Courtesy of The Chamber Group
Solange. Courtesy of The Chamber Group
This week, NPR Music is launching an R&B channel called "I'll Take You There," hosted by Jason King, a professor, writer and musician. It's a lot like the 24/7 stream of hip-hop that Ali and I host. So for this episode of Microphone Check, we're adding some R&B to the mix and talking to Solange Knowles.
We start our conversation in hip-hop: Solange tells us about getting suspended in middle school over a Nas poster in her locker, compares her singing style to Silkk the Shocker's flow, and says she still can't believe she got Bun B and Mannie Fresh to dance in the video for her song "Lovers in the Parking Lot."
This fall, Solange started a label called Saint Records — what she calls a "passion project" that will primarily house R&B artists. We talk about her hopes for the label, the relevance of gospel to R&B, recent journalism around the genre and, of course, Lucy Pearl. You can get all of NPR's coverage of R&B on Twitter @NPRandB.
Solange, "F—- The Industry (Remix feat. Wale)"
Nas, "Made You Look," God's Son
Juvenile, "Ha," 400 Degreez
Bow Wow, "The Movement," Unleashed
Dr. Dre, "Xxplosive," 2001
Solange, "Stillness Is The Move"
Frank Sinatra, "Strangers In The Night," Nothing But The Best
Solange, "ChampagneChroniKnightcap (feat. Lil Wayne)"
Skrillex, "Bangarang (feat. Sirah)," Bangarang
OG Ron C, "Contagious (The Isley Brothers)," F—- Action 26
OG Ron C, "I Care For You (Aaliyah)," F—- Action 26
Solange, "Lovers in the Parking Lot," True
Solange, "Sandcastle Disco (feat. Q-Tip)"
Solange, "I Decided, Pt. 1," Sol-Angel and the Hadley Street Dreams
Kirk Franklin, "Lean On Me," The Nu Nation Project
Kim Burrell, "Holy Ghost," Everlasting Life
Brandy, "I Wanna Be Down (Remix)"
Jaheim, "Ghetto Love," Ghetto Love
Lucy Pearl, "Dance Tonight," Love & Basketball: Music From The Motion Picture
Sheila E., "The Glamorous Life (Live)," American Music Awards 1985
Solange, "Losing You," True
Solange, "T.O.N.Y.," Sol-Angel and the Hadley Street Dreams
Next, "Too Close," Rated Next
FRANNIE KELLEY: So tell us: do you like hip-hop?
SOLANGE KNOWLES: I love hip-hop. I have gone through many difference phases in my love affair with hip-hop.
KELLEY: What do you mean?
KNOWLES: It evolves, your taste. It sometimes deepens, in terms of what's out; sometimes it's not as deep in terms of what's out. So it's definitely an evolution. I don't ever claim to be a hip-hop head.
KNOWLES: If you start quizzing me, I'll clam up and be like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa."
ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD: Alright, so the evolution.
KNOWLES: The evolution, yes.
MUHAMMAD: So who's your earlier loves?
KNOWLES: My earliest love, which was sort of an obsession actually, was Nas. I was in seventh grade, I believe, when Nastradamus was out, and I took it pretty far. I listened to it — no, I mean, I actually was telling someone yesterday, I got suspended over Nas.
KNOWLES: In eighth grade I went to a very, very Christian school. I had the God's Son shirt-off poster in my locker — across the belly — and the dean told me that I needed to remove the poster because it was blasphemous. And I argued that if I did that the young lady two lockers down from me had to take down her Justin Timberlake poster because he had a cross tatted on his chest.
KNOWLES: And I didn't really see what the difference was there. So he told me he was giving me until Friday — it was a Wednesday. I went home, spoke with my parents about it and my parents actually gave me the choice and the freedom to stand by it and accept the repercussions if so, which was an in-school suspension. So I took that, I took that for Nas.
KELLEY: That's a true fan.
MUHAMMAD: Does he know this?
KNOWLES: He does. I met him maybe in ninth grade and by that time — he was signed to Columbia, my sister was signed to Columbia, so he had heard on several different occasions that there was this little girl who had Nas on her nails and Nas book cover and had been suspended, so it was pretty deep. But that was also in my junior high transitioning into high school really feeling the need to express the depth of me.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, going to an all-Christian school probably inspired ...
KNOWLES: Yes, that rebellion, exactly. And Nas was my poet. I also, kind of from that — which jumps sonically pretty majorly — I loved Cash Money.
KNOWLES: Early Cash Money. Growing up in Houston, having bounce music just be in the fabric of my Houston childhood — you know, every party, every family reunion you played your DJ Jubilee record. And so hearing "Ha" I remember and it having that bounce beat but him spitting over it and his timing was so unique and abstract. It was really, really kind of his own timing. And then the visual took it to new heights for me.
MUHAMMAD: That's a range.
KNOWLES: It is a range.
MUHAMMAD: It's kind of like this next question doesn't count, but I'mm a ask. So what's your guilty pleasure?
KNOWLES: Guilty pleasure? I don't know. I mean, I really don't listen to anyone that I'm not proud of saying that I listen to. Even if it's something a little bit more unexpected, which — I didn't get too deep into the Waka, Gucci records, but I like those with pride.
KNOWLES: I mean, it's a range. There's a Bow Wow record that Pharrell produced called "The Movement" that's incredible — still one of my favorites.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, I'mma have to go back. I don't know this song.
KNOWLES: But no, I don't really have guilty pleasures. Anything musically that I fully, fully believe, is good no matter who the artist is, no matter what the marketing is behind it, I stand pretty firm.
MUHAMMAD: What do you think of the current state of hip-hop in terms of social content?
KNOWLES: I'm celebrating it, honestly. I think the new wave of rappers, especially Kendrick, the Black Hippy, ScHoolboy, I love what they're doing. I think that's definitely something to celebrate. Coming from a movement in hip-hop where everything was hyper hyper hood and was really, really sort of celebrating poverty and celebrating the selling the drugs and celebrating really just a lack of education.
MUHAMMAD: I call it "celebrating failure," but that's probably being harsh.
KNOWLES: Oh, damn. Harsh, harsh.
MUHAMMAD: I'm a little — I'm a lot older than you, so I think I can say that.
MUHAMMAD: But I'm gonna adapt the way you put it cause it's so much nicer.
KNOWLES: Well, I mean, there's definitely truth to a lot of those stories which you can't deny and disassociate from, which is the way that I try to look at it — that's a lot of people's truth. That's a lot of people's environment, whether it's right or wrong. As an artist, everybody has the opportunity to celebrate and speak their truth, and so I definitely wasn't playing it for my 8-year-old but every once in a while when you're in a party, a little bit of that at a time feels good.
MUHAMMAD: You feel it.
KNOWLES: You feel it.
MUHAMMAD: You feel a need to be there.
KNOWLES: Every once in a while. I mean, I draw the line, and I'm definitely the friend in the crew that's like, "You're over-thinking it." But it's also social situations that I feel comfortable expressing myself to that music. And there's some of 'em that made me really uncomfortable, so.
KELLEY: Yeah, I think that's true for a lot of people, though. Could you be a little bit more specific about that? What is the problem?
KNOWLES: Yeah, for sure. I think there's just certain lyrics and certain forms of hip-hop that definitely rang true, again, to a lot of people's truth, but you don't necessarily want to hear someone using that as a just kind of a in-the-moment, fun, careless expression.
KELLEY: Yeah, it's the precarious sing-a-long.
KNOWLES: For sure. And I actually am very careful with it myself. So I think just having a sensitivity in those situations is all that I ask for.
MUHAMMAD: I have one of those conflicting moments every time I get to this one particular song that I know is gonna — the party's just gonna go bonkers.
KNOWLES: Right. What's that?
MUHAMMAD: And I've stopped playing it in the middle, just make an announcement like, "Really? OK, you guys got yours off of this, now I'm done, cause I can't see this record to the end." It's "Xxplosive," Dr. Dre's "Xxplosive." Such a great sounding record but lyrically — I don't know, it pushes against me a little bit too much.
KNOWLES: I actually sampled that record. I covered it with a Dirty Projectors' song to the "Xxplosive" Dre beat.
KELLEY: You can play that now! There you go.
MUHAMMAD: Thank you.
KNOWLES: Different feeling it conveys, but.
MUHAMMAD: We'll see if we get the anthematic kind of ...
KNOWLES: No, no no. So wait, at which point do you stop playing it?
MUHAMMAD: I don't know. It's just something in the body starts to like — it's like, "OK. Really." I just watch the crowd. I'm like, "And, I'm done. Sorry, I apologize." And they understand. It's me playing it.
KNOWLES: Right. But I think every generation has that movement of hip-hop that you know you're playing it and you definitely have that moment of like, "Why am I saying this so enthusiastically? Why am I so stoked and psyched to say these lyrics?"
MUHAMMAD: Do you think about that as a songwriter?
KNOWLES: I do, but I don't think I ever approach those parallels, lyrically, that ever make me feel like this is something that I'd be uncomfortable hearing my son sing along with. It's not a conscious effort; it's just not my life. I mean, I've had songs — I had a song called "ChampagneChroniKnightcap," but it was innocent in its own way. But that's probably as far as it goes.
MUHAMMAD: I respect that. So is "Strangers in the Night," you know, classic songs saying a whole lot.
KELLEY: What do you play for your 8-year-old?
KNOWLES: Well, I honestly try to have the approach that this is real life, this is the real world that we live in, and I don't really try to shelter him from a lot of things that he's gonna see when he looks out of the window, you know what I mean? There's obviously a certain level of profanity or sexual profanity that I draw the line at, but he loves Jay, he loves his latest album. He's actually going through a very interesting phase where he's loving dubstep, like loving Europe drum and bass dubstep vibes, so.
KELLEY: That is interesting.
KNOWLES: It's super interesting because it's never been played in our household but I think it's something that's sort of becoming a phenomenon with kids his age because — I believe they have exposure to it through video games or something.
KELLEY: Oh, OK.
KNOWLES: Like he just randomly goes on YouTube and listens to Skrillex or a couple different other ones that I've never heard of. So it's really interesting because he's grown up listening to all types of music, and the natural form of rebellion is to find the one genre that maybe he hasn't listened to and to make that, you know, his thing.
MUHAMMAD: The thing that he stands on.
KELLEY: Is there anything — any hip-hop — you think is important for him to hear early on?
KNOWLES: Oh, for sure. He knows a bunch of Tribe records. He was actually like, four, saying "Bonita Applebum," super, super cute. I have footage of it.
MUHAMMAD: You should upload it so we can put it on our Facebook page.
KNOWLES: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, I definitely play a lot of '90s hip-hop for him. I don't know if this term, if you're into it or not, but "socially conscious" — do you embrace it?
MUHAMMAD: I do.
KNOWLES: OK, cool. And I've played him some Nas records. I kind of curate through the ones that I think are important for him to hear. And there's some newer hip-hop, that I'm cool with him listening to. Same thing. There's some songs on Kendrick's record that he's into. But the thing about it is, it's on the radio. It's all on the radio.
He also loves Macklemore, which is not an artist that I have in my rotation, but he — it's on the radio. He responds to it and it's, it's positive, so. He's the first guy that I had to do the, "My son loves you, will you take a picture with him?" thing at The Roots Picnic and I just felt so annoying, like you're really becoming a mom. Like a real mom.
MUHAMMAD: That's dope though — still — to have another artist's child appreciate your art. It's kind of flattering.
MUHAMMAD: I'm just saying.
KNOWLES: Yeah. But I definitely feel nerdy.
KELLEY: This is probably gonna make you feel a little bit more nerdy. I'm sorry, but are you ever influenced by any rapper's vocal technique, as a singer? We've often observed that your sister is sometimes singing like a rapper.
KNOWLES: Yeah, for sure.
KELLEY: How does that work in your head?
KNOWLES: Well, I talk very slow. I move very slow. I definitely have that Southern drawl and although I never necessarily participated in the activities that go along with screw ...
KELLEY: Thanks for clarifying.
KNOWLES: I definitely was a huge fan of screw. Anyone from Houston that hears this will know. There were these tapes called F—- Action. They'd take all of the R&B songs which were already hella slow and really, really, really chop and screw them. So if I had to create a parallel with anything, it'd be that. Because melodically, I don't ever really sing very staccato or very fast. It's really about a groove; it's really about a vibe. So I think maybe that has seeped into to my style a little bit because I certainly used to jam the F—- Action. They had like one and two and three and four and five.
MUHAMMAD: I've never heard that word before.
KNOWLES: I know. But it was a thing, and it was good.
MUHAMMAD: I want to — I need to learn.
KNOWLES: Seriously you should find them. But even — melodically, Silkk the Shocker. I used to love his flow. I love when rappers have a off-beat, very abstract timing, and he certainly did. Love Tip's flow, absolutely love it. And any rapper who really approaches rapping with the art form of songwriting melodically — I know a bunch of rappers who actually go in before they write the lyrics and come up with the melody. And you can hear and feel that difference so much when that's the case.
KELLEY: Can you name a couple examples?
KNOWLES: I feel like such a little stan over here but Kendrick is someone who does that really, really well.
KELLEY: Yeah, that's clear.
KNOWLES: Jay is actually someone who does that really well. And it's interesting because my son went through a phase where he was like writing raps everyday, all day, everyday. And Jay told me, "I watched Julez write his rap, and he came up with the melody first." And he's like, "That's really impressive, you know, for that age, for him to do that." And he's said that that's how he writes a lot of times.
KELLEY: I would say Bun B does.
KNOWLES: Oh, yeah, for sure.
KELLEY: That cameo was adorable.
KNOWLES: Thank you. I still can't even believe it went down.
KELLEY: I can't with that.
KNOWLES: I actually messaged him. I was like, "Thank you so much!" He's like, "Yeah, thank God I still have my G-card after that." I'm like, "You will never lose that." And then Mannie was just adorable. But Mannie's been dancing. He used to do the Dougie before the Dougie.
MUHAMMAD: Just saying, it's a part of hip-hop.
KNOWLES: It is.
MUHAMMAD: Like, you can't disconnect it.
KNOWLES: No. Yeah, but a lot of people are, like, afraid to dance in hip-hop now and just have fun and be goofy.
MUHAMMAD: Just find those videos when they were 12-years-old and that'll take care of that.
MUHAMMAD: How do you like working with rappers? I know you've worked with a few.
KNOWLES: Yeah. I've been very lucky in all of my experiences — actually, I've only worked with a few. I worked with [Lil] Wayne on the "ChampagneChroniKnightcap" one. Kendrick did a verse on "Looks Good With Trouble." Wale did a verse on this "F—- The Industry" song I had. But other than that, it's been pretty limited.
MUHAMMAD: Do you go in with these guys or do they just send you their verses?
KNOWLES: They send me the verses. And Tip actually sent me the verse on "Sandcastle." I have yet to work alongside — but, again, I've just been very, very, lucky that in those situations all of them have been very musical. It's never been a situation where I've had to send something back and be like, "Uhhh, huh."
MUHAMMAD: "Can you give me another one?"
KNOWLES: I don't even know how that works. Can you do that?
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, you can.
MUHAMMAD: What, are you kidding? It's your art.
KNOWLES: No, I mean other than just tick them off as a like a take or leave it thing?
MUHAMMAD: You can just be a boss about it. "Listen. I need something different. Sorry. I hope this doesn't take another 12 months." But take the liberty.
MUHAMMAD: So you started your own label.
MUHAMMAD: You plan on signing any MCs? Any rappers?
KNOWLES: That's definitely not on the agenda right now.
KNOWLES: But I'd totally be open to it if someone was incredibly ill. I think the thing about what I want to achieve for the label is it to really be a home for artists who are already developed, who already have a great sense of their artistry or their imaging, who don't really feel or want that marketing push. Who really have it together and are the package already. And if there was an MC who already had that, and was really firm in it, then heck yeah, I'd be open to it.
MUHAMMAD: Are you structuring your label as the way you would ideally have liked your label relationship to exist?
KNOWLES: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think that that's probably why having an MC is not on the immediate agenda. Because I'm so, so sensitive to having expertise behind whatever projects I work on. And although I'm a fan of hip-hop and I love it, I by no means am an expert on it. And so, in that situation, I'd want to bring in an A&R that really knows their stuff. Saint Records really, really started from me being on a major label for two albums, me putting out this last album completely independently and — I actually put it out through my friend's label, which is a small indie.
MUHAMMAD: Is that the Terrible Records?
MUHAMMAD: I'm like, tell me about — what's so great about Terrible Records?
KNOWLES: I know, I know. He asked for it with that name. But he was a dear friend of mine, played him the record, it really was just something that was super organic and just fell into place. Like, "I love this record. I'd love to put it out."
KELLEY: And that's another musician-run label, right? Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear.
KNOWLES: Yes. It's him and Ethan [Silverman] who run the label, and I knew in that situation that I really would have full creative and artistic control, behind every decision from the font on the artwork to where I wanted to premiere the song would be based solely off of my decisions.
And so I think going through that whole phase and transition, I really saw the strengths in the major labels, I saw the strengths in the indie labels and I saw some things that I wasn't a fan of, of both. I wanted to structure something that — not necessarily was down the middle, but that could house and support someone who didn't really consider or feel themselves fulfilling the role of an indie versus major label artist. Because now the lines are so crossed.
There's so many different ways to interpret that term in itself. For me, I always have looked at "indie" as a term of "independence." Never associated a sonic gesture with that in the same way that pop music has always meant "popular" to me, you know, it didn't define a sound. And I think now that has been the context for things. If something is indie, it almost has this sonic association with it, or pop has become this term of shame almost, like, bubblegum sweet pop.
KELLEY: Yeah, so it's loosely about artifice.
KELLEY: And authenticity.
KNOWLES: Exactly. And really, like I said, housing artists that already feel like they have that sense of development and know clearly and can define what their marketplace should — what they want it to be and what they want it to feel like. Which, I think that even if you have that and you go into a major label situation, there's so many cooks in the kitchen that that line of clarity can even become unclear to you.
MUHAMMAD: Did you come across those sort of challenges with your first two records?
KNOWLES: Oh, for sure.
MUHAMMAD: Did it affect the entire songwriting process? Not necessarily recording, but just the songwriting?
KNOWLES: I was really lucky with Sol-Angel that that album was finished and packaged before I signed to Interscope. And there was maybe one conversation that we had with the first single of, "Should this be rerecorded? Should this be recomped?" Etc., etc., because Pharrell actually produced that and he's one of the few people that I've ever let — because he is freakin' Pharrell — produce my vocals, which I'm very, very particular about. And he has a completely different approach for producing vocals, especially for that song. He wanted it to be a one-take. He wanted it to ring really true to the music of the era that was such an influence on that record. There might have been one conversation on the music side of that, like, "It's a little too raw. There's a couple bad notes." And I actually, you know, was open to re-exploring that. And we tried and we tried and it just, the magic was gone. So that was maybe the only thing that musically I experienced the change in, because the album was done. But on the creative side of things in every other vein — the artwork, the videos, the touring, I had a lot of challenges in that experience, for sure.
KNOWLES: And then my first album — you know, I was such a young'n. I was 14 when I started writing that album, 15 when it came out. I knew even then that I had a very distinctive idea musically of what I wanted the record to sound like. And I wrote probably about 80% of that record. Towards the middle to the end there definitely were conversations like, "Why are we letting this little girl write her music? We need to bring in the powerhouses, etc.," which ended up happening. Pharrell, Timbaland, Rockwilder, they all worked on that record. They would come in and I'd be this little bratty teenager like, "No, I write my own stuff." And they would actually give me a chance. I still feel proud of a lot of those records on that album.
MUHAMMAD: Well, you should. I mean, it's art expression of a time where — at that age, that's what you experienced. And I think that's one of the things that comes across with your art, is that it is honest.
KNOWLES: Well, thank you.
MUHAMMAD: What I get from you is that you're very eclectic in your love of music and living life. It comes across honest, and I know that that's a challenge for artists in major label situations where you're just — fully no barriers, you want to completely express the song, the art, the vision, and it might not be wholly supported. So your new record, it's on Saint Records?
MUHAMMAD: What does that feel like?
KNOWLES: It feels great. The last record that I did, the EP — you live and you learn. I won't call it a mistake but I learned the lesson of — a lot of times we would have these sessions where we'd all just grab a synth or a drum pad or whatever and just jam. And then I'd write the melody and the lyrics and it'd kind of be very second nature. And then I'd have like 20 sessions with 5011 instruments and had to edit it all and make it into the album that it was, which took me a year and a half. Because we were just going H.A.M. and you're so in the moment and you're acting off the momentum and the vibe.
So that's really what took me so long is I was editing these songs, and then you feel disconnected, you know, because they happened so long ago. It was definitely a very disciplined process. And so this time, I'm like, "We're gonna jam for three songs, edit those, jam for, you know what I mean." In a sense, I still feel really good about that process. Some of my favorite artists — like when I first learned about Sade's process and how every musician is in the room, it's really just a capturing of the vibe. But it's hard when you're the one who goes and edits it. I've tried to trust people with that process but ...
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, that's what producers go through. You like being a producer?
KNOWLES: I do and I don't. I just did my first track completely alone like in a room, by myself and I actually really enjoyed that. I always have had someone start something and then I finished it, or I added a synth here, or I added a bassline here, or whatever, but I never fully made a track. A beat from top to bottom without anyone in the space, and that was really, really a good feeling.
KELLEY: Is this the song that you tweeted about? "Wrote and produced a song yesterday inspired by kush, Big Pun, Kirk Franklin, Sean N Savage and Pharrell."
KNOWLES: Yes, that is that!
MUHAMMAD: What did you call it? A mega-what? A mega something?
KELLEY: "Then one fly lady sung it into mega-jamness."
KNOWLES: Yes. That wasn't me. I wasn't the fly lady but someone else did and I'm really, really excited to get that out there. But yeah that was, that was my mood board. I actually really, really loved Kirk Franklin and the Nu Family's album.
KELLEY: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about gospel.
KNOWLES: Yeah. I mean just melodically, those songs were so, so good.
KELLEY: They were so hot in the '90s.
KNOWLES: They were.
KELLEY: And people forget about that. They were on MTV all the time.
KNOWLES: Yeah. Especially the one with Bono and Mary [J. Blige], [singing] "Here's my shoulder, you can lean on me." That was good. That was really good. So I've been listening to a lot of that, a lot of Kim Burrell.
MUHAMMAD: I love Kim Burrell.
KNOWLES: Yeah, "Holy Ghost" is how I learned how to do runs. I just played it for maybe two or three weeks until I could actually connect those dots. I still can't, but, you know, I try.
But yeah, that was the song. I was actually working with an artist for my Saint Records project. I only had that day to work with her and she was like, "Let's start something fresh." And I'm thinking, "OK, what producers would be good to work with?" But it was literally in the last hour. There was no one to call.
I pulled out my MIDI and just started jamming, and it came together and I felt really good about it.
MUHAMMAD: That's awesome.
KELLEY: Necessity is the mother of you as a producer?
KNOWLES: Yeah, honestly.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah. Just think of hip-hop. We didn't have a band. Most of us didn't. So it was like, "We've got these records that sound like a band. Chop it up, even if it's just a bass note or a kick drum, snare."
KNOWLES: Right. I sampled the drums on this one.
KELLEY: I have sort of a backwards question. Do you hear R&B samples in hip-hop? Do you notice the standard samples that come up again and again?
KNOWLES: I noticed them a lot in the '90s, like the more obvious ones. But more recently what I've been hearing is a lot of rappers sampling indie music artists.
KNOWLES: Someone was telling me about this app called "Who Sampled" or something like that?
MUHAMMAD: Who Sampled started off as a website. I love/hate them.
KNOWLES: OK, explain both sides because I'm really fascinated.
MUHAMMAD: And now they're turning into an app which I'm just like, "Oh man."
KNOWLES: Oh, that's what you don't like about it?
MUHAMMAD: No, no. What I don't like about it is like they expose you. Tribe Called Quest is just so exposed. DJ Premier is just so exposed. Everyone —they're very good at — whomever is researching, oh man, they are the best.
KNOWLES: I get what you mean.
MUHAMMAD: It's good because then you can go back and see where that record came from and do your own studying, whether it's for a production perspective or just to appreciate the song, the original song. And that's why I love it. Like "Blood On The Leaves" — you go back and listen to that, where he got that sample from and you can appreciate what was going on in life at that time.
So I like Who Sample but now it's every beat digger knows, "I can go there real quick to find it versus really digging for ..."
KNOWLES: Well, I'm a newbie to it so it's still extremely exciting.
MUHAMMAD: It is.
KNOWLES: Someone put in my name and a bunch of samples came up for me as well, so it's not just the hip-hop it's exposing.
MUHAMMAD: You got a secret to tell?
KNOWLES: Yeah, yeah. So that was interesting. I actually — I'm looking for, when I was 10, I was in a theater group called the Ensemble Theater and one year they let us put on our own production. I sang "Strange Fruit" in the play — it was my choice of song — and I really don't remember why they let me sing that song.
KELLEY: Is this the same school that said you couldn't have Nas in your locker?
KNOWLES: No, no, no. This was a super super black, you know, with a lot of focus on African music, African dance theater. And they certainly encouraged us to use black history elements in this play, but I have been dying to find that because I was gonna use it on this record and then Kanye came out and I weeped, weeped.
KELLEY: So I want to ask you about some stuff that went down after you put out True, when you were criticizing journalists for not knowing their history and their culture. You said, "You need to know the culture of R&B before you're gonna write about R&B." Can you define the culture of R&B?
KNOWLES: For sure. I mean, it's all relative to each individualized experience, but I know that there's no way to really explain the emotional and physical and mental reaction when you're at a party in seventh grade and a 702 record comes on. You know what I mean? It's all of those things. It's the gelling down your baby hair because Chili did it, and you want it to look like Chili so much. The whole phenomenon of Tommy Hilfiger after Aaliyah wore it. All of those elements, and then you have your very, very obscure ones too.
I would either DJ these parties or go to these parties and come across a lot of writers who really, really had a love affair with R&B — which is all fine because it's all relative to everyone's individualized experience, I truly believe — but I would just never feel comfortable. I would have these conversations where I would use different references, or I would talk about Jaheim, just anything, anyone and get nothing back. And I think if you're going to be a writer about something or someone or a culture, really, really taking the time to study it — the same way that I said I would feel some type of way about putting out hip-hop because I'm not incredibly knowledgeable about it.
And there's a lot of situations where I feel irony involved when R&B and hip-hop is expressed in the indie worlds. There's a lot of times when I feel like the juxtaposition becomes a thing. There's a lot of times when I've seen the backgrounds of a lot of these writers on their Twitter profiles and it's like, C-Murder throwing up a gang sign. There's just a lot of ironic references that I constantly was being surrounded by.
It's not something that I just feel. It's something that has been written about, it's something that has been expressed by a lot of people. I had no problem vocalizing about it.
And I thought it was really interesting that even that became a joke in itself. I had mentioned about knowing Brandy album cuts and that became a joke. And it was precisely what I was speaking about. This is real to a lot of people. Brandy is a goddess in R&B to a lot of people. She is really the foundation for a lot of this very innovative, progressive, experimental R&B. Brandy influenced a lot of that. Frank Ocean will say it, Miguel will say it, and that became a joke in itself. The next day, it was like, "Here are our Top 10 deep Brandy album cuts list." That in itself sort of reflected the tone that I was speaking about.
It was also a generic idea of the type of artist being covered by a lot of music critics. Because I wasn't seeing Brandy covered on those sites, I wasn't seeing Tweet covered on a lot of those sites and so that was really my stance on it, was just sort of vocalizing that. I took a lot of s—- for it and it was fine. I actually got told not to bite the hand that fed me by one of the writers.
MUHAMMAD: I'm like by who? Nah, no don't ...
KELLEY: I'll tell you later.
MUHAMMAD: I want to know.
KELLEY: Can we have one moment to remember the "I Wanna Be Down" remix?
KNOWLES: Yo, so good.
KELLEY: That video. That was the answer to the "Flava In Your Ear" remix, that video.
KNOWLES: And it was also like — you grew up, you had like, "I'm Brandy." "I'm Monica." You know what I mean? And what that meant to girls, what it meant to identify with this one. I loved them both. I couldn't choose. But it's — those things are so relative in the context of writing about R&B. '90s R&B, let's face it, has become very trendy over the past few years, but it's very surface level.
KELLEY: Why do you think that people in general, maybe even pop culture, white culture, maligns R&B? There's the theory that people hated on disco so much, that "Disco Sucks" thing went so far, that people extrapolate it to R&B. Is it race? Is it too sexual? Too emotional?
KNOWLES: I can't answer that. I just saw another article that started off saying that R&B music was meant to be a cliché. It was a review of an album, and it's like — I really don't understand because my love affair is so deep with R&B music. I could never ever put it in the context of being a cliché in any way.
I really can't say. I get confused by that myself. But I think it also has been something that has become such a part of the fabric of my life. My parents, you know, only played Isley Brothers, Marvin Gaye. That's when New Kids came out, and we wanted to jam that. My mom was like, "Put that thing off and put my damn record on," you know what I mean? So from old school to '90s to recent, it's just always been there, so I really, I don't know. What are your thoughts?
MUHAMMAD: Well, I think every genre gets that sort of abuse or that sort of attack.
KNOWLES: Absolutely, I agree.
MUHAMMAD: When you asked that question, I was thinking of groups like Atlantic Starr and stuff like that. At some point the music — I don't know if it's the frequencies or the instrumentation or whatever — just seemed like it lacked passion. Then you go back and you listen to those songs now, and you're saying, "Oh, I can see where it meant something, but was it just, 'We're going in the studio and we got a job to finish and complete this record.'" Everyone goes through that sort of thing, so you don't know where the passion is lost. And it seems like there was a period for R&B music that it just — when you listening to the The Gap Band, or even going farther back to the Isley Brothers or Marvin Gaye, there's a lot of passion in it. If you go back to even Chubby Checker or something like that — there's something that was missing [in groups like Atlantic Starr].
And hip-hop is suffering the same sort of thing where it was a period where it was like, "What is going on? What are we talking about?" Like, "How does this advance us, and is this real feeling or is this just chasing paper?" Is this chasing something that has — it's meaningful to the artist, whatever it is that your ambitions are, but to the fullness of the culture of what hip-hop is, it's so disconnected. Jazz went throught it. But I think you're right and I'm happy that you took that stance to speak up about it, because there are so many R&B artists. It's such a vibrant and alive art form, and you would think it doesn't exist depending on what forums you're looking at.
KELLEY: Which is ridiculous cause Jaheim sold what? More than four million albums?
KELLEY: Ghetto Love, right? Was that the first one?
KELLEY: That went platinum.
KNOWLES: Yep. There's just so, so many overlooked R&B artists and I think it's really about, again, being sensitive to whatever you're addressing culturally. I just always try to have a sensitivity to it and what that might make someone feel. So when you click on someone's Twitter page and it's like, why is C-Murder your background? Why is that the face of your thoughts and your voice?
KELLEY: It's jokes, man. It's all jokes. It is about — this whole artifice versus authenticity debate is also about having real feelings and being clever.
KELLEY: Can you explain comping? Cause you use that word a lot, but I don't think everybody knows what that means.
KNOWLES: Comping is essentially — you can comp anything but vocal comping is when you sing through a part a few times. Typically I sing through something like five times and I pick the best line of each verse or phrase.
KELLEY: It's like punching in.
KNOWLES: Punching in is when you actually have selected the line before and then you just punch in that particular word. Comping is when you sing a verse like five times and you decide, the first half I'm gonna keep from the first time I did it, the second half I'm gonna keep from the third time I did it, etc. But I also comp, you know, musicians, too. Like I'll have a bass player come come in and play through the whole song and then I'll comp the best parts. A lot of times I use live musicians, but I don't want it to have that live funky sound so I'll just take the best loop of a drum part and repeat it over and over and over again so that there's consistency and it feels a little bit more programmed. But I have a love/hate relationship with comping as well.
MUHAMMAD: In the digital age, absolutely.
KNOWLES: It's just been hard forever though, no?
MUHAMMAD: Well, when it was strictly 2" — it's different for rappers. I will say that. And I learned this in the Lucy Pearl process. I really got my education fully in Lucy Pearl. For rappers, it's like two takes maximum. Raphael [Saadiq] is somewhat different because he's kind of a vibe person.
KNOWLES: Yeah, I've worked with him.
MUHAMMAD: He'll go with it. But Dawn [Robinson] was way different, and she would do lots of takes and Raphael would go, "I don't see how you can sit there." And I'm like, "I'm just fascinated." Like, "How we gonna go through all of that?" And she would go through like 10 takes maybe.
KNOWLES: It can be a very tedious process. I've learned to sort of let go. I actually produced other people's vocals for a long time when I first signed my publishing deal and I had just sort of decided that I only wanted to be a writer. I would be in all of these writing sessions, and a lot of times my publisher would say, "You should get a demo singer to sing it because then it doesn't identify as a Solange song." And I would comp other people and I actually have written stuff for Kelly [Rowland] and my sister.
MUHAMMAD: When you say you let go, what do you mean by that?
KNOWLES: I mean I've let go of being a super perfectionist on every single note and wanting the pitch to be absolutely perfect all of the time. I grew up watching the best of the best. I watched Rodney Jerkins comp vocals, so I've seen that really, really particular tedious process, and now I've sort of learned — same thing with Raphael — where it's more about the vibe, it's more about the take.
I've also learned to only write songs and melodies that really work for my voice and that I won't have issues doing live. Because you can get really, really comfortable in the comping process: out of five takes, maybe one of those high notes that you struggled to do, nailed it, and then live you're having that challenge of really having to recreate that.
After Hadley St., which I had a lot of that — I would comp all of these notes that were not as easy for me to naturally do and then live I would have to belt them out. And so the comping process has become a lot more relaxed. I'll only do maybe four or five takes, and it just makes life so much easier.
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, you can control a situation with five takes.
KELLEY: I saw you play, I don't know, three or four times over the past year, and I've watched you sort of go from more careful to less careful, which is what I think about when you let go.
KELLEY: I remember one time — I think your mom was there, too, at Bowery — you were careful most of the time and then one time you just went for it and your boyfriend stood up and your mom stood up and I think your sister was there and they all stood up and they were like, "She did it!"
KNOWLES: Aw, that's so sweet.
KELLEY: And I was like, they must talk to her about letting go.
KNOWLES: Yeah, well, I think — actually, I know — the Bowery shows, they were my first two shows. And I had done a rehearsal show for just friends and family maybe four days before the Bowery show. To be quite honest, it was so bad. And they all came backstage afterwards and did the obligatory family like, "Oh, that was great!" And I was like, "It was awful and you know it." So we just grinded for 72 hours non-stop. We brought in a musical director.
KELLEY: Oh, wow.
KNOWLES: It was such a major improvement. We were all pretty scared, because we were pretty bad. I had like a semi-structure of how I wanted the show to roll out, but I really, really have always identified with really solid entertain-y live shows, no matter what the genre is. I just really appreciate great and solid tight musicianship and really having a show format where it rolls through, and all of the different nuances and movements really take you through a journey. That was something that we were having a hard time achieving.
So we've actually redone the show, because the independent struggle, it's real. It costs to rehearse: you have to get the rehearsal space, you have to pay the band for rehearsal, cause they're taking time out of their day, and if you really want to have a solid rehearsal, you have to pay for a soundman so you can practice vocal cues and all of that. And I really didn't have the resources in the beginning to do that. So over time, playing these shows — after every show we would have pow-wow, I would have notes and we'd go over and we'd really restructure and re-do and now I feel really, really good about the show. But it's taken time.
KELLEY: So you talk about movement.
KELLEY: You used to have some dance moves with Dev.
KELLEY: And then in the videos, you got the moves. How important is dance to R&B?
KNOWLES: Historically it's gone hand and hand. And there's so many different facets and ways of expressing that. I grew up watching a lot of videos from the '60s R&B soul movement. My mother played The Supremes, The Veltones, The Marvelettes. My father would play the Jackson 5 and then obviously like in the '80s, New Edition. In the hip-hop era in the '80s folks were dancing. And then in the '90s ...
KELLEY: They danced.
KNOWLES: They did dance.
KELLEY: You [Ali] don't dance.
MUHAMMAD: Little secret: I danced for the Jungle Brothers. If anyone ever has video of that, I'm like — my ripped up jeans, going bananas.
KELLEY: What? Oh my god.
KNOWLES: But '80s dance was definitely — the choreography was a lot more repetitive. There were like maybe five or six moves. The variables would be different during the eight count, but it wasn't — like the '90s was when it really became about, "And one and two and three and four and five and six and seven and eight." The '80s, you would just do the same move for a whole eight count before you switched into the other thing, which is what I wanted to reflect in our choreography.
I actually choreographed our show — which isn't rocket science — it's very simple movement. And a lot of the references are very obviously based off of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, when they'd perform with Janet. There was a Sheila E. performance that really, really, really blew my mind. I think it was the American Music Awards and everyone — every single person, the keyboard players, the synth players, the guitar players, the bass players — did the choreography. Her keyboard player was actually a lady in like six-inch stilettos, and I remember yelling to my band, "If she can do it, you can do it. She has on six-inch heels."
In the beginning, everyone in the band was not receptive to this idea of adding these moves. And then over time everybody got more comfortable. Dev was always game. He kinda knew — from the beginning I had expressed that that's what I wanted to do. Once it came down to actually do it, I was like, "You know I wasn't playing right?" And he was like, "I know, I know, I know." So I actually have video of me coming up with the routines and teaching him and he was totally down for it.
And then in my videos really it's just freestyle. I actually was a ballet dancer — I studied ballet from three until 13 — but like very seriously, that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a contemporary ballet dancer. I wanted to go to Juilliard. I remember my father took me there when I was 12 and I was just like, "This is where I want to be. This is what I want to do." And then at 13, my sister's — Destiny's Child were going on tour. They were opening up for Christina Aguilera and they had just changed group members, and their whole show was structured around very meticulously this choreography.
MUHAMMAD: Did you know all the dances?
KNOWLES: No, not at all. But they had just changed members and Michelle had rehearsed and learned this very particular show and then one of the dancers just up and said that she was pregnant. She quit like maybe a week and a half before the tour left. So my sister was like, "Oh, you dance. Just fill in. By the time we audition someone and teach them all, it's gonna be too late." And like Michelle really needed to rely on this structure. So I was like, "Cool, I'm down." But I had no idea how to do hip-hop dancing.
I was so awkward. It was just a lot of pelvic thrusting, and I didn't know what I was doing. Their choreographer — who's still her choreographer — he's really hardcore, he's notoriously known as a junior Debbie Allen, like, "You need to ..." yelling. And he would always be like, "This isn't goddamn ballet! You better ..." you know. So it was very, very stressful. I had like a week to learn the whole show — note that most of the dancers had like a month, they had been in rehearsal. And I actually did it for about two years.
I just had a lot of energy. I was not very great at it and I had very long braids — they were bright red so that really helped me — I learned the importance of hair and dance, the marriage. So it's definitely ingrained in me, the spirit of movement. But it really was just like wanting the show, again, to have those nuances and to really reflect the music and the era that we were so inspired by for the record. It's very interesting, when we do the movements and sometimes I can be singing my little heart out and people are just like, "Cool." And then I do a little two-step and it's like, "Woo!"
MUHAMMAD: Yeah, exactly. It just feels more complete. Like you're really getting something special. It's like, "Oh, wow! Ooo!" Versus, "Oh yeah, OK. She just broke all the glass in here. Alright, cool."
We wish you a lot of success.
KNOWLES: Thank you. Thank you for having me. This was nice; this was mellow, I had my carrot juice
MUHAMMAD: Thank you for coming. I think, it's not even a think, you definitely have pioneered something brand new. What we're doing with Microphone Check — and something that actually Frannie's been passionate about is representing R&B up here at NPR.
KNOWLES: Amazing. Yeah, and I love hearing your references. It's been great.
KELLEY: I had KMEL when I was in junior high, so I got it all. I remember in seventh grade, R&B was — at that time I was in Catholic school, and we had the dances and it was all R&B.
KNOWLES: Oh yeah, you freak off at the dances.
KELLEY: Oh, yeah. Is that what it was called? Freaking?
KNOWLES: It was definitely freaking, yeah.
KELLEY: That was a mess.
KNOWLES: Yeah, like you feel the guy's little poke ...
KELLEY: "Feel a little — coming through, on you."
KNOWLES: Yeah, all of that.
KELLEY: Yeah, alright. Thanks again.
KNOWLES: No, thank you.