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.
"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.
"It's a family thing, and everybody's real supportive. There's a lot of love. At first, I thought everybody was going to be mad at me just 'cause I got signed and they didn't. People do that, you know, but everybody was cool."
Badu has certainly connected with the right people. She was signed by Kidar Massenburg, the man who discovered 21-year-old singer D'Angelo and took him to the top of the R&B charts with his 1995 album Brown Sugar--which has since netted D'Angelo the Top 40 single "Cruisin'" and R&B Grammy nominations for Best Song, Best Album, and Best Male Vocal Performance. Massenburg is the vice president of Universal Records while, at the same time, he heads his own imprint for the label.
Massenburg says he heard Badu's tape when a mutual friend passed along the demo and then made the introductions. Massenburg was interested enough in the tape but remained skeptical until he had Badu open for D'Angelo at Caravan of Dreams in Fort Worth last November. That night, Massenburg was convinced, and before Badu could sign with Columbia Records--which was also preparing an offer for Badu--he got her to sign on his dotted line.
"She was without question an artist I wanted to sign," he says now from his New York office. "It was her whole presence. I heard the music first, and her music was different. It was reminiscent of Billie Holiday, which is why I like to say Erykah is my jazz-soulstress. I have an ear for different talent that can work, and once I signed her, I put her in contact with the people that worked on D'Angelo's record. We're taking it from there.
"She's not Mary J. Blige. She's the next thing, whatever that might be. She's not all the way jazz or hip-hop, but it's soulful--soulful jazz, ya know? I see her filling that slot. Same as D'Angelo came to change the direction of the male vocalist in R&B, I see the same thing for Erykah on the female side. I want to keep her true to the core and not put her in makeup and make her something she's not. I want to make her accessible to everyone."
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