Women in Music 2016
Erykah Badu Talks Directing Robert Glasper's 'Maiysha' Video, Building a Multimedia Company & Collaborating With D.R.A.M.
Erykah Badu is never short on talent and creativity. As a self-proclaimed analog girl, she has masterfully adapted to digital spaces (just peep her Twitter timeline) while staying true to live instrumentation and performance art in the music world. Her latest show of perfected balance between worlds appears as a remix of Miles Davis' "Maiysha,” a 15-minute cut from the late jazz legend’s 1974 effort Get Up With It.
In Badu’s reinterpreted version -- a highlight off Robert Glasper’s Everything’s Beautiful, which is essentially a remix LP of Davis’ records -- she morphs the straight-up jazz gem into a cool bossa nova breakup cut retitled “Maiysha (So Long).”
"When Robert asked me to do the project, he was trying to find a song and pair me with different people,” she tells Billboard, giving a play-by-play of the track’s development. "Miles’ nephew told us to watch a live version of 'Maiysha' on YouTube. I’m humming along as Miles did the trumpet solo in one section of the song, and it was so cool. We just took one section of the song to formulate 'So Long,' then I reimagined Miles’ melody and added my own in the bridge area.”
Along for the reinvention of Davis’ deep cut is Badu’s alias Sarah Bellam. In the eight-minute short film directed by Badu, the entire vibe calls back to the late '50s and early '60s, from set design to wardrobe and even Badu’s comical improv. According to the “Phone Down” singer, her beloved variety show characters were a major influence. “I’m a big fan of Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball and Flip Wilson,” she says. “I just love the community, the atmosphere and that kind of comedy.”
Check our interview with Badu below:
Off the bat, Sarah Bellam is hilarious and a little eccentric. How did you tap into her for the visual?
I kinda improvised her as I was filming it. Improv is something that I really like to do, but I’m not really introducing Sarah Bellam because she’s been with me for a long time. For the sake of this short film, I’m introducing her to those who aren’t familiar with her, but she’s one of my many aliases. I’m sure you’ve heard some of the others.
What’s the hardest part about directing a music video?
There’s no hard part. As long as I have a good production team, I’m good.
What was the energy like on set?
It was fun. We didn’t really have a lot of money to do it. I wrote a concept with Dave Chappelle and Don Cheadle in mind. Dave was available and he wanted to do it, but we couldn’t afford to bring him in and everything that goes along with it. Of course, he was gonna do it for free, but the budget was so small, girl. We just couldn’t pull it off, so we worked with what we had.
It looks so simple but well-done, though.
That’s when you know you a good director. You know how to make a little bit be a whole lot. [Laughs]
Robert said the record developed pretty organically between you two. Did the concept for the video develop as easily?
It’s [the type of] visual I’ve always wanted to put together, and I finally got the opportunity to make this concept a reality with this song. I didn’t know if my song would be chosen for a single, but I had planned to shoot [the video] whether it became something special or not. I’m always creating and coming up with stuff.
You and Glasper also collaborated for “Afro Blue” back in 2012. How did you and Glasper first connect musically?
We first started hanging out together when my first album came out and we were going through the circuit playing shows. Because we’re live musicians, we would run into each other at live shows, and we just became good friends over the years. Now we share a drummer, Chris Dave, and Bilal sings with me and is also in a band with Robert, so it’s just a community. We gravitate toward the same kind of music, we have the same kind of funk and groove inside of us. I would say we’re so kindred.
This video and song are both incredibly musical with real instrumentation involved. You, Robert and Frédéric Yonnet -- it’s a sound far removed from the ones considered popular right now. Do you feel this generation needs to pivot toward this type of music?
I can’t say what this generation needs, but live instrumentation is stimulating, especially to creatives. To actually see the process of how music is made when we become a part of the instrument. I love creating music digitally. If it’s good, everything is syncopated. The drums are laying in the right place, you can create sounds and tweak them and make them into the instrument that you’ve imagined. I think that’s awesome, but I also am a proficient student of live music. I love the art of creating music, so I don’t know if they need to do it, but it can be very stimulating.
With your project But You Caint Use My Phone, you tapped into social media marketing. You did it again with GIFs and teasers for this record as well. What’s your take on the new way of marketing music projects?
It’s super easy to me, because I have a vision and it’s easy to see it through. I’m a bit of a geek and can manipulate the computer world quite well. Any kind of application or program, whether it’s Final Cut Pro to [Adobe] Premiere to Logic or musical editing and recording -- I do all those things myself.
Did you teach yourself?
Yeah, I taught myself. It takes a lot of time [to do your own marketing], but when fans recognize it, the hard work has paid off. I’m in the process of building a multimedia company, but I want to make sure that the blueprint is complete for how I market, how I roll production out and how the campaign rolls out. I format a 16-day campaign … but I can’t tell you all my secrets. [Laughs]
This is all under Control Freaq Media, right?
Yeah, anything that I’ve done in the past five years, whether it be posters or artwork. I’ve directed and edited all of my videos since 1997. My first demo was on cassette, but even on a cassette, my packaging was together. I guess people are just now seeing that I’m involved this deeply in my art. I guess I’m a slow burn.
Well, people assume huge celebrities have teams of people to delegate their marketing to.
Leadership isn’t about pointing and telling people what to do. If you have the skill set, it’s about taking the lead on it. Eventually, I will expand my company and be able to delegate and be able to afford to have other creatives collaborate with me. But for right now, delegation leads to disappointment. I’m such a perfectionist.
Well, they say if you want it done right…
That’s right. But let me tell you this: Control Freaq Media is an awesome team of people who have lent their time because there’s no money involved in a lot of it. I owe a lot to them for lending their time to me, and I appreciate it.
It’s clear you’re into social media, so tell me: What are your favorite GIFs, memes or viral videos at the moment?
"She doesn’t just have the range!" [Laughs] I like that one. It’s edgy and funny. I love when Drake does skits and conceptual things, because we forget that he’s a comedian and an actor. His timing is impeccable. I’m also a big fan of Funny or Die. I love Will Ferrell, all of the antics that he’s created and the platform. And I love the Vine -- so many talented kids.
What other projects can we expect from you in the near future?
Right now, I have an art piece called “Black Bikes Matter” up in New York for the Bicycle Film Festival. The reason I called it that is because a collective of artists were given black bikes from a pro shop in Los Angeles and we were told to decorate them as a visual art campaign for an auction at an art gallery in Dallas called LAB ART. The festival saw my piece and wanted to display it this year. My idea was to do something different, so I made it a multimedia, performance-art piece. There’s a short film, and the bike is displayed in front of the film as it spins.
That sounds like it’ll be a huge deal in the coming weeks. Any music projects we can look forward to?
This summer, D.R.A.M. and I are doing a duet project. I don’t know if it’s gonna be an EP, but I’m on a couple tracks with him and just fell in love with this man’s persona, voice, perspective, just everything about him. He’s old and new at the same time, and it’s something that you can’t really teach. We just clicked and we still do. We talk often and he’s just an awesome human.