Twenty years after Aijuswanaseing, Philly’s Musiq Soulchild goes back to his hip-hop / soul roots with new project dewitt4dilla
In the late 90s, a young man named Taalib Johnson was known for singing on the corners downtown in his hometown of Philadelphia. But on November 14th of 2000, he would introduce himself to the world as Musiq Soulchild with the release of his debut album Aijuswanaseing. Two decades later Aijuswanaseing is still loved and cherished as a classic R&B album with timeless hits such as “Just Friends (Sunny)”, “Girl Next Door”, and “Love”, which could be argued as the best love song of the 2000s.
With all the praise he has received since the release of Aijuswanaseing, Musiq Soulchild looks at his career as a bittersweet blessing because for a majority of it, the public continued to categorize him as a neo-soul singer, instead of the style that he came in the door with 20 years ago.
When he was singing on the corners in Center City, Musiq was hip-hop soul. When he was inspired to be a singing version of the hip hop band The Roots, he was hip-hop soul. When he started experimenting with music that ultimately led to the creation of Aijuswanaseing, Musiq was hip-hop soul. When he started performing at local open mic events like Words and Sounds hosted by a North Philly songbird named Jill Scott, Musiq was hip-hop soul. When he got signed to Def Jam in 2000 Musiq was hip-hop soul. The first time you heard him beatbox on “Just Friends (Sunny),” Musiq was hip-hop soul. Throughout his career, Musiq Soulchild has been a singer with a soulful voice with a flair of hip-hop added in his music, similar to how Bobby Brown added New Jack Swing to his sophomore album Don’t Be Cruel.
He was like if Bobby Brown was influenced by A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul instead of Big Daddy Kane or LL Cool J. However, because there wasn’t a label for Musiq to thrive as a hip-hop soul singer, he was put into the box known as “neo-soul” which allowed him to obtain success beyond his wildest dreams but at the same time stunted his growth as an artist. Due to him being typecast early in his career, the public wasn’t open to any variation in his artistry. The fruit called success started to taste more bitter than sweet to Musiq as time grew — hence the alternate personas The Hussle and Purple Wondaluv. However, with the help of classic soul songs and hip hop beats from legendary hip hop producer J Dilla, Musiq Soulchild has returned with his latest project The Soul Brotha Series Vol. 1: dewitt4dilla and reminds us of the singer he was twenty years ago.
This past February 21st Musiq Soulchild released dewitt4dilla, a five-track EP that consists of Musiq Soulchild singing classic hits from soul singers that he grew up listening to such as Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye, Prince, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson over beats from his dear friend and well-respected hip hop producer, the late J Dilla. I try to attend various open mics around the city and I love seeing singers like Beano French, Jacqueline Constance, Re-Mus, and others do their own dope covers of songs they love to sing, so dewitt4dilla is right up my alley. Musiq does a damn good job of singing oldies over soul-hitting hip-hop beats like Donny Hathaway’s “Love Love” over Common’s “So Far to Go.” Not only does he honor his late friend J Dilla and soul singers that he grew up listening to, but he also gets to remind himself and the rest of the world that he’s still the child who was bathed in soul music.
With music coming from his new group Lumi Trice and an unexpected collaboration project with hip hop producer Drumma Boy, 2020 was the year Musiq Soulchild was supposed to reintroduce himself as the hip-hop soul singer that he’s always been. However, COVID-19 had other plans and prevented him from coming back home to Philly and rocking out at this year’s Roots Picnic. Though we weren’t able to feel his presence last week, I was able to have a much-needed conversation uncovering topics such as his early beginnings, creating Aijuswanaseing, being labeled as a neo-soul singer, creating the dewitt4Dilla mixtape, how he and fellow Philly soul singer Bilal almost became a duo, and much more.
The Key: I saw in your Green Room Tales interview that you were ready to be content as an underground star, because you didn’t think you would be accepted by mainstream based on their standards. Looking back now, how does it feel to see songs not just from Aijuswanaseing but from your discography to gain that acceptance?
Music Soulchild: It’s interesting because a lot of it was industry-driven, versus personally-driven. I’ve sort of conceded to a lot of things in the name of professional progress because that was just the mindset I had at the time, and still kind of do, but now with boundaries. At the time I was wide open to doing whatever was necessary to be productive until I got older and burnt and realized sleep was important too.
When I look back on it, I’m grateful for the success and the positive impact I’ve been able to serve through this medium. However, there’s a lot of internal trauma that’s associated with it because it was definitely a huge compromise and sacrifice to my own peace of mind in the name of keeping up with the Joneses. It’s a bittersweet thing, you know, I recognized that I’m blessed to have the timeline that I do have professionally; however, my personal life is riddled with a lot of crap that I need to kind of unpack and do better with so I that I don’t proceed in the future the same way but with more crap. It’s bittersweet but overall it’s a blessing and I’m grateful.
TK: I’m glad you mentioned it is bittersweet because I want to talk about that later on. You also said that the one thing that shocked you about Aijuswanaseing was that the songs you were just experimenting with made the album and received positive feedback. What were those songs?
MS: All the songs that made the album [laughs] I don’t remember exactly what I said because that was so long ago, but if I think about that time, I wasn’t looking to get a deal or have that be my outcome. I was literally at the studio because that was the first time I was able to work in a studio, to hear myself back and record, and to have the opportunity to even listen to myself in that way. I wasn’t recording for like hella long. I started recording in November in 98 and got my deal of February 2000. Even then sporadically I was in and out, so there was no internal development process where I was warming up to the idea of being this thing that I ultimately became. I was literally just going to the studio recording because it was cool and it was fun.
I was learning a lot of things “Oh that’s what I sound like,” “Oh if I do this then it will sound like that,” “Oh if I do these runs it will be crowded.” It was like a science project and I was figuring it out, and then the people that I was dealing with at the time were in the background shopping me a deal and getting people excited about my music. I wasn’t a part of that process so when I got the deal and there was this big buzz around me, I’m like “What are y’all talking about, y’all know who I am?” They’re like “Yeah man, we’ve been playing your joints for months now,” and I’m like “Word? Oh ok, I didn’t know that.” [laughs]
You know what I’m saying? I didn’t understand what was happening at the time, so everything was so overwhelming and shocking like “Why do y’all care so much? Y’all don’t even know me.” I wasn’t connected to the concept of being a celebrity and all of that. There were people that I looked up to that I thought were fresh, but I never imagined that I would be one of those people. It wasn’t something that I was pursuing, AT ALL! So when it happened I didn’t know how to be one, I didn’t know what to say, how to dress, how to behave, there was no developmental process to help me assimilate into that. A lot of times I had to learn the hard way, the least of my concerns were the songs that I didn’t invest in that much because to me they were just songs that I was working on. I didn’t do it with the full intention of this is what I want to give to the world.
TK: Do you think that going into the studio and not having a certain goal to reach, and instead just create and experiment made the music sound better because of less pressure?
MS: It is possible that could’ve contributed to what it became, but I don’t want to make it a thing that I’m agreeing to the concept of if you do go into the studio with the intention of doing something great that nothing great will come out of it. I’m not saying that either, that just happened to be the case for me. There are times where I do go into the studio with the intention of doing something great, I don’t know if it’s going to be great or not but I come with that intention in whatever I do.
But I can’t deny the fact that there was a time that I wasn’t doing stuff for the sake of doing stuff and it became what everybody loved. Inspiration just comes as it does, that was one of the main frustrating factors about working with a major label because they have a machine-like mentality about putting out and producing stuff, and inspiration doesn’t operate like that. It just comes as it does you can’t put it on a clock, it doesn’t work like that. You can make something up and act like it’s lit but it’s not going to be what you want it to be unless you let it happen the way that it’s going to happen.
TK: You started off singing for strangers on the corners and performing at different open mic events. What were some of the corners and open mics that you would perform?
MS: [laughs] Oh wow, wow, wow, you asking me to dig back bro. I deleted a lot of those files. Well, Jill Scott had one, she had a jawn called Words and Sounds. The funny thing about Words and Sounds, because that’s her first album, I think she used to do it twice a week and she would host it and people come through and get on the mic and do their thing. If you were a poet you would recite some poetry, if you were a rapper you try out some bars and if you were a singer you would work out some melodies, runs, or songs that you had. Sometimes there would be a house band or sometimes you would do it acapella.
I remember being super-anti, super self-conscious and after a few times she got frustrated and checked me like on some big sis time like “Dude, if you don’t get yo ass on that stage.” She had so much confidence in me because she knew me and seen me around and was like “Bruh, you can do this man, just get up there and do it.” I didn’t have no kind of coaching or training, I was wild and bold in these streets. Again I would walk up to people at rush hour because it was a huge influx of people, but it was because I felt like doing it. It wasn’t like a thing happening where you’re on stage and there are people watching. Now I’m thinking too much and got all this anxiety. To do the whole freestyle for people who don’t know me who were just props for my experiment right now…you’re never going to see me again. I was just collecting their opinion like it was data. I think about those days like, “You really were a wild ass bol, yo.”
TK: [laughs] That’s real. One of the things that I noticed that you had to learn was making the transition of being a performing artist to a recording artist. That’s funny because awhile ago I talked to a friend of mine, a soul singer named Re-Mus who is known to perform at a lot of open mics, about similar issues you had when facing the transition from a performer to a recording artist. What were some of the issues you dealt with when making that transition?
MS: Well, it’s weird because I did like a double flip. I was just used to singing cold to people — just singing, not even on stage. In the beginning, I didn’t know much about open mic clubs, I would just sing for people; in the streets, at the mall, and around my friends. So that was one way that I heard myself and then when I started recording I had to learn how to sing in a studio. I had to learn how to sing in a microphone in a booth and hear myself and hear the acoustics and how the sound of my voice was different than me singing it out wherever I am. That’s a whole technique; you got to manipulate your voice in a way where you get a certain reaction out of yourself first and then you can hope can get the intended reaction out of people. So I had to learn how to articulate my notes, watch my pitch, make sure I was in key.
It’s one thing to freestyle about something and you don’t really catch it, so when you record it you can listen to it over and over again until you catch different parts to see what could be better. That was a weird process because at the time I was a serious perfectionist and nothing was ever good enough. People would listen to it and be like “Yo this is great,” and I’m like “Nah, that note is flat. That note is sharp. I’m mumbling right there. I didn’t do that run right. ” I’m thinking too much, so the whole recording process is a beast itself and it’s a thing that you have to navigate through and figure it out the best way you know how.
But then after that, this is where the other flip came is to perform on stage for a mass group of people and the sound comes back to you different than it does at the studio. For me, the studio is weird because it’s the space where you can perfect it, especially with all this new technology. You can record something over and over again which means that you can have do-overs. You can have two, three, four, five takes until you can get the right effect. You can comp your vocals and pick different parts of your performances and put it together to create the perfect performance, but on stage, you can’t do that. There are no do-overs, it’s just that moment, so however it comes out is however it comes out. That’s why a lot of singers don’t want you to record them performing because you can catch them on a bad voice day then be unfairly judged based on that one performance.
But at the same time, there are things that you may do live that you will never be able to do at the studio. There’s something about that energy and being in that moment and that space that you’ll never be able to reenact that. I find myself doing stuff on stage that I would never be able to do in the studio because to generate that enough motivation and intensity and that mood, I can’t connect with it and make it up in the studio. It’s weird, there are pros and cons to being a recording artist and a performance artist.
TK: You recorded the entirety of Aijuswanaseing and half of Juslisen from late 1998 to 1999 and you weren’t even aware that your music was being shopped around until you got an offer from Def Jam at the end of 99. During that time, Philly artists such Dre & Vidal, Jill Scott, and a sample from The Roots contributed to Aijuswanaseing. What was it like working with those guys back then and seeing how each of you has represented the talent coming from your hometown 20 years later?
MS: I didn’t really work that close with Dre & Vidal. I could never really get time with them because they were working on Jill’s project, you know what I’m saying? Every time I tried to get in with them I was always pushed to the people that I winded working with. You know, we came up with some dope shit, but at the time I wanted to work with those guys because those guys have that sound that I feel that I want. But the people that I was working with were like “Nah, I think you’re building a really cool sound with the people that you working with,” and it wasn’t that I didn’t want to work with them but I wanted to work with everybody.
But I didn’t understand the concept of building a sound, I was like “They’re dope and I want to work with them.” But the song “Love” has Dre on it because the dude I was writing the song with Carvin Haggins asked him to be a part of it. But I’ve never got to work with Dre & Vidal, they’re cool. I’ve done a couple of open mic gigs where Dre was playing drums and I’ve been around while they’ve been working on other people’s stuff. They’ve worked really close to Floetry and Glenn Lewis, but they never really worked that close with me. With Jill, it’s dope and really cool to have that timeline with somebody. You started from where you were and it changed and evolved into something big and still be in connect with each other. I saw her not too long ago I think sometime last year, we did a show together and we were just sitting around talking, appreciating each other’s company, and giving each other our flowers celebrating each other’s accomplishments.
TK: From the release of Aijuswanaseing to your recent dewitt4dilla mixtape you’ve always added hip-hop elements to your music. The intro to Aijuswanaseing has a DJ saying your name while scratching on his turntables beatboxing. You even hearing you beatboxing on “Just Friends (Sunny).” Like other “neo-soul” acts such as D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, and The Roots, you added rap music to your production and its storytelling content. Where there any rappers that you grew up listening to that had an influence on your music?
MS: Well it was really hip-hop as a whole. It’s not so much rappers per se, there’s KRS-1, Rakim, I was really big on Big Daddy Kane. I thought Heavy-D, Biz Markie, and anything that was doing their own thing was cool. Something that was a little different than what everyone else is trying to do. That’s why when the whole A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul movement came through I was like “Yo, this is super dope,” because in Philly everybody wanted to be grimey. That’s cool, but you can’t talk about being gangsta all day man, there’s more to life than that, you know what I’m saying?
So when I heard about The Roots, I was like “This is the greatest rap / hip-hop situation of all time!” I thought The Roots were the standard and then for them to be from Philly! The Roots are everything from hip-hop and musicians too, like it’s not just a rapper on beats. You got a rapper, a drummer and other musicians and they’re making music. To me, I wanted to be the singing version of whatever they were doing. That’s why to this day I call what I do hip-hop soul. Everybody likes to categorize me as R&B and neo-soul, but that’s not what I’m doing. And I went along with because those were the labels, the categories that were available. Back in those times, you had to fit in a slot in order for people to understand what you were doing and for people to give you some play on the radio. You had to fit in a slot, you couldn’t just call yourself whatever.
TK: I’m sorry to cut you off but I’m glad you mentioned that because I think the one common denominator with artists who are categorized as neo-soul: their disdain of being categorized as neo-soul. Common hates being classified as a “conscious” rapper, Erykah Badu thinks the term neo-soul keeps her in a box and you yourself once said that you believe that soul music transcends R&B music. Do you think the neo-soul sound faded away because the box that it was put in didn’t allow it to grow?
MS: Because it restricts you and puts you in that thing that people feel like you’re supposed to stay within and they don’t want anything else from you when you’re fully capable of doing other things. Then they get upset with you when you attempt to spread out and do other things like you’re not supposed to do that. I think it definitely had a lot to do with it. A person is not going to nurture something that they don’t want to be associated with and a person is not going to want to be associated with something when it doesn’t have the intended impact. When it’s not being received as it was intended to be and it starts to become this thing that becomes trivial and undermined.
Then you get looked at as that person that does one thing, and it’s like “I do more than that.” I guess if you identify me as a person that does this one thing, cool, but that’s not just all there is to me. So when people start coming at you and try to convince you that they’re more of an expert on you than you. To the point where the stuff that you say and you start explaining about yourself, they somehow imply that you may have it messed up. It’s like people have the authorization to tell me who Musiq Soulchild is, when I’m the creator: that’s not fair. If that played a big role in that and if people would’ve respected the process and allowed there to be room to grow and appreciate whatever was happening, maybe the artists would’ve nurtured it that much more.
But because it became a thing that you no longer wanted to be associated with, it just stopped. You wouldn’t want anyone to restrict you from growing, why is it acceptable for people to restrict us from growing? Why are we the bad guys when we say “Hey I know you liked what I did, but I want to do something else and try something new or stretch out and do more of myself that you may not know about”? All of a sudden we’re so messed up like “How could you do this to us?” “How could you abandon us like that?” Like I’m not trying to abandon you, I’m literally trying to give you more of what you said that you like.
TK: You were a baritone who was learning how to hit falsetto notes during the making of Aijuswanaseing, and you finally got the hang of it on the timeless love song “Love.” Over time that song grew to be your most or one of the most popular songs of your catalog, but it also gave the impression that hitting high notes comes easy to you which you have been on record saying that’s not true. Do you feel like that classic love song as been a gift and a curse to your legacy?
MS: Definitely, no one wants to be held to a standard they did on their best day all the time. The reality of it is that you’re not always going to hit that mark. That’s just reality, pick any profession, no one hits a perfect all the time, that’s just not realistic. So when we’re constantly being held to a standard that we have to hit a perfect all the time and if we hit a 99 then we’re trash, really bro? You just going to forget all the other times when I was 100 percent, but when I’m at 99 you just going to throw that whole thing in the trash.
That type of fickle mentality becomes more challenging to lean into it because y’all don’t really care, bro, because the moment I have a bad day, y’all going to go so fast to talk so much trash about me. That’s not love, I don’t know what that is, but that does not love. And I say y’all in a general sense because obviously I’m not talking about everyone, but there are people unfortunately whose voice happens to be louder than everyone else’s. They are the “y’all” I’m talking about that affect the perception of people that I make money with. They don’t listen to the other people who had a good time despite whatever I may have been able to do or do not do. For whatever reason, nobody focuses on them and they be the majority, but it’s the small group of people who didn’t appreciate what happened because it didn’t happen the way they wanted to happen that get the most attention.
I’m always giving the best that I have, even when I’m not at my best, and unfortunately it may not be that good to you and that’s just is what that is. You just move on to the next moment, but you’re right, learning how to sing falsetto was a challenge for me because my natural given range that I’m grateful for doesn’t give me enough room for that. I spent a lot of time and energy developing a falsetto and it takes a lot out of me to do that. When I got to sing “Love” night after night after night sometimes that note ain’t coming out bro, it’s just not. I don’t care what I do, I warm up, hydrate, drink lots of tea, and get some rest, all of that. But the type of high tensity shows that I do, sometimes it comes and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s been times that I’ve done it way better than I thought I could’ve done, and I be amazed at myself like I didn’t know that I could hit that high. Then there’s sometimes I just go to do the bare minimum, stuff that I thought I could do in any situation and it just doesn’t come out and I’m on stage like “Welp, that just happened.” It’s a challenging thing to be under that spotlight and to constantly operate under those conditions of people constantly scrutinizing you and judging you, who can’t even do what you do.
TK: You’re going through a transition with your brand because you believe there’s a misconception about it and what it was. I think the misconception about Musiq Soulchild is that he’s actually more hip-hop soul than he is R&B. Since you acknowledged this to be true earlier, what advice would you give 23-year-old Musiq in order to avoid this misconception in the future?
MS: Stand on it, whatever it is that you think you, are stand on it bro. Don’t let people convince you that you’re not what you know you are. Now if you don’t have any sense of direction and you need some guidance, definitely be open to some information that you can use, especially from people that have some kind of proof and credibility that they know what they talking about. But if you know what you are and you confident in it, even if you change it later, stand on that. Be confident in that because if you allow a person to change you, they will, and that was my bad in the name of being cooperative.
Everything was a blur back then because I didn’t know anything, I didn’t have the support that I could’ve used at the time. I had a whole bunch of people that were just thinking about “Let’s get this money, let’s get this money!” I had already came from a hustler’s mentality where personal feelings don’t really matter so much; if you okay then keep going. Nobody cares how you feel, are you going to get to this bag or nah? I was just going along with things because most of the odds always ended up going against my ideas. But because that was my support system at the time and I didn’t like the idea of having to do it by myself because I’m in the dark and have no idea what I’m doing. This is the only lifeline that I have, they brought me in so they must know what they talking about. So I just went along with stuff because, in theory, I understood how it can work, but just because it can do something doesn’t mean that’s what you want to do.
I didn’t have enough confidence within myself to be like “Nah bro, I’m not doing nothing else other than what I said I wanted to do.” So I would tell anyone right now whatever idea you came up with that you think is good and you have some kind of proof that you’re onto something, stand on it. If I was confident enough at the time to be like “Yo, y’all know I can do this R&B and neo-soul stuff, but that’s not what I want to do.” I’m hip-hop soul, I came in the door hip-hop soul, but y’all see an opportunity to make me this clean-cut R&B / neo-soul artist because there was no other thing like it and nothing but road. And I’m not going to say no to that because if there’s an open road there’s no traffic which makes it easy to get to it quicker, but it was at the expense of my peace of mind.
Now 20 years later I’m still trying to explain myself to people, let my timeline be some cautionary tale. If you believe in yourself, have proof that whatever you believe in works, and that everyone can eat off it, stand on it.
TK: Tha’s real and I’m happy to talk about you about your past and learning about things that were going on with you behind the scenes, but I do want to talk about this dope project of yours The Soul Brotha Series Vol. 1: dewitt4dilla mixtape. Growing up watching television channels like BET, MTV, and VH1, you were influenced by a plethora of music genres, but none had a bigger influence on you than soul music from the 70s. On this mixtape, you killed two birds with one stone by honoring both soul and hip-hop music by covering songs by soul-singing legends like Stevie Wonder, Donnie Hathaway, and Marvin Gaye over old beats by the late great J. Dilla. How did this dope project come about?
MS: Well every year since [J. Dilla’s] passing, God rest his soul, I wanted to do something in February because that’s his birth month. I just kept missing opportunities to do it, me and his moms been talking in and out through the years about doing something. I got a whole project personally just to let you know that I’ve been working on but I need so much financial support for that. So me putting out this dewitt4dilla project is like the tier 1 plan in getting the funding that I need for this big project that I want to do to honor Dilla that I’ve been working on since 2004.
We actually talked about it when he was here, he was just throwing beats at me and sending beat CDs at my crib. But life is real and gets in the way sometimes and things get put off and you never get to it. But I was just going through a space that I needed to be inspired because I was losing inspiration. A lot of people don’t understand that I really didn’t want to do music anymore, at least not as Musiq Soulchild. That’s where these different personas came from: because I needed to feel something else, because what I was getting from the Musiq Soulchild lane wasn’t what I needed. It was starting to get destructive because people started getting too critical over stuff that they had no idea they are talking about. You had people who were coming in on the Musiq Soulchild train so to speak late, but want me to listen to them like they got a point. Like you just got here bro, I’m not going back and forth with you on social media about stuff that I know you don’t know that we’re talking about.
So the dewitt4dilla project came about because I was having a creative identity crisis and I really needed to identify to myself who I was as Musiq Soulchild. So the first thought that came to my head was doing a restart; go back to the basics and start again. And I just had a flood of memories hit me. I remembered listening to Stevie Wonder all day. I remembered learning this, that, and the third from Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway. I remembered what I felt like after I first heard Prince’s music and how he was doing everything himself. I remembered how magnetic and electrifying Michael Jackson was when I was a kid, wanting to dance and sing like him. I remembered those vibes and knew I had to reconnect with them. I know these Dilla beats and songs from these artists like the back of my hand and one day I was like “That’s how you can do it. You can honor Dilla, these people who inspired you to be a Musiq Soulchild and then yourself, by reconnecting with the real you as opposed to this thing that came out of your timeline in the music business.”
TK: You said at first there were 10 tracks on the mixtape but you decided to split it to make it a series that will continue in the future — and I’m happy that you are because I really like this jawn. The second series will feature covers of soul-singing female singers, so I’m curious to know which legends will be present for Volume 2?
MS: Oh it’s already recorded! I didn’t have the time to finish recording and mixing all ten records before the deadline that I gave myself which was Dilla’s birthday in February, but I knew I could finish five of them. I had already picked five male artists and five female artists so I decided to just split them in half; that’s why I decided to name The Soul Brotha Series and the next one is going to be called The Soul Sista Series.
I previewed them at a listening party in LA at an art exhibit put up by this artist called The Producer BDB who also created the character on the dewitt4dilla mixtape cover. It’s crazy that when I was developing this project I kept getting his images in my mind. I saw his artwork a year prior and thought his art style was so ill and nothing that I had ever seen before. He was already doing Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye so I thought it would be dope if I could present it with this imagery. I reached out to him to see if he would be interested in being a part of the project and to my surprise, he was a huge fan of both me and Dilla.
He not only okayed me to use his artwork but he offered to work on anything else that I might need him for, which led to me doing a listening party at his art gallery and him doing the artwork to the cover. So the female artists are going to be Anita Baker, Chaka Khan, Whitney Houston, Sade, and Aretha Franklin. Mind you these are only the first songs of the dewitt4dilla series as a way of introducing the idea to people, but moving forward I’m going to do batches of songs from each artist. A Stevie Wonder batch, a Marvin Gaye batch, a Donny Hathaway batch because there are just too many Dilla beats and too many songs.
TK: Hey man Sade is my favorite music artist of all time! And like many black people, I grew up hearing Anita Baker’s music while my mom was cleaning up on Saturday mornings. So I’m very excited for the next dewitt4dilla project to drop. I also heard that you’re working on a project with hip hop producer Drumma Boy to add on this hip-hop soul Musiq rebrand. What is it about the vibe between the two of you that made you want to do a project?
MS: Thank you man! Honestly, I think people don’t understand how much more Drumma Boy can do. Drumma Boy is a lot known for his hip-hop and trap stuff but that dude is a real musician. He grew up in music and he had a lot of great ideas and I don’t think people come to him for it. I connected with him because I know what it’s like to be known for something and then when you do something else no one wants it because they don’t expect it from you, they only want what they know out of you.
So I wanted to work on a project that represented him being able to do other stuff. The interesting thing about the Drumma Boy project is that there are so many things all in one project; hip hop soul, a little R&B, a little jazz, a little funk. That’s why I like it because there’s room to stretch a bit but still has some very dedicated and significant on brand things as well. It’s fun because we get to be creative with this. We not trying to please no label or get on the radio. We’re just doing it for the sake of doing music because we’re both really good at making music.
TK: You’re also in a group called Lumi Trice alongside singer/songwriter A-Lex and producer David Luke. The three of you have two singles out, “Same Way,” and “PDA,” so I’m going to assume there’s an album coming sooner or later this year. How did this music trio come together?
MS: It was so random how I ran into these dudes. I was in downtown Atlanta coming from an interview and I was just walking around and walked past this record store they were working. They hit me with the “Yooo come check out my music,” and at first I told them that I was cool, but it was something about their approach. Like I met A-Lex first and his energy was so sincere and that was unusual. A lot of people have a different vibe with them but he was genuinely sincere about not wanting nothing from but a second to listen to his music. He was like “I’m a big fan, I’m hugely inspired by you, like you don’t get how epic this is for me. If you can just do me this one solid.” And I was like I’m not busy, I got nowhere to be, and I just wrapped up the interview, the least I can do is hear the young bol out.
So I went into the record and find out there’s a whole studio in the back which was unexpected, but then again welcome to Atlanta where there’s a studio at every corner. [laughs] So I walked in there and he played me one beat and it’s like “I know if I played this for him, he’s going to feel me.” I got the song to this day, matter fact I recorded it that day. It was something about their energy, I think that was like 2011 or 2012. We stayed connected here and there. I did a record with him called “Goals” which featured one of my alter personas, The Hussle, because at the time I was identifying what that was. We ultimately did another record that made my last album called Feel The Real which was produced by Dave Luke and written by A-Lex called “One More Time” which is also featuring The Hussle.
They’ve definitely been helpful in me finding the road to my creativity in a lot of ways, they pulled me out of a rut when I needed it. A-Lex went to school for engineering and has been on the road with me as my tech. He writes, produces music, and is great studio engineer. And then his producer Dave, the only person that I know operates how he thinks musically is Dilla. He’s the only and closest person that I know who thinks and operates musically like Dilla does. They’re so young and to be able to give them any information I know that can help them is a dope. That’s not to say that they didn’t know anything before me but what I have given them I’ve watched them soak it up and grow. It’s an honor to be a part of their evolution. The idea just came around and it was like “We should be a group,” and I was like “Bet, let’s go!” We just started doing a bunch of records and tweaking the vibes of what it is exactly. It has that Native Tongues, De La Soul feel to it but it’s still hip-hop soul and that’s why I really like working with them dudes because they encourage the better parts my creativity out of me, even when I can’t see it.
TK: Do you find yourself at times enjoying recording as a group more than a solo artist?
MS: Yeah, yeah, that’s some good observation there, detective. [laughs] I love being a part of a collective because then you can get the contexts better because you can cross-reference with all the pieces. As opposed to focusing on one person, that if you don’t have the context you can’t appreciate what is happening. If you have one person doing something over here, another person doing something over there, and you doing something right here and people have to deal with all of these things coming at them together you can appreciate the whole vision. You can’t always do that with one person if you don’t have enough data and one person can only give you so much.
Funny enough before I popped as a solo artist, a lot of people don’t know but I was actually looking to be a part of a group. For instance, Bilal was one of the people that I wanted to be a part of the group, that’s really really fun. Somebody had told me about Bilal and one of us got the other’s number and we got on the phone and he can confirm this. But he was on his journey and I can’t think if I thought of another person, probably some local singer in Philly but apparently that never happened. But I initially, I wanted to be a part of a group. I was so inspired by Jodeci and Boyz II Men like I thought it was lit being a part of a group. But back to that confidence thing, I didn’t think I could carry a whole brand on my own. I never thought of myself as the front person but somebody was like “No bro, it’s you.” But yeah that could’ve been a thing bro, but we lost touch for a second. He had went out to school in New York and I went on with my life.
TK: Wow! That’s definitely a crazy “what if” moment! You’re from a city that has birthed singers who have impacted R&B multiple times from Philly 70s soul to neo-soul. With 20 years in the game, what is it to you about singers from Philly that’s different from everyone else?
MS: Well first off, Philly’s really not that big, it’s kind of small but it feels like a big city and I’m saying that to say I think that it’s because of the symbiotic relationship that the city had with its artists, you know what I’m saying? The creative people in Philly really literally shaped and made Philly in a lot of ways. You see the artwork and murals everywhere like we have such a deep relationship with the city. The story of the city is heavily told by the artists that came from there.
And particularly with music, there’s a whole label called [Philadelphia International] that was making timeless, well-known, earth-shattering music. So you growing up around that you just get it honest and when you get people who are so musically inclined it’s because we literally grew up around it our whole lives. So it’s only inevitable that you find the right combination of it in certain people that it’s going to be expressed the way that it did like for me, Bilal, Jill, Kindred the Family Soul and The Roots. I’m sure you can’t imagine how many dope people there are in Philly, it’s ridiculous!