SLEPT ON SOUL: Long Time No See – Chico DeBarge (1997)
Column by Michael A. Gonzales
Seventeen years ago, during the summer of 1997, 29-year-old Chico DeBarge was at Battery Studios working on his then upcoming album Long Time No See (Universal/Kedar Entertainment). Dressed in a hoodie and jeans, he wore a baseball cap over a freshly shaven head. Recently released from prison after doing a six-year stretch on drug conspiracy charges, DeBarge was happy to finally be free.
When I was locked-up, all I thought about was picking-up the pieces of my life, Chico told me later that day. I knew a lot of brothers who just got out of jail who were still representing crime, but Im a positive person and I just wanted to come out a productive person. After coming out of prison, my only goal was to make music that would get me to the other side of the pain.
Relocating to New York City, Chico was signed by former DAngelo manager Kedar Massenburg, the neo-soul idol maker behind the success of Erykah Badu, who released her debut Baduizm that February. The first thing I made him do was cut his hair, Kedar said in 2007. I wanted him to be bald and rugged, not some Al B. Sure looking brother.
Recording in various studios including Soundcastle Recording in Los Angeles, Chico wasted no time recruiting brother El and sister Bunny to join him. Back in the eighties, like his older brother and sister, Chico was also once signed to Motown Records. However, instead of joining the family group DeBarge, best known for velvety ballads Time Will Reveal and I Like It as well The Last Dragon featured Rhythm of the Night, Chico was a solo Prince wannabe whose last album Kiss Serious (1987) was produced mostly by former Revolution bassist Brownmark.
But, as Badu sang, that was another lifetime ago, before he and his elder brother Robert, who was once in the Motown-signed Switch, were arrested in their home state of Michigan for conspiring to traffic two pounds of cocaine. After serving his time, he began working on his comeback.
Penning a monthly column for Vibe called Studio Time, Id already written about works-in-progress from Aaron Hall, Lil Kim and Queen Latifah. Receiving a call from my homie-publicist-friend Wendy Washington asking if Id be interested in hanging with the Chico at Battery, I accepted.
Having been locked down for so long, Chico had morphed into a different person than the black New Romantic/Prince vibe he used to be. The guy with the crazy hair and up-tempo Minneapolis sounding music was completely gone. Chico was friendly and polite, but there was a tender toughness in his eyes that, as I would later understand, was being channeled into his music.
I still carry my brothers lessons in my music, he said. Making music makes me happy. For Chico, music also served as a release from the years of missing family and girlfriends, the years of being confined to a cell as the foul smell and constant noise slowly drove him crazy. In a bold move, the video for Chicos first post-prison single Iggin Me showed his isolation in jail.
Shot in a moody, atmospheric David Fincher style, we see DeBarge alone in his cell exercising or staring into the nothingness as he thinks about the love of his life, played by fine as plum wine Nia Long, cheating on him. While he rots in jail, the fem fatale shakes her tail. Beautifully cinematic and noirish, the soulful song was the perfect soundtrack as Chicos heartbroken bluesy vocals merges with images and co-producer Els haunting Hammond organ that dominates the music.
El is a genius of innovation, Chico said. Im not just saying that because hes my older brother. Just like kung-fu studies, El was the master and I was the student, but never once did he try to overshadow me. Moments later, we walk over to where the siblings were chilling, and Chico introduced them. El, who was thirty-six at the time, was long considered the genius of the DeBarge clan, but hadnt released an album since the Babyface helmed Heart, Mind & Soul (there was talk about his own drug usage) in 1994.
Our oldest brother Bobby, who was in Switch, passed on a legacy we call the DeBarge sound. Its the formula we follow in the studio, so when a song is finished it sounds like grape Kool-Aid with a slice of lemon. To my ears Iggin Me, where Chico proclaimed everlasting love while promising to smoke his rival sounded like both a Saturday night knife fight and a Sunday morning sermon.
Superman was another slow burning song the brothers played me. Except, on that exquisite track instead of sorrowfully weeping, Chico used the man of steel metaphor to talk about doing more than leaping buildings in a single bound. Gonna love you with my Kryptonite style, gonna spread you on the silky sheets, baby and drive you wild so go head, tell your friends you met Superman, DeBarge boasted over a strange bed of sinister keyboards.
When I asked Chico about working with El, he claimed that was all good, but according to Kedar, things sometimes got tense between the brothers. Chico was often conflicted when it came to his family, Massenberg remembered. He never wanted to do anything that might make them look bad, but sometimes El could be difficult. Geniuses just are not normal people, and El had his own mindset, he says. There were times that I felt that El showed a little jealousy because Chico was getting another shot.
In all, Long Time No See took a year and a half to make. During the recording process, Chico shared a condominium, which was owned by Massenberg, with upstart soul singer Joe. The two became best friends. Those two had so many music industry chicks up there, but I wont mention any names, Kedar chuckled. Chico turned women on because he was good looking, but he was also a thug. The DeBarge brothers have the hearts of lions, and thats something I respected.
On the finished product, the combination of El and Chico was sonically killer as they expanded on the post-new jack R&B sound of DeVante Swing, R. Kelly and DAngelo. Whether we use samples or just play our instruments, we to try to create something thats rich and pure, El DeBarge said. Other producers make tracks without feeling or emotion. We create music that has heart.
Long Time No See was released on November 18, 1997, the same month The Spice Girls dropped their second album and Puff Daddys debut No Way Out was on top of the charts. Chico DeBarge got a lot of ink, but not a lot of sells. My homie Chairman Mao wrote a piece about him for Vibe, The Source featured him in a fashion shoot and I was spreading the news like a neo-soul version of Mister Senor Love Daddy. Still, when Long Time No See hit the streets, no one seemed excited.
It sounds too much like DAngelo, a young woman who worked at The Source told me. Long Time No See is just Brown Sugar light. Like my new gonzo writer hero Spider Jerusalem, Id fight to the death that this wasnt true, but more than a few of my fellow scribes felt the same way.
Perhaps it was the Kedar Massenburg association, or maybe it had something to do with Chico and DAngelo being so haunted by Marvin Gayes music. Like a specter from a horror film, the ghost of Gaye hovered over both of them. While Chico does an adequate remake of Trouble Man, though not as daring or exciting as Neneh Cherrys 1995 version, it was his second single Love still Good that served as the perfect Marv homage.
Like drifting on a cloud of Black Love incense smoke, the sorrowful sounding love song, with its smooth arrangements and emotional vocals, was gorgeous. What I love about Chico is how he understands Marvins peculiar mix of courage and candor, David Ritz, author of the classic Marvin Gaye biography Divided Soul (1987) said in 2007. Rather than run from complexity, he embraced it on Long Time No See. Chico seemed driven by the intuitive knowledge that his only hope for processing the confusion of his life was through the harmony of his music.
Although a third single, the Jack Knight co-produced Virgin was released, Long Time No See stalled at number 86 on Billboard charts. Years later, I got into an argument with an editor when I said that Long Time No See was a masterpiece. Although Ill admit to being somewhat hyperbolic, to me Long Time No See remains one of the most underrated R&B albums of the era. While Chico DeBarge would go on to bigger successes, none felt as raw, personal or musically majestic as Long Time No See.
About the author:
Michael A. Gonzales has been writing about music since the 1980s. A few of his subjects include Barry White (Vibe), DAngelo (Wax Poetics) and Lauryn Hill (The Source). In addition to soulhead, he contributes to Complex, Pitchfork Review, XXL, Baltimore City Paper, Philadelphia Weekly and The Weeklings. His essay on the DeBarge family appears in Best African-American Essays 2009. Gonzales writes the weekly column Vintage Vision for Ebony.com, blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com and Twitters @gonzomike.