Erykah Badu never seems to slow down. In the past week alone she played a benefit show at the Dallas Children's Theater and a DJ gig under her Lo Down Loretta Brown moniker at Oaktopia festival in Denton. The week before that, she showed up at American Airlines Center to moonlight with Puff Daddy's Bad Boy Reunion Tour. She celebrated her 45th birthday earlier this year — in style, naturally, with a gala at The Bomb Factory.
Making time to stop and reflect isn't necessarily a given for the Queen of Neo-Soul, but when she spoke with the Dallas Observer, the conversation went on for nearly an hour. Badu opened up about everything from her early days doing comedy with Steve Harvey to her current TV show on Comedy Central, for which she collaborates with Dallas producer Picnictyme.
Dallas Observer: How did you get involved with Comedy Central to do the music for The Legends of Chamberlain Heights?
Badu: They reached out to me to be the music supervisor for the show. They reached out to me through my partner, Carl Jones. Carl is the creator of the Adult Swim show Black Dynamite. He was also a main writer, character actor and animator for The Boondocks. We're partners, we have a production company together and we write together — different things in the industry, create together for different things. I hosted the Soul Train Awards last year, and he was my co-comedy writer. I wrote pieces for that.
When he got the co-executive producing gig for Legends, he reached out to me for music. When I saw it I thought it was hilarious, morbid, terrible and crazy. And I love a challenge like that, and I took it.
Another Dallasite, Picnictyme, works with you on that show, right?
I had to create music for 10 episodes per season. Of course I summoned Picnic[tyme], who's one of my partners in crime; he's in my group, the Cannabanoids, which is a group of about 10 of us who are all producers, who produce live on stage, electronically. I reached out to Picnic, his other name is Richard Escobedo. He was perfect because we share this really cool urban sense of producing. We have the same birthday.
So what's your signs?
You believe in astrology?
I do. Astrology is this whole pseudoscience that kind of explains the personality of the human being by way of atoms and ethers. In astrology, they say that we're affected by the constellations, they give off these small energy bursts or vibes that go into the subconscious mind and other shit, and makes us personality-wise who we are. I love astrology.
"Phone Down" was your 10th top 10 in the Billboard charts. How'd you decide to do this mixtape? Obviously when you came out with the remake of "Hotline Bling" that blew up and became everyone's favorite thing.
That was the start. I did the remix of "Hotline Bling" just for shits and giggles because it's such a great song, and I just wanted to do something. That was the first time that [I worked with] Zach Witness, who's also from Dallas, and a legend in his own right. Zach is a little white kid, a prodigy DJ at age 14 and just a really awesome person. He's 21 now. He came over to the art exhibit where I was showing a piece earlier last year. I was introduced to him because he did a remix of one of my songs and I thought it was just a really different take on it. I wanted to work with him and asked if he was available the next day to do the remix of "Hotline Bling."
I went to his house and he already had the track ready. I got on the mic and started singing. My son, who's 18 now, came up with the melodies for the song and we knocked it out in 30 or 40 minutes. In the same day I had the music for "Phone Down," I said well let me just try this, too. We knocked that out in 20 minutes, and we just felt like we're good together, we have something.
Zach Witness is local to Dallas?
Yes he is. We recorded at his house. He lives with his mom still, so in his room, at nighttime we had to be real quiet, because his mom was sleeping and had to go to work. He's become one of my best friends in the world, and in exchange for this album I'm teaching him reiki.
How often does fan pressure make something happen? Do the fans influence it? I've heard a rumor, I don't know if it's true or not, that you and Nikki Minaj might be collaborating on something.
You know, we just said hi on Twitter. I don't know where that came from. Maybe it's the collective music universe — all the fans wanting it to happen.
You recently hopped on stage with the Bad Boy Tour here. How'd that come about?
Diddy just called and said they were coming to town. He asked if I was here, and what songs would I want to do. It was kind of the night before. His music director happened to be my music director for the Soul Train awards. I told RC, my music director, also a Cannabanoid, to come over to the American Airlines Center. It all happened so fast. I performed "On and On" and "Tyrone."
The crowd went wild.
Yeah, they were happy that I was there; I was happy that I was there.
Did you say you write comedy with your co-producer Carl Jones. Is that something you keep under wraps or do people know you're a comedy writer?
I don't know if they know that [laughs]. I've done a couple things here and there. I wrote my monologue on the Soul Train awards and some of the other pieces and skits that I did. I was just on this show called Wild N' Out with Nick Cannon; I think it aired a couple of nights ago. It's all comedy writers who are part of that show and we are improving. I just did a one-woman show, it was a collection of my writings and monologues and stuff like that. When I was younger, I got my start in the industry as Steve Harvey's personal assistant. He allowed me to write a couple of his jokes that he took on the road. Yeah, that's how I got started.
Take me through that. How did that transition happen?
I was already doing all of that stuff. I had the pleasure and privilege of going to the Booker T. Washington school of performing arts, and I was taking every single cluster — I was in music, I was in dance and I was in visual arts. It's such a great advantage to exercise all of those things, and I didn't know what I wanted to be, I just knew I wanted to perform. Right out of college I became a teacher, but it wasn't paying the bills, so I had to do something else. I got this job at Steve Harvey's Comedy House; he lived here in Dallas during '93 or '94. I started out as a waitress there and I hustled my way up to being a hostess, and from hostess I got in the ticket booth and from ticket booth got a little closer to his office.
From there I started to you know, talk shit, and create and make jokes and laugh. I became his personal assistant, and from personal assistant I became his stage manager, which got me closer to the stage. I just kept creating these jobs for myself. I started to open for him. He was so generous with his wisdom and kindness. From there we started performing together on stage, doing a duet with keyboards, and we recorded an album called Section 8, a demo cassette musical comedy. He just allowed me to be in his space and sit with him and joke and talk with him. I was really honored that he liked the things I said and the jokes I told. He ended up putting one of them in one of his books.
How long did it take to go from starting there as a waitress to being on stage with Steve Harvey?
About six months. Are you impressed? [laughs]. I got a record deal shortly after that. I was working on my own music with another Cannabanoid named Free who happens to be my cousin. We were working on a demo called Erykah Free that became Baduizm. I had gone to South By Southwest to perform. Free and I put together some packaged demos — CDs hadn't even come out yet. We had a cassette tape, a black and white 8 x 10 photo, and a demo with a little booklet with the lyrics and credits and all those kind of things.
We passed those out at SXSW, and a girl named Tammy Cobb, who was managing this group called Mob Deep at the time, handed it to D'Angelo's manager, Kedar Massenburg. And when D'Angelo came through Dallas-Fort Worth, the manager asked if I wanted to perform. He heard the demo and wanted to sign me. He was one of the many people I gave that demo to. I even gave one to Puffy [Sean Combs].
How'd you get in front of him?
After South By Southwest, I left my job as a teacher at the South Dallas Cultural Center and went to New York. I went to every record label in New York including Bad Boy, and I brought my boom box with me and I performed on the desk with my boom box for each of the presidents or executives of the label. Some of them thought I was nuts, some of them thought I needed development, some of them didn't even pay attention. After Kedar decided he wanted to sign me to his label, then a few of the other labels decided they changed their minds and they had a bidding war going on for a while and I told them whichever one puts a Lexus in my momma's yard first [laughs], we can talk about doing business.
Did that happen? Did Kedar get your mom a Lexus?
Kedar did it.
Was it nerve-wracking opening for D'Angelo?
I was too young and naive to be nervous or insecure or any of those things. I was very confident, I knew there was nothing like I was doing, because I was a fan and a student of music and I understood what I was doing. I didn't feel any kind of nervousness at all. I felt like I was doing them a favor, actually.
That's a great place to be in — having that sort of self-confidence.
That was a long time ago [laughs]. It's funny how life has a way of making things more real as you keep living.
What's next for you? What are you working on that you're excited about?
Well, I'm always working on some music. I'm excited about any new music that I'm working on. I do a lot of remixes, just to play around with stuff and keep stuff fresh. You'll find a lot of that stuff online with me. I'm hosting the Soul Train awards again. Hopefully taking my one-woman show to a network. You know my first job is here in Dallas taking care of my grandmothers who are both 90, and I'm also a doula, so the mothers are first on my list, next to my kiddies. I'm always working on something, stuff just comes up so quickly. I'm getting back in the studio to do another album; I'm going to do something really heartfelt.