'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."
At 1 A.M. they'd break for dinner at the extremely untrendy, very dive-y Waverly diner on Sixth Avenue. "One of the marvels of life," says ?uestlove, "was how this mafucker could eat all these eggs and twelve pounds of turkey bacon and be fit for 'Untitled.' Money was definitely overweight by '96, so they got him a drill sergeant [physical trainer Mark Jenkins]. This guy didn't take no shit. I cannot see D running in Central Park, but he did. If it was rainin', extra parka, your ass was runnin'. Push-ups, weight room, sparring every day for three hours. He wouldn't take no shit." (Jenkins, who's trained Mary J. Blige and Johnnie Cochran, hits the road with D to help him through three to four workouts a week.)
The gang would return from the Waverly around 2 A.M., watch the treat of the day one more time and work on the new song until around 4:30 or 5. Then D would drive people home in his black Range Rover 4.6. At this pace, they created 120 hours of original music that the public has yet to hear.
"But the biggest influence on the record," ?uestlove says, "was someone who never came to the studio: Prince. Way after Voodoo was finished, D and I sat down and listened to it, and we both admitted that this was our audition tape for Prince. I think this album was made to show him that we're capable of collaborating with him. And I don't know if it's some bold-ass shit to say we know what he needs, but we wanna work with him."
"I really, seriously wanna co-produce his next joint," D says. "Like, me and Ahmir [?uestlove] wouldn't even have to use our names. We'd just be on some pseudonym shit. That's what he meant by audition. Just, like, we wanna do his next shit."
Back in L.A., two hours into the show, and the roof is on fire. We've gone from smooth soul to rock funk to Pentecostal church, the grooves shifting without a moment's pause in a breathtaking musical assault. Five years ago, during the Brown Sugar tour, D was a shy twenty-one-year-old Virginia country boy who hid behind his keyboard onstage. Now he's confident and worldly, a father of two – a three-year-old son, Michael D'Angelo Archer II, and a five-month-old daughter, Imani Michael Michelle – as well as a soul-music historian. No wonder he's alive onstage now, dancing, touching the audience, slamming his microphone down, lying on the ground at the lip of the stage to sing "One Mo' Gin" while girls grab his legs, his stomach, his crotch. He's the musical counterpart to Vince Carter and Randy Moss: a young icon, abundantly gifted, eye-poppingly spectacular, embarking on a Hall of Fame career.
He returns for the first encore in a tight black tank top, yelling, "I got the baddest band in the world! The Soultronics!" And he's right. The thirteen-piece Soultronics, a group he pieced together from the worlds of jazz, soul and the church, are light-years ahead of your average backup band. On keyboards is the renowned producer James Poyser, who co-piloted The Mis-education of Lauryn Hill. Bassist Pino Palladino left B.B. King's side to be here (he's also played with the Staple Singers, Phil Collins, Elton John and Eric Clapton) and is, ?uestlove says, "one of three bassists left that can begin to emulate James Jamerson, bass god from the legendary Motown house band." Trumpeters Roy Hargrove and Russell Gunn are young jazz stars who've played with Wynton Marsalis. Trombonist Kuumba Frank "Roots" Lacy played with Art Blakey and holds a degree in physics. ?uestlove himself is a recent Grammy winner with the Roots. Even the backup singers have impressive résumés: Anthony Hamilton has a record deal with indie label Soulife Recordings, and Shelby Johnson was on her fourth callback for Rent when she opted to travel with D.
"A lot of my fellow vocalists were scared of this gig," Johnson says, "because singing his stuff is so complex. But he brings you up to another level and makes you better as a musician if you're willing to work. Bein' down with D has made me a better me."
The Soultronics begin each show in all black, but beyond that one requirement, each looks completely distinct. One man is in a deacon's robe, another in a long cape with a knit ski cap that says FBI. There's a feather boa, a few badass leather coats, and ?uestlove's mighty Afro. There's a P-Funkish freaky flair to the Soultronics' look.
"In the beginning we kept asking, 'What should we wear?"' Johnson says. "And D kept saying, 'Just be you.' It's rare you have an artist who's secure enough to let you be the rare motherfucker you can be. And if I'm up there feelin' like I wanna feel, wearin' my shit and my shoes, then he's gonna get the best out of me."
One day in Richmond, Virginia, ten-year-old Luther Archer came home to find his little brother playing the piano. "Mike was three – and it was not banging," Luther says with awe. "It was a full-fledged song, with melody and bass line. Shortly thereafter, he started playing for my father's church. My father had a Hammond organ, and he had to slide down to reach the pedals, but he did that very well."
"This is really the only thing I ever could see myself doin'," Michael D'Angelo Archer says. "I knew when I was three. My brothers knew. They geared me for that. I always knew this is what I was supposed to be, what I was gonna do."
There are family stories of his early promise: of the kindergarten talent show he won so convincingly that they wouldn't let him participate in school talent shows after that, and the time seven-year-old Mike taught ninth-grader Luther how to play Prince's "Do Me, Baby," and the time Luther and middle brother Rodney took the little one to the mall, stopped in an organ store and let him sit down at the keys. Within minutes he'd stopped traffic in the place.
"My mother had a little room set off for him where he had all his equipment, and he was in there every day for hours," says Luther, who co-wrote "Africa," "The Root" and "Send It On." "There wasn't a day for sixteen or seventeen years that he didn't touch the music."
"I played everywhere I could," D says of his childhood. His father is a Baptist preacher, and he began playing music in his father's church, then went to live with his mother and played in his grandfather's church in Powhatan, in the Virginia countryside. "That's the real stomp-down, Pentecostal, holiness church," he says. "Shoutin', speakin' in tongues and just fire. That's where I really grew. That's where I really was playin'."
D and two cousins started a group and began tearing up local talent shows as Three of a Kind. Talent show after show they played covers off the radio and won or placed high. Luther and Rodney were local high school football heroes, on TV and in the newspaper every week, and Mike played a little, too, but no one in the family would come to his games: "'Cause they knew it was about music for me."
Luther did support his little brother's love of Prince. Their father is a preacher, as are an uncle and a grandfather, so they couldn't just bop into the house with Lovesexy in hand, but the boys found ways to sneak the music in. "My love for Prince was definitely influenced by my older brother," D says. "We always had every new album the first day, and we would dissect that shit and study it, and after we listened to it, we'd have a discussion about it. We always did that."
"We used to get in my car," Luther says, "and we'd ride around the city with nothing to do and listen to Prince tapes. It was a red Ford Probe with a nice system in it. We'd hang out and listen to the music real loud."
Mike was sixteen when he got a slot on Amateur Night at the Apollo. He sang "Feel the Fire" by Peabo Bryson, but the audience could see his fear before the song started: "They booed before I even came onstage." He placed fourth.
The next year he went back to the Apollo. "I did 'Rub You the Right Way' by Johnny Gill, and I came out dancin', doin' splits and shit. I had mad energy. I wasn't intimidated.
"When they said I won, I went off," he continues. "I'd been doin' talent shows forever, and that was, like, the talent show. I went off, my family went off, my brother was runnin' down the aisle, my cousins were jumpin' up and down. We got back on the bus and went right back to Richmond. Everybody went to sleep; I stayed up the whole time. I was smoking cigarettes. That's when I started. I was sneakin' cigarettes, and I had the window cracked, and I was lookin' out the window just thinkin' about everything. I got a check for $500, bought a four-track and started writing. I wanted to make an album." He went into his little music room, and wrote and recorded most of the songs that would, make up Brown Sugar. Two years later he had a record deal.
At five past midnight in L.A., the crowd begins screaming in unison: "Take! It! Off! Take! It! Off!" D resists, but around quarter past, the tight black tank top comes off and he's onstage in nothing but his very low-slung black leather pants and his boots. No drawers, no boxers, no briefs, no belt. He's singing "Untitled" on the lip of delicious obscenity, giving you more than a sliver of his ass crack, his bare hips, his waist, his pubic bush, and the deep grooves separating his torso from his thighs, grooves that have come to be known as the D'Angelo Knuckles. A solid wall of soprano screams rises up. It's the most electric moment of the show, but D is not happy.
"It feels good, actually, when I do it," D says later. "But I don't want it to turn into a thing where that's what it's all about. I don't want it to turn things away from the music and what we doin' up there." He says that once or twice women had thrown dollar bills and embarrassed him. He says that he was a chubby kid in middle school who lost thirty-five pounds in ninth grade, a kid who got chubby again during the Brown Sugar tour. He's worked hard over the past four years to transform his body and has made a video that incited audiences to demand nudity, but the artist in him takes little joy in showing off his body, and he struggles with the meanings of being a musician and an entertainer.
"He does it 'cause women want it," ?uestlove says, "but he really doesn't wanna do it. We do all this preparation to give a balanced show, and he goes out and gets treated like women get treated every day – like a piece of meat." D concurs. "Sometimes, you know, I feel uncomfortable. To be onstage and tryin' to do your music and people goin', 'Take it off! Take it off!' 'Cause I'm not no stripper. I'm up there doin' somethin' I strongly believe in."
It's almost 12:30. The band keeps on carving out the rock-tight groove, and at center stage the struggle between artist and entertainer – for D, it is like good and evil – reaches an apex: It is almost impossible to look at him, nearly naked, and not somehow think about that. The band keeps on carving. And D keeps on dancing, a single silver button the only thing keeping him from nudity. The most nahstay tease since Prince stripped to his Dirty Mind bikini.
This story is from the May 11th, 2000 issue of Rolling Stone.