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'."
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