. I probably would sample a hit single, or just remake “Rock The Boat” with a jazzy touch on it. That would be a great one to do.