Erykah Badu Loves You: A Conversation With the Artist

Erykah Badu has mastered the modern art of giving interview. A mixture of wit and earnestness, of insight and leftfield references, hers is the kind of rare personality that should earn an open invitation to the talk-show circuit regardless of promo and just 'cuz, a la Amy Sedaris on Letterman. Badu is cool to death, she makes music that is cerebral, challenging and sometimes extra-terrestrial. But make no mistake, this woman is a star's star.

I spent about 20 minutes talking to Badu on Saturday between the rehearsal and first performance of her You're Causing Quite a Disturbance show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, during which she performed selections from her 2008 album New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) in front of the Brooklyn Philharmonic. (See more shots and footage of Friday's rehearsal on Dodge and Burn.) Composer Ted Hearne took material that was largely composed on Badu's laptop and arranged it for the orchestra, and the resulting broadening of the sound was sometimes complementary to the source material, sometimes at riveting odds with it. The night was magical.

After the performance, the audience's extended standing ovation demanded more. Given the finite amount of Badu's material that the philharmonic learned, they had no choice but to again perform a song they had already played. "Soldier" turned out to be the perfect choice — it sounded even better the second time around.

Below is a slightly edited transcription of my preceding chat with Badu about the collaboration, hip-hop, Twitter scorn and her Patti LaBelle wig.

RJ: How did this project come about?

EB: This is an annual thing B.A.M. started. [Note: The artist in residency project was started by the Brooklyn Philharmonic, not B.A.M.] They have artists in residency to sit in with the orchestra. I was invited by one of the guys to come and I said, “Yeah.” They said they were interested in doing New Amerykah Part One (4th World War). I said, “Yeah, that would be great.” I have a lot of elements in that album that I wanted to explore in this way.

Are you learning things about the record that you didn’t know before?

I wouldn’t necessarily say that. When composing and putting together the layers of drums and bass and these things, we’ve always had in mind some of these sounds and we’ve been able to create some of them, as you do in hip-hop and in sampling. What’s exciting is to see it really live and there.

Do you consider your music to be primarily hip-hop?

No.

It has elements of it.

Yeah. There are millions and billions of atoms of memory of all kinds of musical themes in me. [The hip-hop] is I guess because I sing in a very syncopated way, rhythmically. I don’t sing melodically. Rhyme pattern is how I sing. I also write like a lyricist or an MC because that’s what I was before I was a singer. I just took those elements and put them into music. And of course I gotta have the bass and drum. Of course I have to have some African percussion, because it’s what moves me. I have a jazz background too.

Do you think working with the philharmonic moves you closer to or further away from hip-hop?

Hip-hop is the people. What the people are moving toward is what hip-hop is. I think people are moving toward a freer way of thinking. Openness. That’s how things are created. Hip-hop was created out of necessity. We needed to create some digitized things to help us understand what we were feeling. Same thing is now happening. It’s just therapy. Wherever the people move is where hip-hop is.

I also think it’s a really hip-hop thing to borrow an orchestral sound for your work, forging a connection that might not have been previously obvious.

It’s like having a sampler at your fingertips.

Played by live people.

Yeah. Like The Flintstones.

I love the idea of playing a song like “Master Teacher” in front of an orchestra, just for the lyrical content alone. (The chorus goes: "What if there was no niggas / Only master teachers? / I stay woke.")

Isn’t that so weird?

The juxtaposition is amazing.

It feels right. I was talking to [Ringo Rashad Smith aka Tumblin’ Dice], and he’s the in-house DJ before I go on. He was putting his setlist together, and saying, “I just don’t want to offend anybody. I just don’t know.” I had to make sure he understood that this is a political statement. This is how these people felt when they wrote these songs. It goes with the temperature of what was happening in our country and in their communities. You’re not angry. We’re not angry. We are expressing what other people feel. Ringo doesn’t experience a great deal of racism or any of that. None of my children do. It’s a whole different world from that time. But I told him that it’s important that you use all of those [words], “nigga” and “honky” and all those things, because what we are doing is presenting a part of history. This is an archive. This is something people should know the story to, not whether it’s right or wrong, but tell the story. Let others decide if it’s right or wrong, but don’t edit and remix and rewrite. I think that’s what’s really interesting about doing this body of work in front of the philharmonic. It’s such a puritan thing, classical music and it’s such a dirty, grimy thing that I do, that it just kind of makes for this really...cute kid that kinda looks like you (motions to Victor). A mix of things. A classical cat with an afro.

Do you feel like what you do is in response or opposition to what’s mainstream and on R&B radio?

Possibly! I’m a nonconformist. It’s not the first thought in mind, but I’m sure there is some kind of subtle rebellion going on when I’m creating something.

At the same time, how much space does the idea of being accessible take up in your head? You are communicating to the masses.

Do I edit while I’m creating? Naw. It just doesn’t work for me that way. There’s a talent to that. There’s a talent to creating something that doesn’t compromise you and that is accessible and still really creative and beautiful. Every now and then, you can hear someone who’s able to do that and that changes the course of what’s happening. We all follow along.

Prince.

Drake. You can even go to the future. Mary J. Blige when she came out. The whole frequency of R&B singing changed.

I mean, people don’t recognize What’s the 411? for the revolution that it was.

I mean, people do. And that’s why she’s called the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul.

That was her title from the beginning.

She gelled those things.

She came as the queen and stayed the queen.

How can you not be the queen if you’re alive? You have to die first for someone to succeed you. Someone can’t just come in and say, “I’m the queen now!” No, bitch, you’re not. That was created by her, so no one else will ever be the queen of that.

What would you think if someone said, “Erykah Badu is a diva”? Is that fair?

Sure. I mean, everybody’s entitled to their opinion. I don’t even know what that is. What is it? It seems like I’m supposed to have on a long dress.

You should be throwing things in your dressing room. Your answer to that question should be, “No comment.”

I don’t know, I wouldn’t care if they said that. What people think about me is not my business.

That’s what RuPaul says.

I heard Oprah Winfrey say that one time, too.

He probably got it from her.

It works really good with RuPaul. He really can’t care.

Oh no, if he started caring, he’d stop doing. Although you are on Twitter a lot. On Friday you called somebody out.

I just had to bully control. I’m laughing the whole time. I didn’t have anything else to do, it was just fun. I thought that to take the old-school approach would be a bully un-maker. It brings the bullies down to size every time. When they’re trying to insult you, instead of concentrating on the insult, you pick a part of their body and you stay on that until they down, until, “Man down!” I picked her head, and there’s nothing wrong with this girl’s head. She’s beautiful. She’s from Somalia. She’s a beautiful person in her profile, though that could be good marketing. I don’t know. She was a beautiful chick, but I couldn’t think of anything else, so I had to concentrate on the head the whole time. She was saying insulting things about my life and how many baby daddies and my music is not this and that, and I just kept saying, “And your head looks like...” and that’s the old-school way to make everyone laugh. The person who’s being insulted should now start to laugh, too

Does the noise or the criticism ever chip away at you?

No. I used to do that. I used to be that person, screaming out the school bus at people walking down the street. I did it because it was funny, strictly for the laughs. There was nothing malicious about it – I didn’t know there was, anyway, until you grow up and you realize that people have feelings — this person could be on their last leg. You learn that later. At this age where this girl was talking to me, that’s around the time I did that kinda stuff. My compassion level was not up to Yu-Gi-Oh’s status level yet. I think it’s sometimes good to get a reminder, because maybe she would say something to someone else. I’m not a victim of bullying because I’m not helpless. But somebody could be. I thought it was mean, the things she was saying because she was saying them. It wasn’t what she was saying.

That’s what always gets me. “Why are you being so rude? Why do you think you can talk to another person like that?”

I don’t even get to the point of, “Why?” I don’t give a shit, really, why. I have the opportunity now to scorn your ass and embarrass you in front of the class. That’s what’s gonna happen and you’re gonna apologize before the night is over. But then you get people commenting and saying, “You should be better than that. You’re an example.” Well, this is the new queendom. Follow this.

Have you come a long way since standing onstage and saying, “Keep in mind that I’m an artist and I’m sensitive about my shit”?

No, I feel like that was yesterday.

So are you still sensitive about your shit?

My art. My music. Things that I share. Because I don’t until it’s finished, because you know that it won’t belong to you anymore. It will now belong to the world. You have to be really sensitive. This is something you’re sharing with your brothers, your sisters, people in your life.

I saw that Billboard Awards red carpet interview where you were talking about your new music...

I didn’t see it, what happened?

Well, you were wearing that Patti LaBelle wig...

The blonde one?

Yeah, it reminded me of Patti LaBelle.

It’s cool...I hate that.

Why?

I ain’t wearing that shit no more. I sure hate that. I be thinking about that sometimes, too. “Do I look like Patti LaBelle?” (Pauses to answer call regarding her whereabouts.) So the interview, tell me about it.

You talked about writing your new album, and you said that sometimes the material comes slowly. Does that worry you at all? Do you ever feel pressured to produce? What if it doesn’t come?

No. There’s also a downloading period where you’re supposed to be learning, experiencing, procrastinating, crying, doing something so that you have some material as a songwriter. There are a lot of artists out who are not songwriters, so it’s easy to shit out music music music when you have a team: people who are writing, people who are doing this. We do everything. I’m sitting in front of a keyboard, thinking of a melody, writing lyrics, directing the video. I’m doing my makeup, I’m doing my hair, I’m creating experience, I’m looking for the best piece of art for the album cover. I love you, so I want to share the best thing with you, you know what I mean? You my livelihood, so I want to make sure it’s a great experience for us. That takes some time. And it’s cool. It’s not a race. I’m sure some more good shit gonna come out to satisfy you for a little while.

I think your confidence is the most hip-hop thing about you.

I got it from my mother. She told me that I’m the best, starting at about 2. “You are the best. You are the winner. Somebody else may get the trophy, but you are the best.” The best is kind of relative, it means you did your best. You are it. There’s not another Erykah. You only have one chance to be Erykah, so don’t waste time trying to figure out some shit you already know. You know who you are, you know what you want, you know what you like. Don’t second-guess yourself. Follow your heart, no second thoughts. That’s what she taught, and if that brewed confidence, cool. I’m also an asshole. I got that from my father.

[Photo via Victor Jeffreys II at Dodge and Burn]