D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar” – The Making of a Classic Single by Michael A. Gonzales

When word began to spread on Friday afternoon that everybody’s favorite arty soul man D’Angelo would be previewing his new album Black Messiah a few days later at an afternoon listening session in New York City, fans like myself became excited. There are times when even a burned-out music scribes such as myself are forced to shed our icy exteriors, crack a smile and get with the heat. After waiting for what has felt like forever, the tides of soul had turned and the former titled James River was finally here. Calling my closet friends, I was spreading the news as though I had stock in the record.

However, the following day when the new song (which blogs were reporting was a single, although it’s not) “Sugah Daddy” was unveiled, I wasn’t really sure what to think. While the strangeness of the song sounded like a funky experiment in that cool keyboard, hot horns Sly Stone/Prince b-side kind of way, I’ll save my final opinion until I hear “Sugah Daddy” within the context of the album.

Still, it’s impossible for me to listen to any D’Angelo music and not think back to that magical time damn near twenty-years back when the Virginia born and breed musician released his first single “Brown Sugar,” the stellar debut that put the southern brother on the soul map in the first place. Produced by Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest, the sticky icky ode to weed became one of the most celebrated singles of the year. Influenced by the jazzy funk of 1970s fusion mavericks, D’Angelo and Ali crafted a dope track in more ways than one. Nominated for a two Grammies the following year, the song has achieved classic status. A few years back, I talked to Ali about his friendship with D’Angeleo, and the making of “Brown Sugar.”

Michael A. Gonzales: Can you speculate on what it was that A Tribe Called Quest possessed in their sound that later influenced so many ‘90s soul singers including D’Angelo, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and Maxwell.

Ali Shaheed Muhammad: I think it was more the infusion of jazz and just the music being very melodic. The bulk of hip-hop prior to Tribe, Gang Starr, Pete Rock and CL Smooth was more beat driven, more locked into simplistic grooves. With our music, everything had a melody, be it the bassline, chord structures and different movements and time structures, the music always moved. Our music just had a flow that might’ve been closer to the R&B that we grew-up listening to, be it Earth, Wind and Fire or Stevie Wonder. When I started working with other artists, I was just to wanted to build on the sound we had established with Tribe.

M.A.G.: How did you and D’Angelo meet in the first place?

A.S.M: It was one of those times when Raphael (Saadiq) was in New York. He and I had been friends for a while; he’s kind of like my older brother. It began with music and turned into a tight relationship. He told me, ‘You got to hear this singer I’m working on.’ He says, ‘There’s Stevie, there’s Marvin, there’s Michael and there’s D’Angelo.’ I had never heard that kind of comparison about anyone, but I took his words very seriously. He played a few demos, “Lady” and “Alright.” That was some serious business he played me.

M.A.G.: What did you think was so interesting about D’s sound?

A.S.M.: He had an interesting way of structuring melodies and phrasings; all of his backgrounds were really stacked and there was a lot of depth and color. He’d sing in between chords, he won’t sing out the full chords in the backgrounds. When Raphael said, ‘He wants to work with you.’ I was in shock. I’m always humbled when people want to work with me, especially singers, and D was just incredible. There wasn’t anyone singing like him back then.

M.A.G.: Talk about the “Brown Sugar” single and how it was made.

A.S.M.: We were first working out of my apartment in Jersey City, just on a pre-production level, just trying to vibe each other out. I don’t think he could really articulate what he was looking for. We both went into the situation with a free and fresh mind. I started playing records, sampling different thing and we got a couple of songs together. It was cool, but just beats and loops. But, after we played around on a pre-production level, we went into the studio. We was like, ‘Alright, let’s lay this down.’ The drum machines and things like that I was using were in their primitive stages compared to now, and the computers used to crash a lot.

We were tracking one of the songs we had put together in pre-production and everything that could go wrong in that room happened. We were in Studio Cup at Battery, which was the same room Tribe used to use, but the room was getting more and more bugged. I used to joke that there were ghost in there.

While the engineer was trying to figure out what was going on technically, D was sitting in front of the keyboard just playing. It sounded like intermission music, and then he started playing these chord progressions and I just stopped and looked at him. We still had the DAT player running, so I said, ‘D, what are you doing?’ He said, ‘Just waiting for you to finish.’ I asked him to play it again, because I heard something in it.

I spent like ten minutes tracking what was on my computer and I instantly called up a new song, programmed a beat in like two minutes and told D to just play that thing on top. Afterwards, we just sat and stared at one another. D just started laughing, because he knew what I knew. Next, he played bass on top of those chords. Maybe another 15 minutes later, he went in the booth and did the backgrounds and that’s how it came to be. The song was finished in an hour. It was all so organic, and almost too good to be true. There was nothing else that sounded like that before.

M.A.G.: What did you guys say to one another after ‘Brown Sugar’ was finished?.

A.S.M.: We knew we had something and was really happy and completely forgot about everything else. That record doesn’t sound like anything else on the album and I think its difference stands out. It has a different texture and looseness to it.

M.A.G.: Did you guys ever work on any other songs after that session?

A.S.M.: We were trying to keep the flow going. We went in and did another song, but it didn’t have the same feeling that ‘Brown Sugar’ did; nothing came of it.

M.A.G.: Did it surprise you when the record blew-up?

A.S.M.: I had no idea it would go to the level that it did. Ours was a happy merger of brothers not just talking about what it could be, but actually doing it for the love of the music, for the respect of the music that we grew-up on. Making music was all we were thinking about. To think it would turn into D’Angelo becoming one of the most sought after musicians on the planet. That was my first Grammy nomination, which was alright, but what was doper is the fact was that ‘Brown Sugar’ spawned a new movement in music.

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