In case you missed it, notoriously reclusive musician D'Angelo made an appearance at Brooklyn Museum on Wednesday night to speak about his career. It was a major coup by Red Bull Music Academy, coaxing the elusive and fiercely private star from his "cave". Up to this point, his appearances have been fleeting – a soul-baring interview with GQ and a handful of rusty live performances, both off the cuff and on tour.
To some he is a moment of nostalgia, one of many R&B artists that made butter-soft joints and jams that dominated radio, clubs and car stereos for a golden period in the nineties. But to me and countless others, the man is an artist in the truest sense. Meticulous, adventurous, restless, timeless. Both literally and figuratively, a god-given talent that takes us higher (D's formative years were spent in church in Richmond, Virginia, where his father was a Pentecostal preacher).
D'Angelo's influence, particularly on contemporary soul and hip hop music, is astounding given that he has only released two albums in almost 20 years. But the second in particular, Voodoo, pioneered a retro-futurist. post-hip hop approach to studio recording, steeped in the classic art of the album. A mystic brew of Marvin Gaye harmonies, Stevie Wonder melodies, James Brown funk, Hendrix haze, Sly Stone experimentation and Prince falsetto. And the list goes on. The boot camp sessions were lengthy to say the least, according to engineer Russell Elevado. One endless jukebox jam on tape. Many, myself included, didn't get it at first. The muffled vocals, the "drunk" drumming, that eerie spirit running through the 70-minute album. What producer/drummer Questlove describes as "an acid trip".
In time, Voodoo was rightfully acknowledged as a classic, shooting straight for the heart yet definitely coming from some place else. A new conception of black music. The ensuing tour with the Soultronics – a masterful band of gypsies featuring Pino Palladino, Roy Hargrove, Spanky Allford and Anthony Hamilton among others – was probably one of the heaviest and most captivating stage shows of the past 20-30 years. At various points channelling the spirit of The Shrine, The Mothership and Paisley Park.
But then came the drama. The role of sex symbol, conferred on him after that unforgettable Untitled video, did not sit well. D'Angelo felt misunderstood, undervalued perhaps. He fled back to Richmond and tried to be go back to the way things were – to be "a regular guy" again. Instead, he found a path to self-ruin lay ahead: deaths, drink, drugs and run-ins with the law.
The intervening years weren't squandered completely though. He became an accomplished guitar player, amassed about 50 songs for his untitled third album (see below for taste) and did some major damage to that washboard stomach. Character assassination, shedding skin … call it what you will.
So here we are in the present day, firmly focused on the music. This being a Red Bull lecture, the emphasis is on how and why artists create. Don't expect to hear sordid details of breakdowns or dark tales of wrestling with demons.
The following six soundbites will be of particular interest, whether you are a D'Angelo aficionado or you know only a handful of his songs. Consider this an appetiser…
FUNK, ROCK, SOUL. IT ALL STEMS FROM THE BLUES
"It's a natural progression for me. Honestly, I just feel like that's where it's going. The thing with me is, [after] years and years of crate digging, listening to old music, you kind of start to connect the dots. And I was seeing the thread that was connecting everything together, which is pretty much the blues. And everything soul or funk kind of starts with that. That's kind of like the nucleus of everything, thread that holds everything together. And so it's kind of just a natural progression."
IT'S OK IF PEOPLE AREN'T SURE ABOUT MY MUSIC AT FIRST
"I don't know if people were really expecting what they got from us [at Sinbad's Soulbeach party] because we did a lot of new material and, you know, I think there was a lot of, like, kind of confusion — a lot of confused looks on certain people's faces. And then, on other people's faces, they were really receiving what we were doing. But I love that. I love — if it's confusing at first, that's a good thing for me; that's a good sign."
CHURCH KEEPS ME HONEST
"They used to say this when I was going to church: "Don't go up there for no form or fashion." So I guess what that means is, 'Listen, we're up here singing for the Lord. So don't be up here trying to be cute,' you know. 'Cause we don't care about all that. We just want to feel what you, you know, and what the spirit is moving through you.' And it's the best place to learn that. So you shut yourself down and you let whatever's coming, come through you.'
MTUME WAS A MENTOR AND HELPED WITH THE LYRICS ON MY DEBUT ALBUM
"James Mtume was involved with Midnight Songs [a songwriting workshop organised by Midnight Music publisher Jocelyn Cooper]. All of the writers on her roster would come to the workshop and James would really be holding court, you know. And he would literally have like a chalkboard, he'd really be going through it, you know, talking about songwriting and song structure, theory, whatever. He was one of those cats in the early days that really, really gave me a lot of confidence and let me know that I could do it, you know? I remember at the end of recording Brown Sugar, I don't know, I had like a mental block where I couldn't finish. There was, I couldn't nail this line on "Lady." And then there was this line on "Cruisin'" that I couldn't nail. And Mtume was at the studio when I did those vocals and kinda coached me through it, you know. And he's just a great guy, man."
SEARCHING FOR A NEW SOUND ON VOODOO
"For Brown Sugar, I wrote the majority of that record in my bedroom in Richmond. And all of the demos for it were done on a four-track. I think EMI was a little leery of me being in the studio producing it on my own, which is what I was fighting for. So it was important for them that I go in with someone, an engineer. Everyone was trying to pick like, "You should get Prince's engineer, or somebody else," and I picked Bob Power because of my love for Tribe and what they were doing. He taught me a lot. All of the demos that I had basically before we even set foot in the studio — we were at Bob Power's house for like three months like going over every detail, tweaking every high hat, every symbol, you name it. And so, when we went into the studio to record, I mean, it was really like, in my opinion, I felt like — after it was done, I loved it. But there were certain songs that I felt it lost something between the demo version and all of the production that went into it. I felt like it lost — like it got a little homogenised in my opinion, for me, at the time. [A little too] buttery. So I was like — yeah, straight from the cow to the glass, you know. And that's what Voodoo was; it really was that. We were in the studio and I wanted everything to feel like the demo. I wanted everything to feel like the demo. So that was the first thing."
I SING IN A TEE-PEE, WITH A MIC, HUMIDIFIER AND ASHTRAY
"I'm trying to go deep, deep in the onion. I get tired of kicking everybody out the room cause when it's time for me to do vocals. I'll set the board myself and I'll have the mic there. But I hear that's how Sly Stone used to do it. Mtume was talking about how Sly would use this thing called the dead zone. Sly wouldn't even use headphones. You know, he would sit at the board, with the mic and he would position the mic a certain way in between the speakers and there's a dead zone. So he wouldn't even put on headphones. And that's why when you listen to some of that stuff, There's A Riot Going On, you hear a lot of hiss and a lot of stuff in there, but that's what that is. I kinda just borrowed that from him, you know. And I learned — we all learned a lot working on Voodoo. That was such a great time. I'm kinda a first take dude. The first time, cut that mic on and the spirit is there and what comes on the mic — I mean, even if I'm mumbling, I like to keep a lot of that initial thing that comes out. Cause that's the spirit."
There are also a few hilarious stories about coming up, for instance his first, almost brutal experience of Amateur Night at the Apollo. I'll let D tell that one. Or how Questlove first heard Brown Sugar and then tried to speak to D'Angelo through the drums on stage. Press play below to watch the whole interview with Nelson George. Or head to NPR where there is an audio recording and full transcript. Very little was said about the new album. So I guess it's not finished. Surprised?