26 Years Later, “Up Jumps Da Boogie” is Still a Party

Missy Elliott tweeted today that “Up Jumps Da Boogie,” from Timbaland and Magoo’s Welcome to Our World, will turn 26 this year.

Welcome to Our World was part of the Blackground catalog re-released in 2021 after 20 long years being withheld from streaming and out of physical production. I had the honor of working with the Empire Records team on marketing strategy for the releases (I mean honor – how many people get to be part of introducing music that already shaped their lives to new audiences?), and realized “Up Jumps…” was the perfect primer on the Superfriends collective – it’s also still A BOP.

So we did an old school pop-up-style joint!

I owe the entire Superfriends a proper post and tribute, but for now, revisit the #MusicSermons on Missy & Tim as an introduction!




Want advice about getting into the industry? Read this first.

I often get DMs from people asking some variation of “How do I get into the music industry?” While I try to offer some level of direction and insight where I’m able, I’ll be honest that a lot of these requests are lazy and inappropriate. I recognize that sometimes that’s simply because people don’t know the best way to go about shooting their professional shot. So gather ’round, because I’m going to share some tips on the right way to approach professionals in the entertainment industry. Believe me, the internet might make things seem super casual, but if you’re serious about seeking help getting into the game, a bit of research, strategy, and respect can go a long way.  


The world of entertainment is a bit different from the traditional career paths like medicine or law. Here, you won’t always find a rigid set of educational requirements or formal job titles to follow. But entertainment still has specialties and concentrations. Do you want to work in music, TV or film? Are you interested in talent management, agency, creative, or the business side of things? Just like you wouldn’t ask a pediatrician about becoming a brain surgeon,  you need to know where you’re trying to go before you hit someone up for guidance. This is where your research game comes in. If you’re intrigued by the music industry, for instance, take the time to learn the different areas and roles in the industry. [All You Need to Know About the Music Business by Donald Passman is universally considered the industry bible and a great starting place to understand roles and functions in the business. I highly recommend it to aspiring artists and execs). An A&R rep can’t necessarily tell you how to get radio airplay. Publicists and marketers aren’t interchangeable. Someone who’s not in business and legal can’t necessary break down contract terms. And some areas, like publishing and live music, are really their own worlds separate from record labels.   Here’s a reality check: if you’re not sure about what you really want to do and you’re just riding the “I want to be in the industry” wave, you might not be ready for this journey. Every successful venture starts with clarity and direction, and even if you don’t know where you will best fit in the business, you have to choose a starting point. Take a moment to evaluate your talents and interests. Research the professionals who are already doing what you aspire to do. Then, and only then, should you hit them up for a chat.   Don’t even think about asking someone for advice without doing your homework. If you’re approaching me with a generic “How can I be in music?” and you have no idea what my role is – or even worse, if you reach out to me to ask for something that has absolutely nothing to do with what I do? You’re not exactly winning me over.    


Now, let’s talk about the art of the ask. When you’re reaching out to professionals, be it through a tweet or a DM, specificity is your best friend. Don’t just drop a vague “How do I get a job?” Instead, craft a thoughtful message like, “I’ve been working in XYZ field and I’m looking to transition into ____. I noticed you’ve got experience doing _____, and I’d love any advice you can offer on next steps.”  

But here’s the kicker: don’t expect an instant response. You’re asking questions that require thoughtful answers, not just a quick one-size-fits-all response. And remember, you’re probably not the only one sliding into their DMs. So, patience is key. If you really want a response, do a little work to track down an email, because they may not even see your DM or Tweet or reply, etc.  


This isn’t about getting hook-ups, so don’t expect to be handed opportunities on a silver platter without putting in your own work. Especially when you’re reaching out to people who don’t know you. I once had someone ask me about getting a deal. I pointed out that I wasn’t an A&R and didn’t even work at a label anymore (strike one). They then asked me if I could refer them to some managers or A&R reps. I’d never spoken to this person before a day in my life (strike two). They didn’t even first share their art with me so I could determine whether I’d want to leverage my name and relationships to send them to anyone else (strike three). Entitlement will kill a potential assist quickly.   THIS IS STILL ABOUT BUSINESS Let’s talk about professionalism. Yes, the internet makes things feel more casual, but you’re still asking for career advice from professionals. Treat it like you would if you were reaching out to folks in the finance or legal industry – be respectful and considerate.   Also, as you’re considering your reasons for pursuing a career in the industry, remember that work is still work. There will be days when you’re tired, overwhelmed, annoyed, and over some part of it, no matter how glamorous it may seem on the outside.   So, aspiring execs, remember: be strategic, do your research, craft thoughtful asks, and above all, appreciate the time and expertise of the professionals you’re connecting with. With the right approach, you’ll be one step closer to making your mark in this dynamic industry.  

RELATED: Don’t ever ask a creative to “pick their brain.”

No, You Can’t Pick My Brain, and Here’s Why

No, You Can’t Pick My Brain. It Costs Too Much

The Black Godfather is a Lesson About Relationships

Netflix’s Clarance Avant documentary is a captivating look at the life and impact of the music industry architect, but it’s also a testimony to the power of connection. (Originally posted June 12, 2019)

If you haven’t already, I highly encourage and strongly urge you to watch The Black Godfather, Netflix’s doc on one of the most powerful Black men in entertainment, Clarence Avant. It’s not just a music and entertainment doc, though. It’s an illustration of how powerful one can be from behind the scenes; a celebration of being the kingmaker instead of the king.

I won’t go into Mr. Avant’s history here, but the core of his power and influence lay in his relationships. They’ve granted him a level of access and respect from entertainment to politics that few people have enjoyed.

Last week I was part of a panel of entertainment professionals discussing diversity in entertainment, and I said the word “relationships” so many times — without even realizing it — that several people quoted it back to me as we were talking afterward. The transience of the digital era has come at the expense of cultivating and nurturing relationships; not just with friends, but professional ones as well. When we do make connections, they’re often tenuous and more about an end goal than genuine building. People say they want to network or link up when they really mean they want something you can provide. It’s transactional.

When people ask me about my career path, my two part answer has been largely the same for at least the last decade plus:

  1. I fell into this career by accident, ​and
  2. It’s been all about relationships. All of it.



“The state of being connected”

When I was working for Reggie Ossé (AKA Combat Jack) and his partner Ed Woods a hundred years ago (1998) at their law firm, I would hear them ask each other and the other lawyers in the office, “Do you have a relationship with (insert name of person they were hoping to reach/do business with/get access to)?”

Not “Do you have their number?” Not even “Do you know them?” Do you have a relationship with them. It struck me that the usage of “relationship” was key.

Relationships got me from that law office to Bad Boy, because I was able to call Harve Pierre and ask if I could come intern for him. At Bad Boy, I met one of my now long-time friends and mentors, who’s been responsible for three jobs during my career. One she hired me for directly, and two she recommended me for — my two most formative jobs, in fact. Relationships got me to Columbia Records when an exec thought of me as he was looking for someone to fill a marketing role. Relationships made it easy for me to come back to Sony and join Epic after I left Columbia to go to a TV network and realized it wasn’t a good fit. Relationship is why John Legend asked for me to join his management team, and relationships are why my old team at Columbia when I was John’s product manager was happy to learn I’d be working with them again from the other side.

The value in good relationships really hit home for me when I branched out on my own. The number of genuine “What do you need?” “Let me introduce you to…” “I mentioned your name to…” phone calls and emails I received affirmed that I’d been a good steward of my connections. Relationships got me my first several monthly retainers, one with someone I hadn’t worked with in years, but had always stayed in contact with and occasionally sought input from. I pride myself on there being very few people I’ve worked with in any capacity that I can’t call on if needed. A good relationship can take you leaps and bounds beyond just skill and talent — especially when you actually have skill and talent, but this is a practice. Something you do intentionally.

​I’m admittedly not the best at cold networking, but I’m very good at establishing and maintaining connections — even if I don’t do it in person as much as I’d like. I’ve gone on a couple of mini-rants on Twitter about this before, but watching the documentary today inspired me to revisit and share my personal rules for relationships and connection:

1. Relationships are currency.

This is my Golden Rule. I have pissed people off, often, because I won’t pass music on, help get a meeting, send a pitch, get tickets…

Listen, if you squander or abuse access, you will lose that access. And me helping with a call or a contact or a connection is essentially a co-sign, and I gotta keep my credit in good standing! Now, if I believe that something is either mutually beneficial or I have confidence enough in what you’re doing to make the connect, I’m all in. I have been more than happy to make a call, send a note or make a connection when it’s right. And especially when it’s someone who I know would do the same for me, which leads to #2…

2. Relationships aren’t one-sided.

Granted, when talking about a mentorship or big homie/little homie relationship, someone has more to offer. But even if it can’t be exact quid pro quo, the goal shouldn’t be just to have a plug. Be mindful of what your asks mean for them in terms of time, effort, labor and general put-themselves-out-there-ness. Recognize when you’re going back to the well too often. There are a few people in my life whose calls I screen, and I’ve known all of them for years. So why do I screen? Because they take too much, and haven’t made good use of the times I did throw an alley-oop. At the same time, I’m very careful of how often I’m hitting someone in my life for something, and times when it’ll be inconvenient, they probably have a bunch of people hitting them up for something similar, etc. Be self-aware.

3. But they should be altruistic.

Mr. Avant helped people negotiate deals, broker the creation of companies, and get massive checks. And he didn’t ask for a stake or a kick back or a finder’s fee or none of that. While you may not be in the position to help someone start a label, the lesson is to move on behalf of someone else solely based on how it benefits them. (As long as it’s not at a great negative expense to you)

3. Don’t ever, ever burn bridges unless you’re at war.

Even if people don’t care for me personally, most can never say I was unprofessional or that I wasn’t good at what I do. But there’s a few folks I straight showed my ass to, and in those cases I was good with that choice, then and now. When I started working with John LEGEND, which meant working with the exact same team that I left at Columbia, it could have been incredibly awkward if I’d rolled out like “f*ck ya’ll losers” when I quit the company two years prior. Creative industries are small, especially for Black folks. The longer you’re in any space, the higher you ascend, the more likely you are to come across the same people multiple times. Even if you don’t come in direct contact again with someone you worked with in some capacity prior, amongst my peers and older, eight times out of ten, anyone about to work with you — project, consulting, full on hire — is gonna call someone they think you might have in common and ask, “What’s up with ___?” People now have the power of socials to assist in their version of the background check, but don’t ever be so confident to think slipshod or shady moves will never come back to you. 

On the flip side of this, do a thorough investigation of people before you give them business or let them into yours. Sometimes the jig was just three google searches and an email or text message away, but you got got by a curated timeline and slick talk.

4. Relationships are cultivated.

This is not “add water and stir.” Yes, sometimes you make an instant connection with someone and the energy is just right off the top, and you know you like this person and you want to do something with them, help them, stay in contact with them, etc. I’ve had that happen, too. But what usually comes next is “Let’s get together!” so y’all can vibe, right? That’s cultivating your relationship. Someone else on last week’s panel shared a great gem about this; he keeps post it notes of people he wants to stay in contact with over his desk. He calls or reaches out every so often, not because he wants something, but because you never know where a connection might lead. He got the referral for his current job through that practice. Is there someone right now who can say they’ve known you in both your business and personal life for the majority of your career, who would sing your genuine praises when asked?

5. Relationships are an active practice.

A relationship doesn’t mean you just reach out when you need something.
We’re extremely aware of what it looks like/feels like when a potential romantic partner only hits us late night, last minute. Or when a friend only calls to ask you to help them do something. But we miss the same behavioral cues when the relationship is professional. Whether mentor, peer or colleague, reach out even when you don’t need something. Congratulate them on a win, wish them happy birthday, invite them to something you’re hosting/doing/having, share something you’re working on just for them to see it — not repost.

6. You don’t have to front.

Mr. Avant was cussing people out left and right, with love and authority. Although this word is used too often now, he was unapologetic. His level of directness is a privilege that comes with time and track record, but I think there’s a huge lesson in that he is universally trusted to shoot straight. Do you know how rare that is in life, let alone in business, let alone in entertainment

The old adage that it’s not what, but who you know is true, but you also want those “who’s” to be excited to take your calls, willing to share your name in rooms, and feel reciprocity in your partnership. Nurture and value your relationships, it’ll take you far. I promise.

Now, in Clarence’s honor, think about who you owe an email or a phone call. Think about an opportunity you could suggest someone you know for. And think about someone who’s looked out whom you owe a simple shout to see how they’re doing. I’m going to do the same.

RELATED: How to Ask for Career Advice on the Internet



It’s June 1, 2018, and Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav stands on Brooklyn’s Barclay Center stage, triumphant after bringing the house down with “I Can’t Do Nuttin’ For Ya Man” and “911 is a Joke.” He takes a moment to give some shout-outs to people, including his absent other half, Chuck D, his niece, and his goddaughter. Now, finally, he’s acknowledging the reason everyone is there, “Yo! MTV Raps was the launching pad for rap music, period. It’s how a lot of (rap) groups got discovered.” Fab 5 Freddy, Ed Lover, Doctor Drè, DJ Skribble and Charlie Settler (Ed and Drè’s former manager and a key figure behind early hip-hop tours including “Fresh Fest”) got the band back together for a night of full-on nostalgia and old-headness in celebration of Yo! MTV Raps’ 30th Anniversary. Artists from Yo!’s initial run from 1988 – 1995 including Special Ed, Das EFX, MC Lyte, EPMD, Big Daddy Kane, Kool Moe Dee, Nice & Smooth, The Beatnuts, Brand Nubian, Eric B & Rakim and KRS-One rocked the stage like it was still the early ‘90s. And all echoed Flav’s sentiments on the importance of Yo! for hip-hop. It’s easy to forget, with hip-hop now influencing and impacting every segment of pop culture, a time when it was niche. When it only existed in pockets for the people who were part of it. Yo! MTV Raps was the first national showcase for hip-hop and was pivotal in in pushing the genre and the culture mainstream and globally, opening the door for an era where hip-hop dominates the streaming and radio charts.

In the late ‘80s, MTV was the home of rock music, with some pop and a splash of black crossover (Michael Jackson, Prince). Rap was still considered by many to be a fad, and not only was MTV not checking for it, but it wasn’t getting love on mainstream radio either. Then a young hip-hop head named Ted Demme joined the on-air promotions team as a PA and immediately started lobbying the network to give hip-hop a look. The network’s brass was resistant, but Demme’s immediate boss, Pete Dougherty, was a downtown club kid who was friends with The Beastie Boys and Rick Rubin. He saw the need to give rap a platform on the network but had given up on trying to make it happen. Demme reignited the spark. The idea wasn’t without precedent — MTV Europe was already having success with their iteration of Yo! that launched in 1987 — but despite seeing a positive reaction to the few hip-hop videos they would play (mostly RUN-DMC), the U.S. network heads still weren’t with it. When DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s broadly appealing “Parents Just Don’t Understand” became one of the most popular videos on the network in the Summer of ‘88, Dougherty told Demme the timing was right to try again. This time, executives threw him a few thousand dollars to shoot a pilot. The episode was hosted by RUN-DMC directly from the Tougher Than Leather tour and featured the first on-air appearance from a young Will Smith and Jazzy Jeff. It aired on August 6, 1988, and was the highest rated non-special programming in MTV’s history at that point. Execs wondered if Nielsen had made a mistake. Once they realized it was real, they told Demme to have the show ready to air in two weeks, and Yo! MTV Raps as we know it was born.

Fab 5 Freddy and Public Enemy
VH1’s YO! MTV Raps Documentary

There were regional shows showcasing hip hop, such as Ralph McDaniels’ legendary Video Music Box in NY, but there was nothing like Yo! nationally (Rap City came a year later, and yes there was beef between the two shows). In the latter half of ’88, Fab 5 Freddy brought real, uncut hip-hop into living rooms across the country every Saturday. Then from 1989 to 1992/93, kids across the country came home, dropped their book bags, maybe changed out of their good clothes and into their play clothes, and sat in front of the TV for Ed Lover and Doctor Drè. The show was light enough and funny enough for younger kids, but also had the content that the older and cooler kids were craving. Dan Charnas, author of The Big Payback (the definitive book about the growth of the hip-hop business) summed up part of the show’s overall influence: “Yo! created a generation of kids who grew up on [hip-hop]. That’s the generation that elects the first black president.”

“What set Yo! apart was the international factor and that this was many people’s first introduction to hip-hop,” Ed Lover explained to Billboard. “You have to remember that people didn’t have access to rap music on the radio or shows like Video Music Box. The introduction of this culture to the world was Yo!” The show was part of MTV Europe, MTV Asia and MTV Latino. Questlove shared in VH1’s Yo! documentary that when The Roots first toured in Europe, most of the English spoken to him was b-boy, hip-hop slang. “I’d be like ‘How do you speak so street?’ They all said unanimously that recording Yo! is how they learned English.”

The show debuted at a pivotal time for both hip-hop and music videos. The two were growing and expanding creatively simultaneously. Hip-hop was made to be paired with a visual because the genre is all about storytelling, braggadocio and lifestyle. Having a home for it on the self-defined network for youth culture had an immediate effect on the business; rap sales jumped from Yo!’s first year on the air. But the show also changed the TV business. For years, it was the rating leader for the MTV the and became the network’s anchor as it expanded into new global markets, helping to carry hip-hop across the world. It also opened the doors for hip-hop, and for hip-hop-influenced programming like In Living Color to come soon after.

At a time when music was still incredibly regional, Yo! bridged culture gaps among hip-hop fans in different cities. Kids in Atlanta didn’t know what was happening in Compton. New Yorkers had no idea how big Luke Skywalker and 2 Live Crew really were in Miami. White suburban kids were just having their minds blown, period. Instead of waiting for artists to pass through New York on a promo run and interview them in studio, Yo! went to the artists: to their hoods, their mama’s houses (LL Cool J’s mom made lemonade), to their studios, and the show had the perfect hosts to act as guides to the world of hip-hop.

Fab 5 Freddy and NWA – 1989

Fred Brathwaite, better known as Fab 5 Freddy, was already a respected mainstay in New York’s hip-hop scene, which in the early years intersected with the downtown New York club scene — Freddy is held largely responsible for that intersection. His overall contributions to early hip-hop are too numerous to go through in detail, but here are a few highlights: He was part of the legendary graffiti group the Fabulous 5, eventually transitioning into the high art world and bringing graffiti artists along with him. He conceptualized and co-produced the first movie to focus on hip-hop culture, the iconic Wild Style. He’s the artist behind one of the most sampled rap records of all time, “Change the Beat.” He was on Europe’s first hip-hop tour ever, which included ten cities in France, where no other hip-hop music had ever been released. The “New York City Rap” tour sparked France’s hip-hop movement, and France continues to be the second biggest market for hip-hop in the world, behind America. Closer to the launch of Yo!, Freddy was directing rap music videos and had name recognition outside of his immediate circles due to Blondie name-checking him in “Rapture.” Dougherty knew Freddy well, and recognized he was the perfect hip-hop ambassador for the program. The artists knew him, trusted him and respected him, and he brought a journalistic and documentarian style to the show that led many to call it hip-hop’s 60 Minutes.

When MTV decided to add a daily 30-minute show on top of the two-hour Saturday program, Freddy didn’t want to host. Demme and Dougherty took the opportunity to go in a different direction with the style and energy; light and funny to balance Freddy’s hip hop news journalism. Andrè “Doctor Drè” Brown had been The Beastie Boys’ tour DJ, and before that worked with Chuck D. and Flavor Flav at Adelphi University’s radio station. James Roberts, aka Ed Lover, grew up with Demme and had been stalking him since the inception of the show to let him do something, anything. From the moment Ed and Drè met to audition, the chemistry was instant. Hip-hop had its Laurel and Hardy. Both iterations of the show were unscripted and free flowing. Since it was uncharted territory for the higher-ups at MTV, they left the shows alone and allowed the hosts and crew could do basically whatever they wanted, which worked to their favor. Ed, Drè and sidekick T-Money made up skits on the fly; randomly created special show days, such as “Exercise Day” and, of course, “Ed Lover Dance” Wednesdays; programmed all the videos; and created a comfortable just-chillin’-in-the-basement-listening-to-music vibe that made the show a must for any hip hop-affiliated artist that wanted to get on. TLC’s first TV appearance? Yo!. Mary J Blige’s first TV performance? Yo!. You also couldn’t see live core hip-hop performances anywhere else. Talk shows would book Hammer, Heavy, Latifah and Tribe, but they weren’t going to book Cypress Hill — at least not until after Cypress Hill was on Yo!.

From the beginning, Yo! was committed to repping for the culture. Everyone on the show recognized it was a unique space and opportunity to educate people about hip hop. In 1989, the Grammy’s announced the first ever Best Rap Performance award. They also announced that the category wouldn’t be televised. Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff, along with fellow nominees Salt-N-Pepa and LL Cool J, plus a few hip-hop peers and Def Jam launched a boycott of the ceremony. Yo! threw a Grammy boycott party that ended up being one of the hottest tickets of the night, and gave the artists the only important TV platform to talk about the boycott. The show was hip-hop; Ed and Drè were on tour with NWA the night of the famous “F*ck the Police” concert riot. The show has been name-checked in multiple rap songs, Mark the 45 King’s iconic “The 900 Number” was re-released with a label titling it “The Ed Lover Dance” song and appearances on the show are part of the legend and canon for several artists, including Tupac.

TuPac Threatens the Hudlin Brothers on Camera – 1993

By 1991, Yo! was arguably MTV’s centerpiece. The culture was shifting; rock was no longer the voice and energy of the youth movement, grunge and hip-hop were. Riffing on the massive success of “Down With OPP,” MTV cut a new set of promos centering the Yo! talent and key hip-hop artists, “Down With MTV,” and brought the show to the network’s annual Spring Break, where drunk white kids from De Moines screamed and rapped along to every word of the hip-hop songs performed on the Spring Break stage. But the show was more significant than MTV. Yo!’s t-shirts and merchandise were the hottest items on the street; they even had trading cards featuring show talent, producers, and key artists. Other networks had by now launched their own rap shows, and MTV also started expanding its hip-hop and urban programming beyond Yo!. MTV Jams began as a two-hour block in 1992 (eventually evolving into the network’s all urban channel in 2002, and now rebranded as BET Jams). Urban music was more prevalent in mainstream culture overall, and hip-hop culture was quickly becoming the mainstream.

While Yo! was still unique in its style and familiarity and intimacy, it was no longer the only place you could go for your hip-hop fix, so ratings started slipping. The show had served its purpose in broadening hip hop’s reach and appeal, and in doing so, made itself unnecessary. Yo!’s final episode aired on August 17, 1995, which a proper hip-hop send-off comprised of one of the biggest and best rap freestyle ciphers ever.

Yo!s Final Episode Freestyle PT 2

After the official finale, MTV ran a revamped version of the show with rotating guest hosts until 1998. With the resurgence of ‘90s culture and nostalgia, MTV announced earlier this year plans to relaunch a digital version of the show. However, Doctor Drè is skeptical of a successful revamp in this current era of music, “Yo! MTV Raps was a snapshot in time. It happened when it was most needed, when the music industry, the nation and the world needed something that would unite everybody to a 1-2-3-4 beat, to a boom and a bap to a zugga-zugga-zugga, to an MC getting down on a microphone. “It’s a difficult reboot,” Dré said to Vulture. “Certain things were meant for a certain time. Kids aren’t gonna run home to watch Yo! MTV Raps. Kids are streaming. They make their own music, shoot their own videos, and don’t have to worry if some channel decides to play it… How do you compete against Youtube?” Yo! left indelible marks on the culture, from the Ed Lover Dance to T-Money’s hilarious characters, memorable interviews and unforgettable performances. Ed and Drè continued to shape hip-hop culture, converting their partnership to a radio morning show at New York’s Hot 97 after they transitioned to an all-hip-hop format. Ted Demme continued directing, moving into film with Who’s the Man? (starring Ed and Drè), Life, and Blow. He died of a heart attack in 2002. Peter Dougherty eventually turned full control of Yo! over to Demme and continued to work within the MTV network, including MTV Europe. He died of a heart attack in 2015.

MTV executed its plan to reboot the brand in 2022, but like many of the cultural moments that shifted hip-hop in the late 80s and early 90s, Yo! existed for that specific space and time, and had an energy and magic that simply can’t be recreated in the same way.

Soft & Warm…


How many of y’all have memories of cakin’ on the phone with your little boyfriend/girlfriend while you listened to the Quiet Storm? How many of us fell asleep to slow jams for the majority of our formative years?

Through every change in urban music and urban radio — new formats, satellite, streaming, conglomeration — The Quiet Storm endures. This week I paid tribute to a key institution of urban music & culture for Vibe, and then in a #MusicSermon experience on Twitter (you can start here and scroll) and of course the tribute deserved a playlist.

Black folks know, sonically and culturally, what the Quiet Storm means, even if they can’t easily describe it. It’s the deep, cognac smooth vocals of the format DJs everywhere (I feel like they go to school for that); Drake recently paid homage to Toronto Quiet Storm host Al Woods and the format itself through snippets on his Scorpion album. It’s the distinctive, airy and jazzy music beds behind those voices. The sensuous, romantic mid-tempos and ballads. But the story of how the format started and why it became so popular gets lost…Keep Reading @ Vibe

Now, Get Your Groove On

…with this collection of classics and mainstays from the overnight hours.


Y’all Ready to Argue? It’s Bracket Time!

Long time #MusicSermon congregants know we do our own version of #MarchMadness over here – with music brackets, of course!

Since we’re running back content from the last five years of #MusicSermon, we revisited the very first #MusicSermonMadness bracket – the 90s R&B Tourney. In fairness, I messed up the seeding the first time, so this year I let the congregation handle it by voting for Solo female artists, solo male artists, female (and female-led) groups and male groups.

I encouraged everyone to chose the acts that best represent the SOUND and FEEL of the 90s, using the following criteria:


(Group criteria is less stringent because there are fewer groups to choose from)

  • Debuted PRIOR to 1999.
  • Artists who were still recording and charting in the 1990s but transcend being defined by any one decade (Patti, Aretha, Gladys, Barry White, The Isleys, etc) are excluded.
  • As is #MusicSermon’s policy, artists who were global and megastars at the time (like Mariah, Whitney, Sade, Janet, Prince, Michael, etc) are excluded
  • #HeWhoShallNotBeNamed is also excluded. While his contribution to the genre is undeniable, I don’t want people to get distracted from the bracket by having a convo about whether he should have been included on the bracket. 

The voter turnout was real, and the bracket is HERE (while it’s still March…whew).

Download, share, debate, turn it into a game, ENJOY! Most importantly, share your brackets with the #MusicSermon family either by tagging me (@naima) on Twitter or @musicsermon on IG with #MusicSermonMadness!

Want more?

Download some of #MusicSermon’s previous brackets HERE

The Undersung Women of ’80s and ’90s R&B PT I

In 1990, singer Phyllis Hyman complained to Donnie Simpson during a BET Video Soul interview about record labels shifting their focus from talent to artist “packaging,” using production to supplement raw talent. “They’re picking up kids off the street, pretty much, and producers are producing these albums. These kids have literally no talent. But they look right. I’m telling you, get a girl, get the hair weave on, make her lose 30 pounds, (snaps) you’ve got a hit record. Can’t sing a lick!” In the shift from substance to style, which started gradually happening in music in the mid-’80s, Phyllis and other singers with big voices got shelved, dropped, or simply ignored in favor of younger, more pop-friendly and video-friendly acts – with arguably less ability. “(It) pisses me off. It makes me big time angry because I have spent so many years developing this talent,” Phyllis added. She wasn’t alone.

The ‘90s is the last decade of R&B dominance –the genre grew and evolved from new jack swing to hip-hop soul to neo-soul – but the ‘80s was the last pure R&B era. The end of disco and the rise of the quiet storm format made room for big vocals over lush productions. Mid-tempos and ballads reigned supreme, and vocal production tricks like autotune were the exception, not the rule. You had to be able to sing forreal. Only a handful of female artists who were strong in the ‘80s – the ones with crossover success, including Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston – made it past the early 1990s, but the decade had sangers. With multi-octave ranges. Trained in the background vocal trenches of soul singing masters. As we continue to celebrate Women’s History Month, VIBE looks at three of the critically under-celebrated female voices of ‘80s soul and R&B.

Vesta Williams

Vesta Williams started her career singing for Bobby Womack, Jeffrey Osborne, Anita Baker, Sting, and most notably Chaka Khan. The similarities in Vesta and Chaka’s tone and style are immediately noticeable, and rumors persist that Vesta actually laid some of Chaka’s session vocals in later recordings.

Side note: Vesta liked to clown, and was a wildcard in live interviews, especially with men. She’d have them just flustered and giggling and not knowing where to go next.

A&M Records originally wanted Vesta to lose weight and sing lead for a girls group, but she held out until they extended a solo offer. Her first single, “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” was a moderate hit, cracking the Top 10 at R&B radio. The lead single from her sophomore debut solidified Vesta’s spot in R&B history. Another Vesta rumor is that “Congratulations” was inspired by Bruce Willis, her alleged long-term but semi-secret beaux, calling off their relationship and marrying Demi Moore within months. Allegedly.

Vesta was sultry and sexy and representing BBWs (big, beautiful women) in a major way, but not quite intentionally. As is a theme with the women in this group, stress and insecurity over her career and her image led her to battles with her weight. Behind the scenes, she was fighting with her label over support, but on camera and on stage she exuded confidence.

She also brought the lively energy seen in her interview with Arsenio on stage. It was a signature part of her act. “I do like to interject…as much of myself as possible (into my show), because it’s terrible when you go to see a lot of these artists, and you pay your money – and you pay a lot of money now – and the show is terrible,” she told Donnie Simpson in an interview (Donnie got all the tea). “They can’t sing. They can’t reproduce what they did on the record because they punched in every line. You know it’s terrible… Those people shall remain nameless.”

Vesta also complained to Donnie, as Phyllis did, about the focal shift from vocal talent to production.

Vesta and Phyllis’s frustrations – which are still echoed today by singers who possess wide range, power, and vocal control, but can’t get their careers off the ground – were valid. Vesta’s voice was transcendent without even singing lyrics. She invoked the emotional gamut from struggle and loss to hope and triumph just through some “Oooohs” in the Women of Brewster Place theme.

Vesta recorded through the ‘90s, but only had one more hit of note, 1991’s “Special.” She never got the push she wanted from A&M Records, but always had the support of “home” – the R&B community.

Convinced that her weight was holding her career back, Vesta lost over 100 pounds after the Special album. “This is a very visual era,” she told Ebony in 1996. When I lost my record deal, and my phone wasn’t ringing, I realized that I had to reassess who Vesta was and figure out what was going wrong. I knew it wasn’t my singing ability. So it had to be that I was expendable because I didn’t have the right look.”

The recording jumpstart she was hoping for didn’t happen, but Vesta worked. She had a couple of on-camera roles in film and on TV, and you would often hear her distinctive voice luring you towards certain food or consumer good.

This commercial sounds like a take on the Women of Brewster Place theme, and I feel a way about it.

Shout out to Burrell Advertising, one of the oldest black-owned media companies in the game – for all the extra-black McDonald’s and Coke commercials you remember from the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Vesta continued to perform, but never staged a full come-back. She released one final studio album in 2007. She was found dead in her apartment in 2011 – ironically, while in the process of filming her episode of Unsung for TV One. An overdose was initially suspected; Vesta was taking anti-depressants, and pills were found in her room. But final reports revealed hypertension as the cause of death, a tragic plot twist for someone who’d worked so hard to improve their health.

Lisa Fischer

Lisa Fischer is one artist happy she didn’t become a bigger solo success. As with Vesta, the pressures that came with being a woman in entertainment – to be thin and glamorous – were overwhelming. She was more comfortable where she started, in the background.

Lisa began her career with Luther Vandross. Luther famously began as a backing vocalist himself, and as a world-class vocal producer and arranger, was known to only have quality talent behind him. He was not only her first gig, but her longest. Lisa sang on every tour and album with Luther from the mid-80s until he stopped working.

It’s going to be too hard to describe Lisa’s hair and sequin dress in a way that differentiates from the other female singer’s hair and sequin dress in this clip, so I’ll just say Lisa is on the left in the beginning and on the left again at the end.

As Lisa became a sought-after session vocalist and background singer – including joining the Rolling Stones on tour in 1989 – Luther pushed her to pursue a solo career, as singers like Patti Labelle, David Bowie, and Roberta Flack had pushed him. “He saw me in a way that I couldn’t see myself,” she once shared. “He made me feel like a diamond though I felt like a grain of sand.”

In 1991 Fischer landed a hit out of the gate with her first single “How Can I Ease the Pain,” a tormented ballad that showcased her full four octaves, including a whistle register to rival Mariah’s. This song makes me think I can sing.

“How Can I Ease the Pain” spent two weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip Hop chart, propelling her album, So Intense, to Gold status. Lisa also won the 1992 Grammy for Best Female R&B Performance – with a catch. 1992 was the only year the win was tied; Lisa shared her award with Patti LaBelle for “Burnin’” – a song which featured Lisa as background personnel. I believe the Academy wasn’t trying to catch the wrath of the established divas by giving a newcomer the award in a category containing Patti, Aretha, and Gladys that year, especially when Patti didn’t have an award yet. It would have been a scandal! But it also proved that Lisa belonged with the powerhouses.

Next, it was time for Lisa to claim her spot in the diva ranks, right? Nope.

She never released a follow-up. “I felt like I just wasn’t ready,” Lisa shared revealed in an interview. Stress from the pressures of the business eventually manifested for Lisa as an eating disorder. “Not making the second album was disappointing at first, but then after that it was a sense of peace, because back then I couldn’t deal with the expectations that came with even that teeny bit of fame. There was so much to sort out that I hadn’t sorted out.”

As a background singer, Lisa could just be in the moment and sing, without worrying about content, messaging or image. It was easier than being the focus. She went back on tour with the Stones, and has been on almost every tour with them since. Hardcore Rolling Stones fans know Lisa almost as a member of the group, since she steps out during every show for her lead on “Gimme Shelter.”

Lisa also toured with Tina Turner, and still toured with Luther, even when dates with the Stones threatened to conflict, which when Luther taped his famous live concert at Royal Albert Hall. “I was touring with the Stones in Chicago, and then Luther had a private plane waiting for me to make it to London in time to do sound check, makeup and dress for the performance,” Lisa told a local publication when asked about a standout show memory. “I was so exhausted, but his music and teachings were so a part of everything I had become that doing the show was real and surreal all at the same time. His voice, his melodies, my fellow background singers (Kevin, Ava, Tawatha and Pat) and the choreography that I’d been doing for years was so joyous. … It was like a public family reunion.”

I know we’re talking about Lisa, but you have to watch this whole performance and soak in the genius of Luther’s vocal arrangements. First of all, only Luther would have first string and second string background singers. Lisa is a starter, of course. She’s on the far left. Second, this is a slightly gentler arrangement than the studio recording of “Here and Now”, but that little bit of softness/easiness makes it so much better.

Lisa was thrust even further into the forefront than she was during her solo run with 2013’s 20 Feet From Stardom, director Morgan Neville’s award-winning documentary about the lives and journeys of career background singers. The movie was the first time I’d seen a visual of Fischer in years, and I was surprised at the natural, kind of boho chic woman on screen, miles from the very glamorous and coiffed Fischer of the ‘90s. Then it clicked – that wasn’t really her. That was never her. That’s why it didn’t work.

Lisa did finally get comfortable enough to launch a solo tour, but she performs now in draped, flowing garments, often in bare feet, always with bare face and natural hair. Easy, relaxed, in a way she can focus on the music and not the package. But I think she’ll forgive me if I don’t readily let go of this. Yes, we already talked about “How Can I Ease the Pain,” but her live performance is a masterclass.

Phyllis Hyman

If I have to select one case study example to illustrate the damage and challenges an artist can face trying to mold themselves into a form that will lead to success, it’s Phyllis Hyman.

Phyllis was a naturally outstanding and immense vocal stylist. She had a four-octave range that blended jazz and soul, and a regal stature that demanded attention and notice (Hyman was 6ft tall with striking features), but a psyche that was torn apart through the course of her career. The music business destroyed her.

On paper, though, she had the elements to be a massive star, and she had a promising start. Her first label, Buddah Records, landed several modest hits for her including “You Know How to Love Me.”

Her 1976 collaboration with Norman Conners for “Betcha By Golly Wow” introduced that merge of jazz and soul which became her signature sound.

Her Tony-award winning turn in Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” positioned her to embark on an acting career.

But Phyllis would reach the brink of big success and lose it, sometimes by her own doing. Sometimes it was poor business decisions, like when she passed on the song “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” Sometimes it was bad luck, like when she recorded a theme song for the movie The Doorman, and then the movie was released straight to video. Or when she was tapped to sing the James Bond theme for 1983’s Never Say Never Again – a huge benchmark for any singer – then Warner Brothers reportedly nixed the song under threat of lawsuit.

Oftentimes, though, it was her own insecurity showing up. Phyllis was known to be combative; she fought with producers, with people who worked with her, and most famously with label head Clive Davis. She and Clive were in a battle of the wills from the beginning of Buddah’s absorption by Arista Records – something Clive, known for his magic with female singers, was unused to. Phyllis called him a plantation owner, would speak ill of him in the press, show up late for meetings and blow off commitments, but she was fighting him out of fear. “Control equaled comfort to Phyllis,” said biographer Jason Michael in his book Strength of a Woman: The Phyllis Hyman Story. “It was what she needed to feel safe…She did the same with (husband) Larry and, in the years to come, she would succeed in doing the same with not just her romantic interests, but also her close friends and staff members.” The tactic didn’t work with Davis, however, and contributed to her stalling during her years at Arista. Her strongest songs from the Arista period were recorded before the transition from Buddah, like “Somewhere in My Lifetime.”

Part of the problem was also that Clive, whose formula was to position his singers for pop success, didn’t understand the kind of artist Phyllis was. “Clive never had a feeling for black music,” A&R Gerry Griffith shared with Michael in Strength of a Woman. “He didn’t understand that black connection of jazz and R&B as it relates to black folk…he couldn’t make that connection. That’s why he had to have people around him that understood it; and most of the time, in the early days, he didn’t listen to us either.”

Philadelphia International’s Thom Bell wrote an album’s worth of songs for Phyllis’s second Arista release, but Clive scrapped some of them in favor of songs he felt would work for crossover, like the heavily-produced uptempo “Riding the Tiger,” and designated the pop/dance options as the album singles. It didn’t work. “The audience just couldn’t understand why she was recording a song like ‘Riding the Tiger,’” said her musical director Barry Eastmond. “It just didn’t fit her at all. It was an attempt at a dance hit, but you can’t fool the audience. They love you for a certain thing and they really want to hear that from you.”

Between the power struggle and the lack of hits, Phyllis soon found herself at the bottom of Clive’s priority list as he turned his attention toward a young new starlet, Whitney Houston.

Phyllis’s fight or flight instinct also cost her opportunities that could have changed her career. Phyllis was in the lead to play Shug Avery for the movie adaptation of The Color Purple. The casting directors loved her, but when she joined Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover and Oprah in a meeting with Steven Spielberg, she blew it. Her former co-manager Sydney Harris recounted the day to biographer Jason Michael, recalling Glover emerging from the meeting and telling her, “Your girl acted out. She was trying to run the audition. She was ordering Steven around.”

“That was Phyllis’s M.O.,” Harris explained. “When she got scared, she tried to take over things so she could regain control. She lost the part because they could not wrap their heads around being with Phyllis for five months in North Carolina while they shot the film.”

There was a cycle – Phyllis would get insecure and self-sabotage, then be resentful of her failure compared to the success of women she knew weren’t more talented than she was, and then lash out. But Phyllis was equally frustrated with failure and scared of success.

When finally released from Arista, she joined Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records. It was an ideal situation for her: a smaller label where she could feel important and attended to, led by men who understood soul music. But even as she was working on her strongest material in years, she was brooding and inconsistent. “Living All Alone” co-writer Cynthia Biggs told biographer Jason Michael, “I remember her saying, ‘Here I am again, recording another album that’s not going to go gold.’ She just felt like ‘why do I keep trying?’”

She’d suffered from depression for years, and was finally diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, but she preferred self-medicating through drugs and alcohol to taking lithium, the most common treatment at the time. Living All Alone was well received, but Phyllis’s depression continued to deepen, slowing down the process of recording her follow-up, The Prime of My Life. During the time between the two projects, she was featured in Spike Lee’s School Daze and on the soundtrack.

Released in 1991, The Prime of My Life was Phyllis’s biggest career success. She finally charted on the Billboard Hot 100 with “Don’t Want to Change the World,” which was also her first career No. 1, and the album had additional R&B hit singles including “Living in Confusion.”

At Philadelphia International, Phyllis had started to become part of the writing process, contributing more and more with each subsequent album. She had just finished the most autobiographical work of her career when she took her life in 1995, days before her 45th birthday and hours before she was scheduled to perform at the Apollo.

Her emotional state was no secret to her inner circle, nor was her eventual suicide. “Phyllis was an advocate of suicide,” Glenda Garcia, her manager at the time of her death, told the Chicago Tribune. “I was not surprised or shocked that she took her life. It was her philosophy that she was in charge of her body because it was hers, and in charge of her life because it was hers. Her position was, if she didn’t like the pain, didn’t like her life, she had the right to get out of the pain.” The Tribune observed, “…never has an artist produced an entire album that reflects so hauntingly on her life and hints so broadly of her imminent demise as does Phyllis Hyman’s I Refuse to be Lonely.”

Hyman’s suicide note read, in part, “I’m tired.” The album felt like a more extended goodbye message. Songs like “Why Not Me,” “This Too Shall Pass,” and “Give Me One Good Reason to Stay” spoke of finality and resignation, disappointment and loss. Phyllis may have meant it to be her farewell. We can never know for sure, but Garcia wouldn’t rule it out. “Phyllis loved drama, so I wouldn’t put it past her,” she said in the same conversation with the Chicago Tribune. “Let’s face it, she was on her way to a show the night she died. She had a performance to do at the Apollo Theater. I don’t know that Phyl was so conniving she said ‘OK, I’m going to commit suicide so now I’ll get my Grammy and it’ll be multi-platinum,’ but I won’t say she didn’t intend to make a statement. She absolutely felt this record was her best. Clearly her timing was dramatic.”

Lisa, Vesta and Phyllis all had raw talent in spades, they even had beauty and glamour – but had to push themselves to sometimes unrealistic physical levels to stay marketable as artists. In the late ‘80s, singers like Jody Watley, Pebbles, Cherelle and Karyn White came into the game with model looks and voices that could easily work over heavier production, and that trend continued for solo artists into the ‘90s. There wasn’t another successful solo female vocalist of substantial voice and body until Kelly Price came along in 1998. It wasn’t just about fitting a “look,” though. There were other dynamic vocalists in this era – Stephanie Mills, Miki Howard, Angela Bofill – who were also eventually left behind as R&B moved out of the soft and warm quiet storm into the high energy new jack swing era. Their voices were too soulful to crossover, and artists without crossover potential weren’t attractive to labels; they wouldn’t sell as many records. In the ‘80s, a gold album was cool, but the ‘90s, platinum became the benchmark for success. While we’re waiting for the music industry to get it together and return to the R&B standards of the ‘90s, I’ll lift a prayer that there will one day additionally be room for sangin’ sangin’ on the charts again. For the Vestas, the Phyllises, the Shirleys (Brown or Murdock, take your pick), to sing their hearts out – and for the world to be able to hear.

Millie Jackson: The Original Bad Girl

You know that auntie who you were nervous to bring your young male friends around back in the day because she might proposition them in the kitchen when nobody was looking? Or the auntie liable to cuss out a family member or two after dinner for something that happened 12 years ago? The one that women in your family whispered about, warning not to leave men around alone? Who your mama didn’t want you to spend too much time with, but you were always excited to see because she was entertaining and was gonna slip you a little pocket change?

That auntie listened to Millie Jackson.

Millie Jackson is not just an R&B singer. She’s a Rhythm & Blues singer. She’s card party music. Your-parents-having-people-over-and-you’re-not-allowed-to-come-downstairs music. Working-class-Black-folks-hanging-out-down-at-the-VFW-after-a-long-week-with-some-well-liquor music.

She’s been called “the queen of raunchy soul” and “the Godmother of rap,” because of her signature, no-holds-barred lyrical content and her long “raps” – profanity-laced, sexually explicit stories and jokes – interwoven through her songs and live sets. Auntie Millie is part singer and part outrageous comedienne – but don’t take her as a joke. She’s a deceptively serious artist, with career highlights that went largely unnoticed because of the raunch.

In our continued celebration of bad-ass women in music for the month of March, we present 11 Essential Auntie Millie Facts.

1. Her Singing Career Was an Accident

One Thursday night, Millie Jackson was hanging with friends at the Psalms Café on 125th Street in Harlem. The restaurant hosted an open mic on Thursdays, and Millie was clowning a young woman for her terrible singing. Her friends bet her $5 to get up herself and sing, and she did it – even though she had no training as a singer. A club promoter in the audience offered her a gig the following week, someone saw her there and offered her more gigs, and that continued. She sung around New York and New Jersey for a couple of years while still working full time, and eventually landed a spot touring with Sam Cooke’s brother, LC. After one short-lived recording contract, she signed with funk and soul label Spring Records (co-founded by the father and uncle of Loud Records founder Steve Rifkind). She was so unsure her career would stick, she asked for a leave of absence from her job instead of quitting. It became an extremely extended leave.

Her trademark “rapping,” the long intros, interludes and dialogue breaks Millie masterfully blends into her songs and live sets, was also an accident. Millie had no formal vocal training, so she wasn’t a strong singer at the beginning of her career. When people in supper clubs and lounges would start talking to each other and turning their attention away from the performance, she started talking to them to keep them engaged. It became a key part of her artistry. Millie doesn’t just sing you a song, she tells you a story.

2. She Developed Her Raw and Raunchy Style Because of Gladys Knight

Millie and Gladys sound alike. It’s hard to hear in Jackson’s grittier songs; in those, she sounds more like Teddy Pendergrass’s voice and Tina Turner’s voice had a vocal baby. In her ballads, though, you can close your eyes and imagine Gladys. Or at least Gladys after some brown liquor. Comparisons started almost immediately in Millie’s career. It was potentially a problem– the label held back a single because they thought people would hear it and ask for a new Gladys album – so she began to separate herself from Knight with her raw sound and lyrical content.

Over time, that separation also included cursing. “Gladys started rappin’ on (“Help Me Make It Through the Night”) and I’m like ‘Ok, now she’s gonna rap? I guess I’ll just cuss,’” Millie once explained. “She’s too much of a lady to curse.”

Jackson leaned all the way into the explicit language and topics – the Washington Post called her “a veteran virtuoso of vulgarity” in 1986 – until those two factors nearly overshadowed not only her raw talent, but the fact that her songs were also technically fantastic, complete with incredible arrangements and expert live instrumentation provided by the Muscle Shoals Swampers, one of the best rhythm sections in music history.

3. She Flipped the Concept of the Concept Album

Caught Up is the concept album “Trapped in the Closet” wanted to be when it grew up.

While Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye were creating cohesive bodies of work that reflected community, racial and environmental turmoil, Millie focused on what was happening in the home. Spring Records paired the singer with producer Brad Shapiro, whose credits include Wilson Pickett and James Brown, and he took her to the famed Muscle Shoals to record with the studio’s legendary session musicians, the Swampers.

Millie knew she wanted to make an album where “one song keeps going into the next song,” like a long story. Caught Up is a narrative about an affair, but from two perspectives: the first half of the album is from the mistresses point of view, the second half is the wife’s.

“We knew we were onto something (after “If Loving You Is Wrong”),” Jackson explained in an interview. “Then somebody in the studio asked ‘what now?’ And I said, ‘we finish the story. We’ve heard from the girlfriend, but what about the wife?’”

Concept albums were still new, and Spring Records didn’t know what to do with a project featuring nine-minute songs and no clear radio tracks. They brought in one of the most influential black radio DJs in New York, WBLS’s Frankie Crocker, and played it for him. He left the label with the only pressed copy of the LP so he could play “If Loving You Is Wrong I Don’t Want to be Right” immediately.

Jackson has admitted to being the other woman multiple times in her own life, but wanted the representation on the album to be “fair,” and include the wife’s experience. Her interpretation of the betrayed wife wasn’t a broken-down woman crying into a pillow, either. The songs cycled through a full range of emotions, from shock and anger to sadness, defeat, defiance and pettiness.

The label’s skepticism was unfounded; Caught Up reached No. 4 on the Billboard R&B album chart and No. 21 on the Pop chart. The success prompted a follow-up album, Still Caught Up, but the original is considered Jackson’s definitive work.

4. She Helped Turn Cheating Into an R&B Genre

Torrid affairs and adultery weren’t new topics in music, but they were relatively new to R&B. In the early ‘70s, songs about cheating – not about the aftermath, but basically celebrating cheating – were mostly found in juke joint blues and country western music, and were rarely from the woman’s perspective. “These were conversations that women had with each other on the laundromat. You didn’t hear them on records,” Millie explained in a recent interview about Caught Up. “You especially didn’t hear them on the radio.” Billy Paul, Luke Ingram, Johnny Taylor, and Millie – all singers who straddled the line between blues and soul – helped change that. By the mid-70s, adultery R&B was a full-blown subgenre, with songs like “Woman to Woman” and “From His Woman to You” (because “Woman to Woman” apparently required a reply), then later came “As We Lay,” “Secret Lovers,” and a long list of others. Songs about the wife calling the side, the side responding to the wife (the temerity!), the husband talking to the side, the wife proclaiming love to her side. It was a mess. But the songs were hits, so you might need to ask your parents and grandparents some honest questions about exactly what the hell was going on in the ‘70s and early ‘80s.

Millie’s unfiltered and uncensored take on cheating was the centerpiece of her career. “(Infidelity is) my whole repertoire,” she explained once when asked about crafting the stories for her songs. “Do you decide whether or not you want to talk about a certain part of an infidelity? Is it a man? Is it a woman? Is it both of them? Or do you want to go and start talking about what infidelity calls to life, or how it ruins a relationship, and not pertaining to anybody in particular. But, see, just like that you can write 25 songs on infidelity.”

5. Millie Was a Women’s Advocate

The primary topic of Millie’s music, after infidelity, was sex. Not making love. Sex. As in, “you got to handle this.” Like infidelity, sexual demands from the woman’s point of view was topical fare for dirty blues, not R&B.

Don’t start something you can’t finish
Frustration ain’t no fun
Half way lovin’ just don’t get it
Stay there ‘til the job is done.

All The Way Lover

I would be remiss to not point out the breakdown in “All the Way Lover,” wherein Auntie Millie plants seeds that bore fruit for future generations, advocating for enthusiastic participation in oral sex, or what she called “parteè.”

We thank you for your service and advocacy, Millie.

With the songs hitting close to home about husbands cheating, wives kicking those husbands out, side chicks getting fed up, and calling men out to get focused in the bedroom, Millie believed she turned the male demographic off. “Men did not want my records in their house,” she claimed in an interview. “They wouldn’t come to see me live. Because I spoke truth to women, I got a reputation for being rough on men.”

But Miss Jackson would get at women sometimes, too. She took time, often, in her live show to address “saditty b**ches” who were being too lazy or too uptight to take care of business at home. This was also a form of advocacy, though, in the form of “Sis, stop bullsh*ttin.’”

Millie was a new kind of voice for women’s independence and agency. “Women loved it. I was speaking to them,” Jackson explained to her hometown Atlanta Magazine. But she was talking to women in a way some didn’t consider proper or respectable. She didn’t care. “I didn’t sell record to bougies. It was the poor people who bought my music. The women who bought Diana Ross did not buy Millie Jackson. The people in the projects understood me. I was down and dirty. I told you like it was.”

She once compared men to bad credit, which I’m laughing about even as I type this because it’s so genius and perfect that I can’t even. It’s an analogy all women understand too well – and we also understand the plot twist on the end when she gives it up anyway (Kanye shrug). She kept it real.

6. Low Key, She’s a Hip-Hop OG

Millie had already established a reputation for her “rapping,” which in the ‘70s meant long dialogue during song breaks, a style made popular in soul music with Isaac Hayes. Millie expanded the technique, telling full narratives that connected her songs. After “Rapper’s Delight” became a hit, her label wanted her to give the new style of rap a shot. In 1980, she recorded a track called “I Had to Say It” that she meant as a spoof of “Rapper’s Delight,” but she was spitting bars on the low. The subject: black men who start dating white women once they’re successful. It would set the timeline on fire today.

She told Song Facts in a frank 2010 interview that the song’s inspiration came unexpectedly. “I was thinking of what the next album (was) gonna be, and I had run out of things to talk about,” she shared, “So we’re on the tour bus and I’m going through Jet Magazine, and I’m saying ‘Okay. There’s Arthur Ashe – with a white woman. There’s the guy that plays Shaft on TV with a white woman. Damn, there’s O.J. Simpson – with a white woman… Somebody needs to say this. Why don’t I say this? I have to say this.” And she said it with her signature IDGAF delivery and candor.

Now I got your attention again
I wanna speak to you about white girls
On the arms of our black men

I Had to Say It Again

Millie was just playing around, but Coca Cola explained to her, when they reached out for Sprite’s 1999 Obey Your Thirst campaign, that she technically held the distinction of being the first woman to cut a rap song. The campaign, “5 Deadly Women,” (A riff on “5 Deadly Venoms”) featured rappers Eve, Amil, Angie Martinez (remember when Angie was a rapper?), Mia X and Roxanne Shante.

Jackson makes a surprise appearance at the end of the series as The Master, and I applaud Sprite for doing their homework and including her. She was kind of an easter egg, because not many people in the spot’s target audience knew who she was on sight.

Her hipping and hopping on “I Had To Say It” aside, Millie’s been credited as the foremother of Salt-n-Pepa, Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, and all female rappers who didn’t take no sh*t from the boys and unabashedly harnessed the power of sexuality in their music. She’s also been heavily sampled in hip-hop for decades: J. Cole, Prodigy, EPMD, Too Short, Poor Righteous Teachers, 50 Cent, Memphis Bleek, Lil’ B, Boogie Down Productions, Young Jeezy, Trick Daddy, Blacksheep, Cam’ron, Geto Boys, Yo Gotti, and Fat Joe have all cut Millie a publishing check.

At least three rap acts have sampled/covered her “Phuck You Symphony” alone, which I understand because it’s perfect for hip-hop – just like she is.

7. Her Live Show is Off the Chain

Millie doesn’t just give you a stage with a spotlight and some crooning (and I say “doesn’t” because Auntie still performs). No ma’am, no sir. There’s a full band, including a tight ass horn section, background singers, the whole nine. Also, she doesn’t just sing, it’s part comedy act. She’s a cross between Richard Pryor and popular ‘90s comediane Adele Givens (I truly believe Adele studied Millie).

Millie Jackson’s Live and Outrageous album is essential listening. The show’s energy is palpable even through audio. At her peak, Jackson’s concerts were regularly sold-out. She served costumes, flair, choreography, dramatics, and powerful vocals. Even as her stage show scaled down in later years, Millie Jackson live was no less of an experience. She’s also known for audience participation – if you’re sitting in her line of sight you might become part of the show. Be ready.

8. She’s a Boss

Millie Jackson is absolutely not a contrived artist. Her image is all hers, her musical choices are hers, her career path is hers. There are no Svengali stories, no tales of the label pushing her in a direction she didn’t feel comfortable with. None of that. Millie did what she wanted. Her label did try, in the beginning, to change her sound. They sped her vocals up on records so her voice would be in a higher pitch than her deep, earthy alto. But after “Hurts So Good,” they let her fly.

Millie has been self-managed her entire career. Her one marriage, at the beginning of her success, lasted only eight months because her husband tried to control Jackson and her business. “He thought we were gonna be the next Ike and Tina Turner. He thought that he was gonna tell me what to do with my life, and I decided that was not gonna happen. Case closed.”

Millie has also always maintained a large degree of creative control. She co-wrote most her songs from the beginning, and starting with Caught Up, she also co-produced her albums. And she fought when her record label tried to minimize her contribution. “I went down to Muscle Shoals to show (Brad Shapiro) how I do what I do, and co-produced the album. And when the album came out, it said ‘Album concept by Millie Jackson,’ and I hit the ceiling,” she shared in an interview. “I stood up in the middle of the floor and cussed like a banshee. And finally (Spring Records co-head) Roy Rifkind said, ‘Can we please go to lunch? You gonna be the death of me yet.’ And (Spring Records co-head) Bill Spitowski said, ‘We’ll put it on your tombstone: Produced by Millie Jackson.’”

Self-management is a choice Millie realizes probably held her back from big deals and moves that would elevate her to a higher level of stardom, but it as one that allowed her to follow her career on her own terms. In the same interview just mentioned, she explained her unconventional decision. “I write a lot of songs, and I publish them, and I go to work when I feel like it. That’s why I never had a manager; I don’t need anyone to tell me when to go to work. I know if I want to work or not.” She’s also enjoyed a normalcy that her peers who reached higher heights of fame had to sacrifice. “I like being able to go shopping for myself. I go to the supermarket and nobody bothers me. I don’t have a bodyguard. I like that. I think I live a very decent life. I’m a long way from starving, and I’m still me.”

9. She Can Sing Anything

Jackson has half-joked often in her later interviews that people don’t pay attention to the more diverse aspects of her catalog.

“If you listen to Millie Jackson on the radio, you ain’t gonna hear nothing but ‘Back in Love By Monday,’ ‘Hurts So Good,’ and ‘If Loving You is Wrong.’ Like I haven’t made any more songs,” she once complained. “I’ve got thirtysomething albums, only got three songs to be played!” Well, a lot of her songs aren’t exactly radio-friendly, but she’s right. With the expansive discography she has (Millie kept recording until 2001), the cheating songs and the raunchy songs are most popular and well-known. Ironically, while critics bemoaned her resistance to growth over the years, she quietly released two country-inspired albums and a rock-inspired album, in addition to more weighted material. “I write a lot of meaningful songs, but nobody ever heard them,” she’s said. “Because in my case most people would rather only listen to infidelity.”

Her very first single, in fact, leaned more towards the social commentary that ‘important’ soul artists were embracing at the time.

Millie has always said she didn’t want to be a crossover artist, but she didn’t want to stay in an R&B lane sonically, either. Millie always wanted to explore rock and country. “Rock and roll is my spirit, really, but nobody cares,” she shared in a conversation about her lesser-known music. “Tina Turner came through and (everyone) forgot about that.” We’ll get to Millie and Tina in a minute.

Because of her willingness to explore a wide range of music, Jackson’s cover song game rivals that of Luther Vandross. Starting with Luther Ingram’s “If Loving You is Wrong, I Don’t Wanna Be Right,” Millie has put her stamp on hits from Prince, Toto, The Stylistics, even country artist Merle Haggerd. Jackson released her version of his hit “If We’re Not Back in Love on Monday” less than a year after its release, changing the title to “If You’re Not Back in Love by Monday,” and switching up the song from a story about a husband wanting to work it out with his wife, to a mistress encouraging a husband and his wife to try and reconcile.

10. She Intentionally Didn’t Seek Crossover Success

One of the reasons Millie is damn near an obscure artist given her long career and tremendous output is her is because she stayed in a blues and R&B pocket – on purpose. “I was never looking to become that crossover pop star,” she once explained. “Let white folks cross over to me.”

Critics searched for explanations over the years why such a talented singer with Muscle Shoals production wasn’t reaching the pop stardom soul singers like Gladys, Aretha and Tina had achieved, and they usually blamed her language and lyrical content. In 1977, the New York Times opined “…with just a bit more attention to hooks, she could have consistent hits. That wouldn’t constitute selling out, if she’s worried about that, and it would help convey the underlying seriousness of her art to a broader public.”

But Millie was happy to fly under the radar. It gave her more freedom. “When you had all the problems with profanity in the music, nobody mentioned me. The senator’s wife never knew I existed. So I didn’t have to go to Congress.” Jackson was talking about the 1985 congressional hearings spurred by the Parental Music Resource Center, an organization founded by Tipper Gore after she purchased Purple Rain for her daughter, and “Darling Nikki” made her clutch her pearls. Most remember the hearings for the eventual result of Parental Advisory warnings on albums just as rap was emerging, but pop artists were the initial target. Prince, Madonna, Frank Zappa, even the Mary Jane Girls were in the roundup. But not Jackson. “Nobody mentioned my name. Nobody knew I was doing it. I didn’t have to deal with any of that.”

She did enjoy some pop success with Caught Up, but her biggest potential moment for a breakthrough was a 1985 duet with Elton John. Pop/soul duets were in fashion, but though the single was a moderate success in the UK, it never broke in the US.

11. She Has (Possibly One-Sided) Beef with Tina Turner

The two contemporaries Jackson has most been compared to vocally are Gladys and Tina – for example, Elton John approached Jackson for “Act of War” after Tina declined. Millie adores Gladys and counts the fellow Georgian among her favorite vocalists, but there’s something about Tina that just doesn’t sit right with her. It’s unclear what the source of her dislike is, but I suspect it’s centered around Tina entering and dominating the rock/soul space as a solo artist just as Millie was plotting a move in that direction.

Jackson did finally record her rock-inspired album, titled Rock n’ Soul, in 1994. She told her audience at a Howard Theater show in 2012 she made the LP because “I wanted Tina Turner to know she wasn’t the only black bitch to sing rock’n’roll.”

But then, according to Millie, Tina jacked her single. “I recorded (John Waithe’s) ‘Missing You,’ and I was all excited about it, it was gonna be my next single. And the guys at Muscle Shoals said, ‘Boy you got the song out quick! I heard it at a truck stop.” And I’m trying to figure out how in the world did they hear my song when it won’t be out for two week. And of course, it was Tina Turner, and we had to pull the single and come back with a different one.”

That was in the ‘90s, but Millie was throwing subs at Tina in the ‘80s. Jackson’s 1988 album The Tide is Turning included a song called “You Knocked the Love (Right Outta My Heart).” Listeners will easily hear the Ike and Tina influence in the song, but the track, a song about a passionate love turning into domestic violence, was a shot. “I did that one messin’ with Tina,” Jackson admitted in 2010. “It was about Ike and Tina, and the proceeds for that are supposed to go to battered women. But I didn’t call any names.”

After Millie stopped recording in 2001, she didn’t retire. She spent 13 years hosting a drive time radio show, continued to tour (when she felt like it), and wrote and produced a stage play based on her album Young Man, Older Woman which toured successfully for four years.

Now she’s posted up at home in Atlanta, and a few years ago she was working on a reality show concept for her family (please, contents gods, let this happen while she still has the capacity to do it).

But Millie should be out here at these awards shows and tributes with her contemporaries. She should still be mixing it up with younger artists who emulate her energy without even realizing it (she loves Rihanna, by the way). Auntie Millie is deserving of far more recognition and praise than she’s received. Not just for her outrageous and explicit music and performances, but as a complete artist: as a writer, a producer, a businesswoman, a creative, a pioneer. Alladat. Just because she didn’t go the route of No. 1 hits and stadium tours doesn’t make her any less accomplished. Respect Millie Jackson’s gangster.