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 a friendly rivalry. Puffy was right in the middle of it. It was kind of genius what he was doing though. He would use the records from one camp to amp up the other camp. I remember the day he played ‘Reminisce’ for us and we all said, ‘Damnit,’” he laughs. “We thought we had them and then he played us that record. He was dancing around the studio all hype. Then, we did the record, ‘Changes I’ve Been Going Through.’ So we were trying to fire back. It was all love though. It was a fun project to do. Puffy was really pushing us.”
Hall remembers how he wanted to produce Blige and the collaboration process that existed between him and his songwriting partner Kenny Greene.
“Creatively, I was trying to take her in the direction of a grittier sound that had some substance to it,” says Hall. “She was a real street individual. I knew her a little bit personally because we were from the same area. The sound I tried to craft was more moody. All the songs I did for the album had that moody type of feel to them. They had a more jazz, R&B and hip-hop feel. A lot of it was moody and had lyrics that related to women.
It was a collaborative effort between me and an artist named Kenny Greene who has since passed away. He was the lead singer from the group Intro. Of the four songs I wrote on the album, he wrote the lyrics and we collaborated on the melodies and I did the music. We would talk to Mary to see what she wanted to talk about and then craft her thoughts into the songs we wrote. We had to run the songs by Diddy also,” he laughs. “Kenny Greene was instrumental in crafting the lyrical content and song styling of each song from a harmony and melody perspective. We had a good working relationship.”
Hall and Rooney share a couple of stories about working with Blige during the course of this album.
“We were all in our early twenties back then,” says Hall. She had to be about 20 or 21 during the recording of this album. Mary was great to work with. We would write the songs and then give her the songs at her apartment. She would learn the songs and then she would tell Diddy and the label that she knew the song. After that, she would come into the studio and knock it out. She would get the songs done in a really quick manner. It never took her more than two vocal takes to get the song done because I wanted to keep the essence of who she was and the let pain and emotions come across in the songs. I didn’t do a lot of editing. That’s why when you heard the record, there may have been some flat notes in there, but the emotion was what I was looking for and it came across more naturally.
She would come in and cut her vocals and leave. It would usually take us three days to finish a record. When she would leave, we would track the record and put some more keyboard parts in it to follow her lead and the day after she would lay her vocals down. The next day, we would mix the record. So it took about three to four days to finish each song. Some nights would be long nights. The first single, ‘You Remind Me’ was hard because that was the first song we did that had that type of direction. Some of the executives didn’t understand the vibe of the record because it wasn’t New Jack Swing. I must say, Diddy definitely had the ear to hear that this was the new direction to take R&B music. This record was hard to do because we had to figure it out as we went along. We had to figure out how to integrate a hip hop beat with an R&B singer. This album set a tone for a whole genre of music.
Let me say this about Mary. Kenny Greene’s songs aren’t easy songs to sing. If you can sing his songs, you’re a great singer. It’s hard to copy someone who can sing very well. I give her credit because she would just knock these songs out.”
“Everyone started writing songs and we all caught on very fast that Mary was going to embrace the songs that really represented her life,” says Rooney. “I guess that’s where she got that title of being "the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul." Basically, Mary J. Blige is the female that’s from the hood that sings the pain of all of the females from the hood. At that point in her life, she was being taken advantage of by a lot of the industry cats and a song like ‘Real Love’ described her situation.
One day, she said with tears in her eyes, ‘I just want a real love in my life for once.’ We wrote four or five songs before ‘Real Love’ came together for her. Those songs were more on a Stephanie Mills type of vibe, but no one was really feeling them. She was so emotional back then. Sometimes, we would be in the studio and she would have tears in her eyes. Right in the middle of a take, you wouldn’t hear anything in the dark vocal booth. We would wonder if she was still in there. She would be in there, but her emotions took over. All of these records started becoming real life records for her. This whole album’s design was directed by Puffy. It was his idea. He said it needed to be hip-hop with classic R&B on top of it.”
Hall recounts how the lead single “You Remind Me” had many layers within it.
“You Remind Me” was the first record we did together,” says Hall. “I was a big Biz Markie fan and I sampled his song, ‘Pickin’ Boogers.’ I sampled it and chopped it up and then I put a real pretty song on top of it. Kenny Greene didn’t write this song. A writer that I used to work with back then by the name of Eric Milteer wrote this song. We went to church together. We were just vibin’ to the music because it was bangin’. I put a nice chord progression on top of it as well and I gave it that church kind of feel.
I used some ideas from another artist that I loved by the name of Patrice Rushen. She had a song called; ‘You Remind Me’ and I liked the tone of her song. I took some of the influences from there and we tried to make a spin on it that was contemporary at the time. The song came out well, but the label didn’t really understand it though. I really don’t think they understood the whole project besides Diddy. He was a minor A&R at the label back then, but had the ear and vision for what he wanted to do.”
“You Remind Me” went on to peak at #29 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, #1 on the Billboard R&B Singles Chart and #48 on the UK Singles Chart. It helped to generate steam for the sales of What’s the 411? after its international release. The second single to be released from the album would be the equally iconic, “Real Love," which went on to peak at #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, #1 on the Billboard R&B Singles Chart and #26 on the UK Singles Chart.
Rooney tells a fascinating story of how “Real Love” transpired.
“Real Love” was the first song we did because we actually recorded it two years before the album came out,” says Rooney. “We did it at our home studio. The other thing about ‘Real Love’ is that when it came time to use the song for the album, I told Puffy I wanted to go back in and reproduce it. I wanted to take the sample out and replay the drums. He said, ‘No, No, No!’ I told him I wasn’t going to give away my publishing to Milk and Gears when we can play our own drums. He said, ‘That’s what makes the record dope. That’s what makes it hip-hop. Are you crazy? Don’t change it.’ Of course, I was fighting the fight and he came to the studio physically prepared to fight all of our asses that day. My partner, Mark Morales ended up siding with him.
So, I walked out of the studio and told them don’t put my name on that bullshit. I’m thankful that they didn’t pay me any attention,” he laughs. “Mark Morales was a rapper who never wrote R&B lyrics. He was a member of the Fat Boys. Mark was sitting on the other side of the room with a pad of paper and a pen. He starts writing lyrics down and all of a sudden he approaches me saying that he wrote some lyrics down to the music I was working on. He said, ‘Don’t laugh.’ I told him I wasn’t going to laugh and he started singing the first four lines of ‘Real Love.’ It was almost like a rap and I told him it was hot. I put melodies behind it and a bridge. The bridge was borne out of the melodies. It came together really fast. The original recording of the song took place in my basement in Queens.”
The third single to be released from the album would be “Reminisce.” “Reminisce” went on to peak at #57 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, #6 on the Billboard R&B Singles Chart and #31 on the UK Singles Chart.
Hall talks about the process of writing the song with Kenny Greene.
“When I wrote ‘Reminisce,’ I wrote the music when I was I trying to make a real dark, moody song with a lot of keyboard textures in it,” says Hall. “So if you listen to the song, you can hear a lot of keyboard instruments that are eerie and dreamy sounding. But I still wanted the song to have a hard beat to it so I dug into my crates and I found a nice loop that I wanted to use that still had the hard beat that would keep everybody happy. It wouldn’t be just a spacey, moody record. When I played the track for Kenny Greene at my house, he thought it was hot and he immediately started writing to the track. We would always get the hook first and then we took that concept and wrote the song ‘Reminisce.’
The fourth single to be released from the album would be the classic remake of Chaka Khan’s 1975 song “Sweet Thing.” “Sweet Thing” went on to peak at #28 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart and #11 on the Billboard R&B Singles Chart.
Rooney recollects how the song came to fruition from an idea he shared with Andre Harrell and Diddy.
“Songs like ‘Sweet Thing’ ended up on the record because she was going to do a convention called; Impact,” says Rooney. “Andre Harrell and Puffy hit me on the two way asking, ‘What would be a classic R&B song for a Black woman to sing? Like a Black anthem.’ So I suggested ‘Sweet Thing’ by Chaka Khan. Andre said, ‘That’s dope.’ He asked me if we could do a track that night for her to sing on because Impact was the next day and she was driving up to Jersey to perform there. We went to the Hit Factory in the city and we did just the track for ‘Sweet Thing.’ Mary came to the studio because she wanted to put background parts on it so when she would perform it, it would sound like a TV track.
We were still in the studio at 8 o’clock the next morning putting the finishing touches on it. She was literally about to jump in the car in the next couple of hours to drive up to Atlantic City. She asked me at the eleventh hour if she could put a scratch vocal over the track. I told her yes only because I wanted to listen to it in my car and it was one of my favorite songs. She went in the studio and knocked it out. The Impact show ended up going so well that Andre called us back and said that we should record the song. Mary played him the one take of what she recorded and he loved it. He told us to mix that version right there. This is how the song ended up on the album. It was the last song that was mixed and added to the album.”
The final song to be released from the album would be “Love No Limit," which went on to peak at #44 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart and #5 on the Billboard R&B Singles Chart.
Hall tells his own story on how he pieced the track together
“Love No Limit” was the last record we wrote for the album. I had a deadline to meet and Diddy was pressuring me to get it done,” he laughs. “He kept calling my house and I told him I had this song called; ‘Love No Limit’ that I wrote with Kenny Greene. He said, ‘Cool. Let me hear it.’ So I played it for him and he said, ‘I like it.’ But I don’t think he was 100% sold on it. We moved forward with it even though it was much different from the rest of the material on the album. It was really jazzy.
I was big into old school jazz like Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. Kenny Greene was church trained so we did the song with a jazzy feel, but it still had a strong beat to it. He wrote a catchy hook to it and Mary loved it. She definitely loved that type of jazz music. This whole album defined her sound per se. We cut the record and I thought it turned out great, but we were still skeptical on how it would be received because it was so different than any of the other stuff on her album. I was amazed when it came out because there would be guys on the corner in the hood blasting the song.”
What’s the 411? peaked at #6 on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart and #1 on the Billboard R&B Albums Chart in the early autumn of 1992 and sold more than three million units. It also peaked at #53 on the UK Albums Chart within the same year. This album provided a new pulse to the heartbeat of contemporary R&B music. It literally changed the game and the musical influence of this record is still apparent almost 20 years later in mainstream R&B music. Its lasting effect on popular culture is undeniable. To this day, it's regarded as the one of the greatest albums from the 1990s. This album earned a plethora of Soul Train Award and Grammy nominations and wins for Blige. What's the 411? was the question then and the answer now is a classic album.
Chris Williams is an internationally published writer. You can follow him on Twitter @CWmsWrites.