The elusive soul genius kicks it with Nelson George and Questlove.
Last night, the Brooklyn Museum added one more rarity to its extensive catalog as the elusive soul genius Michael Eugene Archer, better known as D'Angelo, materialized there the flesh, lit up a few cigarettes, and cheerfully submitted to his first interview in over a decade before disappearing in a puff of smoke. There wasn't an empty seat in the museum's auditorium as Nelson George—author of the seminal study The Death of Rhythm and Blues—quizzed the man who was dubbed "R&B Jesus" by Robert Christgau on a wide array of subjects ranging from his first live gigs to the latest word on his mythical third album, which has been fourteen years in the making with no release date in sight. Among the gems unearthed during their 90-minute conversation:
• Teenage Michael Archer once won Apollo Amateur Night with a performance of Johnny Gill's "Rub You The Right Way."
• Shortly thereafter he joined a rap group from Chesterfield, Virginia known as I.D.U., which stood for Intelligent, Deadly, but Unique.
• When his future friend, collaborator, and brother from another mother Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson first met D'Angelo, The Roots drummer fronted on him, mentally dismissing the young singer as some "R&B dude." He would soon realize the error of his ways, eventually coming to the conclusion that "this guy is our savior."
On the strength of two albums—1995's Brown Sugar and the 2000 masterpiece Voodoo—D'Angelo built on the work of his musical hero Prince and reshaped the sound of modern R&B with his sensual falsetto, hauntingly distinctive harmonies, and adventurous sonic repertoire. He also possesses a level of personal mystique that hearkens back to an era before TMZ and social media began grinding all artists into so much glittery dust. Although he turned 40 this past February, D'Angelo's star power has survived very much intact.
Born the son of a Pentecostal preacher, he began playing piano at age 3. "When i was going to church they used to say: 'Don’t go up there for no form or fashion,'" D'Angelo recalled. "I guess what that means is you're up there singing for the Lord, so don't try to be cute. He don't care about that. He just wanna feel the spirit moving through you.” To this day, D'Angelo has been a "one take dude" preferring to record vocals on the first try. "It's about capturing that spirit," he explained.
By age of 13 D'Angelo so impressed his classical music instructor that she sent him to Virginia Commonwealth University in his native Richmond, Virginia, where he enrolled in a music theory class. "I can't do nothing for you; you know music theory," the instructor soon declared before sending him off to audition for Ellis Marsalis, father of jazz stars Wynton and Branford Marsalis, and visiting sax legend James Moody. "Not bad, Youngblood," they told him. "So are y'all gonna teach me?" young D'Angelo asked, but Marsalis was about to head to New Orleans. "I never got a chance to get jazz training or whatever," D'Angelo said. "But I always thought that was a good thing. It would have changed my whole style of playing."
A few years later Michael Archer and Precise, a band consisting of D'Angelo and his cousins, made such an impression on the Richmond talent show circuit—"We tore the roof off, really" he recalled, immodestly—that D'Angelo earned the chance to play Apollo Amateur Night. On the bus ride from Virginia to New York, the production company that organized the talent show offered the young talent unsolicited advice. "Sing a Luther Vandross song... Don't sing a gospel song or they'll boo you." D'Angelo had his mind set on singing a Peabo Bryson number but the girl who performed ahead of him tried to sing a gospel song and "they booed the shit out of her. No mercy. She came offstage crying." The next time he get onstage at the Apollo, he sang Johnny Gill's sexy up-tempo jam and won first place.
But the best anecdotes from D's early years were the stories of his work with the I.D.U., serving as co-producer and rapper. "I was MCing back then—I was pretty fuckin' good too," D'Angelo said with evident pride. Even when George produced a publicity shot of the group, eliciting laughter from the audience, D'Angelo spoke of them with pride. "I.D.U. shit was real," he said, recalling days spent at the house of DJ Baby Fro, whose father had been a DJ and kept an extensive music library in the house.
"Those records were kept in pristine condition, and we’d be over there all day," D'Angelo remembered. "That’s where I really went to school. That’s hip hop and music 101. That’s the first time I heard about The Meters and Band of Gypsies and all that shit." He was supposed to be looking for potential samples to build tracks for I.D.U., but D'Angelo couldn't stand skimming through the music. "When you listen to records strictly to find samples, you look for breakbeats. But instead of looking for breakbeats I started listening to the whole record. And so that’s when I started."
The I.D.U. crew was ambitious enough that they traveled to New York looking for a record deal. D'Angelo remembered wearing a suit and "brand new church shoes," which were apparently not the most comfortable footwear for walking the streets of Manhattan. During his meetings D would often excuse himself to go to the bathroom. "I know they were wondering why I kept asking to go to the bathroom. I had to take them shoes off." What stood out to industry heads was the group's production, which bore some semblance of D'Angelo's sonic signature.
I never claimed neo-soul. When I came out I said I make black music.
"Right now we're going someplace else," D'Angelo said. "More rock and funk. It’s a natural progression for me. The thing with me about rock and all that… listening to old music I started to connect the dots, and I was seeing the thread that connects everything together, and it’s pretty much the blues. Whether soul or funk or rock it all connects to the blues."
At which point there was a glitch in the Matrix, the Hologram machine malfunctioned, and the talk was over.