After the release of her multi-platinum debut album What’s the 411? in 1992, Mary J. Blige emerged as one of the breakthrough artists in R&B. But it was My Life that led her to be called the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. The 1994 album would spawn six singles, including the hits “Be Happy,” “I’m Goin’ Down,” “Mary Jane (All Night Long),” “You Bring Me Joy,” “I Love You,” and “My Life.” Behind the boards during its recording were an impressive cast of producers: Sean “Puffy” Combs, Carl “Chucky” Thompson, and Prince Charles Alexander. They played a critical role in elevating and refining the core of Blige’s overall sound. Their unique skills and technical precision helped recapture the essence of ’70s soul and seamlessly blend it with modern hip hop. In so doing, they provided the sonic foundation for contemporary R&B throughout the remainder of the decade. To celebrate the album’s 20th anniversary, we spoke with Thompson and Alexander about the creation of My Life.
How did you become involved with the process of making this album?
Right around the time I met Sean Combs, I was dealing with him from a management level. At that time, he was only interested in me doing one song for Mary’s album. Due to the success of her first album, the prices of a lot of the producers who worked on the What’s the 411? skyrocketed. The money they were asking for from Uptown Records for their tracks was outrageous. They were coming back with prices like $80,000 for one track. So – I’m the new guy and I had one song done with her, and she loved that song. It actually changed the direction that Puff had for her My Life album, and it really opened the gates to make them say that this album could really define her. It started off of as one song, and then Puff came to me and said, “Look man, we really have a chance to do her whole project and it’s not going to be for a whole lot of money, but the opportunity will be there. So, are you down or what?” I said, “Down? I’m willing to do her album for free.”
Because I was a fan of her work, and when we met in relationship to our backgrounds, we connected instantly. We both knew older soul music, and it was just a whirlwind of things happening. We were all young, and we all knew that the soul brought us together. I was just fortunate to be able to play a lot of different instruments, and the songs I was working on before I got there, helped turn the page. I play about eight different instruments and the fact I was into hip hop enabled me to put melodies over hip hop music and blending different ideas. So, by the time I heard the What’s the 411? album, it just felt like my calling.
Prince Charles Alexander
Bad Boy Records was kind of like a factory back then. Being involved with Puffy was how it all started for me. I was working with Jodeci and Puffy was the A&R guy. When Jodeci left Manhattan to go up to Rochester, NY to work on their album after A Diary of a Mad Band, Puffy called me out of the blue. Initially, I got called in on the back end of the album. I was working on Biggie’s, Total’s, and 112’s albums, while the early work was going on with Mary. Then, I got a call midway through the making of Mary’s album, because Puffy wanted to do a remake of the 1972 Rose Royce song, “I’m Goin’ Down.” He called because he wanted to use a live musician. To this day, I don’t know how much Puffy knows about how much of a musician I am, but maybe he knows more than he was letting on. He called me and said, “I want someone to go in there and hook the song up.” What he was really asking me to do was to produce the record, but he didn’t ask me outright to produce it. He asked me to go in and make it happen.
So, I’m thinking, if I go in and make it happen, I’m going to be able to get some production credits. I agreed to do it, and I went in and started off looking at the song from 1972, and since I’m a musician, I started writing out charts. A very good friend of mine Mark Ledford, who is no longer with us, was a multiple Grammy award winning trumpet player. He was one of my best friends. He came in and started writing out the horn parts, and I told him to write out the string parts. I wrote out the parts for the musicians to play. We brought Paul Pesco and Victor Bailey in to play on the song. I had some of the best musicians in the world to come in and work on this record. We also had Regina Carter, a world famous jazz violinist in our violin section, and I was on tenor sax, piccolo, and flute in the horn section. My boy Mark Ledford was on trumpet and Vince Henry, who later went on to do the Amy Winehouse record was in the horn section as well.
You have to realize when you’re dealing with a lot of synthetic music like synthesizers, drum machines, and samplers, a lot of musicians weren’t getting these types of calls to work on these projects. So, for me to call in all these musicians in and for them to connect with this young, urban music was a godsend to them, and it was something that Puffy wanted in the music. He wanted that real, hardcore musicality. After those two sessions, I had a date for Mary to come in. For this session, I set it up for Mary to have a six to eight hour session to do her vocals. She came in and knocked it out in one pass! So, what you hear on “I’m Goin’ Down” is basically: roll the tape, Mary sung, and that’s what you got. I had her sing it two more times and on the back end of the song, we had her do some ad libs.
If you would’ve heard me yelling at Puffy and Puffy yelling at me, you would’ve thought these dudes were going to shoot each other.
I presented the final product to Puffy, and I think Tim Dawg Patterson was the A&R, because I remember him listening to the final mix and saying there wasn’t enough reverb on Mary’s voice. I told him, “Okay. Yeah. We can put more reverb on her voice, but I want it to sound different from Rose Royce; I want it to sound fresher and that’s why I pulled the reverb back just a little bit.” Then, I get on the phone because I didn’t see Puffy or Chucky Thompson during any of those sessions. Puffy and Chucky were on deck to get production credit for the song because they had signed up to be producers for the whole album. So, I get on the phone with Puffy and I said, “So, you’re going to cut me in with a piece of the production, right?” Man, Puffy fought me tooth and nail. We were on the phone screaming at each other. If you would’ve heard me yelling at Puffy and Puffy yelling at me, you would’ve thought these dudes were going to shoot each other. [laughs] He was like, “You act like I’ve never produced a record before.” I responded, “You’ve never produced a record like this one before! You can’t produce this type of record.” [laughs] He responded, “I’ve been producing records!” I said, “I’ve been producing records two and three times longer than you have!” [laughs] We were just going back and forth.
So, he basically said they had the production, and if he cut me in, it was going to mess up the royalty rate because they had a flat rate and blah, blah, blah. So, I capitulated and I told him, “You have to give me two more artists.” I ended up getting a production credit on a song for Faith’s next album and a production credit for something else in the Bad Boy catalog. Puffy nor Chucky had anything to do with production of this song, but in terms of business, it is what it is. You go with the person with the hot hand, and Puffy had the hot hand. I said to myself, if I really push Puffy, he might say, “Fuck it and take this shit off the album.” I knew that, so I played the game. If you look on the record, it’ll say produced by Chucky Thompson and Puffy and co-produced by Prince Charles Alexander and Mark Ledford. At the end of the album, I was also called back in to do some mixing, recording, and kind of babysitting Jodeci with Mary doing “Be Happy” and “You Bring Me Joy.”
Can you talk about the collaboration process between Mary, Puffy, and you during the making of this album?
Puff really didn’t have an idea about the direction he wanted her second album to go in, but he knew he wanted it to be hip hop, and he wanted it to be soulful. With me coming in and my background being from Washington, DC, you’ll know that the city is a live music town. We have go-go music and other flavors here as well. New York wasn’t really known to love funk music and stuff like that. So, when I came in and brought soul along with different sounds, it was a fresh sound for her and it was a fresh sound for Puff. She really took to my production style and the ideas that Puff had for her, which I could carry out. A lot of the sample ideas came from Puff, and I just flipped it and made it work for her. Every day it was something new or I already had something that just fit in with where we were trying to go with the album.
At that time, there was a lot going on with her. When I met her, she didn’t say much and I didn’t say much. What ended up happening is, she started opening up to me, and during that time, I was married to my first wife. My ex-wife and Mary would just sit and talk. They both had that connection being from the hood and the camaraderie between those two got her to open up more to me.
As I would hear stuff that would be happening to her and her relationship with K-Ci, it was crazy. Her vibe, when she came into the studio, I used to feel what she was going through. We created a real bond. Puffy and her had a bond, but then Mary and I started to have a bond, and it enabled me to really get a grasp for how her album should sound. I laid a platform for a lot of those emotional records on that album. There would be times where she would be in the studio singing and it would be the dopest take in the world, but she would be crying. Those are things you can’t create; those emotions are coming from an unseen place. It was a situation where we probably could have made 40 My Life albums, if we kept going.
Prince Charles Alexander
The fact that Mary came in and sung “I’m Goin’ Down” without a hitch, on one pass, was something I didn’t expect, because being a musician coming from a generation before Uptown, when I heard Mary sing “Real Love” and some of the other songs from her album, What’s the 411?, I thought she wasn’t a totally in tune singer; I thought she was pitchy, a little bit sharp, and flat, but had great emotion. The emotion has always been the thing that connected her to her audience. Throughout her career, she has gotten better, better, and better.
I’m not sure if it was on “I’m Goin’ Down,” but there was something else that Mary was singing, and I was coaching her. I was the engineer, and I was also a vocal producer, so if I was in the studio with a producer who was a beatmaker and he didn’t know how to get vocals out of Mary, I would start doing vocal production with Mary. I remember making Mary cry one time, and she was upset at the fact that I wasn’t loving her and kind of going over the top and saying, “That’s dope Mary!”, because I had been used to hearing incredible jazz singers and working with Luther Vandross and people like that, so I would tell her, “Sing it again.” Mary had a little bit of a meltdown, but that was indicative of the level of passion that Mary had as an artist and a perfectionist. I didn’t look at it as a negative thing; I didn’t look at it as if something was wrong with Mary. I just looked at it as that’s who she was because she’s a very passionate person.
Mary would get so pissed that what she would bring to the record after she got mad was another level of intensity.
I think Puffy understood that about Mary also. Puffy wasn’t a vocal producer, but he knew how to get emotions out of somebody. When Puffy would be in the studio producing her, he would be yelling at her. I’d be like, “Damn, dude. That’s not cool.” [laughs] But Mary would get so pissed that what she would bring to the record after she got mad was another level of intensity. Their relationship was a crazy kind of dynamic. I could see why Mary didn’t like Puffy after a certain period of years of being together, because her relationship with him was a contentious one, but in many ways that was Puffy’s genius. He knew how to get her to be in an immediate emotional state.
I know that sounds weird, but the guy is a genius. He knows things about what’s going on in the marketplace and for the marketplace that other people are just clueless to. And the proof of that is out of all the producers that worked with Puffy that played all those keyboards and programmed all those beats, they all left Puffy to go to some other label and tried to blow up. Did they blow up? No. Name me one of those producers that left Puffy and kept up at the same pace they had when they were with Puffy. None of them. So, there is a reality to what was going on inside Puffy’s head.
You were brought in the middle part of making the album. How many songs were you involved with after working on “I’m Goin’ Down”?
Prince Charles Alexander
I worked on “Be Happy,” “You Bring Me Joy,” and I remember tracking vocals on “No One Else,” “I’m the Only Woman,” and a couple of others. Like I said, it was a conveyer belt; it was a factory, so every day I would come in, and I would work with Mary one day, Total the next day, 112 the next day, and then come back to Mary. I was all over the place.
What was your studio routine when you were working with Mary?
Prince Charles Alexander
Everybody liked to work late. We would work until five or six o’clock in the morning. On a good day, Mary would show up at 6 or 7 PM and we’d start working, or Chucky might show up at 6 PM and he might want to change something before Mary would come in. On a bad day, I might not see anyone until midnight or one o’clock because they would go to a club at eleven or twelve and they would come in a one, two, or three o’clock in the morning and then they would want to work in the middle of the night.
If Mary was writing, she would be in the back of the room and she would say, “Cycle the loop around for me at a certain point.” Back then, we had an analog machine, which wasn’t like Pro Tools. We had to know where the points were on the analog machine and then we could set up a cycle or a loop. It was a big thing for Mary to write her own lyrics independent from the songwriters who wrote songs on What’s the 411? album. She learned that publishing was where the money was.
I realized it wasn’t that the lyrics were simple, it was that the message was such a universal message that she didn’t need complex words to get her message across.
The funny thing is, I listened to some of her early writing on this record, and I wasn’t really all that impressed because they were simple lyrics. In some ways, I thought it was too simple, but when the record came out and really resonated with her audience, I realized it wasn’t that the lyrics were simple, it was that the message was such a universal message that she didn’t need complex words to get her message across. The complexity was going to be in her emotion. We wasted a lot of time in the studio, but by this time, Puffy owned his own studio called Daddy’s House. He was a bright businessman. There would be long days. There would be some 12 to 16 hour days. Work would be done in stages. I would work with Chucky for four hours and three or four hours with Mary. There would be some days I would be in the studio and Mary wouldn’t come in at all. I don’t know what was going on, and I didn’t try to pry either. I didn’t know if there was a falling out at the time with her boyfriend. This was around the time she was going with K-Ci.
Since then, I’ve read about some of the issues that Mary was dealing with at that time. I never probed and tried to figure out if something was going on, because everybody was drinking or smoking something then, except for Puffy. To my knowledge, in 1994, Puffy wasn’t drinking or smoking anything. The first time I saw Puffy drink or smoke anything in the studio wasn’t until 1996 or 1997. A lot of people don’t realize Puffy was straight and narrow. He never drank or smoke in a professional setting. He wanted to get his business right.
What were some of the production techniques and equipment that were used to help develop and refine the overall sound for this album?
Prince Charles Alexander
The MPC-60 was the hub. We would have our sequencer running in it, our sounds running in it, and I would hit play. The sequencer would come up and all our sounds would be going. We were using an SSL G console. We used Studer A820 tape machines, and we might have had A827’s also. Anyone who knows their technology knows that a Studer A-820 and A-827 were like the Mercedes Benz and Rolls Royce of analog tape machines. Back in those days, the JV-1080 made by Roland was huge. Chucky used a Roland D-50 as well.
Most of those consoles had automation, so we could do mutes on different parts. On a lot of those tracks, there would be parts printed all the way through the song, and we would only open up parts at certain times, and we would keep other parts muted so people couldn’t hear them. So, Puffy got really good at doing mutes. That was his claim to fame. We were renting gear as well. The Lexicon 480L was the main reverb unit we were using. For delays, we were using the PCM 42. I had a multi delay unit called the SPX 90. We used an LA-2A to compress the vocals. We used 1176s to compress the basses.
The other thing I probably didn’t mention in terms of technology and techniques was something we used called vocal flies. We used them in order to make the second, third, and fourth chorus sound like the first chorus. So, basically, she would sing the first chorus, and she would sing four notes for the first part. Then, we would do the harmonies four times, and then we would do the third harmony four times, so we would have 12 tracks of vocals. We might redo the vocals and add more air and fluff to them. So, we would have 16 to 24 tracks of vocals in the first chorus.
We couldn’t move all 24 tracks to the second, third, and fourth chorus. What we would do you is we would take all 24 vocals out of the left and right image and print them out onto the two track tape. We would have a second tape, which was a smaller tape. It would either be a half inch tape or quarter inch tape. We would record those 24 vocals onto the left and right side of the tape, so you’re basically hearing everything blended down together. Then, we would take the half inch tape and find a point and mark that point with a white grease pencil before the vocal started. Then, I would go to the second chorus on the big tape, play it, and hear the snare, and I’d countdown 2, 3, 4, and right on the third snare, I’d press play on the half inch tape, and it would be recording my two tracks of vocals back into the main tape, and I’d have to do it on the third and fourth chorus. So, a lot of what you hear on the backgrounds of those songs is a technology they don’t use any more.
How long did it take to record this album from start to finish?
Prince Charles Alexander
It took between six to nine months to complete it. I could be a little off on that, but I remember the pace that we were working at back then. I remember starting this record and then being called to come in to do more work on the record. From that time, it would’ve been three months I was there, and they had already been working on the record.
Let’s go in-depth with a few songs on the album. Can you tell me your thought process in creating “Mary Jane (All Night Long)”?
I wanted to go off of the vibe from the “Love No Limit (remix)” from the What’s the 411? Remixes album. So I picked three different records to choose from, and Puff gave us money to go the record store and buy whatever we needed. Nashiem Myrick and I would go to the record store. Nashiem was the studio manager at the time, and he played a big role in the success of the album as well. Puff would give us a grand at a time and would tell us go to the Tower Records store in Times Square and grab what we needed. So I picked three different records and combined them. One was “Keep Rising to the Top” by Keni Burke, another was “Close the Door” by Teddy Pendergrass, and “All Night Long” by the Mary Jane Girls. I had a vision for her “All Night Long” record, and I wanted it to be the signature Uptown record. Puff ended up playing the tune for her, and it was one of those nights that they couldn’t wait to get into the studio to make it happen. The song was completed in one night.
What about the K. Murray interlude?
Nashiem and I went record shopping, and I came into the studio one day and Nashiem was listening to one of the records we bought. This particular record was a 14 minute long song. Nashiem was one of those types of people who would sit down and listen to a 14 minute song and find one section to use as a sample for a new song. Nine minutes into this song, he found what he was looking for, and he kept it looping for hours in the studio. Biggie and Puff came into the studio and this one loop kept playing over and over again. Puff got the idea to use it as an interlude for Mary’s My Life album.
Biggie originally rapped the verse on the interlude and he was later replaced by Keith Murray. This sample ended up being used for the Notorious B.I.G.’s song “Who Shot Ya.” I still have that recording with me today and him saying that phrase had absolutely nothing to do with Tupac. The reason why Keith Murray was brought in was due to B.I.G.’s verse on the interlude. If we kept his original verse, Puff would have been forced to place an Explicit Lyrics sticker on the album, and he didn’t want to do that to Mary, so they brought Keith Murray in to replace Biggie.
People got caught up in her image, and I just knew that she was more than that.
Can you talk about “You Bring Me Joy”?
Prince Charles Alexander
I don’t know if K-Ci or Jojo has writing credits for “You Bring Me Joy,” but they should. They didn’t have any lyrics yet for the song. Mary and Jojo were off to the side, convening and talking and passing things around, while we were looping the tape around so they could hear the track. Then, Jojo said, “Oh. We got the song! Now we need an intro.” Jojo goes in on the mic and said, “I think I got it. I got an idea on how to start the song off.”
Jojo goes in and starts singing and you should’ve seen my face. When he went in there and started singing, it sounded like a Native American chant. I’m thinking to myself that Mary was going to shut it down. No way was this going to slide. I looked at Mary and she said, “Yeah. That’s dope!” So, Jojo doubled, tripled and quadrupled it, and I’m sitting there just shaking my head thinking, “Oh. My God.” First of all, Jojo was pissy drunk, K-Ci was pissy drunk, and I don’t know what Mary’s mind state was then, but all I know is when those two got drunk, they had a good ole time. [laughs]
As you look back 20 years later, how do feel about the impact of the album?
My vision for her was to let people know that she was to be taken seriously as a true singer. People got caught up in her image, and I just knew that she was more than that. I really wanted her to be considered one of the divas of R&B and soul music. I felt that vibe when I stepped out of the door to meet and work with her.
Prince Charles Alexander
As much as the audience may think that it was just Mary and Puffy on this album, there’s a whole list of cast and crew that supported this music emotionally, spiritually, and philosophically to make it come together the way it did. There was another generation of music made after this album that owes a debt to this music. Artists like Ashanti, Tinashe, Keyshia Cole, Brandy, and others owe a debt to that hardcore, black sound that was started by the Uptown and Bad Boy Records era from the early to mid-’90s. I think this album is incredibly important. I still have all the plaques.
I look back on that time fondly, because I was from the generation of black music that came before Uptown Records. When I was an artist, I was doing funk music, so for me to have been connected to the next generation of music, I felt like my career got a brand new shot in the arm. My Life is a classic. I think one of the reasons why Mary is an icon today, is because of this album. This is the foundation everything has been built on.