Before Rihanna was even born, pop icon Jody Watley took a bow singing hits like “Take That to the Bank” and “The Second Time Around” with R&B trio, Shalamar. Decades before the Bajan beauty graced the cover of Vogue, Watley married music and haute couture in Harper’s Bazaar spreads, Gap campaigns and more with legendary fashion photographers Matthew Rolston, Steven Meisel and the late Herb Ritts. Not to take anything away from RiRi, but Jody Watley helped make the concept of so-called “crossing over” to mass White audiences obsolete (these days, it’s a given), with mainstream singles and award-winning, style-forward videos like “Real Love” and “Don’t You Want Me.” Schwarzenegger didn’t single-handedly mint the catchphrase “hasta la vista, baby” with 1991’s Terminator 2; Watley already made it ubiquitous in ’87 with her no.1 smash, “Looking for a New Love.” Now that’s pop dominance.
This silver anniversary of her self-titled solo debut, Jody Watley, marks a sweet moment to look back on the singer’s innovations. For one, the standard rap/R&B collaboration was officially born on “Friends,” Watley’s classic 1989 duet with Rakim (although Al B. Sure’s remix for “If I’m Not Your Lover”—with Slick Rick—in late ’88 stakes its own claim). As well, from her teenage days dancing on Soul Train, to Shalamar, to her “Still a Thrill” heyday, Jody Watley’s innovative personal style always turned heads. Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga, among others, strut the catwalk Watley erected in the ’80s and ’90s by mixing quirky thrift-store chic with supermodel glamour.
Recently, Watley spoke with EBONY from L.A., where she’s on the verge of polishing up her tenth studio album, Chameleon.
EBONY: Explain the origin of “Friends,” your groundbreaking collaboration with Rakim.
JW: Shalamar had a song called “Friends” [on 1982’s Friends]. Over decades, no one ever made the connection. I wanted to write a song called “Friends” that was the antithesis of the goody two-shoes song that we did, about backstabbers and people trying to hold you down. There was a duet at the time, Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald, “On My Own.” It was huge. So when I went to MCA [Records], I said I want to do a duet. They said, “What do you mean a duet? He’s a rapper.” It’s just weird now because it’s so common, but I had to really sell them on what that was. They didn’t see how it was gonna go together.
When I see Rihanna and the younger girls now, I feel proud. Because whether they know it or not, that was a door that I helped to open.
Then it was, “Well, OK, we like the idea, but what about Will Smith?” And I was like, “No. I like Fresh Prince and all that, but it’s not what I want. I want it to be Rakim.” Rakim was real. I knew whatever he wrote was gonna be in your face. The first time we actually met was in the video, which we did in New York City.
EBONY: How do you feel about your influence on today’s crop of fashionista singers?
When I see Rihanna and the younger girls now, I feel proud. Because whether they know it or not, that was a door that I helped to open. No Black women were in fashion magazines. And the first time I did Harper’s Bazaar, the label didn’t want to send me to New York to do it because they didn’t see what being in a fashion magazine had to do with selling records. I flew myself to New York to do Harper’s Bazaar the first time I did it. Because I knew.
I met Patti LaBelle while I was on Soul Train. At the American Music Awards, she put it best: “Baby, a lot of people don’t get you, but I do. You are magazine, baby! Magazine!” (laughs) I loved that coming from her.
So everything was a struggle. And also being a Black woman, a Black artist, people have preconceived notions about what that’s supposed to mean and represent. If I was wearing quirky, funky clothes, I was still getting a lot of stuff from London and Paris. Today is, the quirkier the better. But then, I’d get people in the Black marketing department: “Well, she wears too many weird clothes.” And the pop department, they would go back and forth. “Well, she’s more our artist.” The politics of the music at that time was very different.
EBONY: How is it that soul pioneer Jackie Wilson is your godfather?
Jody Watley: He was a family friend. My father was a minister, but he was also a gospel music disc jockey in Chicago at the time on radio station WVEE. Ironically, my father actually knew Don Cornelius back then, but I didn’t know until after Soul Train. Because Don Cornelius had worked at the station too. But my parents had a lot of friends in show business. Jackie Wilson was one. One of the first memories I have going to a concert was Jackie Wilson. He was the