Having spent much of the cocaine 80s and early 90s inside exciting New York City clubs (CBGBs, Wetlands Preserve) watching the fem-funk-rock-soul antics of Black Rock Collation artists Felice Rosser (Faith), DK Dyson (Eye & I), Kelli Sae (JJ Jumpers) and Sophia Ramos (Sophias Toy) doing their thing on stage, Im no stranger to the concept of Black girls rocking.
Eye & I:
Years before the concept became a slogan that became a mantra that became an annual Beverly Bond/BET event, the aforementioned women (amongst many others) held their own on multiple bills across the city. While each of these artists were (and remain) aurally unique, besides their rock aesthetic and on-the-road-with boys horror stories, they also shared the experience of being signed by a major label and then, for whatever reasons, were dropped.
These artists became a part of my musical journey that began with LaBelle and Chaka Khan, travelled down to Joi and Erykah Badu and continues to this day with FKA twigs and SZA. However, for all my babbling about rockin Black girls, Im ashamed to admit that in the spring of 1999, when Cree Summer released her solo project Street Faërie (Sony/Work Group), my expectations werent that high. Coming nine years after her Different World co-star Jasmine Guy released a new-jack disaster (her much hyped self-titled slab of wackness had little musical vision), I wanted no parts of that Summers music. Although Id always had a crush on Summers television character, the crunchy college student Winifred “Freddie” Brooks who started off as a goofy Granola kid and blossomed steadily into adulthood.
Back in 1993, when Id stop hanging in rock clubs and was instead b-boy head nodding to the Snoop and Dres gangsta vibe on Nothin But a G Thing, I missed out on Crees rocked-out persona when her group, Subject to Change, was signed to Capitol. Although the label put out advance cassettes, the home of The Beatles, the Beasties and MC Hammer didnt really know what to do with StC or their project Womb Amnesia; the band was soon dropped.
I lost my deal there, Summer told writer Nicole Moore from The Hotness in 2002. I had put in work, baby. I mean following Fishbone in a van to open for them; I mean playing up and down Sunset Strip for two years before we even signed a deal. You know, hard rock-n-roll dudes; and I lost that deal and went into a massive depression. It was maybe two years before I even wanted to write again.
Subject to Change/Mind Noise
Going solo for her next musical outing in 1999, Cree signed with the Sony owned Work Group, the label that made Jamiroquai and Fiona Apple stars. Cree described her disc Street Faërie as a pulsing amalgam of emotions and styles, movin’ and groovin’ from the ascending euphoria’s. OK, whatever. What kind of title is Street Faërie anyway? I joked, thinking it sounded like a Black character in a Neil Gaiman/Tori Amos penned comic book. When I read her record company bio, I realized I wasnt very far off when Summer mentioned being inspired by comic book artist Wendy Pinis sword and sorcery sensation Elfquest. a Tolkienesque saga filled with strange tribes calling themselves The Wolfriders, The Sun Folk and The Gliders.
Ive never understood why record companies sign adventurous female led groups only to kick them to the curb for being experimentally unmarketable. In the end, Cree Summer got kicked twice, because the same madness that happened to her at Sony/Work Group when, a few months after sending out the album advance and first single Revelation Sunshine, a gooey sweet love song, Summer was dropped again. Yet, as my male gaze stared at the bewitching burnt orange album cover, outside the first floor window the chirping sparrows and cooing pigeons seemed to be encouraging me to play the damn thing already.
The fact that the entire joint was produced by Lenny Kravitz, a mans whose work with Madonna (Justify My Love) and Vanessa Paradis self-titled third album nudged me a bit as well towards Street Faërie. Although Kravitz stole my imaginary girlfriend Lisa Bonet years before (What up, Romeo Blue?), Ive held no grudge and just wished that he did more cool production with women artists, because his work with Madonna and Paradis sounded less about bullshit male ego tripping and electric guitar big balls of his own discs.
Revelation Sunshine (Live in France):
I just let the music carry me, Kravitz told me the following year. Sometimes I land on my feet and sometimes I land on my ass, but I just have to go for it. Without a doubt Street Faërie was a successful landing for both Summer and Kravitz that combined their old school heroes (Sly Stone, Frank Zappa, The Carpenters, Joni Mitchell, The Jackson Five and a few others) with Crees spiritually guided lyricism.
Recording in Los Angeles, New York City and the Bahamas, where Summer and Kravitz camped out at the famed Compass Point Studio, the same spot where Bob Marley, The Rolling Stones and Grace Jones used to go. Working in the daytime and drinking Pina Coladas at night, Cree said, “Lenny taught me song structure. He’s very persnickety and has an exquisite ear. Lenny made me sing better and that’s a great gift.”
The dynamic material on Street Faërie was a fusion of soul-n-rock that went from laidback pop (Revelation Sunshine) to more rocked-out moments on the awesome twins Mean Sleep, a killer-diller duet that positions Summer/Kravitz as the Hathaway/Flack of the neo-hippie set, and Deliciously Down, my favorite of the 13-tracks. The way the slow simmering song builds towards blissful guitars was blissful. Why Deliciously Down wasnt the first single is anybodys guess, but let me just say that somebody at the Work Group was asleep at the wheel.
Meanwhile, the lush Sweet Pain lyrically walked a thin line between love interest and stalker while the music was inspired by the bacon grease soul of the Al Green/Willie Mitchell/Hi-Studios sound. I’d conjure up a second heart to house your sweet pain, Summer sings sweetly. Love you so hard, other folks won’t have to strain to hear/I’d become your shadow and haunt. Not too many dudes want to think about a women being their shadow, but there was something scary-sexy about her intentions. While Still Heart was another favorite (Open me up anywhere you like, seal me up when youre through) the track sounds as though Kravitz robbed himself of the Justify My Love beat; no matter, though, because Summers made it her own.
Although some of Crees lyrics could be as impressionistic as a Van Gogh painting, the soul sista had no problem being direct as she wanted to be as on the stinging mammy meets metal of Curious White Boy. Speaking loud and proud about race and curious white boys whose intentions arent sincere (ya know, they just wanna hit it a few times to say they sexed-up a Black chick), Cree tackled a subject that many talk about, but few confront in pop songs. A year after Summers album was released, I heard the song blaring at a Brooklyn jam in Fort Greene and every fine cocoa colored Honey magazine looking woman in the room knew the lyrics as they ranted (Curious white boy, when am I gonna meet your mama ) over Kravitzs screaming guitar.
Sixteen years after its rockin release, Cree Summers cult fans still fawn over this slept on disc, playing various tracks for others as we try to lure them into the cult of Cree. “Making this music has been such a journey of self-discovery,” Cree said in her bio, and totally organic. I can’t say there’s a theme to the record. It’s as spontaneous as my journeys.”
Curious White Boy:
FULL ALBUM STREAM:
Buy Street Faërie
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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 blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com. Check out some of his work for soulhead.