Ladybug Mecca/Slept On Soul
Trip the Light Fantastic/Nu Paradigm (2005)
By Michael A. Gonzales
Ever since Mary Ann Vieira was a kid growing-up in Silver Spring, Maryland, freedom in life and art has been important to her. She has always followed her own path, whether it was biking miles from her home when she was a little girl, venturing into go-go clubs in nearby Washington, D.C. during her teen years or, as Ladybug Mecca, joining forces with an experiential hip-hop duo in 1990 calling themselves Digable Planets. “That’s just who I am,” she admits. Two weeks later, she’d be on the road with Digable for the first time since 2006. “My parents allowed me a lot of freedom when I was a child — freedom of movement, freedom of expression — and that has always spilled over into my work.”
More than two decades after Digable Planets released their second (and last) album Blowout Comb, the beautiful Brazilian rapper, singer and songwriter is still forging her own sonic path while being as free as she wants. The mother of three teenage boys, Mecca is still active on the music scene. For the past six years, she has been working with BROOKZILL!, a supergroup consisting of producer Prince Paul, musician/singer Don Newkirk and Brazilian rapper Rodrigo Brandão. “The music is a mash-up of hip-hop, Afro-Brazilian music as well as more spiritual and traditional (Brazilian) music,” Mecca says excitedly. “I think this project is so special. And Paul did his thing in terms of production.”
Released on Prince Paul’s former label Tommy Boy Records, where he once recorded with ‘80s group Stetsasonic and produced the first three De La Soul albums, BROOKZILL!’s debut single, “Saudade Songbook,” featuring Count Bass D, dropped in mid-August; the album Throwback to the Future comes out on October 7th.
Welcome to BROOKZILL!
BROOKZILL! – Saudade Songbook (feat. Count Bass D)
In 1992, when Digable Planets dropped their jazzy first single, “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” which would go on to win a Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group the following year, the world was introduced to Mecca’s potent, laidback rhyme style, which was as influenced by the Brazilian music her parents played at home as it was by the MC Lyte and Roxanne Shante cassettes she rocked in her Walkman. “Hearing them do their thing made me realize that I could do this too,” she says. “What stood out most was their confidence, strength and independence. They were always comfortable with who they were and wasn’t taking shit from anybody.”
In addition, Mecca was also inspired by the voices of Sade, Cesaria Evora, Dakota Staton and, of course, Mom Dukes. “My mother was a Brazilian jazz singer who performed in clubs in D.C. and Maryland, so I got a lot from her. She’s my inspiration, for sure.” As her love for music began to bubble more as she got older, Mecca started attending local music conferences and became interested in the in the notorious Washington, D.C. go-go scene.
“At the time, D.C. was called the Murder Capital, and those clubs always had heavy security, but the music was compelling and beautiful, rooted in African rhythms and it just pulled me in,” she recalls. Citing Rare Essence’s hypnotic “Lock It” as one her favorite jams, one New Year’s Eve, she and a few girlfriends “stole” her mom’s truck for a joyride to the Black Hole on Georgia Avenue. “But, when we got there, there was a shoot-out outside, so we had to leave fast. Things had a way of poppin’ off quick at those spots.”
Back when Mecca was a senior in high school, she was down with the Nation of Gods and Earths, commonly known back then as the Five Percenters. “I would hang out and soak up knowledge.” It was at one gathering that she first met Craig Irving, aka Doodlebug, a Philadelphia native who was attending Howard University. He was in the process of partnering with his homie Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler on a new group.
Rehearsing at Ish’s grandmother’s house, Mecca was part of the crew, but not part of the group. While hanging with the brothers one night as they were practicing, she was invited to write and spit a few lines. “They didn’t know this, but I’d been writing since I was a kid,” she says. “I used to write these observations about life on pieces of paper that I tucked into a grocery bag that I hung on my bedroom door.” Years later, when the boys invited her “audition,” they were surprised by her talent and sound.
“I wrote something, and they were like, ‘Wow.’ They had a little meeting upstairs, and they came back and asked if I wanted to be in the group. I’d always wanted to be in music, but I’d never shared it with anyone.” Ish also remembers that night well. “After I heard Mecca, I was like, ‘There’s three people in the group now.’ She had a certain off-beatness that was unique back then. As a Brazilian vocalist, she had a certain rhythmic approach and pronunciation of words that was just so different.”
Three years later, Digable Planets signed to Pendulum Records. Having moved east to work, they commuted to a small studio in Bergen, New Jersey until the work was done. “We had a real camaraderie. We were like family,” Mecca said. “We really supported each other. We didn’t have a lot of money, so we would get a slice of pizza and split it three ways.”
Digable’s closeness comes across perfectly on their 1993 debut Reachin’ (A New Refutation Of Time And Space), where they effortlessly traded lines on the smooth, soulful “Where I’m From” and amid the brisk funk of “Nickel Bags.” In the meantime, “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” had become a monster hit on radio and MTV; much to the trio’s surprise, they were becoming stars.
“Where I’m From”
“Our first television appearance was on In Living Color, and I remember us all being super-excited,” Mecca says. “Rosie Perez was instrumental in getting us on the show. We were so nervous and excited, but it went really well. That’s when things really took off.” In addition to their Grammy win, Digable Planets was also playing dates across the world, including three dates in Brazil with James Brown.
Yet while Mecca’s professional life was taking off, her personal life started to crumble, beginning with when she learned that her mother was terminally ill. While Digable worked on Blowout Comb, their follow-up LP, she made frequent trips to Silver Spring to be by her mom’s side. “That was one of the biggest challenges of my life,” she said, “trying to record while being so worried about my mother. I was afraid I wouldn’t be there when it was time.”
In Living Color/ Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)
Beyond the control of the Digable posse, their label, Pendulum Records, was going through its own problems after switching parent labels, leaving Elektra Records for EMI. Unfortunately for the group, EMI wasn’t very supportive of the ambitious Blowout Comb and seemingly refused to promote it as heavily as Reachin’ (A New Refutation Of Time And Space). “I thought we’d be going on a promotional tour and everything,” Mecca says, “but none of that happened.” After releasing two singles and videos that failed to connect on a pop level (“9th Wonder” and “Dial 7 (Axioms of Creamy Spies)”), Blowout Comb was considered a bomb by the record company boardroom boys.
Reevaluated in 2013 when it was reissued by Lights in the Attic in 2013, Pitchfork called Blowout Comb “a modest hip-hop classic that thrives on contrast. It’s both dated and timeless, angry and laid-back, smooth and prickly. It’s one of the easier albums in pop history to put on and enjoy and vibe out to, but it has a rich undercurrent of history and thought.”
EMI later dropped Pendulum Records completely, and Digable Planets was an acclaimed act without a label. It wasn’t long before they dissolved their partnership and went their separate ways. “When certain obstacles came from the music industry, we didn’t know how to handle it,” Doodlebug says, reflecting. “There was so many emotions, ups and downs; we were young and immature.”
Although the group members have discussed reuniting for a new record, it has yet to happen. “When we toured together in 2006, we were definitely talking about it,” Mecca said. “But we couldn’t get a lot of things straight, so no music was made.”
The year prior, in 2005, Ladybug Mecca released a dope solo joint called Trip the Light Fantastic that most folks still ain’t hip to. A stunning master mix of hip-hop, soul, trip-hop and Afro-Futurism, the disc also had ol’ girl throwing down on the vocalizing in a way we never knew she could. “Truthfully, I was singing before I ever rapped. I’ve always had a wide palette besides hip-hop, so the album ended-up a multi-genre musical statement that was shocking for some people. A lot of people didn’t really get it.”
Having started recording the project in 2002 when she was pregnant with her last son, Mecca worked on Trip the Light Fantastic for a year and a half. Experimenting with various cadences and flows, she offered various styles as both a singer and MC whenever she stepped behind the mic. While the sista had no problems going deep and being melodic, like on “Children Say,” the album’s first single, “Dogg Starr,” produced by Ayatollah (the man behind Mos Def’s classic “Ms. Fat Booty”), was more street and verbally in-your-face. “It’s just a healthy confidence. And to show that I was self-aware of my God-given gifts.”
The second single, “You Never Get Over It,” a sorrowful song on which she sings throughout, her voice reminding me slightly of Martina Topley-Bird, so chillingly explores death and loss, it stuns. The track’s arty video was dedicated to the memory of both parents and producer J. Dilla. “Honestly, I wrote that song in 15 minutes,” Mecca says. “It just came out of me and wouldn’t stop coming. The song is about how we never really get over somebody that we’ve lost because their energy lives on forever, and we’re connected in that way. The body may go, but the energy is always there.”
You Never Get Over It
For Mecca, part of the wonder of making her first solo LP was the various collaborations she was able to make a reality, including a blazing duet with underrated soul man Martin Luther, whose indie 1999 debut The Calling was one of her favorites. “That was the album that made me want to work with him,” she said. “It was just incredible.” Their union, “Last Train,” is an upbeat song, with Mecca rapping about about trying to get away from it all over killer beat, hothouse piano riffs and Marty’s gritty wails. “We (her and producer Koproduced) went to where Martin lived in the Bay Area and recorded his vocals.”
Other standout collabos include the tracks “Mr. Mayor” and “Sweet and Polite,” recorded with the production team Sa-Ra. “Those guys are my favorite producers of all time,” Mecca says. “I’m inspired by certain beats and listen very closely as I’m figuring out the vocals, even before the lyrics are written. When I heard the track that would become ‘Sweet and Polite,’ I just connected with it fully.”
Sweet and Polite
Mecca recorded 40 songs for Trip the Light Fantastic, choosing the best 19 to represent where her heart and mind was at the time. “That album was a labor of love that allowed me touch on different experiences,” she says. “I needed to release those things so I could keep going and move on.”
Eleven years later, listening to that cat Anderson Paak’s joint Malibu, I can’t help thinking that Ladybug Mecca’s solo stand was on the same level of icy-hot cool.
Peep the full album here:
Michael A. Gonzales has been writing about music since the 1980s. A few of his subjects include Barry White (Vibe), D’Angelo (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.