By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
But the albums that contained them were spiked with a gimmick that eventually overshadowed the music--the watershed Caught Up and Still Caught Up formalized the between-song "bedroom raps" that became the centerpiece of her reputation. Both albums told of an adulterous relationship from two female viewpoints--the woman who's cheating and the woman being cheated on. Songs like "Leftovers" ("Stop lickin' the jar, girl/Scrapin' the bone" of her man) alternated with her prototypical "The Rap," in which Jackson the adulteress brazenly declares one of the best things about seeing a married man is "when you go to the Laundromat, you don't have to wash nobody's funky drawers but yo' own."
What trailed off into the early '80s were increasingly repetitious song choices paired with premeditated rants about women not getting enough oral sex, unemployed men not getting jobs and hypocritical fans who buy her dirty albums but hide them behind Bach and Beethoven ("Shit y'all don't even know how to pronounce," she declares in her much-loved "Fuck You Symphony," in which that salute is repeated over urgent classical strings; it was an early inspiration to Lil' Kim, who Jackson claims calls her "Mom"). The pinnacle (some say nadir) of her confrontational approach was 1982's Back to the Shit; Jackson appeared on the cover, panties around her ankles, straddling a toilet with a grimacing-grunting expression aimed at the viewer. Onstage and in the studio, Jackson had developed a mock adversarial relationship with audiences, paring her fans down to two key minority demographics--one black, the other white.
"Working-class black women have always bought Millie records," she declares. "And back in the '70s, their men hated it. They [the women] had to hide the shit. Their men was like, 'Don't be bringin' that woman into my house.' Middle-income blacks would buy the music, but they'd be embarrassed about it. They were worse than Iowa whites. A friend of mine operated a record store in a middle-class black neighborhood in Atlanta, and folks'd come in and whisper, 'Do you have Feelin' Bitchy?' real low. He'd be like, 'What?! Say that again!!' You'd think they be buyin' condoms or somethin'."
And who compromises Jackson's white fans, by her estimation?
"Every time some white guy come up to me and say, 'Hey, Millie, when ya next album comin' out?', I always answer back [with another question]," she cackles. "I say, 'How's yo old man doin'?' Gays have always dug what I was tryin' to say. Occasionally, 'cause of them, white women with gay brothers or gay best friends get a hold of my shit and like it."
At age 56, Jackson is the peer of artists such as Gladys Knight and Otis Redding, although she began recording much later than they. She never quite "crossed over," as they did, to be appreciated by mainstream white audiences and critics, but she alternately professes not to care and expresses some frustration with the whole concept as a barometer of success. If she can still pack nightclubs and concert halls around the country, does it matter if they're in largely African-American neighborhoods? Certainly, she won't trip over herself to make bids for white respectability, although she's not loath to snatch up the occasional mainstream exposure that comes along--she stepped in after Tina Turner declined a duet with Elton John on "Act of War," and that 1985 single charted high in England. Right now, Jackson is focused on the audience that made her--KKDA's The Millie Jackson Show finds her reading the schedules from South Dallas clubs, prank-calling Church's Chicken employees and making fun of Jesse Jackson, the lily-white Grammys and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs. White audiences are welcome, but first-time listeners quickly understand their concerns are not paramount here.
Jackson admits dedicating 15 hours a week to on-air chat--not to mention off-air news research, song selection and choosing general themes to keep the banter from straying into babble--consumes her work schedule to the detriment of other projects. It's another example of "me making a promise and painting myself into a corner," she sighs. Musically, homages to Jackson have recently surfaced: She's rapped with Lil' Kim in the studio, making official the debt that the Notorious B.I.G.'s protégé/lover owes Jackson, as do the platinum-profane Missy Elliott and Foxy Brown. Euro-housemaster Etienne de Crecy samples Jackson's "If Loving You is Wrong" and "What Went Wrong Last Night" on his recent album Tempovision. But Jackson herself is temporarily dormant as a recording artist--she's been without a label since the small but prestigious, Atlanta-based Ichiban Records folded two years ago. She's in the process of forming her own (possibly to be called Weird Wreckords), insisting pragmatically: "Major labels do not wanna sign an old lady like me, and if they did, they wouldn't promote me." Jackson goes into the studio on weekends to record tunes for a new album she wants to call--and she's not kidding--Not For Church People. The title came from Jackson's brief conversation at a formal dinner with a woman who obviously disapproved of her career.
"Yeah, they sat me next to the church person," she snickers. "People started asking me, 'Millie, what you gonna call your new album?' And this woman who looked at me like I was crazy when we met said, 'I guess it's not for church people.' I said, 'That's the name of it. You just named it. Not for Church People. She suddenly got real excited. She said, 'A lot of people are gonna buy it if they think it's not for them!'
"I looked at her and I wanted to say, 'Yeah...people like you," Jackson remembers with a howl.