We are taught from a young age to “never judge a book by its cover,” but that was exactly what I did in 2001 when copies of Res’ debut album How I Do began arriving at my Brooklyn garret that spring. Glancing at the innocent black and white photo taken by the usually provocative Ellen Von Unwerth, who has shot sexy snaps of Janet Jackson, Joi and Beyoncé, one sees a pretty-faced woman innocently looking over her shoulder as though being followed. In retrospect, the cover conveys a cinematic quality that was hauntingly beautiful, but at the time, I just thought it was boring. Automatically assuming what I perceived to be a lackluster image was reflective of the material within, I simply rejected Res based on that silly speculation.
Four months later, while visiting a friend at the World Wide Plaza offices of Def Jam Records, I heard some splendid songs blaring from a neighboring office and inquired with the oft-asked music aficionado question, “Who is that?” As the chilling “Ice King” dripped out of the speakers like hot honey, I stood in the doorway transfixed by one of the most hypnotic voices I’d heard in a long time singing playfully brutal lyrics (“Although I’ve seen your wickedness, I still love your effervescence”) over a head-nodding bassline. Awestruck, it was as if I was listening to a cool urban angel singing songs of red valentine romance and dark clouded break-ups.
“It’s Res,” the woman answered, holding up the CD case. “You don’t know about Res?” Rushing home afterwards, I cracked open the cellophane on one of the three Res advances I’d thrown in the corner, fired up a blunt and went sailing down to paradise like a smoked-out Christopher Cross. Unfortunately, I wasn’t alone in my ignorance concerning the sonic specialness of How I Do, an album that was hailed by critics, whose singles “Golden Boys” and “They-Say Vision” were played on MTV, but still somehow flew over the heads of the general public.
Released the same musical season as Alicia Keys’ debut Songs in A Minor, critic Greg Kot reviewed the two albums in a single Chicago Tribute column and concluded, “Though Keys has been elevated to the forefront of the neo-soul movement overnight, her debut album isn’t nearly as strong as the extraordinary How I Do.” Taking nothing away from the obviously talented Ms. Keys, she did have the Clive Davis machine behind her, pushing over boulders and getting her to play piano on Oprah, while all Res had was a great album that sounded dramatically different from what her peers were doing.
Indeed, for Philly girl Shareese (Res) Renée Ballard, being sonically different was the goal of How I Do from the early demo sessions to the final majestic product. Having teamed up with then-budding lyricist and fellow Philly artist Santi (Santigold) White in 1997, the early days of their collaboration began in the latter’s Brooklyn apartment.
Living upstairs from the famed Fort Greene spot Brooklyn Moon, a Black literary café where one might run into Carl Hancock Rux, Miles Marshall Lewis or Erykah Badu watching Saul Williams read poetry, the young women were busy creating their own thang. Back in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, the community of Fort Greene was still a fertile ground where young Black artists hung out, drank in bars, exchanged ideas, played music and chased their creative muses through the dark streets, following in the Brooklyn bohemian footsteps of Spike Lee, Lisa Jones, Nelson George, and others.
Res was no stranger to singing, having sung since she was a kid. At the time, she was a finance major at Temple University who didn’t think her voice was that special. “I knew a lot of black girls who could sing,” she told Philadelphia Weekly scribe Tara Murtha in 2010. As the writer pointed out, “Singing was just something else she did on top of squash, tennis and lacrosse when she wasn’t in school or ringing the register alongside her father, who passed away in 2008, at one of the family’s five convenience stores in North Philly — a job all the Ballard kids were assigned when they were about 8 years old.”
Santi, on the other hand was already living in the big city of ambition, where she worked in the A&R department at Epic Records and was buddies with Rawkus Records’ reigning rappers Mos Def and Talib Kweli, who also owned a book store a few blocks away. She was part of new generation of alt-Blacks on a mission, and her apartment was just one place where her crew gathered, talked trash, recited poems and refined their skills. Friend and future A&R wiz Naim Ali, who currently works with Ariana Grande and others at Universal Republic, often chilled in her crib as Santi and Res built their songs on a four-track recorder. “Res had this voice that was crazy, while Santi’s words were so passionate,” he recalls. “Together, they created these wonderful female anthems.”
Ali was working in the marketing department at MCA Records, who, under the presidential direction of former I.R.S. Records (The Go-Gos, Fine Young Cannibals) co-partner Jay Boberg, was developing a diverse urban roster that included The Roots, Common and Blackalicious, but he was determined to help Santi and Res realize their vision. Although he wouldn’t secure an A&R position until later, Ali recruited his Morgan University homeboy Patrick Lawrence, who was producing tracks for the Roc-A-Fella (“Do My…”/Memphis Bleek featuring Jay Z) camp under the moniker A Kid Called Roots, to work with them on a demo.
“The original demo was four tracks that included a raw version of ‘Golden Boys,’ ‘Sitting Back,’ and ‘How I Do,’” Ali says from his home in California. “After we cut the demo, we went into Battery Studios and cut a cover of ‘Misty Blue’ (Dorothy Moore). “We had initially recorded it for a soundtrack, but we decided that the tone and texture we got on that recording would be the sound of Res’ album.” However, after the demo was completed, Ali went to Los Angeles briefly and was shocked to discover that Res and company had signed a deal with D’Angelo and Dominique Trenier at their short-lived Virgin imprint Cheeba Sound, whose roster included Nikka Costa (“Like a Feather”), and they were courting Brit-soul sensation Lewis Taylor. “Res felt it was the tracks ‘Sitting Back’ and ‘How I Do’ that had gotten them signed to Cheeba, but when that deal went terrible, they came back to me.”
Still, with Ali being a junior in the A&R department, he didn’t have the power to greenlight projects, so he presented Res’ demo to senior executive Jeff Redd. A music industry veteran who was also a talented singer, Redd signed with the new jack swinging Uptown Records in 1988, released his biggest single “You Called and Told Me” in 1991 and, working closely with label founder Andre Harrell, was instrumental in getting Mary J. Blige and Jodeci to be down with the imprint. Uptown was a subsidiary of MCA Records, and when he was ready to bounce to become an executive in 1996, he didn’t even need to leave the building.
At MCA, working with Wendy Goldstein, he signed Melky Sedeck in 1999 and was looking for other artists that were comparable to that left-of-center groove. “The A&R department at MCA had a passion for that alternative sound, and an artist like Res was exactly what we were looking for,” Redd says from his home in Mount Vernon. “When Naim brought me the Res demo, I thought it was just great. Truthfully, I was blown away, because her voice was so different. She was like Adele before Adele.”
Although Res was soulful, it was obvious she’d spent equal time in the mirror playing air guitar as David Bowie, Heart, Stevie Nicks (whose influence can be heard clearly on “They Say Vision”), Steely Dan and Prince blasted from her stereo. “I pretty much did everything they said to get the deal,” Res confided to the The Philadelphia Weekly in 2010. “It was about being in the right place at the right time and working hard and not even knowing I was working that hard,” she says. “It was fun and it was easy.” Since Ali had only worked on one other project previously, Redd offered to mentor him through the A&R process. “Jeff showed me the ropes, taught me how to do budgets as well, helped guide me in the studio. He knew how to get certain vocals out of her, and also knew when to say it was done. Young artists could record forever.”
The first order of business was putting together a team of talented folks that included Canada-based Esthero producer Doc McKinney (1998’s Breath from Another), who now works with The Weeknd and Drake, bassist Kobe Eshun, former Da Bush Babees member/producer Mr. (Man) Khaliyl, and drummer Chuck Treece. “Doc was into everything from A Tribe Called Quest to Nirvana, while Kobe was a Jamaican cat whose basslines had a sped-up dub. Chuck Treece was Santi’s call. He was a drummer from Philly who had that Fishbone, Bad Brains, Living Colour vibe. He was supposed to come down for a day and wound-up being in the studio for a week.”
A lot of How I Do was recorded in Toronto where Doc lived, but they also worked out of Battery Studios and Electric Lady during the celebrated residence of the Soulquarians, a few of whom were also signed to MCA. “I always like to start with the music first, like a hip-hop record,” Ali says. “The track ‘700 Mile Situation’ started out with Doc, Mr. Khaliyl and Kobie, then Santi wrote a masterful story around it. ‘They-Say Vision’ began with Doc programming the drums, and then Santi wrote a few pieces that became the song.” At the time, all the key players behind the scenes were under 25, with Ali be being the oldest. But for all the youthful energy, there was also a lot of juvenile arguing. Doc might have been the producer, but Res and Santi were equal partners in the recording process.
“We constantly challenged each other,” Res told an interviewer in 2014. “We argued, kicked people out of the studio, let them back in, jellied and wrote great songs. We had crazy chemistry. It wasn’t the most fun I’ve had, but it was incredible.” Laughing at the memory, Ali explains, “In the studio I was the regulator, because they either loved each other or hated each other. On a good day, two of them got along; on a bad day none of them got along. When we were recording ‘700 Mile Situation’ at Battery Studios, Res got tired of Doc and Santi, so she covered the studio glass with newspaper so they wouldn’t look at her. But, all of that passion went into her vocals and the making of the record.”
Though Santi wrote the majority of the break-up concept album, the origin of the songs on How I Do developed from conversations she and Res had about the boyfriends that had broken their hearts and done them wrong. Ali says, “They would be like, ‘The world is never going to be the same,’ and I would tell them, ‘Just write it all down.’ Then I would read something like ‘Golden Boys’ and think, ‘This is so heavy and depressing.’” Res co-wrote the equally terrific “Ice King,” which was later remixed with a Nas rap included.
After about 13 months in the studio, How I Do was finally finished, but although MCA president Jay Boberg was thrilled, and the A&R department celebrated another alt-Black victory, other departments at the label were puzzled by the sound of How I Do. Redd recalls, “When our Black music promotion department got the record, they were looking at me like, ‘What are we supposed to do with this?’ They told me Black radio wouldn’t accept the record because it doesn’t sound like anything else on the radio. They were trying to figure out ‘Is it a hip-hop album? Is it an R&B album?’ The album was critically acclaimed in the press, but the promotions and sales department didn’t do anything.”
Released as the first single, the mind-blowing “Golden Boys” opened the album and set up the crumbling relationship thesis of the entire project. Driven by Treece’s prominent drums (dude sounded like Tony Allen meets Steve Gadd), Santi’s lyrics were funny, harsh and mysterious (much like Carly Simon’s classic “You’re So Vain”) as she talked smack about some celebrity bohemian mack whose public persona and private bullshit were quite different. “Then there’s girls like me who sit appalled at what we see,” Res sang, “We know the truth about you / Now you’re the prince of all the magazines / That is a dangerous thing.”
While one could spend countless hours playing the “who is she talking about?” game, a New York City pigeon once told me Santi was writing about Mos Def. Chuckling, Ali declares, “You won’t get me on that one.” On the follow-up single, “They-Say Vision,” Res channels her inner Stevie Nicks, relives her bedroom Rumours fantasies (which she expanded on with the 2013 EP ReFried Mac) and delivered a great vocal performance. Demo producer A Kid Called Roots’ only contribution to How I Do was “The Hustler,” with its sci-fi beat-box soundscape of bopping pop.
“At the time, certain departments just want to classify, ‘Are you urban, pop, this or that,’” Ali says. “We had ‘Golden Boys’ on MTV and VH1, but (in 2001) that was not all it was wrapped-up to be in terms of breaking a new artist. I was so heartbroken by the way the record was treated, with certain departments at MCA saying things like, ‘I don’t hear any hits,’ so I just resigned.” Jeff Redd stayed at the label until MCA closed its doors in 2006, after merging with Geffen Records.
In the end, How I Do sold 300,000 copies, but after some major changes at MCA, they stalled at releasing Res’ sophomore album and allowed her to leave the label. Yet, after spending a mint on the music, the label wouldn’t sell the masters to a competing label cheaply. In 2009, Res put the music out for free on a 10-track album disc entitled Black.Girls.Rock!
Fourteen years after the release of the riveting How I Do, the record continues to inspire. “I can hear how it has touched artists like The Weeknd and Solange,” Ali explains. “Melody wise, I can hear its influence on Drake and Kendrick Lamar. All these years later, the record is still sonically relevant and has become required listening for so many artists. All the people involved would go on to do dope stuff, but How I Do was ahead of its time and had a timeless quality.” Still recording, in 2008 Res and her old friend Talib Kweli formed the duo Idle Warship and released Habits of the Heart in 2011.
A few years ago, writer Ta-nehisi Coates wrote a micro-essay speculating about Res and wondering why How I Do wasn’t met with more success. “What happened to her? I hear this and I want to cry. And then I want to go punch someone in the face.” Believe me, he’s not the only one.