Madukwu Chinwah's career started out like that of many musicians, by playing in a high school garage band. It was called Krystal Klear, and while the band didn't quite make it, Chinwah would become one of the main originators of the neo-soul genre.
As a songwriter and producer, Chinwah was awarded a Grammy and a platinum plaque for his contributions on longtime friend Erykah Badu’s The Love of My Life and Baduzim.
The term "multi-instrumentalist" still feels short when describing Chinwah, who plays something between 17 to 20 different instruments; he can't keep track. He's spent most of his musical career behind the scenes in the studio, adding sounds and lyrics to other artists' records. Recently, Chinwah stepped into his recording studio to write, produce and lay the vocals for his third solo album, Stereophonic, released on April 21, in honor of International Creativity and Innovation Day.
Chinwah played five or six instruments on each of the album's 10 songs himself, while emulating the highly textured and complex sounds of Michael Jackson’s albums Off The Wall and Thriller. And the inspiration shows; it's almost scary how much Stereophonic sounds like Off The Wall. Even scarier when you realize that Chinwah is playing all the instruments himself, while Jackson had a full band behind him.
Chinwah admits to having a natural musical gift he cashed in through family genes, but his passion for learning to play instruments stems from his time listening to early records while in high school playing with Kyrstal Klear. Wherever he was living invariably became the spot for the band members to leave their gear, so they didn't have to load it all back before going home. As soon as they'd leave, Chinwah would practice on their drums, guitars, keyboards and any other instruments sitting in his garage, trying to become a better at all of them.
“I had to learn, trial and error, and it made me appreciate what it was [to produce and play different instruments]," Chinwah says. “So I guess I assumed early on that the person that wrote the song was the person who played it down, and all those things.”
Learning to play multiple instruments helped to prepare him for a long career.
When Badu came back from a short stay at Grambling University, Chinwah says he and Badu, who was rapping at first, had a conversation about what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives.
“We both decided as rappers that we wanted to sing,” Chinwah says. “[Badu] said, ‘I want to be an R&B singer,’ and I said ‘I want to be an R&B producer.’”
That conversation took place in 1990, and a few years later, they were creating history.
“With Erykah’s success came my success,” Chinwah says. “I was on the national and even international scene immediately because it was a triple-platinum album, by a new artist on a real label at Universal.”
Chinwah says he'd always been inspired by Quincy Jones’ and Jackson’s ability to create dynamic records and Stereophonic was something he'd been yearning to put together for a long time. He found that the music created by these artists and producers always carried a certain fullness and warmth that would cover the listener like a warm blanket, through powerfully moving lyrics. Chinwah wanted to pour that same kind of energy into his own record.
“My Stereophonic wanted to paint a similar picture, something for everybody,” Chinwah says. “And I feel good about what I’ve presented because while production is thick and warm, I believe musicians can enjoy it. But ultimately, these are pop songs that you can sing along with and I have never done that. Maybe some of the music I’ve done before was a little highbrow, but [Stereophonic] is straight boogie.”
Chinwah is about to release a series of music videos, and is still working in the studio on records for other artists. He'd been putting songs aside for the album for less than two years, and says he would have presented some of the tracks on the album to Jackson before he died.
“Michael Jackson sang songs that went outside of relationships and he put himself on the line for others by singing songs with conviction,” Chinwah says. “So I wanted to able to be that kind of transparent, and Stereophonic is that.”
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