Love, Peace and Soulquarians by Michael Gonzales

Love, Peace and Soulquarians
By Michael A. Gonzales

Recently I had a conversation with my homie Andrea Rose Clarke aka Sister from Another Planet, about my lack of enthusiasm for reading poetry. There are, of course, a few exceptions, which includes the works of Amiri Baraka, Bob Kaufman, Victor Hernández Cruz and, especially Ntozake Shange. These poets crafted work that made me feel electricity flowing through their words. Reading their poems way back in my Harlem youth, it was like listening to a textual radio as the words danced on the page, fell on their knees like James Brown, steady head nodding and cold sweat dripping to a serious groove.

I live in music,” Shange wrote in 1972, “I walk around a piano like somebody else/be walkin on the earth.” Thumbing through a well-worn copy of her slim, but brilliant, book Nappy Edges, her love of all music, be it gospel or jazz, soul or funk, was absorbed into her work like a harmonic fusion gumbo. Indeed, the same thrill I get from the textual music of Shange compares with the feelings I feel whenever the musical voodoo children known as the Soulquarians come roaring like onyx-colored ocean from the stereo speakers of whatever Starbucks or supermarket I’m in.

Whenever I hear the pimpadelic funk of D’Angelo’s “Playa Playa,” the lush wonderfulness of Badu’s “Kiss Me on my Neck” or the Roots rocking out on “The Seed 2.0,” featuring original composer Cody Chesnutt, I go tumbling back through time seeing the faces of dead friends (former Rawkus Records publicist and little sista Devin Roberson, writer Tom Terrell) floating overhead as I remember when I took too much E at Centro Fly the night of the Voodoo listening party and lost my mind; digging the hot sounds while partying like a rock star at Joe’s Pub, where hostess diva Jodie Becker reigned supreme. Damn near twenty years ago when the Soulquarians came together and tried to change the world, beginning in 1997 when D’Angelo and Questlove began planning the production of Voodoo (released in 2000), the Soulquarians began a five-year jam session that became the musical bedrock for The Roots black shock-wave Things Fall Apart (1999) and Phrenology (2002), Badu’s fierce Mama’s Gun (2000), Common’s soulfully stimulating Like Water for Chocolate, Bilal’s stellar debut 1st Born Second (2001) and Common’s blackadelic bug-out Electric Circus. The vibe and aura also spilled over into Mos Def’s urban jungle boogie Black on Both Sides (1999), Res’s debut gem How I Do (2001) and Talib Kweli ‘s dope-as-hell Quality (2002).

Looking like b-boy hippies, boho gypsies and hardrock flower children, the Soulquarians were a rotating rhythmic collective that included late beat-master J. Dilla, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, rapper/producer Mos Def, singer/producer Erykah Badu, multi-instrumentalist D’Angelo, keyboardist James Poyser, rapper Talib Kweli, singer Bilal, bassist Pino Palladino and rap/producer Q-Tip, whose Native Tongues group A Tribe Called Quest had inspired them all.

Comically, during the Soulquarians formation, Tip’s former manager, the late Chris Lighty, told me he just couldn’t work with the rapper anymore. “He wants to be a fucking rock star!” Lighty screamed. True or not, Tip was obviously as inspired by the “left of center” thinking of his new friends as they were by him. In addition, friends of the Soulquarian family included singer/producer Raphael Saadiq, singer Jill Scott, producer DJ Premier, drummer/producer Karriem Riggins, singer/producer Cee Lo and Prince.
“The impact of the Soulquarians was about who they brought on,” cultural critic/musician Greg Tate once said. While I do have a tendency to romanticize Black cultural movements (be they the Harlem Renaissance, Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Chester Himes in France, the Black Arts Movement, the Black Rock Coalition or the current wave of Afro Punkers), the Soulquarians were, until their demise in 2005, a crew of progressive aural avengers who would’ve been perfect X-Men-style characters in a comic book drawn by Corky McCoy.

Without a doubt, the innovations the Soulquarians put down in that five-year period between 1997 and 2002 became eternal, their spirit still alive inside of us, their sound and vision later manifested into the work of photographers, writers, visual artists, indie directors and of course, musicians and rappers. Listening to the Kendrick Lamar’s newest album To Pimp a Butterfly, Bilal has transformed himself into an arty Nate Dogg for the post-Soulquarian generation that includes Robert Glasper, Esperanza Spalding and, now, Kendrick.

As sonic experimenters on a mission to launch the next generation of Black bohemians, the Soulquarians marched in the giant artistic footsteps that included poet Claude McKay, painter Beauford Delaney, student Angela Davis and writer LeRoi Jones. Like those artists, the Soulquarians used Greenwich Village as the nurturing ground and launch pad for their brand of pre-millennium/post- millennial Black bohemia. Refusing to conform to stereotypical poses of Blackness (criminal-minded hoodrats, gold diggin’ bitches), the Soulquarians, like the family Stone before them, were racially and sexually mixed, open to different ideas in the eternal debate: “What is soul?” Equally, they loved Fela and Pink Floyd, Sly Stone and Joni Mitchell, Philly soul and Mason-Dixon Line funk.

With the exception of Q-Tip, Mos Def and Talib Kweli, none were native New Yorkers, but it was to that “city of ambition” where they flocked to take musical flight. In the studio or onstage (as I sat in the audience twice in one week at Radio City Music Hall during the Voodoo tour) they swung like Basie’s band, funked hard as the Family Stone, rocked out like the Revolution and made tracks that were as dirty as a collbo between Muddy Waters and Marley Marl. “I want to do some gritty, raw shit,” D’Angelo said in 1995. “People want some shit they can feel.”

D’Angelo, wanting his next Voodoo to have more of a demo quality (less sheen, more Afro), the Soulquarians became the musical vessel that helped transport the Virginia native across the revolutionary rivers that so many others had drowned in before completing their journey. For them, Electric Lady Studio became their Abbey Road, Gold Star, Sigma Sound, Paisley Park and D&D.

Located on 8th Street near 6th Avenue, Electric Lady was a former nightclub space that was commissioned and owned by rock god guitarist Jimi Hendrix in 1968; the space was designed to Jimi’s specifications by architect/ musician John Storyk and sound engineer Eddie Kramer. After spending over $300,000 the year before renting studios elsewhere, Hendrix hoped to make Electric Lady his personal recording paradise; below ground in that cavernous basement.

“He wanted Electric Lady to be physically as beautiful as the sounds of music within it,” Hendrix biographer David Henderson wrote in ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky. While Jimi worked at the site briefly, crafting many hours of music there during the final stages of construction, the night of the opening party on August 26, 1970 was the last time Jimi was physically in the building. Jimi died a month later at the age of twenty-seven. He’d already recorded reels of music for a project called First Rays of the New Rising Sun. With a few of the tracks first released on the posthumous The Cry of Love in 1971, the opening track and first single was “Freedom.” Another monster jam for electric-ax aficionados to worship, Jimi sang, “Freedom, give it to me/that is what I want now/freedom, that is what I need now/freedom to live freedom, so I can give.”

After Hendrix’s death on September 18, 1970, Electric Lady became “the self-contained universe” for Detroit expat Stevie Wonder who wanted to suffuse his sound with a new spirit that had nothing, to do with the “baby love” sound of Motown. “I want to get as weird as possible,” Wonder told an interviewer. It was there, at Electric Lady, where he kicked off the decade creating timeless material for his twin triumphs Music of My Mind and Talking Book, both released in 1972. It should be noted that Common was born a mere ten days after Music of My Mind was released. Not sure what a numerologist would make of that, but I’m sure his philosophizing ex-girlfriend Badu had an opinion on the subject.

Stevie Wonder, 1972

When the Soulquarians began working there, they too wanted that freedom that both Hendrix and Wonder had in their own music. Beginning with The Roots‘ fourth album and commercial breakthrough Things Fall Apart and D’Angelo’s off-kiltered and often brilliant Voodoo, a record that adamantly turned away from neo-soul, the records the Soulquarians ultimately delivered mixed dirty soul, muddy water blues, Black Ark dub science, mix-master madness, screeching guitars, old school hip-hop, gutbucket romanticism, inspired lyricism, African chats and aesthetics, pimpin’ politics, strange Moogs, Kraftwerk synths and spacey noise.

The Soulquarian sound, as Questlove described it, consisted of “off-beat rhythms, unorthodox chords (and) stacks of harmony.” When it came to music, the Soulquarians knew their history, but they weren’t afraid of the future. With the exception of Q-Tip, Mos Def and Talib, none of the Soulquarians were native New Yorkers, but it was to that “city of ambition” where they flocked to take musical flight. As a native New Yorker myself, I’d walked past Electric Lady Studios many times, but never went inside until 2000, when Badu had a press listening session there for her much-anticipated Mama’s Gun.

It was a weird night full of delays, but when the music started filling the earholes of the gathered journalists, a calm came over them as they listened in awe. “Just about everything from that album was a jam,” Badu told writer Tom Moon, who included Mama’s Gun in his book 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die. “Just something we were trying to get the flow going.” Later, Badu told Billboard journalist Rashaun Hall, “We’re getting ready to explode into a psychedelic era, but it’s going to be a technological, psychedelic wave where white music and black music merge.”

Featuring the first single “Bag Lady,” the album was a magical musical trip that was the anti- Beyonce sound. Illustrator Don Ely, who like myself considers Mama’s Gun to be one of his favorite albums, says, “Badu has talked about Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon as being sonically and thematically cohesive—a perfect album that she would save from a fire. Many people would say the same about Mama’s Gun.

Sonically, it’s warm and nostalgic, familiar but new. Each song weaves into the next and her smooth-like-honey voice is the thread that holds it all together. She was the introspective woman next door who went thrift shopping and knew how to make it fly; the woman who embraced her perfect imperfections. Songs like “Bag Lady” or “Green Eyes,” both crowd favorites at her shows, resonate with people because they address the human in us. “

In 2002, I returned to Electric Lady to interview Common for XXL. Sitting with the rapper and his engineer in Studio B, we were listening to the rapper’s mind-blowing Electric Circus, when a cat sauntered pass the door. “That’s Jimi,” Common said of the feline named after Hendrix. “He looks over the place.” In addition, the late blackadelic genius also supplied the light illuminating much of the Soulquarians experimental escapades in the studio as they waved their freak flags high.

As far back as 1995, when The Roots released Do You Want More?!!!??!, Questlove already was befriending elder musical mentors like saxophonist Steve Coleman, vocalist Cassandra Wilson and saxophonist Greg Osby. Questlove was also spending time with Brooklyn-born rocker Vernon Reid, co-founder (along with writer/musician Greg Tate) of the Black Rock Coalition, leader of rock band Living Colour and a former sideman for drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, producer Adrian Sherwood and rappers Public Enemy.

Another Hendrix head, Reid heard the Band of Gypsys album in high school which turned the boy out and sent him scurrying to the comfort of guitar strings. Reid, who I’ve known for years, has a vast knowledge of all kinds of stuff including, but not limited to, film, art, Marvel Comics, electric Miles Davis, the Black Power Movement and sci-fi novels; he was the perfect person to be one of Quest’s teachers.
When the Soulquarians took-up residence at the studio, the scene at Electric Lady could be holistic, hedonistic, holy and heavy. As the ghost of Jimi leaned against the otherworldly Lance Jost mural, the air at Electric Lady was thick with weed fog, nag champa incense, body oils and D’Angelo’s countless cigarettes. “The genius,” as Questlove called D’Angelo, smoked Newport’s constantly as he sat playing jazz at the piano or telling gothic stories about growing up Pentecostal in Richmond: the revival meetings, the speaking in tongues, the spirits.

In the corner, some model-girl cutie that came with D’s manager Dominique Trenier might be, at least at that moment, reading Q-Tip’s copy of Divided Soul or Beneath the Underdog. Musically, the Soulquarians were a perfect combination of lofty and grounded, esoteric and street, old school and next level. They could make baby making music, hard rocking music and music that made you question their sanity. These cats were like characters out of a Samuel R. Delany proto-cyberpunk novel about a band of urban outlaws living underground and creating the new sound.

In 1995, when D’Angelo dropped his dazzling debut Brown Sugar, his next level of soul launched a thousand neo-soul ships. In 1998, the mega-sells of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and Outkast’s rainbow hued aqua boogie Aquemini were like the follow-up starter pistol that gave record company executives permission to try something different. Comrades in sound and vision, the Soulquarians found a haven at Electric Lady for their happy accidents, rhythmic research and fantastic dreams. “The studio must be a living thing,” Lee “Scratch” Perry once said, “the machine must be live and intelligent.” Even though Ja Rule and Jennifer Lopez were on top of the charts, the Soulquarians were not to be stopped.

In 1999, when my long-time-girlfriend and former A Tribe Called Quest/D’Angelo publicist Lesley Pitts died suddenly, I moved to Brooklyn and began spend many vodka soaked nights with my good friend and primo jazz critic Tom Terrell, whose liner notes for the complete On the Corner (Miles Davis) box-set still inspire me. It was Tom who schooled me further on electric-era Miles (already a fan of Bitches Brew and On the Corner, he dragged me further down the rabbit hole) as well as what the Soulquarians was doing. It was him who made me listen to Black on Both Sides (Mos Def) and scolded me when I said I wasn’t feeling Voodoo. “Listen to it again,” Terrell insisted. I did. As usual, Tom was right.

Yet, while the Soulquarians were safe within that womb of sound, outside the world was changing as Y2K lingered in the background, as Prince wailed “1999” in my mind. Three months later, when Common, an MC I’d never thought about one way or the other, was slaying me with his first MCA project Like Water for Chocolate (2000), still one of the best hip-hop albums released in the 2000s. Executive produced by Questlove, Like Water for Chocolate featured scorching tracks produced by D’Angelo (“Cold Blooded”) and James Poyser (“A Song for Assata”), but most of the production chores were handled by Detroit native J Dilla, who was also signed to MCA. Common and Dilla became great friends, collaborators and roommates.

Common on The Soulquarians:

Having worked with various artists including Slum Village and Q-Tip, who worked closely with Dilla under their production collective, The Ummah, with Ali Shaheed Muhammad, he and Common got along instantly. “I first met Jay over Q-Tip’s space in ‘96,” Common told journalist Ronnie Reese in 2005. “He had something that was real special.” Dilla, who suffered from Lupus, died in 2006, three days after the release of his now-classic album Doughnuts.

Author Jordan Ferguson, who has written an excellent 33 1/3 book about the seminal Dilla disc says, “I think Dilla’s relationship with Common was maybe the first time he started working with another artist outside his circle that was truly collaboration on equal footing. I think, as part of The Ummah, there still might have been a bit of a mentor/mentee dynamic with Q-Tip, but Common was solely a rapper, not a producer, so each of them brought out the best of the other’s gifts. Com would defer to Dilla’s judgment as a producer and push to bring the best version of himself he could to those tracks. Their energies complimented each other very well.”

Like Water for Chocolate was a gold-selling departure that featured Bilal’s professional debut on “The 6th Sense,” the popular urban romancer “The Light,” which was nominated for a Grammy, and “Geto Heaven Remix T.S.O.I. (The Sound of Illadelph)” featuring Macy Gray.

On September 11, 2001, less than two miles away from Electric Lady, the World Trade Center towers were attacked and destroyed. Within the hour, Army trunks were barreling down Atlantic Avenue and air force jets were zooming across the sky. Day’s later, back at the studio, Common continued to work on Electric Circus, “in the shadows of no towers,” as cartoonist Art Spiegelman poetically named his 2004 graphic novel. “Those crumbling towers burned their way into every brain,” Spiegelman wrote.

As sensitive artists, it’s impossible that this event wouldn’t have had an effect on their sound. “I could smell death in the air,” Common told me. Returning to the Soulquarian Sugar Shack that was Electric Lady in 2001, Common and the crew began working on Electric Circus as well as The Roots fifth disc Phrenology. Outside the studio, the world was experiencing, to paraphrase the British musician Tricky, post-millennial tension, while Common was exploring his inner-rock star. “To me, being an artist means opening up, exposing yourself to new things and channeling that into who you are,” Common told me when asked what he saw/heard in the Soulquarians. “Other rappers are happy being safe, but I was at the point in my life, my mental space and life space needs something else.”

Unfortunately, while Electric Circus was, in the words of my brother Basquiat “the boom for real,” the record went plastic in a platinum world. Electric Circus was an Afro-Futuristic disaster and the open-to-experimentation “buhloone mindstate” at MCA, the label to whom Common, The Roots and Dilla were signed, popped. Shortly after its release, whoever was the last to leave Electric Lady turned off the lights behind them. The post-midnight aural delights crashed to earth faster than the Mothership with no gas and the Soulquarian party was over.

Thirteen years later, while there hasn’t been a new Soulquarian project in over a decade, unless you want to include Black Messiah, the former bohemians who once crafted that crazy black-velvet blues music have now crossed-over to become late-night television bands and Oscar winners. Still, for a short moment in time, they were the shit and their spirit of rebellion from 1997 to 2002 will never die. In the same way poet Ntozake Shange claimed that she, “lived in music,” so did the Soulquarians.

Special thanks to Sun Singleton for her third-eye editorial guidance.

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