Kick, kick, kick, ki-kick, ki-kick, kick, click.
It’s tough to come up with more iconic opening phrases than the one that introduces Erykah Badu‘s 1996 debut single, “On & On” — a riff that instantly established the Dallas singer and songwriter born Erica Abi Wright as simultaneously grounded and singularly talented, seductive and spiritual. All that before Badu, who has since become a pillar of contemporary R&B, even opens her mouth.
Feb. 11 marks the 20th anniversary of Baduizm, the instant classic that housed “On” and cemented Badu’s status as one of the most innovative musicians of her generation. On Feb. 11, 1997, she was a couple weeks shy of her 26th birthday, having spent the previous year recording the album and refining her live show as a Brooklyn émigré (this was when artists and not investment bankers formed the core population of Fort Greene). “On & On” had just hit no. 1 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart, where it would remain for four weeks (soon after, it peaked at no. 12 on the Hot 100). Badu’s debut album, released jointly by Kedar Entertainment and Universal, would sell 159,000 copies in its first week of release — on its way to 2.8 million total in sales to date, according to Nielsen Music.
Perhaps most importantly, thanks to Erykah (and collaborators The Roots, whose ensemble-driven hip-hop would break into the mainstream a few years later with Things Fall Apart), a whole generation of R&B fans learned the power of going back to basics, laying the groundwork for a revivalist trend in both R&B and jazz that inspired its own controversial moniker: neo-soul. Artists from Common to India.Arie to Lauryn Hill were drawn into Badu’s artistic orbit, creating a bona fide movement that had both commercial and aesthetic consequences through the mid-aughts.
To celebrate two decades of Baduizm since its ’97 release, Billboard spoke with 11 people connected to the genesis of the album, from the Dallas producers who knew her when she was still performing as Erykah Free, to the director of her first music video, to Kedar Massenburg, who signed Badu after steering D’Angelo’s 1995 debut, Brown Sugar. Most importantly, we spoke to Ms. Badu herself. Read on (& on & on & on) for the story behind Baduizm.
In Order of Appearance
Madukwu Chinwah, Co-writer/producer (“Rimshot,” “Certainly”)
Kedar Massenburg, Executive producer, head of Kedar Entertainment, D’Angelo’s manager, responsible for coining the term “neo-soul”
Bob Power, Producer, mix engineer, instrumentalist, worked extensively with A Tribe Called Quest (“On & On,” “Drama”)
Tim Latham, Mix engineer (“Appletree,” “Otherside of the Game,” “Sometimes,” “Next Lifetime,” “Certainly,” “4 Leaf Clover”)
Miles Marshall Lewis, Writer, journalist, author of Rolling Stone‘s original Baduizm review in 1997 and an early profile on Badu in The Source magazine
Jackie Rhinehart, Then-vp of marketing, Motown
David Ivory, Recording engineer at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios, longtime Roots engineer (“Otherside of the Game,” “Sometimes,” “Afro (Freestyle Skit)”)
James Poyser, Keyboardist, producer, co-writer longtime Badu collaborator, current member of the Roots (“Otherside of the Game,” “Sometimes,” “Afro (Freestyle Skit)”)
Paul Hunter, Video director (“On & On”)
Chris Trevett, Staff producer/engineer at Zomba/Battery Studios in New York City (“Rimshot,” “Next Lifetime,” “Certainly”)
Madukwu Chinwah (co-writer/producer): I was a rapper and Erykah was a rapper — I met her at Dallas’s KNON community radio station via a DJ named Nippy Jones. Her appearance was always original. It was different than what we see now — she dressed more like TLC — but it was fly then as it’s fly now.
Erykah Badu: I was always a little ahead of my time, as they say. So I’d have to wait for people to catch up. Or wait for them to get approval from the other people nodding their heads before they actually acknowledged that, yes, this was cool. I was really used to that. While recording the demo [Country Cousins, the 19-song project she recorded with her cousin Robert “Free” Bradford, which served as the foundation for much of Baduizm], I was teaching at the South Dallas Cultural Center. I majored in theater at Grambling [State University], and when I came home, taught theater and dance to students aged 5-17. I also taught them meditation, yoga, transcendental breathing, and things like that.
Chinwah: She was very popular, even in her teens. She was a dancer, and she taught dance to children for free. She was also a hostess at Steve Harvey’s comedy club here in town. She was everywhere there was art.
Badu: After I made the demo, I told my class that I was going to move to New York and get a record deal. And in the next couple of weeks, I did. I auditioned for every record label that I could get a meeting with: Bad Boy, Priority, Sony. Shit, I don’t even know if some of the labels I met with still exist anymore.
I even went to Boca Raton, Fla. to do a showcase for Sony — Jermaine Dupri’s dad [Michael Mauldin] owned it. Destiny’s Child was playing the same one. But the label didn’t really get what I was doing, because it wasn’t commercial or mainstream. They wanted to put me in artist development; I didn’t know what it was. It seemed like jail or something. [Laughs.] So I was like, no. Puffy didn’t like [the demo] either. I just kept on pushing and hustling my dope: my record, my -izm. And that’s when SXSW happened.
I had been performing at SXSW every year since I was about 19 or so. And this particular year, I had the demo with me. I had packages with cassettes, black and white promo photos, lyrics, descriptions and all that in those clear sleeves with white plastic things on the side to hold them together. I think I even had to go to Kinko’s and run off copies. I was passing them out, and I happened to hand one to a lady named Tammy Cobbs, who was Mobb Deep’s manager. She passed it on to Kedar.
Signing/“On & On”
Kedar Massenburg (exec. producer/label head): As soon as I heard “On & On,” I knew that I had to get involved. The thing that struck me immediately was the beginning, because Erykah had used a beat in the intro that Daddy-O, a member of a group I managed called Stetsasonic, had created: Audio Two’s “Top Billin.”
Badu: That’s Dallas, Texas. Once I was out of school, I’d met this young, maybe 18 or 19, underground producer in Dallas named JaBorn Jamal. We created the beat to “On” together. Mary J. Blige had used audio-tuned drums in “Real Love” [starts imitating that drum beat], so I wanted to start the song like that because she was one of my biggest inspirations. And the rest is herstory.
Massenburg: I first played “On & On” for D’Angelo in my car, and he was like, “Yo, Key, man — she’s incredible, you gotta let me produce the album.” I said, “Nah, D, you couldn’t even finish your own album! You think I’m gonna think I’m gonna let you produce Erykah? As long as you take? But I’m gonna let her open up for you in Dallas.” He was only like 22, and he was already soooooo slow and picky about music. Also, I didn’t want no sparks to start flying.
Bob Power (producer, “On & On”): D’Angelo’s demos were killer, Me’Shell [N’degéocello]’s demos were killer, Erykah’s demos were great. So in those cases, what you want to do is make something that sounds like a record, but not lose the coolness of the demos. It’s much more difficult than it sounds.
Badu: The one thing I wish I’d done differently on the album is “On & On.” Originally, we came with a really raw track. But I made one compromise by letting Kedar hook me up with a producer who wanted to make it into more of a “song” — it took the rawness out of it. I like the raw version that nobody has ever heard a lot better. I wasn’t mad at the newer version, it just took the street out of it a little bit.
Power: Before Erykah came along, no one really had the vision, or possibly the courage, to do something in that fashion. When you have a piece of art with great bones, you can just keep taking things away and it only gets better.
Massenburg: I called her and told her that if she sounded as good live as she did on her demo, then I would sign her to my label. So I flew to Dallas, and had her open for D’Angelo. At the time, she didn’t have her hair wrapped up — she had long braided extensions down her back. I thought she was a little weird at first, but realized that her weirdness had a method to its madness, and that she was a genius in her own right. I had to have her on my label, you know?
Badu: Kedar understood what I was trying to do. I signed with him because I think there were only two people on the label, and he made me feel my project would get the energy it needed.
Massenburg: She was performing around Dallas as Erykah Free with her cousin. They had a routine where she would sing and he would rap; it was more hip-hop-oriented. I remember telling her, “Listen, I have no problem with your group, but I think you should just be a soloist.” I felt she was that strong, that she needed to be on a stage by herself.
Tim Latham (engineer): She’s a force. You know when she’s in the room, and you don’t even see her there — you just feel her walk in. Not too many people have that effect.
Badu: During that time period, I had to make the most adult decision of my life: whether I wanted to be in the squatting or sitting position during childbirth. [Laughs.] In all seriousness, my cousin Free and I were a group called Erykah Free. Sometimes we called ourselves the Funky Cousins. I never really wanted to be apart, but I didn’t really want to be a group — I wanted to be a solo artist. I didn’t say anything for a long time, because we are just so good together. When I did finally decide to express that, it was very difficult. And it took some of the sweetness out of signing the deal. But Free, being the human being he is, said he understood. He didn’t go anywhere, of course; he’s produced on all the rest of my albums.
Massenburg: She was signed to my publishing company, too, because I knew how big she was going to be — nobody else really believed it. I said, “I’ll tell you what, Erykah: Why don’t you go shop around all your publishing, and whatever offer comes back the biggest, I’ll match?” So that’s what she did.
Badu: Most of Baduizm was written before I signed. Sonically [the demo] was just right for me. It was the way I wanted it to sound: very raw and underproduced. I did add a few songs.
Chinwah: I believe that Erykah started out with a very good idea of what she wanted to do with her record. There were certain Quincy Jones albums we used to listen to together. A lot of Bernard Ighner’s “Everything Must Change” — it influenced both of us from a songwriting standpoint, inspiring us to infuse a jazzy sound into what we were doing. Of course Chaka Khan — she liked Chaka, and you can hear that.
Miles Marshall Lewis (writer of the Rolling Stone review of Baduizm and an early profile of Badu for The Source): We were all raised on a diet of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan and all those ’70s soul singers, and she was mixing that with asides about hip-hop culture, like Wu-Tang Clan and the Five Percent Nation. It was like, “Wow, this worked, and this is going to be really exciting.”
“Rim Shot” (Intro) and (Outro)
Chinwah: I remember Erykah calling me and saying, “Madukwu, what is that sound that drummers make on the end of the drum? That ‘tick-tock’ sound?” And I said, “Oh, a rim shot?” She had me put together some music where I used that sound, and that’s where it came from. We just chopped it up to make a way for people to get into and come out of the record, to set the mood for what’s about to happen.
Badu: This was the very first song I wrote where I wasn’t rapping. While my cousin Free was at the Art Institute of Chicago, he sent me cassette tapes and beats and letters through when I was in college. There were no cell phones, no text messaging. We wrote letters to each other about our dreams, what we wanted to do, our ideas about songs and lyrics; just life, period. And no spell check. [Laughs.] He sent me this one cassette that had a song that was called “Appletree.” It was an instrumental. But instead of rapping over it, I wrote lyrics over it. And that’s when I knew, “Alright, I may have something.”
Chinwah: What [Baduizm] did was bring a lot of local producers together: Robert Bradford, better known as Free, who I already knew before the project and Ty Macklin, who’s also from the Dallas/Fort Worth area. They both were at Booker T. Washington High School with Erykah and I. It put Dallas on the map.
Brooklyn, New York
Jackie Rhinehart (former vp of marketing, Motown): In working with artists, you’re looking at two questions: who is that artist and who loves that artist? With Erykah Badu, I thought I knew exactly who loved her. I could see it from the moment she came in: she was my neighborhood.
I was living in Fort Greene/Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. Today the world has caught up and everything is in Brooklyn — but believe me, it was that cool back then, too. This was the home of Chris Rock, author/filmmaker Nelson George, Spike Lee, Laurence Fishburne, Branford Marsalis and Terence Blanchard… Everybody lived in this neighborhood, and everyone was so artistic: it was an epicenter of talent and black culture.
Badu: I enjoyed it a lot. I loved the vibe. But I was just passing through, because wherever I had to be to record and get the things done that I needed to get done, that’s where I was going to be. I still have my same apartment in Brooklyn. It’s my little shrine. I go back to write or focus or to spend some time with me and myself, recreate, evolve. It’s totally different now. When I was on Fulton Street then, it was dread heads and head wraps.
Lewis: I was living in Erykah’s neighborhood — Fort Greene, Clinton Hill — and I was seeing her perform at little spots like the Brooklyn Moon and The Crash House, restaurants like Two Steps Down, spoken word places… She reflected the community; it was very bohemian and Afro-centric back then, head wraps, all of that. I guess it was new to middle America or MTV or something, but for me, half the people I saw walking around looked like that.
Rhinehart: That’s where I launched her — I actually started her performances in Brooklyn in our neighborhood at our club, a placed called Two Steps Down. It was a local black restaurant that had a really cool vibe. For her initial coming out, we did three or four dates just in the Brooklyn area. I only did one show with her in Manhattan, at the Soul Café, owned by actor Malik Yoba.
Marketing is really that simple: you need to confirm where you’re from, and who your people are. Texas was her home, but it didn’t really speak to us musically or as an audience. You could actually pinpoint her in Brooklyn, though, and take that around the globe.
Badu: I wrote that song in college. Once I got to New York, I got new music from this guy named Tone the Backbone, who was in a local DJ group called the Da Beatminerz (De La Soul, Nas) that I met through Kedar. Coincidentally, his partner, Evil Dee, broke my song “On & On” on Hot 97 when it was a single. Tone gave me a beat tape, and I chose that beat off of there. The lyrics sounded really good over it.
Latham: She was in the studio with me almost every day [during the mixing process]. It was great; some days we’d sit down and she’d make us tea before we listened to everything. It’s all genuine — behind the scenes, she’s the same as she is in public.
Sigma Sounds Studios
Badu: I was in love with this group called The Roots from Philadelphia. They weren’t very popular or famous at the time, so I didn’t know how cooperative Kedar would be. But surprisingly and pleasantly, he trusted my vision. He got me on a plane to Philly and I came back with “Otherside of the Game,” “Sometimes” and “Afro.” So I added those to the track listing.
“Other Side of the Game”
David Ivory (engineer): It was funny; that record was kind of done in between sessions for The Roots. If something wasn’t happening for them, then we’d work on Erykah’s record. It was back and forth like that.
Badu: At the time, [the Roots] were working with a young piano player named James Poyser. Back then he wasn’t a member of the group yet.
James Poyser (keyboardist/producer): I was sort of on the periphery, doing things with some other musicians. Rich Nichols, The Roots’ manager, was like, “We’re working with this girl from Dallas, if you want to come in the studio and vibe with it.” We went in and instantly clicked — wrote a few songs and became great friends. We’re still working together.
Badu: James and I finish each other’s sentences musically. He is my Piano Man. We just connected very well because of the way he plays and the choices he makes with chords, tones and changes. That is my world. After I met him, I didn’t play with any other piano player, or write songs with anyone else but him, to this day.
Poyser: We sort of connected personally, which is always a great way to connect musically. She was just a real cool and funny — extremely funny — person. We all clicked, and then it was just us playing music, me and Ahmir [“Questlove” Thompson] and the other musicians. It was really, really simple. It wasn’t like we were shaking the trees really hard — things fell off the trees easy.
Badu: When he sat down and began playing the chords to “Other Side,” I was just convinced that [James and I] were supposed to meet. We wrote and arranged the song together. It was an instrumental first, because for me music always comes before lyrics. If not, that would be poetry. So we wrote and arranged the tune, then I took it back to the hotel on a cassette and wrote the lyrics there. Then we recorded it the next day there in Philly.
Poyser: The beauty of doing it with live musicians is just plugging in and playing. I was sitting at the piano playing with her and happened upon that chord progression, and she was like, “That’s it.” Literally 15 minutes later, the track was cut. I think she might have worked on the lyrics overnight, but the next day the song was done.
Ivory: Because it was her first record, she was very shy. I remember a couple sessions where, for her to sing, I’d have to turn all the lights off, put paper over the meters [on the mixing board]… I mean, she wanted it really dark sometimes, to where I couldn’t even see what was going on. That kind of stuff.
Poyser: There were quite a few jam sessions. I remember D’Angelo being there in the studio, too, and one day it was like the two of them on the mic, I think the Jazzy[fatnastees]s were around… D was playing [piano], I was playing and Ahmir was playing. We just sang covers and created things for a good five, six hours. That was sort of the vibe.
Ivory: A lot of times they would just jam. Scott [Storch, producer and former Roots keyboardist] walks in the door, Common’s in the lobby, Ahmir is playing drums, Rahzel — they would just say, “Okay, come on in, let’s just do something.” We would do that for hours. It was intimate, it was a good time. Nobody was a big star at that point, everybody was still coming up, a big posse of contributors. I mean, I worked with [the Roots] for eight, nine years on all those records, throughout the ’90s. And Erykah was a great part of the middle of that.
Poyser: We’re messing around, and she starts soloing over the 12-bar blues — she calls them 12 ba-blues, as a joke. I think I was playing chords underneath with two hands, like “Heart and Soul” style. Then she grabbed the mic, started singing and that was it. Really, we were just playing around. She might have been talking about Questlove — she definitely wasn’t talking about me. [Laughs.]
Ivory: Exactly what happened on that session, I don’t remember. But I know it had to do with, obviously, [Questlove’s] hair.
Badu: It was part of the demo, but I wanted some live instrumentation with it. Since I was in Philly and had the opportunity to play with a human drum machine, a.k.a. Questlove Thompson, I was trying to get as much as I could. [Laughs] The sample [Donald Byrd and Isaac Hayes’ “I Feel Like Loving You Today”] was originally done by my roommate in college, whose name was Waldo. I took that sample and we created what you hear as “Sometimes” with the Roots.
Ivory: It was analog, so it wasn’t like, “We’ll just fix it later.” I just had to be ready for anything, that was my job. Also herding everybody in and out of the rooms. Back then, there were a lot of people just hanging around. I’d have to put people in the lounge, I’d have to put people in the lobby, get them food, have coffee moving, keep people moving in and out. “Close the door, we’re cutting,” that kind of stuff.
Massenburg: Every now and then we would disagree, because the album was taking a little longer. I remember having the same problem with D’Angelo — D’Angelo couldn’t finish Brown Sugar. I had deadlines to meet! Erykah’s favorite thing to tell me was, “I’m not on no deadline, I’m on a life line.”
Badu: I did leave a couple of the songs off, but used them later on other albums. “My Life,” which I put on Mama’s Gun. And there was a song that I chopped up and used a little bit for the studio mix of “Tyrone,” like the reprise. Oh, there was also “Ye Yo.” That went on Live a few months later, which came out November 1997.
Putting It All Together
Massenburg: “Badu” came from how she would always say “Ba-duuu, ba-duuu” [sings] when she’d sing — so, Baduizm.
Rhinehart: When she came to the Soul Café in New York, the audience sang her song: “Ba-duuu, ba-duuu” [in a sing-song voice]. I remember Erykah being so amazed at this: “You all know my song?” “You all know my work?”
Massenburg: We used a tone of spirituality because it was close to Buddhism — like, Baduizm, this is who I am. We came up with a campaign around the phrase, “What’s your -izm?” With marketing, it was me and Erykah. That’s it. Everyone thought I was crazy — this little girl from Dallas with this thing on her head — but when they got into the album, they changed their tune. People started wearing headwraps again. Like with D’Angelo, when brothers started wearing cornrows again. It became mainstream again.
I came up with the name neo-soul, so that people knew that they were getting a certain level of consciousness. That it wasn’t your standard, “Hey, I’ll cheat with you,” or, “When I leave my man, I’ll get with you.” No, Erykah’s talking about reincarnation. “I’ll see you next lifetime.” That level of consciousness wasn’t typical.
Badu: I guess he was trying to market the album and make it into something that qualified as untraditional. He did an awesome job with it. I didn’t really care one way or the other what it was called. And then just as I was I trying to run away from the label of neo-soul, somebody said, “She’s the queen of neo-soul.” So it stuck with me a little longer. [Laughs.] I was honored, but didn’t want to be put into a box.
Massenburg: It wasn’t some B.S. marketing strategy — it wasn’t that at all. It was just describing the soul sound coming from new artists, bringing that to the forefront. Artists get confused, like, “This is neo-soul, I don’t want to be categorized.” Yeah, you don’t want to be categorized now, because you think it’s corny. Okay, I won’t put you in a category — but hip-hop, category. R&B, category. Jazz, category. You use it to your advantage.
Lewis: I think there is something to be said about the fact that she got tired of the neo-soul thing. I think Kedar tried to milk it more than she did, especially after she got successful; she was already triple-platinum, she didn’t need to go on carrying the torch for this name that was sort of manufactured anyway. Soul is soul — there wasn’t really a need to create something else, you know?
Lewis: I had read about her in Billboard, about how she got signed and was going to be in a video with D’Angelo, the remix to “Lady.” That was when the world saw her for the first time, but nobody really knew who she was — she hadn’t put any music out at the time.
Massenburg: To get her noticed, I put her on the High School High soundtrack with D’Angelo — he sounded like Marvin Gaye, and Erykah sounded like Diana Ross as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues, so I had them do a duet: “Your Precious Love.” They didn’t want to do it.
Lewis: I met her in the studio with D’Angelo for their “Your Precious Love” cover. Most of her record was done already. What she told me later was neither she nor D’Angelo liked that cover; they felt that their voices didn’t really mesh.
Massenburg: My next thing was going to my uncle — he sells incense on the street — and getting 10,000 packets of incense made with Erykah on them to distribute before the album came out.
I also did a sampler in 1996 with “On & On” first, and put it out the week before the Soul Train Awards. If I put it out, and the weekend of the awards show, I didn’t hear the music coming out of everybody’s car, I would have a flop. Lo and behold, I heard that record blasting from people’s cars. I knew then that I had a hit.
The First Video
Massenburg: She’s a better actress than she is a singer.
Paul Hunter (“On & On” video director): I met with her in the studio — she had her incense burning and all that stuff. We talked about doing a music film, and not just a music video. One of the things that I loved was that she was whimsical — that she had this sense of humor — and that she loved The Color Purple. That was one of my favorite movies as well.
Massenburg: She was like, “Well, what do you think about the headwrap?” I said, “Listen, I have no problem with the headwrap. But I don’t want you to come off too serious — they’re gonna think you’re preaching to them, so we have to figure out how we’re gonna introduce this shit.” That’s why she did the whole thing in the video for “On & On”: She looks at the green tablecloth and she looks in the mirror like, “What the hell, why not?” The next shot is her with the tablecloth on her head. It softened it.
Hunter: As we developed the script, we built it into the story to create a purpose and a mythology to the headwrap. It was brilliant.
Rhinehart: It cemented her iconography. People knew who she was and what she stood for. On the cover, we kept the mystery going because Erykah’s face isn’t shown. She’s got her head covered and is turned the other way.
Massenburg: We didn’t even have the distribution deal in place yet when I got a call from Levi’s: “Hey, we heard that song, ‘On & On’ — we want to use it.” They offered six figures, and used about 10 seconds — like, “Levi’s … They go on & on.” Some shit like that. I was like, “Okay, that was a quick quarter mill.” All before the album came out.
Hunter: I’m not surprised that she ended up doing a few movies [The Cider House Rules, The Blues Brothers 2000]. She was probably one of the most uniquely talented people I’ve met — and very, very intuitive. She connected with everyone on set, from the children to the dog.
Rhinehart: The audience for Erykah existed before she did. She was truly organic. She came out of a need for a voice — because there were people who wanted to hear it the way she said it. If they could have sung, they would have been her, but she was the one who crystallized that talent. She wasn’t an artist in search of a home. She had one. We just had to let people know that Erykah was here.
Ivory: I don’t think anybody was looking at this, thinking it was going to do what it did. I certainly wasn’t. There was no expectation of it from any of us, except for the fact that we were proud of it and thought it was great.
Lewis: It was every bit the monster album I expected it to be. But I thought it was well-deserved, especially given even her live shows. Later on, I saw her perform at Jones Beach [in New York]. She came on lighting all the incense, creating theater. But combined with those amazing songs, the sky changing colors as the sun set — it was majestic. I was just like, Wow, man.
Ivory: I think it was the innocence of it, to be honest; it was just innocent and awesome. I just think people could hear that on that record.
Publications like Rolling Stone, Village Voice and others immediately sensed comparisons between Erykah’s voice and those of Billie Holiday and Diana Ross — not that Erykah herself was pleased by the parallels.
Chinwah: I don’t know if she’d like the comparison, but there had not been a voice like that, in my opinion, since Billie Holiday. It was brassy and naturally jazzy. Nobody sounded like that.
Rhinehart: I remember how, in my introduction of her, that I said something to the effect that vocally she was a stylist in the way we think of Billie Holiday.
Lewis: Yeah, she was mad about that. [Laughs.] I showed her the [Rolling Stone] review fresh off the press — I was so happy to be in Rolling Stone — and she didn’t realize I wrote it and was like, “This is bullshit, I don’t sound like Diana Ross.” And I was like, “Well, Erykah, I’m sorry… I wrote it.” [Laughs.]
Robert Christgau, March 11, 1997 in his Consumer Guide column for the Village Voice: “For one thing, Billie didn’t write her own material.”
Robert Christgau, Feb. 24, 1998 writing for the Village Voice‘s annual Pazz & Jop issue: “The gifted Erykah Badu is a mite too bourgie-boho for me, my brother, but if she writes more ‘Tyrone’s she can scat all the Egyptology she wants.”
[Christgau declined to speak to Billboard for this story.]
Lewis: To me, [the critical response] fell along racial lines. I think that white critics looked at it as a gimmick because they weren’t living in our communities and interacting with people who looked like Erykah every day. But musically, I don’t remember people being that disappointed.
Ivory: I can’t tell you how many people come up to me like, “I made babies to that record.” [Laughs.] And I’m just like, “Thanks, dude.” Literally 50 times, somebody has said that to me.
Massenburg: I think Tony! Toni! Toné! kind of opened the door, D’Angelo took it to the next level in terms of edginess, and Erykah solidified it. That’s what Baduizm did. You’re saying, “I don’t need to wear these kind of clothes or look this kind of way, this is my -izm.” The only thing that dates it is the term neo-soul — maybe that’s the issue. It places it at a time when that term meant a certain thing. Take away the term, and it stands with the best of the artists that are out here today.
Poyser: The whole Soulquarian thing… It’s funny that it took on such a life of its own, when it was really just a joke between myself, D’Angelo, Ahmir and J Dilla. I remember that night: me, Ahmir and D’Angelo were sitting there on the couch in the lobby of Electric Lady Studios, talking about our birthdays. Like, “Dilla’s is such-and-such! D’s is soon!” I’d just had mine, and so it was like, “We’re all Aquarian, we’re soulquarians.” [Laughs.] Then it took on a life of its own, where anybody with a headwrap or anybody that played the Fender Rhodes, “Oh yeah, they’re soulquarian.” Like, okay, sure. I just saw a festival in L.A. a “Soulquarius” festival. Like, wait a minute — did we copyright that? Should’ve. [Laughs.]
Chris Trevett (engineer): I got to work with the Roots, D’Angelo, all those guys. You hate to say it, but that was like the beginning of the end of R&B, you know what I mean? It was not long after that that, if we’re being honest, that it went to shit. [Laughs.] But that was a classic record, it remains a classic record. Obviously, The Roots are on TV now — but she still had the bigger, and better, album.
Power: [Baduizm] really opened the door wide for what people were calling neo-soul, and said, “This is not something that’s just bubbling under, this is the way people are doing things now.” If you think back to New Jack [Swing], and the contrast between the two, the path and the direction things were going is very clear. “On & On,” in its immensity as a big hit record, really closed the door on the past, and shoved the door to the future wide, wide open.
Ivory: It’s just really good to have worked on a classic record, because you don’t get them often. You knew that it was special when you were doing it, but it was just special to you — it didn’t seem like it was special to the whole world. But it did translate.
Power: Success has not changed Erykah. She was always the same complete, total artist, from when she first set foot in New York all the way through now. She had that strong a sense of self and concept, and real high concept, from the beginning. And when I talk about her being a true artist, I mean she’s one of those people who created their own idiom. It’s not that hard to do things differently; it’s hard to do things differently that still touch a lot of people in the same way. Stevie Wonder comes to mind, Joni Mitchell comes to mind, and Erykah was like that.
Lewis: After it came out, I think she wearied of being the poster child for neo-soul pretty quickly. However, it became sort of a baton for other people to run with, and lazy shorthand for critics to wrap their heads around with what came after. D’Angelo and Maxwell and Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu, it was a soul revival period in R&B, to counter the R. Kelly’s of the genre at the time. When she had that skit, where her lover had promised her Wu-Tang tickets, but used this voice that sounds like Billie Holiday, and the mood of the song sounding like a smoky jazz club in the 1930s. She was using different styles to present what it meant to be black in your 20s in the 1990s.
Badu: I try to write every day. If I come across a new instrumental, new music or hear something and get inspired. Recently, I’ve just been remaking a lot of songs that have come out and putting them out just for shits and giggles. Even if I can’t think of anything or write anything, I’ll redo something or put my own spin on something. It keeps me inspired to make music. And when I can’t think of anything, I don’t stress it. That’s when I’m just living and collecting things to write about.
I guess each record would be considered a biography of sorts. Even if it’s lyrically a story I’m telling, energetically it’s where I am as a human being. How I think, what I see. I can tell a better story with rhythms and vibrations than I can with my mouth — because what is a story after all? It’s perspective on what you’re seeing every day.