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In our new series on the art of sampling, hip-hop producers demonstrate how they find inspiration in classics, hidden gems, found sounds and other raw musical materials to create new hits. For each of the five videos in the series, NPR Music has asked a writer we love to do something similar. Their only instruction was to watch one of the videos, pick an element that inspired them, and spin it off in a new direction — to sample it.
Today, Danyel Smith, the author of the forthcoming book Shine Bright: A Personal History of Black Women in Pop, follows the links between today's featured producer, Salaam Remi, and stars like Amy Winehouse and Nas to trace the essential role of collaboration in musical creation, and finds herself ruminating on a hit Babyface made with the singer Karyn White in 1989.
Salaam Remi's words immediately make me think about the Fugees and Amy Winehouse and Nas and the art of collaboration. The sight of him makes me remember running into Remi on the street in 2015 Brooklyn and how normal it was to recognize a person's whole face at first glance, to embrace and catch-up without the fabric masks of plague. My brain calls up the tragedies of that time, recalls how slow-moving they felt. The Weeknd's "Can't Feel My Face" was a huge hit that year. Little did we know.
I think of Remi as diplomat and counselor in the way successful producers must be — or else have middling songs and short careers. That thought brings me to the randomness of timing and how both Remi and Nas lost their mothers in flanking years. I think about vulnerability and how Pharrell convinces Snoop Dogg, when Snoop was going through a musical reinvention, to rap from the stance of a mature man deeply in love with his wife, Shante Broadus. To, as Snoop quotes Pharrell, "put that in the vein." About how Snoop must have felt seen, and understood. Same for when Remi challenges Winehouse to rise to the honor of a beat he created for Nas. To be our best, some of us need to dared.
Remi's talk about the tangles of creative partnership coincided with the recent Instagram Live Verzuz battle between producers Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds and Teddy Riley. I tend to think more often about Babyface than Riley because, either by himself or with partners Antonio "L.A." Reid and Darryl Simmons, Babyface has created hits with (among others) the Whispers, Pebbles, Whitney Houston, Johnny Gill, Boyz II Men, Tevin Campbell and TLC — these artists are beacons in my life. Plus, Babyface as performing artist has always been a favorite. The sunglasses, brown skin and high cheekbones. His turns of phrase, the relaxed way he plays guitar — all of it appeals.
I wrote about Edmonds' third solo album, For The Cool In You, in 1993. I was 28, in a new job as R&B editor of Billboard, and my doomed first marriage was choking on childhood wounds. I was freelancing too, stacking chips, and in the New York Times review I talk about Edmonds as "purveyor of dreamy love and even dreamier heartbreak." This mood washed through me like saline and sugar. I noted Edmonds' ribbons of emotional detail. I considered his status on the musical landscape. But as with most intimate fanships, mine was born in the relief of feeling understood. Singer/songwriter Karyn White felt similarly. "L.A. and Babyface ... really helped shape who Karyn White was," she has said. "That was their gift, to be able to see what was special in me."
When I think about Whitney Houston with Babyface and Toni Braxton with Babyface and Janet Jackson with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and Beyoncé with Swizz Beatz and The-Dream and Ciara with Jazze Pha and Mariah Carey with Jermaine Dupri, I am reaffirmed in my belief that reciprocal respect makes for the most transcendent art. That the pygmalion model — if it ever widely existed beyond making women creators palatable to a male-genius-loving cultural machine — is usually a more balanced alliance.
I rise up in women's collaborations with Edmonds because they feel mutual. Toni Braxton's 1992 "Love Should Have Brought You Home" stands out. As does Houston's glowing "Exhale (Shoop, Shoop)" from the 1995 soundtrack to Waiting to Exhale. All of the performing artists featured are black women, every song is written or co-written by Babyface, and the project is comfortably on the list of top 10 best-selling soundtracks ever. As for collaboration at the executive producer level: Whitney Houston and Clive Davis had final say on all contributors.
Babyface — fifth of six brothers from Indianapolis, raised by a widowed mother — has deeply-felt songs on hard drives he's forgotten about. But Karyn White's 1989 "Superwoman" is a perfect recording. "We spent a lot of time on that vocal," she said, "because I was too young." She hadn't lived enough life yet. "A 'superwoman' is a person who endures all ... and rises above it. So today when I sing it, I kill it."
Songwriting credits: L.A. Reid, Babyface and Darryl Simmons. Production by L.A. and Babyface for LaFace Productions. On lead vocals, emotional lifting, bravery, and extreme vulnerability: Karen Layvonne White of Los Angeles, California. "Superwoman" pops off like a go-ahead run — and it was for White. The leadoff single from her next album, 1991's No. 1 pop hit "Romantic," produced by Jimmy Jam and White's future husband, Terry Lewis, was a grand slam. On deck for Babyface and L.A. Reid: Whitney Houston's "I'm Your Baby Tonight," the soundtrack to Boomerang and Toni Braxton's massive self-titled debut.
About "Superwoman" though, White has been known for modesty. "That was my blessing," she said of the song in 2012. "They could've given that song to anybody. Everybody wanted to work with them ... so for them to see in me that strength, that I could ... carry that song, was brilliant. Besides, Babyface is one of the most prolific writers of the century. For him to have that sensibility of what a woman really feels — he just gets it."
Babyface did have specific pop goals for the record. "He wanted to write a song in the mode of the 1971 Fifth Dimension hit 'One Less Bell to Answer,' written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David," says writer Ed Hogan. "Babyface wanted to have some of the same everyday elements — one less egg to fry, one less man to pick up after."
And with lyrics like —
Early in the morning I put breakfast at your table
And make sure that your coffee has its sugar and cream
Your eggs are over easy
Your toast done lightly
All that's missing is your morning kiss
That used to greet me
— they got there. "It's all about lyrics," as Remi says above. "And knowing what the lyrical intent is, and knowing what the intent of the record is."
White's voice — with its distinctive rasp and sweetness — is its own revelation. "This song was an anthem," White said in 2018. "It separated me from the Pebbles and the Janet Jacksons and the Jody Watleys I was being compared to." The daughter of a beautician and a real estate agent who played trumpet on the side, the former cheerleader had sung background for Sheena Easton and Julio Iglesias. Inspired by heroes Diana Ross, Liza Minelli, Tina Turner and Sammy Davis Jr., White peels off thrillingly awkward, un-rhyming lyrics with bold sorrow —
I'm not the kind of girl
That you can let down
And think that everything's okay
Boy, I am only human
— and then the stomping demand:
This girl needs more than
Occasional hugs as a token of love
From you to me
"Superwoman" works as thrilling showdown. As refutation of the strong black woman yoke. As a pure and contemporary blues. As a creative collaboration for all time. The song spent three weeks at No. 1 on Billboard's R&B singles chart, and went to No. 8 on Billboard's pop singles chart. White began years later to refer to the record as her testimony.
By 1999, White was divorced from Lewis. Her mother Vivian passed away near the same time. "I believe," she said in 2012, "that I became depressed, and didn't want to sing." White moved from Minneapolis back to California, began work in real estate and didn't record again professionally for decades. "I'm really good at goals, and focusing," she's said. "Like if it's, I wanna be singer, a dancer, whatever it is, I'm really great at that. But I didn't feel like I could do it all, great. Be a mother, be a wife, be an entertainer. It was kind of strange, but ... I stepped back."
Last week, White posted about the Babyface/Teddy Riley battle on her own popular Instagram feed.
This, so far, is a producer/songwriters' battle, and it works because it showcases the distinctly collaborative art of creating big records. "Amy made me a better producer," says Salaam Remi. "She had a knack for saying really smart stuff, and I had a knack for pushing her to write what she really was thinking." The plaits of collaboration are tight. But as sure as in baseball the tie goes to the runner — in music, the song and the love it inspires goes to them that perform it. It's one of the reasons this Verzuz series, created by producers Swizz Beatz and Timbaland, works. It brings producers and songwriters out of parenthesis and into all-caps. And along with D-Nice's Club Quarantine, the throwdowns remind a pandemic-weary world of what it is to feel seen and understood — in a moment when we understand so little.
It was in response to Teddy Riley playing his remix of Janet Jackson's "I Get Lonely" that Babyface, robust after recovering from a positive COVID-19 test, reminded everyone that he doesn't do remixes. Then he pressed play on White's "Superwoman." The virtual crowd — over a half million people — went wild.
If you feel it in your heart
And you understand me
Stop right where you are
Everybody sing along with