'Dear heavenly Father," someone is saying to the silent room, "please give us the ability to touch this crowd." All thirty-six members of D'Angelo's touring band and crew are stuffed into his dressing room, hands linked, heads bowed in a large prayer circle. "And when our ability fails, Lord. Please. Take over." The room answers with a loud "mm-hmm."
Prayer ends, and the entire group collapses into a giant moving hug, all yelling at once in a joyous din – "Soultronic force! My re-deeeeem-er!" It seems they're gearing up for some high-energy smash-mouth football. Or a musical mission.
As the scrum disperses, D'Angelo turns to you and slaps you five. And nearly breaks your hand. D, as they call him, gives pounds with injurious intent – stiff-handed smacks that make a firecracker pop and then meld into a tight clamp, a finger snap, two fist bumps and another clamp, or some such combination. The more he likes you, the more he uses the strength in his bulky shoulders and arms for some hand-cracking friendly force, an immediate, tactile, visceral way of saying, "You're family." "It's just a camaraderie between the family, between all the soldiers," he says of the pound thing later. "I'm lookin' at this like an army of musicians and free spirits and music. It's very much like a war."
D turns from you and gives a pound to every soldier in the room, some of them quick, hard slap-grip-snaps, many of them long, choreographed affairs with fourteen or fifteen stages. Backstage, or in the hotel, or just about anywhere, you can hear him coming because of the firecracker slaps and loud-ass finger snaps as he moves down the hall dapping up everyone he loves.
The band members leave to find their places onstage, the room clears, and D is left alone, his Shaft-like black leather coat stretching past his knees, his cornrows tight and clean, every last wisp whipped into place, his skin brown like chocolate Häagen-Dazs. He is shortish, maybe five feet six, but his shoulders and biceps are thick and glistening from the baby oil and defined to a hair's breadth of perfection, the protruding veins of a weight lifter evident in his forearms. His lips are big pillows, the top one a bit larger with a thick line running down its middle. They stay moist. His lashes are long, the eyes deep-set, large and intense, staring piercingly into you.
With three bodyguards around him, he smooths from the dressing room down the stairs, not rushing, moving with the muscular grace and power of a panther, strutting his macho-pimp stride, shoulders swaggering, exuding the masculinity and bravado of a champion prizefighter ready for combat. He reaches the curtain shielding the stage and stands still as a soldier, feet spread wide, head bent, his hard breathing betraying a touch of nerves. He is motionless for a full four minutes until the lights go dim and the standing-room-only crowd at L.A.'s House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard begins to scream, a mostly female scream, and the drums, bass and keys slide into the groove of "Playa, Playa." At seven after ten, the curtain opens and D'Angelo cools his way out to the place he was born to be: center stage.
Two days later, on an afternoon in New Orleans, in the ultrahip W hotel, room number 1725: This is the room of ?uestlove, drummer for the Philadelphia hip-hop band the Roots and D's co-pilot for Voodoo, D'Angelo's five-years-in-the-making second album. Large and cuddly, charismatic and exuberantly Afro'd, ?uest is a real-life version of South Park's Chef. He slouches on one edge of the bed, his best pal D on the other edge in a black Tonight Show T-shirt, black sweats and black Nike Air Flightposites, with a black do-rag tight over his head. They are watching a black-and-white videotape of James Brown performing in 1964. This is what they call a treat – something that gives knowledge of the Yoda figures. Mostly videotapes of shows, but also albums and books. A Yoda figure is one of the masters they revere: James, Prince, Stevie Wonder, George Clinton, Marvin Gaye, Fela Kuti, Al Green, Joni Mitchell, Sly, Jimi. One day, ?uestlove asked D, "What would your life be like if you hadn't seen that George Clinton tape?" D replied, "Totally different."
In their pursuit of knowledge about the Yodas, the two have acquired hundreds of treats. "We got bootleg-concert connects like fiends got drug-dealer connects," ?uest says. "During Voodoo, there was at least thirteen people providing us with stuff." "They're the ultimate collectors," says D's manager, Dominique Trenier. "Anytime I see them, they got at least thirty tapes on them. I could say, 'I'm bored. You got some old Soul Trains I haven't seen?' They'll be like, 'Yeah. You see the one where Michael Jackson fell?"' They study the treats the way Mike Tyson studied tapes of legendary fighters, enraptured by genius, hungry to learn.
The knowledge is inspiration and ammunition for the war that D considers modern music. The war is over the future of music. Voodoo is an ambitious record that seeks nothing less than to unstick black music from commercial considerations and leave it free to seek its muse. It is an album of loose, long, dirty grooves, finger snaps, falsetto serenades, gruff mumbles and bottom-dwelling bass. It is soul music for the age of hip-hop, which is to say it swaggers even when it is tender. In the video for the single "Untitled (How Does It Feel)," D appears to be naked, the camera licking him down. The video would be equally at home in a museum piece on black males and on the triple-X rack, and it provides a striking visual analogy for the music itself: raw, intimate, naked, intensely black. Like Sly Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On or Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear, Voodoo is purposefully difficult music. It does not bother often with melodies, and some of those it does bother with seem to come directly from old Prince records. But it is also the complex and rewarding work of a multi-instrumentalist struggling, by his own admission, to find his own voice through intensive study of Prince, Hendrix, P-Funk and, this afternoon, James Brown.
The James Brown treat we're watching is from The T.A.M.I. Show, a concert film featuring Marvin, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones. James had been slated to go on last, but, ?uestlove explains, "the Stones management wanted them to go on after James. So he decided to make them pay by killing it, so they couldn't go on after him. This is his moment of Zen."
?uestlove and D watch silently as James dances hard and fast, his ankles on the verge of breaking, his feet a blur, his singing wafting up from the bottom of his soul – "Are you ready for the Night Train?!" James dances toward the mike, stops sharp, and somehow, at the exact same second, the band stops. ?uestlove rewinds over and over, amazed at the band's tightness.
"Even the light guy is on point!" ?uestlove says. "It's luck."
"It's not," D says, sucking on a Newport. "They're lookin' at him, they know his every move." His speaking voice is a deep, lazy sound syruping from the back of his throat, a bass-y, Virginia-accented near-mumble.
While making Voodoo, the two pored over one treat or another every day – "If I wasn't bringin' treats every week," ?uest says, "you'd probably have had Voodoo in '98." What started as the follow-up to D'Angelo's 1995 platinum debut, Brown Sugar (written and recorded entirely by D'Angelo in his mother's house in Richmond, Virginia), became five years of study at Soul University, complete with classes, pranks, gossip and equal amounts of discipline and laziness. "You know how some students are afraid to leave school?" ?uestlove says. "There was a comfort in knowing you go to the studio and walk into a whole new world. The engineers come in and talk about what Foxy did this week or how someone wrote graffiti on the bathroom. Or me and Rahzel would call D pretending to be Chico DeBarge talkin' shit – it was like school. That's why it took four years. There was no loose women – I wish. No orgies, no drug madness, no trouble with the law. I mean, he got into a scuffle with somebody, but that didn't hold things up."
"It was definitely school, man," D says. "I ain't never went to college, so this was my equivalent. It was a return to what we love about music. After Brown Sugar, I lost my enthusiasm to do all this. I coulda done without goin' to 7-Eleven at three o'clock to get a pack of cigarettes and find yourself swarmed, signin' autographs. I had to reiterate why I was doin' that in the first place, and the reason was the love for the music. I was gettin' jaded, lookin' at what go on in the business. But, I had to say, even if I didn't do this, I'd still be fuckin' with the music. So I'm cursed, and I'm gon' be cursed till the day I die. So this is what I'm gon' do."
Each day at Electric Lady, the studio on Eighth Street in lower Manhattan built by Jimi Hendrix, began around four in the afternoon, when D'Angelo, ?uestlove and all those who worked for years to develop the album would gather. A crucial influence was Jay Dee, from the group Slum Village. "He's the zenith of hip-hop to us," ?uestlove says. Jay Dee helped to bring out the album's dirty sound and encouraged the false starts and the non-quantized sound of the record. ("Quantized" is D-bonics for being in perfect rhythm, while "to slum," ?uest explains, "is the art of totally dragging the feel while being totally quantized. So, musically drunk and sober at the same time. Also called 'to Jay that shit.'")
From four until seven in the evening, the crew would watch the treat of the day and eat. Then they'd turn on the recorder and begin playing an album or an entire catalog by one of the Yodas – the dominant influence of '96 was Prince, in '97 Jimi and Rev. Al, '98 Gaye and George Clinton, '99 James and Nigerian star Fela Kuti. They'd jam and wait to see what the groove inspired. One night they played Prince's Parade until they flowed into a new groove that became "Africa."
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