It was after church on a Sunday, and Chrisette Michele had God and hip-hop on her mind. The 23-year-old Long Islander was on her way to a studio to write and record the hook for "Lost One," the firstIt was after church on a Sunday, and Chrisette Michele had God and hip-hop on her mind. The 23-year-old Long Islander was on her way to a studio to write and record the hook for "Lost One," the first single off of Jay-Z's album "Kingdom Come." She hadn't heard the rest of the song yet, but the deacon's daughter wondered if it might be too explicit for her strong moral code.
"I was preparing in my head how I would say, 'I'm sorry, I can't do this,'" says the singer-songwriter of her meeting with the hip-hop mogul.
But after Jay-Z played the track, which deals with commitment, friendship and death, "I looked at him and said, 'Yo, this song is spiritual.' This song is about self-respect." Chrisette pauses for a moment. "He's a preacher."
That's quite a statement for someone with a family full of clergy, who led the gospel choir in high school and college but never got a CD until she was 17.
Still, Chrisette Michele describes herself as "a kid of the hip-hop culture" who didn't have MTV, but sang and freestyled in impromptu rap circles at school.
She also has a neverending stream of songs in her head that she attributes at least in part to attention-deficit disorder, a condition that she calls "a gift."
But it wasn't until the day a high school track coach stopped her in the hallway -- Chrisette had been jogging down the corridor singing -- that her artistic fate was sealed. The coach gave her a CD of Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz' "The Girl from Ipanema," a song that would establish her love for mixing jazz melodies with what she grew up with: gospel vocals and hip-hop beats.
"I went up to my jazz teacher in school, and said, ‘I need you to give me some more of that,'" she says, recalling the discovery of a cabinet full of classic jazz music. "Every day after that, at lunch period, I would go into the piano room and practice those songs."
With Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday as newfound heroes, Chrisette went on to major in music at 5 Towns College. A show at New York City's Village Underground led to opening gigs for India.Arie, and eventually a contract with Island Def Jam. "Lost One," her collaboration with Jay-Z, has been climbing Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop songs and Hot 100 charts, where it now stands at No. 21 and No. 73, respectively.
Chrisette, who is finishing up her own album on IDJ, was featured on the Heineken Red Star Soul tour this fall and performed onstage with Jay-Z at his Radio City concert.
She also wrote and sang hooks on Nas' album "Hip-Hop Is Dead," including on single "Can't Forget About You," a nostalgic reminiscence that's bubbling under the R&B/Hip-Hop songs chart.
Being on Nas' album had particular significance for Chrisette, whose mother was raised in the same Queensbridge housing project as the rapper.
Childhood memories of her own, particularly of the homeless women and girls her family took into their home, inspired her own album. Themes include self-esteem, commitment, and abstinence.
"I don't want to come off preachy, but I'm not afraid to be a Christian in this industry and to really believe what I believe in," says Chrisette a stance made easier to take with respectful and respected artists like Nas and Jay-Z behind her.
"He curses," she says of the latter, smiling audibly. "He didn't say the curses when I was in the room, but he curses. But that's okay."