Over the past 20 years, Virginia has been a hotbed of musical innovation. Missy Elliott. Timbaland. The Neptunes. Teddy Riley. D’Angelo. Over the course of three weeks, Chris Williams has taken an in-depth look at this area of the United States, examining why it’s birthed such talent. In part one of our series we discussed the origins of Missy Elliott and Timbaland. Part two featured an interview with Teddy Riley about his years in the area. The third is all about Michael “D’Angelo” Archer. Chris Williams sits down with Luther Archer, the oldest brother of D’Angelo, Jocelyn Cooper, a senior entertainment executive, and Gary Harris, a high profile music executive to discuss their roles in shaping the beginnings of D’Angelo’s career.
When D’Angelo was three years old, you walked in on him, and he was playing the piano. It wasn’t the typical banging sounds that emanate from the hands of a normal three-year-old, but it was an actual song. Can you take me down memory lane to what it was like seeing your little brother playing songs at such a young age?
I came home from school one day, and he was actually playing a song off of Prince’s self-titled album. I had never seen him get on the piano or anything like that before. I’m sure he played at some point, but when I came home and went upstairs, he was on the piano playing Prince’s song. It was the first time I ever saw him play the piano. It was a full song that he played. It was just one of those amazing type of things. I think it was a part of Michael’s language and it was something that was put in him by the Lord.
A short time later, he began playing for your father’s church. When did he begin playing for your father’s church?
He started playing for his choir from the age of five until he was about 12. He was the main musician for the church, but not the musical director. Even when he was playing as a teenager with my grandfather’s church, there were people who were more apt at music selection and directing the choir. When he became a teenager, he started forming his own groups. At the time, I couldn’t understand why, when Mike was between the ages of five to 12, my father and mother wouldn’t allow him to go on TV or anything like that. My dad was extremely adamant about his development. My father explained to me years later why he didn’t put him out there. He said, “It wasn’t the time to put him out there in any type of limelight. It was a time for him to develop and hone his skills.” My dad didn’t allow him to take to anything too quickly.
So he played in your father’s church from the ages of five to 12, and then began playing at your grandfather’s church when he was a teenager.
Yes, that is correct. I think another thing that was really important for how he grew up musically is that he wasn’t restricted to the church. My parents didn’t prohibit him from playing other music. There was a certain point when our parents divorced. Mike went to go live with my mom, even though he continued to play for the church; he was able to explore other genres.
Let’s transition to the time when he was beginning to form a couple of different groups in Richmond. I know you served in the Marine Corps for a time. Were you around at the time he was forming these groups?
At 16 and 17, he was starting to form his own world.
I was just getting out of the Marine Corps when the whole thing with Michael Archer and Precise started to happen. He asked me to help him organize that. He started in high school getting out into the city and playing here and there. Michael Archer and Precise was a band he put together to compete in this annual talent show in Virginia that was put on by a guy named Bill McGee. He was the director of a musical program at one of the high schools in the city of Richmond. I was helping him organize his rehearsals. There were about eight or nine people in his band. They were all young teenagers. I came in and helped them to stay focused and disciplined, put together a practice schedule for them, and helped with all the logistics. So, that was my little contribution to that experience. [laughs] I sort of brought the drill instructor mentality to it. [laughs] I was fresh out of the Marine Corps, so I still had all of that in me. I’ll never forget the time when everyone was fucking around and going back and forth with each other, and I’m a quiet guy, then I snapped into drill instructor mode. [laughs]
From there, he found a clique of guys who had similar interests, but they were on the hip hop scene. This was back in the early ’90s. It was the golden age of hip hop. It was before it became really, really commercial. They were trying to do their thing and do some recording. I watched how the I.D.U. thing formed. At 16 and 17, he was starting to form his own world. When he started working with I.D.U., he began writing the material for his Brown Sugar album. This is when I was invited in to help him with lyrical content on certain songs. He wrote most of that album before he went to New York. There were several songs that were added or completed after he got the recording contract. He really emerged at 16 and 17 with the I.D.U. and Michael Archer and Precise groups as well as going to and winning the Apollo. This was when he really started showing his writing skills, and he became amazing. I could tell he had something really different.
Can you talk about the influence gospel music had on his overall sound?
The biggest influence that I see is the way his songs end with a run. You know how in church where you’ll get to the shouting part after having played the song for five minutes, it’ll go on for another ten minutes, so people can get into the spirit. I saw and heard that right off the bat with his music.
What kind of influence did the music you played have on him while you were growing up during his early years?
In 1981 or 1982, there were no black FM radio stations in Richmond.
I think, from the very beginning, it exposed him to a variety of music. It didn’t pigeonhole him. In my opinion, because the radio was segregated when I was growing up, you would see black kids not appreciating other genres outside of R&B. I’m 48 years-old. In 1981 or 1982, there were no black FM radio stations in Richmond. Young black kids only had AM stations to listen to in the Richmond area. For all intents and purposes, if you were black, it was almost like you were supposed to listen to these particular stations, and if you were white, you would listen to Q94 and XL 102, and if you were black, you would listen to our stations. So I think seeing me play classical music was the beginning of him not being pigeonholed to accepting only one type of music. In the area I grew up in, the people in my generation grew up with that, but I didn’t because I grew up in the suburbs.
It was the beginning of integration over there, so I was exposed to other kinds of music. The first group that comes to mind is AC/DC. Their whole Back in Black album was something that I heard all of the time. Their songs were as funky to me as anything else I heard back then. Growing up and being exposed to classical music, as well as some of the music he was hearing me play on the radio, in addition to traditional R&B, I think it had a great influence on him. From the beginning, he understood that music was music; it didn’t get put into a box. It started there. The more experiences a child is exposed to – they have a greater variety of things available to them. If he wasn’t intelligent or curious, he wouldn’t have delved as deep into the music as he did.
Between the ages of 16 and 17, he was starting to hit his stride as a young musician. What was his go-to instrument since he was working with two different groups?
His go-to instrument was always the piano at that time. I didn’t see him pick up any other instruments until after the Brown Sugar album. He had the ability to learn different instruments back then, though. I saw it during the making of his “Me and Those Dreamin’ Eyes of Mine” video. He was really playing those instruments in the video.
Also, by this time, he discovered the Ensoniq, which was a synthesizer that you could sample real live instruments with. He would go to this one store and get these sounds on a disk and come back and load them on this Ensoniq, and he was able to have the real instrument sound on the synthesizer and play it as a piano. For instance, he would go get a sample of a bass guitar, and he was able to load it onto the synthesizer, and whenever he would play the keys, it would be a real live bass that was playing.
When he played for my grandfather’s church, you could see him transitioning to guitar. He would have his synthesizer on the left hand side, and on the right hand side, would be the piano. He would play the treble on the real piano and then he would play the bass on the Ensoniq with his left hand. So, he was playing two pianos at the same time and getting the sound out of it. When he was speaking to Nelson George about wanting to create from the standpoint of a guitar, it was because he always created that sound with a piano. That’s exactly how it was. He was playing this way when he was in church. The first instrument he picked up outside of the piano was the drums, then it was the bass guitar. He started really becoming proficient with it after the making of “Lady” and meeting Raphael Saadiq. He picked that up with no problem.
You mentioned that the song he was playing at three years old was a Prince song. Can you talk about that influence on him? Did you play him those Prince records?
When Prince first came out, I was taken aback by his music. Like millions of other kids out there, the sound, what he was doing on stage, and the fact he was creating all the music himself, took me by surprise, and I became a huge Prince fan. I used to be the guy who was the first one in the store to buy his album. The main influence was me just being so fascinated with it. With our religious background, it was one of the things I was allowed to have around that was secular. I was a huge Prince junkie. Anything he did, I was into it. I knew every song and lyric. [laughs] The only concerts I attended were Prince concerts. I didn’t have to sit him down and say, “Listen to this” or “I want you to play this.” It wasn’t like that at all. I played the albums all the time. As we grew older, and this continued through the time I was in college, we would talk about different facets of Prince’s music. We would converse in a lot more detail about his music.
Do you remember meeting Jocelyn Cooper and Gary Harris?
I never met Gary. When Michael signed his publishing deal, they offered me one too because I had contributed to quite a few songs that were presented for the Brown Sugar album. I first met Jocelyn Cooper when she came down to Richmond to visit. Jocelyn was my age, maybe a year or two older, and what I saw in her was a young ambitious, sophisticated woman, who was absolutely gorgeous, but she was a go-getter. She made things happen.
When and where did you first meet D’Angelo?
I met him in New York when he was 17. He was in a hip-hop group called I.D.U. He was their producer. His friends came into my office first, and I asked them, “Who is the guy that made your beats?” They said it was their friend who was back in Virginia. I asked them to bring him in to me. This was in 1992.
I met him in May or June of 1992. I just started working with EMI Records. Jocelyn Cooper brought me his demo and said to me, “I think I’ve heard something that I liked today.” She came to my office and played it for me as well as a video. I liked it, too. I told her I couldn’t wait to meet this kid. He said, “Well, he’s in my office right now.” So we went over to her office. She was still with Warner/Chappelle Music at the time. D’Angelo was in her office with a group of his friends from Virginia. They were hoping to be a rap group. He was the producer and vocalist in the group. I met with them, and I asked them, “Who is the kid singing on the demos?” D’Angelo said it was him. We were in a conference room. I made him sit down at a piano and play some Al Green and Marvin Gaye songs. I thought he was dope! When I heard D’Angelo’s demo, I thought it was a synthesis of Jodeci and A Tribe Called Quest.
When he finally arrived in New York, can you describe your initial meeting with him?
It was spectacular. He played the precursor to Brown Sugar. He played some songs he had been working on and some songs that I thought would be good for him to shop around. He talked about what type of artist and writer he wanted to be. The deal happened very quickly. When I met him, I loved him and his work. I thought he was the most extraordinarily talented young person I had ever met. He had such a unique way of writing music and looking at music. I knew he was going to be a star. He was like nothing I had ever heard before. It was like hearing Teddy [Riley’s] music for the first time. The music that was coming out of that whole corridor of Virginia was so unique. It was a new sound that D’Angelo was creating.
How did you introduce D’Angelo to Gary Harris?
Gary Harris was a friend of mine who was starting at EMI Records. I actually introduced him to Gary Harris and Fred Davis, who was Gary Harris’ boss at that time and he was my attorney back then. I had spoken with John McClain, Ed Eckstine, and a whole group of folks that I wanted D’Angelo to meet. Gary really bonded with him, and he decided to sign with Fred Davis and Gary Harris. I signed him, and then I helped him shop his songs and meet executives in the record industry.
When you first saw him and heard him sing, what was the thing that made you believe he could become one of the great artists of the time period?
Well, I didn’t know if he was going to be one of the great artists back then. I just liked his demo. I thought he was working within a couple of different traditions. It was three mainly. He was working in a contemporary R&B tradition that was close to Jodeci, being that they were all preachers’ kids and were singing in a contemporary fashion with the influence of hip hop. D’Angelo was part of that secularized soul singer tradition, a church singer like Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and Marvin [Gaye]. He was also part of that jazz fusion world which was best represented by Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, and Weather Report. Sometimes, you get lucky. I just happened to be in the office that day when Jocelyn came by.
During that process of shopping his songs and getting him a recording contract, was it hard to sell record executives on the new sound D’Angelo was bringing to the marketplace?
Interestingly enough, it was a hard sale to some of them. I called John McClain, who signed Janet Jackson and worked with Michael Jackson, and it was hard for him to get his mind around it. I remember seeing John at the first show that D’Angelo did in Los Angeles, and he said to me, “Jocelyn, I will never not take your phone call again. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking about. This kid is a genius. He is amazing!” I was like, “I told you!”
To his credit, my direct reporter at EMI was Fred Davis, who is Clive Davis’ oldest child. I went and played the demo for Fred, and he got it instantly. So it was relatively easy to get him signed to the label, but the political environment that I was working in was somewhat heightened because there were essentially two companies within the one company. D’Angelo was such a different type of artist, and EMI was certainly not a label that was steeped in the black music business.
How much work was involved from the day you first heard him until you signed him to his first record deal?
Well, it took about eight months for us to sign him to a record deal. EMI kind of had a dysfunctional business affairs department. As A&R executives, we weren’t given as much freedom to interact with the business affairs department as I had with other places. So I don’t know how their priorities were being set. From May through December, I would make cassette tapes of classic funk and soul music that he never heard before and send them to him. We would talk on the phone about records at length. Sometimes you’ll work with people that aren’t clear about what they want to write or whatever, but that wasn’t a problem for him at the time. He knew exactly what he wanted to do. He was also working with his oldest brother, Luther, who co-wrote “You Will Know.”
From his interview last year, I remember D’Angelo talking about the workshops you used to conduct for the young writers you signed to your publishing company. Tell me your thought process behind creating these workshops for young writers you signed like D’Angelo back then.
Well, he was way more advanced than the other writers I had signed because he had been playing music and performing in church since he was three years old. He was a pro. The second record he professionally produced was covered on the Jason’s Lyric movie soundtrack. It had Boyz II Men, Aaron Hall, Silk, Brian McKnight, Usher, and all of those major R&B groups on it. You have to remember that was only his second professional gig. [laughs] The idea for those workshops was to build a bridge between established musicians and young musicians. I wanted to have the established musicians to mentor the young musicians and to show them how to bring the musicality back into making music. This was during an era where the musicality was leaving. There were more beat makers, and not producers that could understand arrangements and music theory. The idea was to bring all that back to our writers at that time.
He had an EPS 16 keyboard that he rigged up and changed. He was creating music on this thing, and it was something no one else was using.
Before his placement on the Jason’s Lyric soundtrack, did you travel to Richmond, Virginia to meet with him?
Yes. I went to Richmond to meet his family and to see what inspired him musically. I went into his music room. It was a tiny room with Prince posters on the walls. I went to go see the equipment he was using to create his music and his creative process; the way he wrote and produced himself and his friends. I also went to get his family’s permission because he was still a kid. I wanted to let them know that he would be in good hands and that I wanted to work with him and them, so I could help him make his dreams come true. He was very focused and clear about who he was as a music artist and the type of music he wanted to make. I went down there to make sure everyone was on the same page, and we were. He co-wrote “You Will Know” with his brother, Luther and other songs with him. It was clear that he had a spectacular family.
You made reference to his music room that had Prince posters on the walls. Can you describe that room?
He had an EPS 16 keyboard that he rigged up and changed. He was creating music on this thing, and it was something no one else was using. It was all about his spirit and acumen. His ability came through in the music. He didn’t use a lot of fluff. He sampled a little bit, so he wanted to learn how to do that well. So I hooked him up with Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and they wrote “Brown Sugar” together. He really idolized Prince at the time. He didn’t really want to co-write with anyone else other than songs he wrote with his brother. He had a very clear vision.
After you signed him to his record deal, did he go back to Richmond to work on music for his debut album, Brown Sugar?
Yeah. He wrote the album when he was in Virginia.
Did he go immediately into the studio after completing the songs in Virginia?
I didn’t get him into the studio until the spring of 1993. About a week later, I was let go from the project. It took about six months from the time I signed him to when he first stepped into the studio to start recording his songs.
As he was working through the material for the album, would he send you tracks to New York for the label to listen to?
Yes. He sent me demos of what he was working on. He was 18 when he started working on this album. “You Will Know” and “Smooth” were on his original demo. “Smooth” was the only demo song that ended up on Brown Sugar. Everything he wrote during this time ended up on the album, except for “Cruisin’,” which was a Smokey Robinson song. He didn’t want to put “You Will Know” on his album. Jocelyn Cooper had more to do with him being able to get the song on the Jason’s Lyric movie soundtrack. That was more of a publishing thing, because by that time, Jocelyn had moved on. She opened up her publishing company as a joint venture within the Polygram Records system. Her partner was Ed Eckstine who I worked with at Wing Records before he became the first African American president of a major label. We were within each other’s creative circles. Ed was the president of Mercury/Wing Records when the Jason’s Lyric soundtrack was done.
Tell me about his maturation process from the time you first met him to the point of him working on his first professional recording.
It wasn’t that much difference. He already came to me with many skills. He had the foundation, and what I helped him to do was to find a producer and engineer. It was pivotal piece for him. It was all that he needed. I was working with Raphael Saadiq at the time, and I wanted him to meet other producers that he would enjoy working with. I introduced him to Raphael, and you would have to ask him what he learned from him in the studio. But he had the goods from the beginning. It was unlike anyone – other than Teddy Riley or Rodney Jerkins – that I had ever met at that level. He was more interested in being an artist than a producer. He is a genius level guy. At the time, he didn’t have the desire to produce other people and give his sound away. He enjoyed performing.
As you look back, how do you feel about the impact your brother and his music have made?
I still pinch myself. I really do. When Brown Sugar came out, and I saw the following out of Europe and seeing these white kids covering his music, it just really hit me on another level. The impact that he’s had on music, period. I can’t speak for the rest of our family, but in the beginning, we were all taken aback by the stardom and the fame. For me, it’s different now. I realize this whole thing will one day be in someone’s history book. There’ll be a documentary on his impact in music. Sometimes I sit back and pinch myself because it’s real, and I’m so proud of him.