Any discussion of D’Angelo circa 2014 has to start with a dissection between the man and the stereotype. During Wednesday night’s “A Conversation With D’Angelo,” a 90-minute talk between the singer and author Nelson George as part of the Red Bull Music Academy, the stereotype — an enigmatic, brooding figure more myth than man, skulking around the stage like some bizarre evil genius — was nowhere to be seen. In its place was a genial, affable singer who just happens to be taking his time — 14 years and counting — to release his next album.
George didn’t ask the singer about his album, but he didn’t have to. The two displayed a casual vibe throughout the night and kept the evening loose, touching on various points and influences of the singer’s life. D’Angelo smoked cigarettes throughout (presumably to the chagrin of museum officials), while audience member Questlove playfully hijacked the conversation, appearing on stage multiple times to both jog D’Angelo’s memory and act as the more loquacious foil when discussing how the two met or the term “neo-soul.” “I’ve known dude for 20 years and never knew he was this funny,” Questlove posted on Instagram later that night. Here are the most insightful things we’ve learned about D’Angelo:
1. He Was in a Hip-Hop Group Called Intelligent, Deadly but Unique
As a high school freshman, D’Angelo formed the hip-hop group Intelligent, Deadly but Unique, or IDU for short. “I was an MC and I was pretty fuckin’ good, too. We weren’t no joke.” While the singer demurred a request to rap on the spot, he broke down the importance of the group to his musical upbringing. “We had a DJ whose dad was also a DJ and he had a huge record collection. His house was like a record store. That’s where I went to school; it was like hip-hop and music 101. I eventually stopped listening to the record just for the breakbeat and started listening to the whole record.”
2. He Won Amateur Night at the Apollo With a Johnny Gill Song
D’Angelo made his first trip to New York at age 16 to compete on Amateur Night at the Apollo. The fledging vocalist had multiple people telling him which genres and singers to pick to avoid the wrath of the notoriously prickly crowd. “I had my mind set on Peabo Bryson,” said the singer. “They were like, ‘Don’t sing that song. They’re going to boo you off the stage.'” The singer before him chose a gospel song and was booed off the stage, causing D’Angelo to call an audible and pick Johnny Gill’s “Rub You the Right Way.” He won the competition.
3. He Wrote a Song Featuring R. Kelly, Boyz II Men, Lenny Kravitz and a 16-Year-Old Usher
In 1994, at the age of 20, D’Angelo wrote the song “U Will Know” for Black Men United, a collaboration of numerous African-American singers for the soundtrack to Jason’s Lyric. D’Angelo had only written one song before that and “U Will Know” ended up being the song that helped the vocalist sign his first record deal. “It was surreal,” said the singer. “Here I am in a room with all my heroes.” D’Angelo also recalled seeing a 16-year-old Usher and noting, “This little kid’s gonna do something.”
4. “Playa Playa” Was Inspired by Space Jam
The basketball-themed lyrics to Voodoo opening track “Playa Playa” had some inspiration. Before Voodoo, D’Angelo contributed a song called “I Found My Smile Again” to the Space Jam soundtrack. “The concept of the song involved real NBA players, hence the basketball references in ‘Playa Playa.’ That was the first song me and Quest recorded and we were just nuttin off like two little kids.”
5. He Wants to Do a Gospel Quartet Album
“I’m still fascinated by that world,” said the singer, thinking back to his early days singing in the church. “I definitely want to do a [gospel] quartet album.” The singer admitted that before his first European tour, he put together a quartet and surprised a “church way up in the woods.” The group started with a song from groundbreaking gospel group the Pilgrim Jubilees before ending up scaring the congregation with their interpretation of Fishbone’s “Properties of Propaganda (Fuk This Shit On Up).”
6. He’s Heard New Sly Stone Material…and It Uses Auto-Tune
Discussing the effect of technology on recording, George asked, presumably in jest, if D’Angelo was working on any tracks involving Auto-Tune. After swiftly shutting down the idea, the singer admitted that he met Sly Stone recently, who told him he was working on new material. “It’s not Family Stone shit,” said D’Angelo. “It’s progressive. And he’s fuckin’ with the Auto-Tune. The way he used it was like no one else.”
7. He’s Ambivalent About the Term “Neo-Soul”
The most awkward moment of the night came when George asked if the oft-used term “neo-soul” was a valid phrase or “PR bullshit,” unaware that the man who coined the term, a friend of D’Angelo and Questlove, was in the audience. After originally answering, “I plead the fifth,” D’Angelo said, “I respect it for what it is, but anytime you put a name on something, you just put it in a box. You want to be in a position where you can grow as an artist. You never want to be told, ‘Hey, well, you’re a neo-soul artist.’ Right now, I’m not. We’re going someplace else.”