D’Angelo revolutionized soul music like few others. As part of the Soulquarian movement, and friend and collaborator to Questlove, Lauryn Hill and Raphael Saadiq, D’Angelo continued the legacy of Marvin Gaye and Prince, while fusing it with an off-kilter beat flourish akin to that of J Dilla. With his first album Brown Sugar, D laid the cornerstones of his take on modern R&B and slow jams: low slung, lazy, and hazy love songs that tipped a hat to everyone from Curtis Mayfield to Al Green, Sam Cooke to Jimi Hendrix, and Sly Stone to James Brown, all while maintaining his own raw, gospel-steeped sensuality.
But it was his follow-up Voodoo that cemented his reputation as an iconic artist, earning him many awards, including two Grammys, and multi-platinum sales across the board. D’Angelo has had his fingers over multiple classic albums, including LPs from Common, Slum Village, Q-Tip, BB King, Roy Hargrove, The Roots, Method Man: the list goes on.
Renowned for going deeper into arrangements and songwriting than almost anyone, D’Angelo has dedicated his life to the pursuit of the sweetest musical moments. That much is obvious on first listen to his newest album, Black Messiah. Released on December 15th, 2014, it came nearly 15 years after the release of Voodoo. In this exclusive interview conducted earlier this year, Chairman Mao and Torsten Schmidt asked D’Angelo to delve into the influences and inspirations behind his new album. - Red Bull Music Academy
You mentioned gospel quartets to me earlier.
To me, the Pilgrim Jubilees are the quintessential quartet group. They did a cover of “Old Ship of Zion” which will just floor you. It’s crazy. There are a lot of great famous gospel groups, like Mighty Clouds of Joy, or the Soul Stirrers, the group that Sam Cooke sang with. Then there’s the Key Notes – the Gospel Key Notes with Willie Neal Johnson. They call him “the Country Boy.” The real deep groups for me, though, are Pilgrim Jubilees and the Violinaires, both out of Chicago. My favorite quartet singer is Robert Blair. He’s the lead singer for the Violinaires. I mean, he’s the gospel James Brown.
Why is [Guy’s] Aaron Hall a hero to you?
After the Gap Band, Aaron Hall represented someone who was carrying on that tradition from Charlie Wilson. As far as that style of funk singer goes, we call them “squallers.” All of them were emulating Sly Stone. It was that “Oooww! Ow ow ow” style of singing, by Sugarfoot from Ohio Players and Leroy Bonner. You would hear Maurice White do that a lot, and even the Commodores were trying it. But really what they were all doing was trying to emulate Sly Stone – who was emulating Ray Charles, of course.
The thing about Stevie Wonder – who falls under that same category, because at first he was really emulating Sly with a lot of his stuff – was that he brought these vocal mechanics into the squall that other motherfuckers just couldn’t do. The only other motherfucker after Stevie Wonder, to me, that did it like that, was Charlie Wilson from The Gap Band. Aaron Hall represented the next generation of that. He was the next Charlie Wilson.
Do you remember first hearing Marley Marl’s production? How did that make an impact on you?
I think the first Marley Marl track that I heard – and knew what I was listening to – was definitely Marley Marl’s “The Symphony.” That really opened my ears up to who this man was. They sampled Otis Redding on it, so that was like the introduction to sampling and the whole thing. He really is the Godfather of that type of hip hop production.
Around this time, when I was really discovering Marley Marl, I was in a group called I.D.U. Productions with a guy named Baby Fro. His father, Papa Flowers, was also a DJ. Every time we went over to Baby Fro’s house, he would always have some new record up, looking for breaks. That’s the first time I heard Band of Gypsys.
When I heard it, I thought I was listening to something new. Buddy Miles’ pocket sounded like Marley Marl to me. It sounded like Jimi, but I wasn’t sure. I thought that maybe someone would have sampled Jimi or something. I really thought that I was listening to something that had just been made. That’s the first time I heard The Meters, you know? It was an “Ah ha!” moment for me because all of this music was made way back in the ’60s. It felt so fresh. I didn’t even know it was made back then. It was a real revelation for me.
When did you first hear Prince?
I was five years old. “I Wanna Be Your Lover” had come out, and it was a big hit. When that album came out, it was just huge. He really, literally, was the talk of the town. Everybody was wondering, “Who is this guy? Is he a guy? Is it a girl?” No one really knew who it was. I remember we had the album, and my brothers were just enamored by this guy. They told me, “He plays everything, he writes everything, he’s singing everything,” so I was hooked from then on. I learned how to play every song on that album, note for note, at five years old.
Out of all the Prince songs, why did you decide to cover “She’s Always In My Hair”?
Because I was really going through that at the time. I mean, aside from it being one of my favorite Prince B-sides of all time, that’s exactly how I was feeling. Ahmir and I, we’re Prince junkies. We’re always playing Prince’s music in the studio. Not knowing that we’re going to cover it or anything – it just ended up like that.
What’s the significance of [Earth, Wind and Fire’s] “Boogie Wonderland” in your life?
My father was a bishop, so listening to secular music in the house wasn’t really condoned. Hearing The Commodores’ “Brick House” or Earth, Wind and Fire on the radio, those were the first examples, those incarnations of funk. You know, pop. It was an introduction for me to that whole world. I wouldn’t really delve in and discover who George was until much, much later.
You were talking about “drunk drumming” earlier a bit. Can you talk a bit about The Time’s “777-9311”?
First of all, it was revolutionary. It’s still revolutionary. It’s one of those songs that jazz musicians call “the open room.” The timing and the placement of where the instruments go... if you’re a musician, you have to feel it. You can’t write that down. You’re not going to really get it by writing it down. It shifts. It’s such a genius song. As a musician you want to figure out the science of it all, but you can’t really do it. All you can do is sit back and enjoy it. Just, eat it up. It’s as progressive and fresh today as it was when it came out in 1982. It’s ridiculous.
To a kid who has never heard of Otis Redding before, what would they need to know?
I would tell him first his nickname was The Big O. As far as soul singers go Otis is right behind James Brown, but I would tell the young kid that Otis Redding is a true pioneer of the funk. And he’s very underrated in that area. He was one of the first true superstars of what was then an embryotic stage of funk. He was at Monterey Pop Festival, doing the damn thing with the MGs when Jimi broke out. They hold the same place for me. Otis Redding is as much a pioneer of the funk as Sly and the Family Stone. That is what I would tell the kid.
Do you have an essential Sly Stone song?
I would say that it’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).” For him to be as big and influential as he was – and then turn around and do that? I mean, he had already put his flag in the ground commercially. If he never wrote another song ever again in his life, he nailed it with that one. And, there’s Larry Graham’s bassline. A whole genre of music was created off of that.
There’s a generation of kids who learned about Joni Mitchell through Q-Tip. Out of that whole world - the Carly Simons, the Joni Mitchells, whatever - is there anything that really speaks to you?
I got hip to Joni Mitchell through Prince. I found out that Prince was a huge Joni Mitchell fan, so I listened to some of her work. My favorite Joni Mitchell album is Blue. Her lyrics, her purity as an artist… she’s very significant.
You mentioned gospel. We have Joni on the other hand, you have the soul there. Somehow, there’s country in the middle. Is there any country that really touches you?
Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. I think a lot of it does, though, because it’s very close to gospel and the blues. It’s kind of like the holy trinity of what everything is based upon – blues, gospel and folk music. Country is a great amalgamation of those three.
Now that you’ve learned the guitar, are you more of a Willie Nelson type of picking player? Or more a Johnny Cash thumb player?
I don’t know. I wouldn’t compare myself as a guitar player to either of those cats really, because what informed me as a guitar player are funk musicians and guitarists like Eddie Hazel and Prince. I would have to go to Phelps Collins, who played with James Brown during Bootsy’s days. Those are the guys that really made me to want to play guitar. And, of course, Jimi Hendrix.
Header image © Black Messiah cover