On DâAngelo and the Birth of Neo-Soul

Twelve years have passed since stellar soul artist and Richmond, Virginia native D’Angelo delivered his Grammy Award winning murky masterpiece Voodoo (2000) and I stopped holding my breath for a follow-up a long time ago. Like yesteryear Beach Boys fans patiently hanging around record stores waiting for Brian Wilson to complete Smile in 1967, folks have been anticipating a new D’Angelo album for a while. In December 2008, a press release was sent out announcing that D (as fans, friends and family call him) signed with J Record—which has since folded—and was in the studio sweating over his third disc. Supposedly called James River, it was reported that Prince, Cee-Lo and Q-Tip were working with the brown-skinned recording angel. Four years later, we’re still waiting.

“D’Angelo’s musical dilemma reminds so much of Donny Hathaway’s,” explains singer/songwriter Gordon Chambers. “A friend who once lived next door to Hathaway told me that he would sit at the piano creating the most incredible music, but personally he never thought it was good enough.”

When D’Angelo first emerged on the music scene, he was a shy and sensitive 21-year-old who mumbled between drags of his constant Newport cigarette, sometimes avoided making eye contact and hid behind a self-constructed wall that protected his fragility from the world. Besides the seemingly lack of ego, what made D’Angelo stand-out from his R&B contemporaries was his conscious decision to embrace the down-home foundations of blues and gospel. While there were other southern born singers, producers and songwriters on the Billboard R&B Charts in 1995, most noticeably Dallas Austin, TLC, Monica and Jermaine Dupri, their studio slick music embraced a more Northern sensibility. D’Angelo’s compositions, on the other hand, would have sounded perfect on the chitlin’ circuit thirty years before or in the back of a juke joint while the rowdy patrons sipped glasses of moonshine. Blending southern phrasings with big city cool, D’Angelo clearly possessed a similar rhythmic spirit as yesteryear FM heroes who made records for Stax, Hi or Atlantic.

Although D was only a baby when southern soul men like Al Green, Issac Hayes, Joe Tex and Johnny “Guitar” Watson blared from radios across his hood, he valued those roots and dug deep into the dirt when making Brown Sugar. Playing and creating like an old soul warrior who had been here before, many of us thought that D’Angelo would be the savior soul music so dearly needed. “D was touched by God,” says recording engineer Bob Powers. In addition to mixing six songs on Brown Sugar, he also co-produced “Alright,” “Shit, Damn, Motherfucker” and “Higher.” Thinking back to those early years of he and D working together either at Battery Studios or his Union Square loft, Power’s smiles. “If you ask me, D could make a great album on an answering machine if he wanted to.”

Whereas Voodoo was a haunting aural experience that intrigued while pushing the envelope into a raging bonfire, Brown Sugar had been an optimistic record of creative discovery and boundless energy. “I enjoyed Voodoo, but it lacks the kind of classic song structure that is prevalent on Brown Sugar,” India Arie says. “I can remember spending my last $17.00 buying D’s first album. I was so impressed I played it everywhere I went. From the singing to the playing to the production, Brown Sugar is a classic album.”

While pop writers praised Brown Sugar, most seemed to ignore the obvious southern sensibility that dripped on the grooves like molasses and was richly engrained in the textures of D’Angelo’s voice. “What made Brown Sugar so unconventional was that D’Angelo combined southern church on top of jazzy hip-hop,” explains Gary Harris, the former EMI Records A & R man who signed D to the label. “In some circles, being southern is stigmatized as country or unsophisticated. But, clearly D was more progressive and his sound just took off.”

Digging through his mental music crates, D’Angelo applied the memories of dusty grooves to create a hybrid. In fact, D’Angelo became one of the first artists of the ‘90s to combine old school instrumentation (real music) with hip-hop production (digital) aesthetics. Creating the tracks with an Ensoniq EPS 16, a primitive sequencer and keyboard in one, D was able to mimic whatever instrument he wanted with it. This was soul music filtered through the ears of a kid who had grown-up admiring the production of Marley Marl, Prince Paul and the Bomb Squad. Yet, still he had no problem digesting the sounds of Curtis Mayfield, Willie Mitchell and Norman Whitfield when simultaneously.

Brown Sugar is also responsible for launching neo-soul, the moniker used to describe his music as well as the work of Maxwell, Chico DeBarge, Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild and countless others. Although artists Lenny Kravitz and Terence Trent D’Arby were already waving their retro freak flag in the 1980s, they were not marketed to