D’Angelo’s ‘Brown Sugar’ and the Birth of a Black Musical Messiah
Savoring a neo-soul masterpiece, 22 years later
In July, 1995, 21-year-old singer/songwriter/producer D’Angelo released his debut album, Brown Sugar and changed the sound of soul music forever. As inspired by ’90s hip hop as he was by dusty R&B jams and gospel, the future Black Messiah born Michael Eugene Archer woodsheded for most of his teenage years, transforming his bedroom in Virginia into a home studio. Sonically merging his favorite genres to create what his manager would later dub “neo-soul,” D’Angelo’s sound influenced and inspired a generation of left-of-center artists to do their musical thing.
“It’s about doing something new with soul, not replicating old soul” D’Angelo told writer David Toop in 1995. “You have to use soul to create your own thing.” However, as Johns Hopkins University professor Lester Spence points out, “When you listen to D’Angelo you know it’s new music, but it’s grounded in that ’60s/’70s soul feel. There are times when he sounds like Prince and other times when he’s taking it Teddy Pendergrass deep.”
While the term neo-soul caught on with critics and consumers, the phrase wasn’t so popular with those who were there. “To me, D’Angelo’s music was never “neo” anything,” says producer/engineer Bob Power, who produced several tracks on Brown Sugar, including “Me And Those Dreamin’ Eyes Of Mine” and “Alright.” In addition, Power played guitar on both. “This was soul music filtered through the ears of a kid who grew up on hip hop. Vocally, his phrasing was really behind the beat and his use of falsetto was something not many guys were doing at the time. D’s way of putting tracks together was different too. The whole record was sequenced on an Ensoniq EPS-16, but he was like Picasso in a way; he was that brilliant and that different.”
In the liner notes to the remastered deluxe reissue of Brown Sugar, which was just released today, writer Nelson George points out that the critical (and cultural) success of the album paved the way for a musical movement that included Maxwell as well as Angie Stone, Jill Scott, Eyrkah Badu, Bilal, Chico DeBarge, Lauryn Hill, Alicia Keys, India.Arie and Anthony Hamilton.
“Brown Sugar is still inspiring young artists who are interested in the evolution of soul,” explains 25-year-old singer J. Street, who was three years old when Brown Sugar was first released. “Like D’Angelo, I too come out of the Pentecostal church and you can hear that vibe in the weird and intricate things he does with his voice, but at the same time it’s so natural and organic.”
The year before Brown Sugar dropped, D’Angelo gave the world a peep of his gospel roots on the Jason’s Lyric soundtrack standout “U Will Know.” Recorded by the collective Black Men United, the voices in the choir included Tevin Campbell, El DeBarge, Lenny Kravitz and the late Gerald Levert. “The Jason’s Lyric soundtrack was one of the best soundtracks of the ’90s and ‘U Will Know’ served as the perfect introduction to the forthcoming neo-soul sound,” says music critic Amy Linden. The track was produced by D’Angelo and Bob Power, who also worked with A Tribe Called Quest, Me’Shell Ndegeocello and The Roots. “It was a dream team choir of Black male vocalists and it was obviously put together by somebody who knew gospel music well. He just put all the right ingredients into making his songs.”
Although the Brown Sugar reissue contains more remixes of D’Angelo’s cover of “Cruisin’” than anyone will ever need, it also features gems such as a dope Eric Sermon/Redman remix of “Me And Those Dreamin’ Eyes Of Mine” and an Incognito Molasses Remix of “Brown Sugar.” Nelson George’s outstanding liner notes “Brown is the New Black” ranks beside his early Village Voice essay days as he weaves a narrative guided by piano-playing jazz men, gospel singers and (one of George’s favorite subjects) New York City itself. “While making the album D’Angelo became part of it, stopping in or hanging out at places and parties named Moomba, Nells, Tramps, Soul Kitchen, the Building and many more,” George writes. “Watch the video for ‘Brown Sugar’ and the smoky, chilled-out, model beauty, hipper-than-thou attitude of that downtown world is on display. Though not necessarily D’Angelo’s intention, Brown Sugar does speak to that New York, a time when crack was king on the streets and 9/11 was an inconceivable nightmare.”
A few months before Brown Sugar was released, I was contacted by D’Angelo’s record company EMI and commissioned to write the artist’s bio. From my first listen of the advance cassette, I was swept up by D’Angelo’s southern swagger, soul man smarts, aural angst and laid-back mystique. D’s world was one of high passions (“Alright,” “Jonez in my Bonez”), low expectations (“Shit Damn Motherfucker”) and spiritual fulfillment as exemplified by “Higher,” a song that merges secular desire with a gospel sensibility.
“When I was a kid, the first song I ever played on the piano in full was Donna Summer’s ‘Hot Stuff’ when I was three,” D’Angelo told me in 1995. “I learned a lot playing in my father’s church.” Figuring out the chords and melodies by ear, he didn’t have his first formal lessons until he was twelve. “Back then I was listening to Mahalia Jackson and Walter Hawkins as well as a lot of traditional gospel, but my father never real strict when it came to what music I listened to. I played for the choir, but I was also being inspired by so much other music.” While D didn’t stick with his lessons, his love of music never swayed. He would go on to swing on Hammond organ in a way that hadn’t been heard in years.
Coming of age in the ‘80s, D’Angelo became a true purple Prince fan—“everything he did was the bomb,” was his critical assessment. He also kept his ears perked up to other soulful soundtracks of Black America, no matter what it might be that particular week. “I was in a band when I was a teenager and we did a lot of covers,” D’Angelo explained. “We did II Hype’s ‘Entouch,’ Soul II Soul’s ‘Back to Life,’ Bobby Brown songs and stuff like that. After Prince, I was checking for Quincy Jones and Teddy Riley. When his shit started hitting the airwaves, New Jack Swing was killer. Bobby Brown, Al B! Sure, that sound was both the rebirth and death of R&B.”
Still, the song “Alright” has a taste of that same swing in its sound. “I wrote that song about this girlfriend I had,” D said. “My feelings for her were so deep she could inspire a song out of me. I’d write songs and give them to her instead of writing a letter. That’s how I compiled songs for my demo, writing songs for her.”
At a certain point in his artistic development, D’Angelo stopped listening to the radio and instead began digging in the crates for classics by Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Al Green and other more obscure sounds. “Personally, these days the state of R&B is kind of in a rut right now,” he said at the time. “It’s become very limited. Everybody is just so commercial. Nobody is trying to make no real shit. Or, maybe they are, but they’re just got getting any recognition. They really should, but instead they’re overshadowed by this other nonsense.” One wonders what he would make of the state of R&B today.
While D’Angelo was still a teenager, after an apprenticeship of being in several groups and performances at the Apollo, he was signed to a publishing deal by Jocelyn Cooper, who soon after played his four-song demo to Gary Harris at EMI Records. The tape that Harris heard contained tracks that would make it to the official album including “Smooth,” “Higher,” “Me and Those Dreaming Eyes of Mine” and “Alright.”
“I wanted to stay true to my demos,” D’Angelo explained. “If I had been able to put my demos on the album, I would’ve. I didn’t want to overproduce the shit. I wanted it to sound as raw as possible. That’s just the way I want to express myself. Sometimes people forget that music should be artful. There is a big difference between being an artist and being a star.”
Beating the odds, D’Angelo proved that one could both. “From the beginning, I’ve just wanted to make dope music and it’s going to stay like that.” The only non-original track was his cover of the Smokey Robinson track “Cruisin.’ “I used to play that song back in the day with my band,” D’Angelo explained. “We used to play it at family reunions. I tried it in the studio and it just worked.”
D’Angelo also had the good sense to surround himself with brilliant collaborators/advisers that included Raphael Saadiq, Angie Stone, who he’d later have a son with, and A Tribe Called Quest member Ali Shaheed Muhammad who produced the Grammy-winning title track.
Recording at NYC’s famed Battery Studios, Ali remembered, “We were in studio C, which had all kinds of problems. While the engineer was fixing something, D was just sitting in front of his keyboards playing something. He started playing these chord progressions and I just stopped and looked at him. I hear something in it and luckily we were recording. I programmed a beat and we put D’s music on top, then he played bass on top of those chords. He listened to that and another twenty minutes later he was in the booth doing backgrounds and that’s how it all came to be. The song was pretty much done that night.”
The infidelity blues of “Shit Damn Motherfucker” was a brutal favorite that ends in a crime of passion. “To me, it’s just a sign of the times,” D’Angelo said. “You can’t deny there is a thin line between love and hate. Where I’m from, shit like that happens all the time. I think most of the songs have a certain darkness to them, except for ‘When We Get By,’ which is on some feel good shit. That song has a happy, kind of blue skies atmosphere to it. With that song I was trying to say, if you have love for your man or your woman, you can get through anything.”
In the twenty-two years since the release of Brown Sugar—whose title track, for the record, was an ode to smoking herb—D’Angelo has only released two other studio albums (Voodoo and Black Messiah), each brilliantly conceived, critically acclaimed and music fan appreciated. Still, for this graying music critic, the Brown Sugar reissue reminded me of the excitement I first felt when this album was released, and you knew it was one of those before and after moments when nothing would ever be the same again. To this day, the stoner soul of Brown Sugar remains in my top five of desert island discs, one of the few records I could literally play straight through forever.