For 20 years, the mystic of Erykah Badu has left both men and women mesmerized.
In 1997, her spellbinding debut album, Baduizm, replenished the minds and spirits of listeners who were previously famished, and in dire need of soul food. Her visceral takes on love, humanity and God were both bold and encouraging. The 14-track album gently cradled listeners who needed refuge from the chaos that existed in their troubled worlds. In 2000, she shot down any naysayers with the ravishing follow-up Mama’s Gun, entrenching herself as a mainstay in the R&B world.
With her legacy in music already cemented, in recent years, Badu has taken on a whole new challenge: serving as the go-to host for the Soul Train Awards. Since 2015, Badu’s showmanship has wowed TV viewers over and over, and she will once again be returning to serve as the show’s host for this year’s festivities. Her quips, combined with her candor, have taken the Soul Train Awards to new heights.
Billboard caught up with the “On & On” songstress to speak on the 20th anniversary of Baduizm, her favorite Soul Train moment, the soundtrack to her life, and more.
Take me back to your favorite Soul Train moment as a kid.
My favorite moment growing up as a fan of the show was Saturday morning, we’d be watching all of the cartoons, and by noon, the cartoons would start to taper off, but we were up by ourselves the whole time, ’cause our parents were asleep on Saturday morning. So, we had to make our own cereal, toast, or boil an egg, whatever was easiest to do as a kid.
By 12, 1:00, that’s when Soul Train came on. That’s when adults started wavering into the room and the party got real. We’d be cleaning up while watching Soul Train. We’re vacuuming, doing dishes, and was pausing in between to watch the artists because all we had when it came to these artists at that time was album covers.
There were no videos, no Internet, there was nothing. So we had these album covers, and to us, The Isley Brothers were a bunch of white suits and capes. And we would only imagine where they lived and who they were and what their opinions were, or if they were faithful to their wives. We didn’t have any of those intimate things.
So, to see them on Soul Train live, even though they were lip syncing — it was exciting, because you got to see a 3-D version of this album cover that you’ve been staring at the whole time and wondering about. It was definitely an exciting thing to see them because you got to see them. Soul Train brought it into your living room. Also, the grooving and the dancing was exciting. I was born in the ’70s, in ’71. So by the time that I was 10, 11 years old, Soul Train was a staple in our home.
One huge staple for the Soul Train Awards have been the Soul Cyphers. Do you have a favorite moment from the Soul Cypher? And what can fans expect for a possible Soul Cypher for this year’s ceremony?
Well, I guess the greatest thing about the Soul Cypher was that I just imagined it. The first year, I got to see it, and the audience’s response to it was magical. It was amazing. It was an idea we saw from the [BET] Hip-Hop [Awards] Cyphers. I was like, “Why don’t we do something where the singers can freestyle over some hard beats? I think it’d be pretty amazing.”
So just getting to see it happen and watching the audience’s response was my favorite moment. The very first time when we had K-Ci Hailey, Chrisette Michelle, Lelah Hathaway, and The O’Jays’ [Eddie] Levert. It was crazy. This year, it’s gonna be even better. It gets better each year. The concept grows. We have another four hard-hitters. When I’m choosing the artists, I’m choosing the ones with crazy vocal skills. That’s what’s really fun about it.
Congrats on the 20th anniversary of Baduizm. Let’s test your memory a little bit. What was your favorite studio session from Baduizm?
You know, Baduizm was already finished by the time I got a record deal. I went into the studio to either add to it or refine it and the first studio I went into was Battery Studios in Manhattan, NY. I was in one room, Wu-Tang was in one room, Common was in one room and Mos Def was in one room.
You can feel all this energy in the building. I was new and all the guys were giving me all this different advice like, “Don’t change nothing. Don’t let them change anything. You keep it pure like this. This is good. This is how it needs to be.” They were making sure that I wasn’t being taken advantage of by the label’s ideas, A&Rs and all that kind of stuff. I was really influenced by all of them heavily.
RZA was very instrumental in helping understand sonically that what I had was good enough. Q-Tip was instrumental in helping me to not change and to stay true to who I was, and to only change if I felt like it. It was just beautiful. We just really had a good time. It was a great experience in an amazing studio.
I also want to congratulate you on the 20th anniversary of your “Tyrone” record. It’s crazy because there’s an Instagram character running around named Tyrone, and it’s kind of based on that song. How does it feel to know that your music is able to translate into the new generation in various forms and have a life of its own?
It feels amazing because you never think about it in that way. When you’re [first] doing it, you’re just having fun and being free with it. There’s no strategy. There’s nothing but honesty within it, and I think people can relate to that. If you are a person no matter what age group, you can always relate to honesty in music.
Honestly, we were just joking around on stage. I freestyled the whole song on stage live, and the live version is what ended up on the radio. I hadn’t heard anything like that since Betty Wright with “Clean Up Woman” and “No Pain No Gain.”
A lot of your famous records like “Didn’t Cha Know” and “On and On” have been sampled by rappers like J.Cole (“Too Deep for the Intro”) and The Game (“On and On”). With that being said, do you have a favorite record of yours that was sampled by a rapper?
Hmm. I don’t know. I’ve never even thought about it. Maybe we can come back to that one. [Laughs].
One of my favorite records from Baduizm was “Drama.” Interestingly enough, the song is still relevant in today’s political climate. Because you have children, what kind of wisdom have you instilled in your kids to guide them and walk them through this turbulent time in America?
Yeah, they’re encouraged to be observant and to not judge people and [not] seek differences in people. They’re encouraged to see the divine in each individual person and not get involved in titles and groups and those kinds of things. They’re encouraged to be compassionate. They’re encouraged to find the stillness underneath everything.
When their heart rates get too heavy, they’re encouraged to be reminded that it’s because that they’re thinking about the past, or they’re dwelling on the future. It takes one day of writing it down and the heart rate is calm and you can make sound decisions. They’re encouraged to do that.
Right now, “Do what I say, because I don’t wanna prevent you, I want to protect you.” They don’t have to become little mes or think I how I think, because I already know that they’re improvements on my design. I’m just waiting for the word to help them do what they need to do, and what they want to do.
You’ve provided ample amounts of soul food throughout your career because of your faith and spirituality. Do you feel that maybe the appreciation for God and spirituality has diminished in the music industry from when your first started?
Nah, I can feel it in everything, because what looks like darkness to a lot of people is not evil. My children, they were born in the ’90s, and are on a much higher frequency and vibrations than we are. They’re out being students of all kinds of things, because people don’t understand the language.
It’s not the same language. We’re not on the same frequency wave that we were on in 1997, ’99, or 2007. We’re in a different place. They’re in need of frequency more than they are of words. This kind of rage and vibration has nothing to do with words. When I go to a XXX [TENTACION] or a Young Thug concert or a Lil Uzi Vert concert or an Ugly God concert or a Trippie Redd concert, I’m watching everybody trance out because it’s a vibration that’s being raised. It’s not about the words.
We’re in a different era. Words mattered in the age of the Pisces, but in the age of Aquarius, it’s about the vibrations and what we’re feeling going through the airwaves. Each era has its own language. In Baduizm, I was decoding and using frequency and vibrations throughout the music. I’m so happy that these motherfuckers [Aquarius & Pisces] are both [around] now because I have someone to actually communicate with in this kind of way. 90% of my audience was born in the ’90s.
A lot of artists in the older generation are not really open-minded to those types of artists, and to see that you are is quite refreshing.
You know what? I don’t have to be open-minded about it, because in order to be open-minded, it would mean that there’s a part of my mind that’s closed. I am them. They’re extensions of me. And to me, music is about your truth. If I believe you, I can flow with it. If I don’t believe you, I don’t care if you’re talking about God coming back as a woman.
It don’t matter what you’re talking about, if I don’t believe that or feel that vibration, I don’t feel it. These kids, they feel what they feel. What’s really cool about it is they ain’t gotta it explain to you because they know what it is. It’s just like when Gospel turned into Bebop and it was shunned by an older generation that didn’t want to relinquish change.
Then, Bebop turned into Rock and Roll and it scared the nation. Then, hip-hop was accused of being something temporary in the late ’70s. I mean, it’s all the same. It’s the language. I have a 19-year-old son and for me to criticize him and tell him that his truth is not relevant is for me to criticize God, or criticize myself [is wrong]. To be critical is damaging. I have to believe in them, I am them and they are me.
There’s a line on “On and On” that I’ve been struggling to figure it out to this day. It goes: “I was born under water with three dollars and six dimes.” What does that line mean?
I sing a lot of metaphors. Born under water, that’s like the womb is water. With three dollars and six dimes, 360 degrees of completion, that means I was born complete. I was born with everything that I needed to accomplish anything that I needed in any situation. I can fulfill any dream that I need with all the tools that I have, as long as I reach down there and use them. That’s what it’s about. Also, “You may laugh because you do not do your math.” That’s Badu humor.
Jhene Aiko once told me that your song “Love of My Life” is the soundtrack to her life at the moment. Rapsody told us Mama’s Gun was hers. With that being said, what’s the soundtrack to your life?
I’d say Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon. It’s a tie.That would be the soundtrack to my life because from beginning to end, it’s one frequency and one song with the same motion. How I make albums, I don’t make singles. I make whole projects. They’re autobiographical and atmospheric. You know, we’re talking about what’s happening in the world and in our lives. Dark Side of the Moon is one of those for me. The other one would be Stevie Wonder, Innervisions. Heavy, heavy, heavy.
Tune in on Sunday (Nov. 26) at 8 p.m. ET to catch the 2017 Soul Train Awards on BET and BET HER.