Whatâs the 411?<br />
Mary J. Blige's Classic Turns 20

Mary J. Blige - What's the 411?

As the 1990s began, New Jack Swing was dominating urban and pop airwaves. Uptown Records had become the hottest music label in the industry, as many of the era’s most prominent acts called their headquarters home. There was one young artist who was on her way to reach unknown levels of superstardom. Her name was Mary J. Blige. The release of her debut album, What’s the 411? would establish her as "the queen of hip-hop soul" and solidify her as a force to be reckoned with.

Her singing style was reminiscent of past R&B songstresses such as Stephanie Mills, Chaka Khan and Anita Baker, but she brought something new to the table with her rugged, street girl persona and descriptive lyrical content. Her vocal prowess reigned supreme over hip-hop infused tracks with sprinkles of classic R&B, jazz, hard drum beat patterns and synths. This week marks the 20th anniversary of the album’s release, which was hailed at the time as a success by many of the culture writers of the early 1990s for its pioneering blend of hip-hop and soul music. Twenty years later, it is highly regarded as one of the most important albums from the latter part of the 20th century.

EBONY recently sat down with two of the main producers of the album, Dave “Jam” Hall and Cory Rooney to gain insight on the creation of such an iconic album.

Hall and Rooney reveal how they were chosen to participate in the making of the album.

“At the time, I was just a young, up and coming producer that was kind of struggling,” says Hall. “I was signed to my manager, Eddie F. who was with Heavy D & The Boyz. We all knew Diddy because he was the A&R of the project. We were all from Mount Vernon, NY so we knew each other from high school. When Diddy was working on the project, he came to Eddie F. and I and said he was looking for this new type of sound for his artist. At that time, New Jack Swing was prominent and he told us that his artist wasn’t New Jack Swing and that her style was a little bit grittier and a little more urban.

Back then, I was experimenting with putting hip-hop beats together with R&B chord progressions. I wasn’t getting any traction with the sound because people didn’t quite understand it. One day, I was in Eddie F.’s car in the backseat and Diddy was in the front and I played my tracks. He said, ‘That’s exactly what I’m looking for! That’s the new sound we need. This is new direction I need for this artist named Mary J. Blige.’ This is how I became part of the project.”

“The funny thing is we actually did some work for Uptown Records,” says Rooney. “We did Father MC’s album. At that time, Uptown Records was the place to hang out at. We lived in Rosedale Queens back then and we used to wake up and say let’s go drive up to Uptown. Everyone would just be hanging out in there. All of a sudden, Kurt Woodley, who used to be the A&R guy at Uptown was introduced to Mary through a guy named Jeff Redd. He signed her to a deal. He came to us and told us that he needed our help. They sent Mary over to our house and we had already written some songs. One of those songs that we wrote two years prior to meeting her was ‘Real Love.’ This is how it really all started.”

Rooney recalls how Blige wasn’t on the label’s radar until the Strictly Business movie soundtrack was in production.

“She kind of sat around for a while and then Uptown did the movie soundtrack for the movie Strictly Business,” says Rooney.  “Kurt Woodley pressed Andre [Harrell] about putting her on the soundtrack for the movie. They thought Mary was the next Stephanie Mills. This how they were pitching her to us. When the ​Strictly Business soundtrack came together, Kurt Woodley told Andre that he had to give Mary a shot. They came up with the record ‘You Remind Me,’ which was done by Dave Hall, who was out of Eddie F.’s Untouchables crew.  The song really took off and it jump started the process for Mary’s album. It was the most popular record on the radio so Andre and everyone said it was time to put an album together right now for Mary. She went from being an artist on the shelf to Puffy literally having weeks to put an album together.

What he did was he split the album in half. He was in New Jersey with the Untouchables and then he would come back and play us some of their music to get us amped up. So it ended up being