Back on August 25, 2001, DJ Chairman Mao spun enough old school hip-hop jams and Prince songs to keep everyone at APT smiling. Hanging out with a crew of music industry folks at that Meatpacking District bar, there was little room for dancing; folks seemed content with their cocktails and chatter. I don’t recall the exact time, but somewhere around 11:00, people started looking at a news blast on their Blackberries.
“Oh my God,” a female friend mumbled, her eyes beginning to tear. “It says here that Aaliyah died in a plane crash.”
The accident had occurred when Aaliyah was returning from the Bahamas, where the 22-year-old singer had just finished shooting the video for “Rock the Boat,” the second single from her self-titled third album. Shortly after she and her team boarded a small twin-engine Cessna plane, it crashed and exploded on impact.
“She was a very happy person,” filmmaker Hype Williams (who directed “Rock the Boat”) told MTV. “She had nothing but love to give to others and she selflessly shared much of who she was. I don’t know if anyone really understands that about her. She had these incredible, graceful qualities as a person. I don’t know if her fans know that about her.”
As a somber chill trickled through the crowd at APT, a few people, including my sensitive friend, burst into tears. Leaning against the wooded paneled wall in that narrow room, she confessed, “I feel kind of dumb being this upset. I mean, I didn’t even know her.” Tenderly grabbing her hand, I comforted for a few moments as I reflected on the first time I’d first met the future superstar in her hometown of Detroit.
Going back to 1994—before the alleged affair and marriage to producer/mentor R. Kelly, followed by the spectacular sophomore project One in a Million that introduced the production chops of Timbaland and Missy Elliott—I’d been asked to write a bio for a new jill singer coming outta the Motor City.
Years before Aaliyah’s film stardom and romance with then-Jay Z manager Damon Dash, she was just another Black pop girl from Detroit (following Diana Ross and Freda Payne) with a few songs and a dream. I’d had the pleasure of meeting her early in her career, before the scandal that almost ruined it, a few weeks before her debut was released.
Sitting in the dining room of a Sheraton Hotel on Good Friday with her mother Diane and a Jive Records publicist, we ate in the hotel’s restaurant having lunch. Having relocated from Brooklyn to Detroit when she was 5, Aaliyah was a student at the then-newly built Detroit High School for the Performing Arts. Being interviewed for the first time, she carried herself in a way that writer kris ex later described as “cordial, yet restrained.”
On her Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number single “Back & Forth,” already playing on the radio and various video channels, Aaliyah was on the verge of being the next big thing. Singing in a light falsetto that processed an inner strength, Age was written and produced by R. Kelly, a client of Aaliyah’s uncle, Barry Hankerson.
Having first met the charming child when she was 12 years old, a year after she sang “My Funny Valentine” on Star Search, Kelly was more than ready to get his Svengali on. “I was looking forward to working with R. Kelly,” she explained the year before his self-produced 12 Play had gone triple-platinum. Although Kelly had constructed minor singles for Hi-Five (“Quality Time”) and the Winans (“The Payday”), this was to be his first major project as a producer. In a very old school move, he opted to work on the entire project as opposed to one or two songs.
At lunch, much like other yesteryear Detroit divas, Aaliyah was poised and more than ready to wax poetic about her project. “Robert’s music defines the sound that folks my age want to hear,” Aaliyah said. “He’s a very spontaneous person, meaning you never know what direction his music is going to take. The first night we worked together, we recorded ‘Old School’ in Chicago. Outside it was cold and snowing, but inside the music was hot.”
While the completed album—which dropped an amazing 20 years ago on May 24, 1994—was far from the masterpiece one might have expected, Kelly did make a handful of additive singles. Favorites for me include the bubbly, head-bopping funk of “Back & Forth,” the liquid fire of the Isley Brothers remake “At Your Best (You Are Love),” and the provocative pop of the title track. “Boy be brave don't be afraid/’Cause tonight we’re gonna go all the way,” she sang, sounding older than her years.
Talking about the track in her official Jive Records bio, Aaliyah bluntly explained, “Romance is not something I’ve had a lot of experience in, but it’s a subject I’ve thought about.” A couple of months after the album was released, Aaliyah found herself in the middle of an underage marriage scandal with R. Kelly. While the allegations were explored thoroughly in author Danyel Smith’s scandalous 1995 Vibe cover story “Super Freak,” as well as by Chicago-based journalist Jim DeRogatis, all parties involved denied there was ever a wedding in the first place.
Recently, I interviewed writer/professor/musician Jason King about the cultural importance of Aaliyah’s 1990s debut. “Enjoying Age for me is completely marred by R. Kelly’s troubling marriage [later annulled] to underage Aaliyah, and then, of course the rape/pedophilia allegations that would come later,” King said. “I don’t think we can now hear Age—particularly given the un-subtle title— without taking the issue of teenage rape into account.”
Although Aaliyah never talked about any of the allegations publicly, she never ducked the press; she just refused to answer. While negative press might’ve squashed a weaker artist, it seemed only to make Aaliyah stronger as she went on to become a superstar. Listening to the songs on Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number 20 years later, one can hear that Aaliyah was determined to be fierce, honest, sassy and sincere.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.