It is only fitting that in our final edition of the BRC print newsletter, we have FINALLY captured the Holy Grail. From the very beginning, we have pursued the ever-elusive Me’shell Ndegeocello for a rap session, but fate always seemed to conspire against us. Now, as she releases perhaps her greatest work of her brilliant career‹Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape on Maverick‹she was gracious enough to chat with us, helping us close this chapter on a high note while opening a new one for herself.
You’ve had a long and very admirable career. You’ve done a lot of incredible music. And you continue to fight the good fight. Given all the years that you’ve put in and the quality of the work, do you ever get bothered or frustrated that the industry tends to overlook you?
I think I used to but I think I’ve had an awakening. By their standards, I don’t really expect them to get me, no offense. And I feel alright with that. I just try to do the best that I can do and be a good person. The music is what’s important to me. I was just reading The Souls of Black Folk and I can’t really do anything about how others perceive me. They have their own standard and I’ve gotta create my own. Mine is just to get my ideas out and when I make a record, I feel good. Then I move on to the next thing, and try to grow in that way. But if you sit and wait for people to acknowledge you, you’ll be unhappy (laughs). There has always been and there will always be Black rock music. It’s all Black music. That’s what was lost in what Miles Davis was trying to do in the 70s and 80s. Like when he recorded the Cindy Lauper tunes, a couple of the more pop culture songs-
Like that D-Train song, “Something’s On Your Mind”-
Right, and I feel like, “Why not?” His statement was, “It’s all Black music.” He kept trying to say, “I can play whatever I want to. It all comes from jazz and the blues and everything.” The fact that it’s become so categorized, you’re thinking more about the categories than you are the quality. And I don¹t want to be, like, a “great Black artist” or a “Black female singer” or I made “great Black music.” I just wanna make music and be all right with that and seen for that.
Have you taken any time to assess where you are in terms of your growth as an artist?
I can never do that. It’s constantly changing. Every day is different. I’m handling something new every day and I try to be in the “now.” I know it sounds “hippy-dippy,” but I’m constantly gonna be given challenges and chances to grow and when they come I’m gonna try to take advantage of them. To me, I’m always in the playoffs. Like in the NBA, they play all them games and then they wait ’til the end to turn it up. I’m like, everyday is the playoffs. I’m gonna be playing championship NBA ball every day. That’s how I am.
In what ways do you feel that you’re different as a person and an artist than from your first record?
On each album I’m different. Musically, I have the ability to develop my ideas a lot more. I’m getting a lot more fluid in my bass playing and my programming. I just feel like I’m growing as a musician. The first record just skimmed the surface. The second record, I kind of opened up a lot more of the influences I have. To me, the first record, I wanted it to be like a Headhunters record. Like hip-hop meets Headhunters. The second record was into my Steely Dan rock, little bit more rock thing. And then the third one is more‹I love Ben Harper and Tracy Chapman and Richie Havens and Chris Whitley and Jimi Hendrix. It was just expressing how that music influenced me. This record is just a culmination of all those things. But at the same time it’s also a critique of myself. I’m tired of people saying, “Bitter wasn’t Black radio music.” And I’m like, who the fuck are you to tell me that? White people telling me it’s not a “Black record.” Fuck you! I listen from Master P to Sheryl Crow to Led Zepplin to Living Color to electronica. I listen to everything. It’s all music. That’s the beauty of music. I’m not gonna limit myself to be some cookie cutout artist. This record is to question that and critique that. So if I got some booty beats, it’s all good. Now you’re gonna play my record on the radio! That just fuckin’ blows my mind. Now I got a Redman and Tweet remix, it’s all good now. I fit into the mold. Gimme a fuckin’ break!
This last record, you took in-house and worked with Cato, your guitar player. What prompted you to bring it so close to home?
Well, everyone was saying, “Do it yourself,” and I don¹t really believe in that. I think there are few artists who can produce themselves, very few. I ain’t one of ‘em. (Laughs) Everyone needs a guru. Everyone needs a guide. Not someone to do it for you, but a guide on the journey. Cato has been in the band for the last four or five years. And he’s seen these songs build from the live stuff. Plus he and I have so many of the same records. We like so much of the same music and he could just see what I was trying to get to. He was able to let me do what I wanted to do and help me bring it all together and hone it into something that made a complete statement. When I’m in the studio, I just like to play. I write. I don¹t wanna be a producer at all. I wanna have amazing ideas. I wanna write stuff and create incredible bass lines and that’s all I wanna do. So it’s great when you have somebody there who’s like, “Okay, cool, but let’s get this all together and see how we can make a different picture.” So that was a great thing. And, I must admit, it was nice to work with somebody Black (laughs). Craig Street, that was great, too. Just the beginning of, “Oh, you get all my references! You know where I’m coming from.” Not that anything’s racial. Like, I love David [Gamson]. It was a phenomenal experience. And Bob Power, they’re like the greatest teachers. But to make a record where I’m critiquing myself in Black society and pop culture and they got all the references I was trying to make and how it feels to live in that? That was great!
So basically you needed somebody to help you focus your ideas on where you were at.
Yeah. Like after Bitter and people telling me all that nonsense, like, “You forsaked your Black audience.” I was like, “You don¹t know.” If I was Sarah McClachlan, you would have played my record! And that’s what made me sad. But then they have Black people tell me I’m “not Black?” That shit’s crazy! I’m just, like, “Y’all have bought into this crap!” And I just can’t do it! I make music! Like my music because you like the music, not because of what color I am or where you think it fits in your parameter! They’ve turned us all into one huge demographic!
It seems to be, in spite of all this going on, that there’s some level of energy going on as far as independent artists, independent voices, particularly on the Black side of things.
Oh, yeah. There’s a lot of people. The thing is, if the record company doesn’t see that they can make money off of it, they’re never gonna get signed. That’s how stuff works. And that’s cool, I understand it. That’s their money. But I just feel that we’re missing out on a lot of interesting music, just ’cause we make these cookie cutout records. Just like everything’s gotta sound like everything else. Like there’s a Black Britney Spears. That’s just crazy to me. I can’t even, like, process that. Like, “Huh?”
It’s a good thing. I’m excited. I’m hoping to get out and play because I think that’s what’s gonna open up people’s minds, people wanting the live music experience. I’ve moved on to my next record and I just don¹t see as something I’m gonna do through a record company because they don¹t get it. You have to persuade them to get it. There are so many other people who are hungry for some different kind of music. The radio is for people who don¹t buy records. Radio is for people who don¹t like music. I plan to access the people who are in to some different shit and wanna experience different stuff. It all comes down to everybody wants to eat. But lately they’ve been selling us on how to be rich. I may not get rich, but hopefully I’m gonna create some incredible music and I don¹t know if record companies are ready for that, deal with cats who just wanna make music, have a career. Not just like these get-rich-quick schemes with making the flavor of the month tune.
Let’s talk about the current project. How long has this one been done?
My record was supposed to come out in September, but somebody ran a plane into some buildings, kinda slowed some shit down. (Laughs) But my record’s been done since June of last year. We didn’t have much money. I think we did it in three or four months.
Sounds almost like a jazz record.
Oh, yeah, that’s how you gotta do, be funky. Be funky and get everybody in, keep it movin’. I don¹t know how folks be, like, “I spent three years makin’ a record and spent 25 million dollars!” That’s crazy! I can’t even imagine. And they wonder why they don¹t make their money back! That’s just crazy!
Let’s not go there.
(Laughs) Yeah, go ‘head!
Cookie sounds like a very observational record. Where Bitter was very internalized, Cookie sounded like you had a lot of things that you had to get off your chest.
Yeah, they’re just stories. They’re just talkin’ stories, man. I sit in my basement and I just start writing and then all of a sudden I start to see a picture and I hear the picture. It becomes like a movie in my head and I can see it and I know what I wanna write about, what I’m feeling and experiencing. I kind of knew every song. I had the sequence of this record before it was done and it only went through maybe two changes. It’s a whole picture in my head. I just love concept records. Like those Pink Floyd records, The Wall and the early Funkadelic stuff. And the Prince records were little experiences, a part of his life like chapters in his memoirs. That’s just where I come from.
You worked with a bunch of different people who come from the same kind of energy. Talib Kweli, Caron Wheeler, Lalah Hathaway-
Yeah, well, the record company wanted me to get like Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, Maxwell, D’Angelo, all the popular people who had selling quotas and marketability. I asked all of ‘em and for various reasons and things, it never happened. Spiritually, this worked for the better. I got to work with people who I love and admire and who I think are some of the best fuckin’ singers out there. I don¹t mean to be arrogant, but Lalah Hathaway can sing! Like, for real! And that’s great and I love having that. She may not be selling a million records but there’s no doubt whoever’s gonna hear this record gonna tell me that she can’t sing her ass off.
As opposed to be forced to use some quote/unquote “name” artist who may not be anywhere near as talented, but helps the “marketability” of the record.
I have names, but I have, like, the original emcees! I got Angela Davis, Countee Cullen, Gil Scott-Heron, you know? I got Michael Hampton from Funkadelic. They’re not “marketable” or people may not know about ‘em, but that’s what I’m trying to tell people. Don¹t worry about what his name his. Did you dig what he was playing? You don¹t have to know who he is, did you dig what he was singin’? You don¹t have to know what they look like, it’s funky, ain’t it? (Laughs) That’s what I’m going for.
The other thing is, if you know anything at all about Black music and the history, you know these people.
Yeah, I’m trying give up that, too. No one’s gonna get it from a historical point of view. ‘Cause record companies, if you say historicalŠlet me get a quote. I coulda got Stevie Wonder on my record, right? Stevie Wonder. Stevie goddamn fuckin’ Wonder. And he was just like, “I’ll play whatever. Just pay me what you can, it’s all good.” He was gonna play on “Earth,” which is totally inspired by him. When he did, “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” and all those different people were singing on it? That’s my ode to him and he’s gonna do it. My record company said, “We don’t pay for geniuses or legends.”
(Long, interminable pause)
“We don’t pay for geniuses or legends.”
“We don’t pay for geniuses or legends.” And that’s where we are. It’s not marketable. But I’m, like, “He can play his ass off!” (Laughs).
That’s something I wanted to touch on, this overwhelming disrespect for Black genius.
Uh, yeah! Definitely. It’s sad, isn’t it? But it’s also lessons for me. Like I said in the beginning, I love myself. I’m trying to make good music. I don¹t wanna be canonized. But I feel good when I know I respect my elders. I know where I came from and I wanna sleep well at night, you know what I’m saying? I wanna be all right. Because pretty soon, I’ll be, like, 67 years old and all that matters is the people I have in my life who love me and just who I am as a person. And on September 11th, I realized that I just wanna be a good person. And all this stuff is so fleeting. It’s just a fleeting thing, just money and all the pressures in the world and Grammys. It’s crazy. I’m just tryin’ to make music. I’m ready to blow the whole world up in a spiritual sense, a mental sense. Like free your mind and your ass will follow. I’m an untied dog in a dogmatic society. I’m about to let it all just be free.