Rapper's delight

Erykah Badu emerges from nowhere with a record deal and vast ambition

Four months ago, Erykah Badu was serving coffee at Grinders, the Lower Greenville coffee house across the street from the Arcadia Theatre, antique stores, and trendy dive bars. She was a 23-year-old would-be actress and dancer trying to make ends meet, living with her mom in the South Dallas home in which she was raised, and teaching dance and drama to young kids, ages 3 through 17, at the South Dallas Cultural Center.

Like most people who came out of the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing Arts, Badu harbored her private ambitions of fame. Such are the expectations of most students who leave Dallas' arts magnet schooled in dramatic and dancing technique; such are the anticipations of those who graduated from the place that turned out Edie Brickell and Badu's old friend and classmate Roy Hargrove. Badu was no different, and her story was akin to many who dream of living on the stage even as they wait tables and practice in front of mirrors that reflect back an audience of one.

Badu sits in Grinders pondering all this, but today she will not have to serve coffee. Instead, she is an ephemeral guest in this bean house, and she casts a striking image wearing a bright florescent long-sleeved shirt. Her head is wrapped in a similar-colored scarf setting off her bright hazel eyes, her bell-bottomed jeans cover her bare feet, and her arms and fingers are covered in silver jewelry. She is still anonymous to all but her old friends here, whom she is visiting for the few days she is home, but already she stands out in a crowd.

In a few days she will return to her new home, Brooklyn, and her new job, recording a record with some of the most talented men and women in R&B and hip-hop. This gig at Grinders, this town in which she was born, the time spent juggling jobs and considering a future--for now, they're just fond memories, and a smile plays across her face as she considers this.

"It feels good to be back here," she says, looking around this place. "These people were so supportive of me. My bosses were lenient with me when I had a show and had to get off early. They were like, 'OK, Erykah, just don't forget about us,' and I didn't want to leave my kids at the South Dallas Cultural Center. They were really important to me, and I just really had to decide what would progress the righteous struggle more: getting my music out to everyone, or these kids. Well, both are equally important, and I didn't want to leave Dallas, but God always has a way of putting you with the right thing at the right time, and the Creator did. Here I am, and I feel really good."

A little more than two months ago, Badu was plucked from obscurity and signed to the sort of record deal most local musicians reach for but almost never touch. After a bidding war that was more a skirmish, she signed to Kidar Entertainment, a subsidiary of Universal Records--which is distributed through the mighty Uni Corporation, which also handles MCA Records, Geffen Records, and Steven Spielberg's new DreamWorks label--and the label run by the man who discovered the out-of-nowhere R&B star D'Angelo. It's the veritable deal of a lifetime--seven records in all, the first three guaranteed--that got her out of Grinders and Dallas and into the pages of the music-trade magazines, where gossip is gold and fame is found between the lines.

In December, Badu signed her contracts and left Dallas for New York City, where she has already begun recording her debut album that she figures will be released at the beginning of the record industry's third quarter--which means sometime around July or August--though a single will be sent to radio stations and record stores in early June. Though she has only laid down the bare tracks on one song, already there exists some not-so-unjustified high expectations for the project. Her demo tape alone, recorded on a low budget in tiny home studios, is an impressive piece of work--a beautiful and mature jazz singer's voice moaning illusory boho-Beat poetry over soul melodies and hip-hop beats.

"Columbia Records was just in love with the fact I had this Billie Holiday voice but this jazz hip-hop sound, and they were like, 'We're going to make you today's Sarah Vaughan--straight jazz but with your own hip-hop sound,'" Badu says. "I was cool with that, but with Universal it was like the same thing: 'You got a jazz voice, you got hip-hop, but your shit is soulful,' and that wasn't coming from Columbia. They didn't see the soulfulness, but Universal did, and I really appreciated it. Kidar and D'Angelo said, 'You keep doin' that, because that's where music is going.'"

Both Badu and Kidar Massenburg (for whom Kidar Entertainment is named, appropriately enough) banty about some of the biggest names in R&B and hip-hop when they discuss the record. Right now, D'Angelo is scheduled to produce a few tracks, as are Q-Tip and Ali from A Tribe Called Quest. There is also talk of Q-Tip and D'Angelo performing duets with Badu, Roy Hargrove will surely lend his trumpet to the record, and the Fugees' Lauryn Hill and Me'shell Ndegeocello have also been mentioned as likely candidates to contribute guest vocals.

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