Rapper's delight

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

"She's going to have a bunch of people on her debut, which is great for an unknown artist," Massenburg says. "You can't ask any more than that. It's going to be perfect."

As often happens when luck collides with Providence--"This entire project is anointed by the Creator," Badu says repeatedly--Badu never intended to become a singer. Though she was raised on the music of Billie Holiday and Stevie Wonder ("That's my husband, brother, daddy, lover, my music, and my soul," she says), Badu studied dance at the Arts Magnet and then theater at Grambling State University in Louisiana. "I've been doing it all my life," she says. "It's what I do best: perform. I was a pretty good singer, so I decided to do the dance and drama so I could be balanced."

"I grew up at the Martin Luther King Recreational Center every summer, and I would sing in the plays," she recalls. "I've always been into something. If I wasn't at the recreational center singing, I was at home by myself playing in the mirror and pretending I was a background singer. That's what I always wanted to be because I never considered myself the best singer. You can teach a person how to sing, but you can't teach them how to feel it."

She recalls the moment when she decided she didn't just want to make music in the background. It happened when she was 12 years old, performing in dramatic competition at the Dallas Theater Center. One night, Badu says, Jerry "Mr. Peppermint" Haynes was attending a show as a judge, awarding the honors to the young actors and actresses. Haynes is himself a veteran of the Dallas stage, apart from his job as local TV's kiddie entertainer.

"I was, like, nervous," Badu recalls. "I mean, Mr. Peppermint was in the building. In this particular play, I was playing Dorothy in The Wiz, and I was getting ready to sing 'Home,' and I hadn't seen him the whole night, so I was cool. But then I spotted him, and I sung the best I had ever sung before. I won 'best actress' that night, and after the show he came up to me and shook my hand and said, 'You should really take voice lessons,' and I was like, 'What?' He said, 'You're going to be a wonderful singer,' so Mr. Peppermint is to blame for all this."

Badu only switched to singing professionally when she hooked up with Fort Worth-based manager Tim Grace, who got another locally based band on the Mo' Money soundtrack, and convinced him she possessed other talents. The two had met when Badu auditioned for a film Grace was trying to cast, and Badu had been hired for her look and ability. Later, she returned with a tape of music she had recorded with her cousin Free, and Grace signed her on as a client and sent her into his tiny Fort Worth studio to cut a 45-minute demo.

"Rap is something you do, hip-hop is something you live," Badu says. "It's a whole culture. I started working at home with Free and at Tim's studio and we got to the demo stage, preproduction stage, and when I turned around six months later, I had 19 songs. It was a rolling stone, just this snowball effect. I was getting more and more inspired, the writing became better and better, the singing became better and better, and before you knew it, I was a singer, and labels were saying, 'Sign with us.'"

Before long, Badu was opening for touring hip-hop bands like A Tribe Called Quest, Method Man, Arrested Development, and New York's Mobb Deep. In December of 1994, she was beginning to record her demo; she had a deal 12 months later. It seems so...simple.

Badu is a product of a local hip-hop scene that's so underground it's almost molten lava. Delete The D.O.C. (he didn't make it until he moved to L.A. and hooked up with Dr. Dre) and Nemesis (the bass-heavies who keep releasing albums on Profile to no effect) from the landscape, and Dallas is a barren hip-hop wasteland. The only band to have received any respect in the hinterlands was Mad Flava, but they were dropped from Priority last year after their much-delayed album, From Tha Ground Unda, went ignored.

Yet somehow Badu managed to escape, so far, the curse of the local hip-hop and soul community that dictates that you can have all the talent in the world but still struggle to get heard outside of your bedroom studio. Just ask Ty Macklin of Shabazz 3, a guy who uses the turntable and sampler like machine guns but can't get his turn at the firing range. Badu, though, plans to use Macklin as a producer on at least one track. After all, she explains, he mixed the version of one song heard in her live show. Mad Flava's Kasaan also helped Badu book her early gigs, and he hooked her up with a producer who will work on the debut.

"It's like, 'I made it, y'all made it,'" Badu says of her plans to bring her comrades along for the ride. "I call them all the time: 'OK, this is where we are right now.' That's what I tell them when I'm talking about the project. 'We are here, we are at this point, and when we get here I'm bringing you up here.' Ty will be up in March. It has to be that way. That's how we do it.

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