Growing up in Washington, D.C., music producer Chucky Thompson, who's renowned for his iconic hits for Mary J. Blige, the Notorious B.I.G. and Nas, enjoyed listening to funk music from artists like the Isley Brothers. However, part of his success is due to his affinity for go-go, a regional musical genre that developed in the '80s in D.C., that was a melding of radio hits with a new, drum-heavy beat.
“I realized something was happening with this go-go thing. I played in go-go bands with Chuck Brown, [the godfather of the hard-grooving sound]," he told EBONY. "At that particular time, hip-hop started kicking. I transitioned into production; and as Teddy Riley hit the scene, the music got younger.”
Thompson’s skills in playing eight different instruments helped shape his emerging talent for music production, which he discovered was just incorporating melodic apparatus into song structure. He began looking at the Billboard Top 10 chart and started to deconstruct the ranking songs' compositions to see what made them work. Living around the corner from Howard University also gave him the opportunity to work with local artists including the Born Jamericans, a dancehall reggae band. In 1993, “Boom Shak-A-Tak,” a track he produced for the group, was in heavy rotation on New York radio.
Luck came in the form when music mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs, who was in the process of looking for new songs for Mary J. Blige’s My Life album at the time, had a mutual friend that passed Thompson’s music onto him. Thompson subsequently signed a management agreement with Combs—a move that would put his career on the fast track. He remembers the feeling of being a relative neophyte in the music business working with the New Jack Swing songstress and the immense amount of trust she and Diddy had in allowing him to further build her iconic sound.
“I never looked at her as a new artist and I never cared about the sophomore jinx stuff,” he said. “To be a new producer, coming from D.C., the most valuable thing with me was the trust Puff and her gave me.”
Blige and the Chocolate City producer bonded over their love of ‘70s soul music, which played a heavy role in creating her beautiful covers of impassioned tunes, such as the 1976 Rose Royce classic “I’m Going Down.”
“It was a soulful time at that point in hip-hop,” Thompson recalls. “Jermaine Dupri was making [Da Brat’s] Funkdafied. The ‘90s kind of repped the ‘70s. We were pulling from the ‘70s. It helped ease the pain for Mary to even want to talk about the stuff she talked about. I was able to lay the canvas. If you’re a great artist, it starts with that canvas.”
As Thompson started experimenting with ways he could help Blige shine, he wanted to tap into the energy of New York City radio and the What’s The 411? remix album that captured the percussive, soulful blend of sounds of DJs, such as DJ SNS, Kid Capri and Ron G, who combined the edge of new hip-hop records in their radio mixes with classic R&B songs.
“That’s what started [Mary’s cover of] ‘All Night Long.’ That was the kind of vibe the music was on—The Mary Jane Girls’ ‘All Night Long,’ Teddy Pendergrass’ “Turn Off The Lights’ and Keni Burke’s ‘Rising To The Top.’ In New York at that time, when you went to a party, they would play those real records.”
But the rising producer never forgot his go-go roots, he shares. On “My Life,” he remade a go-go record into what is now a popular album cut on the seminal R&B album.
And though he was heavily influenced by the legendary contemporary producers of his day—Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, and Teddy Riley—in addition to funkmasters of yore, Thompson has an appreciation for the current state of R&B and the modern crop of musicians that continue the genre's soulful legacy.
“I try to focus on the artists that are bringing the new [energy] because even for me at that time, it wasn’t the same as my mother’s music. Yeah, we pulled from those places, but we did that in a way. Lucky Daye is someone I really appreciate, as well as H.E.R. and Jazmine Sullivan. It’s different now, but I appreciate that they’re incorporating live instruments.”
While Thompson is currently working with Combs on a new R&B album, he does not want to see the category get whitewashed. After all, there is no replacement for the energy of Black music and the inexplicable flavor that "our" musicians bring to the table.