A BADU BUSINESS
THE first thing you notice is the voice. Billie Holiday with extra purr. Nicolette without the abrasive edge. Shara Nelson with surplus emotion. Erykah Badu does not sing, she skits. More rapper than diva, no one can doubt her soulful qualities on record. Her debut album Baduizm is one of this year's most rewarding discoveries, a collection rich in dramatic vocal turns, slow motion heats and helter skelter lyricism mixing it with jazz, funk and blues. Piped throughout is the Badu attitude, a philosophy with an organic rather than hedonistic lust for life.
The second thing you notice is the marketing. In London, Baduizm rules OK. Her brief stop over is a blitz of windows, opportunities, meetings, mobile phones and kebabs, bookended by two sellout shows peopled by the right welldressed faces. There are glowing profiles in The Face, Echoes and Muzik adding to the buzz, the single has crept on to the BBC Radio One playlist and the album is set to be~ extra large, mirroring the impact it has had on the US Billboard chart. Erykah Badu has every right to smile even if some are asking where the hell did that sister pop from.
The third thing you notice is the make up artist. A hazy morning, a posh hotel room and a schedule which has 30 minutes allocated for make up between a chat with the chap from The Irish Times and a TV recording for The One. CNN on the box, incense stick smouldering by the door and tour manager grunting on the sofa - international touring can blur into one amorphous blob after the first day. In Erykah's case, there's a rainbow of possible toe nail colours to add a difference. Today, then, 15 a skyblue day.
The story so far is simple. Born in south Dallas. "I was a teacher, taught theatre, dance, maths. I was also dancing in a company, acting, but I've been doing music in one form or other all my life. All my life, honey. I've been listening to Stevie Wonder from the womb my mother went to see him on tour just before I was born." Her first pro efforts came in tandem with her cousin Free: "We were called Erykah Free and were opening up for different hip hop acts who came through Dallas".
Naughty By Nature, Method Man, Redman, Tribe Called Quest. I would sing, Free would rap and we would produce and record the tracks together at home.
This led, to a solo deal for Eiykah with Kedai, Entertainment, a subsidiary of MCA/Universal. Not that she abandoned her cousin in the process: "When it was time for us to be signed, none of the labels who wanted to sign me wanted to sign us as a group because they just wanted the girl to be up front representing the sound. That's common, so we understood that but we coproduced the album."
Baditizm has been greeted by much purple prose in the US many reviews aligning her with such new school soul acts as Maxwell, D'Angelo and Sweetback. Erykah doesn't necessarily see these as her musical soul mates. See, my music is hip hop, I Just sin over the tracks, sing the same things that a hip hop artist would rap but probably with more melody. I don't really think I in a singer, I think I'm an all right singer (laughs). It's all down to practice, goes along with the job and I've definitely felt myself develop and get better over the past few months. On a hip hop tip, I see myself in the frame with Jeru Tha Damaja, the Roots, Tribe and acts like Goodie Mob and Outcast, groups who have substance, groups who are going to be around for a while."
Hip hop is now a global culture, so it's no surprise to find Badu talking with such respect about it. While some continue to focus on the smaller, distorted picture (the Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G antics, for example), there, is a much larger picture. "Each city throughout the world has its own particular hip hop flavour, its own version. Hip hop is something you live; rap is something you do. Two totally different things, two subcultures which have evolved from the same spoken word tradition, a tribe of people who feel the same. express themselves the same, use the same language, dress basically the same.
"When I say I'm a hip hop artist it's because when we write and do songs, we originally wrote songs for our peers to hear so that we could impress them and that's how we still write. We don't write to get a record deal. Some people do. If you're true to hip hop, you just do it because you love it.
Her, own past collaborations show just diverse hip hop culture has become over the past 20 years.
"When I was in college, I started to rap with a crew called Culture Productions which consisted of a Rastafarian called Che, a white guy named Self Equalit~~y, a sister named Half Paint from South Central LA and myself hum the south. It was a true cultural production everyone had their own style."
When Erykah starts to talk about motivation, you get a glimmer of the soul diva at the heart of the rapper. My raps and my music are a reflection of my attitude and my attitude is a reflection of the things I know, I guess my beliefs; but I hate to say beliefs. My religion is art because I think the creator works best through my art. I don't think any organisation or system of beliefs can define my relationship with the creator, only me. But I study and most of all respect, each form of religion. I grew up on Christianity and use that as a foundation especially the proverbs. I studied Buddhism, studied Islam. It's like everything is an influence, it lets you know what to do or what not to do. You have to choose."
These days, she needs all the fittering she can get. Away from her family and southern roots, she lives (when she can get a few days off) in Brooklyn and deals with everything from film offers (a Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey project called Beloved) to tax matters. "I moved last December when I got my deal to be closer to the business because I've become a business. I had to be there. I understood the business before I got into it, I understood that the music business is motivated by money in the same way that music is motivated by energy and atmosphere. There's a balance there. I went in because I had something to say and because I needed to make some money. I know there's a pay off. Yeah, it's hard to adjust to promotional tours and every one wanting a piece of me and my time but I'm a trooper, man, I can do it."
The last thing you notice is the pose. London's finest taste makers, wannabes, cynics, critics, soul sisters and brothers cram into the Cafe de Paris. After a remarkable 40 minute show, Erykah is freestyling, making it up as she goes along. It's damn cool. The beats grow, her rhymes flow. As it ends, she turns around and throws her arms in the air. The pose is perfect. She turns to face the crowd and to see the reaction. Baduizm has captured another city and it's not over yet.