Beneath the surface is where it counts-under layers of
affectation, tradition and expectation, out of the glare of
fame and away from the scrutiny of self-examination. Way
down is where you find what matters, that repository of
formative ideas, thoughts and processes that mold the
essence of a person. Everything else is, in a sense, just
elaborate, intricate baggage-crucial, but not integral.
You might not know it to look at them, but Beck and D'Angelo
are cut from the same cloth-grounded in the same musical
attitudes of blues, soul, rock and hip-hop while innovating
on those traditions to take them in new directions. Of
course, no contemporary musician is more flexible than Beck,
who has established himself as a master of mimesis over the
past decade, drawing upon a staggeringly vast range of
influences to create his sound-no two tracks are alike. This
eclecticism is more than just an excuse to drop names, or
styles, but a reflection of popular music as the great
continuum that it is. In Beck, we see music reimagined as a
fertile playspace, ignorant of boundaries and
categorizations-a melange of Jagger, Veloso, Prince, Lydon
and whoever all else, dancing 'til sunrise.
While Beck and his party dance, though, D'Angelo and his
spirits seek refuge indoors. Compared to Beck's sponge,
D'Angelo is a filter, collecting influence upon influence
and ruminating on it until a final, precise conclusion is
reached. He creates a sound with nothing extraneous. As a
result, D'Angelo is the closest the last decade has had to a
soul singer, as opposed to an R&B crooner. In an era where
mechanized lotharios regurgitate themes and beats,
D'Angelo's facility is in delivering pained, complex
emotions, almost solely through voice. It's a gift from a
lost era, and all the more important for its
But if all it took to get by in music was nostalgia, there'd
be hundreds of stars. What sets this pair apart is their
reverence for past masters and their ability to translate
that admiration into music that eclipses the rest of their
generation's revisionist schlock. Their meeting was as much
of an experiment as either of their music; a few minutes
showed us the two had more in common than their sounds might
reveal. They're both careful students, and finally brought
together face to face, the two soul stirrers cut through the
haze to find broad swaths of common ground, jumping from old
blues to Rakim to callous over-production to the swindles of
fame. Of course, at the end of everything, it all came down
to the songs…
D'Angelo: How long do you sit with a song? I know it depends
on where you at, but how long do you usually take?
Beck: It's different. I have songs I did in four
hours-written, recorded, mixed, done. And then I have some
on this album I spent six weeks on, 16 hours a day.
D: No doubt.
B: And two thirds of the work you don't even hear on the
final song. Shit just went out the window. I don't think
there's one way, but it is satisfying when the jams come
easy, and you don't get sick of it. It's just always fresh.
D: I'm famous for that-I take forever for one song. The
thing that's hard for me is that if I take two weeks away
from a song, then come back to it, I've lost that initial
energy about it.
B: You go through a lot of stages. The inspiration, then you
hate it, then you're bored of it, then you don't care about
it, then you're just putting up with it. Then you like it
again, and then it becomes part of you. It's like 12 stages.
After a certain point, and you're playing the same songs on
tour night after night after night, they become like
appendages. You don't even think of them as songs anymore.
Fader: Do they lose the fire after playing them night after
night? De La Soul was just here last week, and every time
they do “Me, Myself & I,” Posdnuos will be up there chanting
“We hate this song. We hate this song,” all over the chorus.
Pos is smart, and that's not what De La's about anymore, but
they're obliged to perform it. Do you ever get that way with
old material, sort of a love-hate thing?
D: You said it. You love it. You hate it. You put up with
B: I don't have that. I don't think of it like that. I'm
beyond bored with it. It's like my arm. Are you bored of
your arm? You use it every day. That's the eternal struggle,
though, is trying to keep it fresh, come up with new shit.
People always wanna hear the old shit-that's always gonna be
the case. The shit you're inspired by, it's never going to
strike a chord until you're over it.
F: One thing that strikes me as different about the way you
two put together records is that, Beck, you draw upon a vast
range of influences, and very willfully-tropicalia,
old-school hip-hop, electro and so on. Whereas D'Angelo, you
seem very preoccupied with capturing a particular mood. And
two years or more in the studio just to capture that one
mood. Where you're [Beck] trying to capture ten moods-it's
frenetic. It's experimental. It's saying “I was listening to
this. I'm filtering it and this is how it's coming out.”
Where you're [D'Angelo] honing things down to a point,
cutting out all the bullshit-doing vocal tracks ten times
until it's right. Is that the way you've always worked?
B: I respect what he's doing. I wish I could do that, but
that's not my strength. My strength is to come from ten
different directions at once. I wish I could have that
focus-going for the one thing and nailing it.
D: Thanks, man.
B: No, I'm serious. I'd rather listen to his record than my
record. It makes you feel good. Mine is another thing, it
takes some work.
D: Man, this guy… Beck is funky. I don't look at MTV or BET
a lot. I don't really listen to the radio. But I caught some
of what you put out. I caught you on an award show with your
band, and it was wild. Everything you were doing was kinda
where I was trying to go; this is when I was writing for
Voodoo. Even the choice of instruments-you had a kid up
there playing a farfisa. And you was doing some James Brown
steps, with the horn section and everything. It was just a
return to some basic shit; that's where I'm trying to go.
And it's dope to see you do it, because even though you're
not on the black side of the music, you're doing shit that's
reminiscent of what we used to do, and I wish that more
black artists would do that.
F: Take those risks?
D: Yeah, take those risks. That's the shit, man.
F: If you look at the state of contemporary R&B in the most
broad sense, it's an extraordinarily stagnant genre. It
doesn't attempt anything.
D: It's pop music now.
B: It's the equivalent of what country music's become.
Country music's become Billy Joel. And it's all kind of
gravitating to that center.
F: Well, if one person becomes successful at something,
everybody moves there. When Curtis Mayfield passed, it got
me thinking about the state of contemporary soul music, and
how in the '90s, we don't really have that many soul icons.
Back then, we had a Sam Cooke, a Curtis Mayfield, a Marvin
Gaye, more than you can count on two hands. People whose
records you could consistently buy, and count upon.
D: The whole cycle was that. It's like you said about seeing
motherfuckers being successful at using a format. Back in
the day all those cats were really, really good, so that
caused a chain reaction. It ain't that now. It's on some
business-savvy shit now.
B: That's what was good about the rock world at that time
too, because they were looking over at the soul world and
realizing that they had to live up to that shit too. Like
the Stones, they had to live up to that shit too. I feel
like it was such a healthier environment for music back
D: And you had the civil rights era, and all the shit that
was happening in society, and music was playing a big part
in it, as far as closing those gaps. Like when you had Jimi
Hendrix, doing what he was doing, it was less a thing of an
individual genre, but people really looking at the big
picture. Jimi was blending so much shit together-he was
deemed as a rock & roll artist, but he put so many
influences into what he did-Curtis Mayfield, blues,
whatever. Sly Stone even was picking up on that, and Miles
Davis was trying to do the same shit. They were looking at a
B: That was true about Hendrix, too, because he came from
that blues background, but he was down with Dylan too, and
it's interesting to see something like that.
F: But in the '60s, what was of paramount importance to
American society was equality, civil rights, politics. It
was fundamentally about political and social change. The
music was central to the consciousness. But now, you can put
out a record that's fairly ignorant, become financially
successful, elevate to the middle class, and in a fairly
superficial way, eliminate all those problems.
B: It's all about comfort now. People wanna hear the sound
of comfort.They don't want to hear anything that's in
between. They want the couch that doesn't have any hard
spots in it. They just want to settle in for the ride.
D: See, that's the thing. Motherfuckers could care less
about politics or certain things. Everybody just wants to
party and floss. The whole deeper consciousness of it is
F: When was the last time that any contemporary music had
that though? Since disco, it seemed that it's all gone in
B: I think it's since about '82 or '83. In '83, hip-hop went
off on its own. New wave kinda took in hair metal, went off
that way. For me, the biggest inspiration on this record was
that era of '79 to '82, where punk rock was mutating into
something else. It was maturing, becoming more experimental.
You had Talking Heads. You had Johnny Lydon doing film.
People were experimenting with beats. All the original New
York punk bands were getting into hip-hop. That was the last
cool moment in music for me.
D: You're talking about Talking Heads and Blondie, and I
always look at that period after punk came in, and I don't
really know much about it, but I saw it as a kind of
commercialization of what punk was. But they were expanding
B: See, I think they were taking it to the next place. I
like punk in its pure form, I grew up with that, but there
was such a possibility happening at that time. But you
listen to all that late punk, early new wave stuff, and the
beats were heavy, and they were straight out of hip-hop. You
listen to all those early Gary Numan records. It's hip-hop,
but it has another sensibility over it. With my record, I
was trying to capture the rawness of the punk, and the
smoothness of the R&B and hip-hop. That just seemed like the
logical place. Since then, it just seems like we've been
lost in the wilderness, flailing and retreading things.
D: My favorite period of time in hip-hop was around
B: It was still a little experimental.
D: It hadn't quite blew up yet. The only thing you would see
on MTV was maybe Run-DMC with Aerosmith, or Salt 'N Pepa,
but there was still a large undercurrent happening. And
until the early '90s, that was a real golden period.
F: You would see all these videos on MTV-Stetsasonic's
“A.F.R.I.C.A.”, Rakim's “Follow the Leader”. And that
presaged, two years later, MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice, even
though it was just a small breakthrough.
D: Well by then, running that shit on Yo! MTV Raps, it was
clear that it was making money.
B: But they need somebody to come and simplify it for the
broadest dissemination. That's the struggle, to keep it…
B: For me, it's not pure, because my music is so completely
D: But I don't mean clean, I mean honest, true to yourself.
B: Having your inconsistencies and vulnerabilities.
D: Take Prince as an example. The shit that he's doing now
isn't purely Prince.
B: I wouldn't tell Prince what to do, but I would love to
hear him make a record, just him and a piano that's out of
tune. He has so much soul and it's caught up in the machines
of production. His records always had a slickness that I
liked, that I thought was cool.
D: He need to bring out the old drums, and a piano, and that
old guitar he used to play, not that big symbol joint.
B: I say just give him a two-string guitar and see what
happens. He's such a genius that he needs a little
D: That's dope. Motherfuckers don't think like that.
B: People would go nuts if he did that. They want the pure,
unadulterated Prince. If you're in the game long enough, you
begin to think you need to have all the accoutrements of
fame and what sounds good.
D: He thinks he needs to go farther, to top what he's
B: He needs to go under what he's done.
D: He needs to go back to the ABCs.
F: He got so preoccupied with the politics of it-not being
on a major label, not having major distribution-he lost
vision of the music. And now that he's back on a major
label, he's thinking he has to let it all hang out, bringing
in the extra musicians, producers, whatnot.
D: My theory about it, I think the forces that used to be
around when he was making great shit aren't really around
him anymore. He had Wendy and Lisa, who were very integral.
You had The Time and Morris Day that was lighting a fire in
his ass every night.
B: That has a lot to do with your music, who you surround
yourself with. A lot of my music comes out of the
personality of the people I was hanging around with. That's
why so much of my album is silly, because I had the guys
from my band hanging out, making jokes, causing all kinds of
trouble. After a while you're just on the mic trying to make
them laugh, and that's how it comes out.
F: That's why records are like timepieces; they definitely
capture the essence of what that year, that month, that
moment was about. It must be strange to have that type of
thing documented so literally, then disseminated so widely.
It's a soul-opening experience.
D: I can't think about that shit. When I was doing the first
album, I never thought of it. After that, though, I became
aware of it, and that really fucked with me. I had to block
that shit out of my mind before I wrote.
F: Because then you're writing for thousands of people.
D: You're self-conscious.
B: And that's dangerous because then you feel like you have
to say something important, and you have to do something
that's worthy. That's the other trap, thinking you have to
be worthy. But people didn't like you because you were
worthy; they liked you because you were unworthy, because
you didn't care.
D: That's the shit.
F: Is that hard as human beings as well, not just as
D: As a human being, I know that I make a living off of
this, but this is something that I love. If I wasn't making
a living off of it, I would still do it. When I go out in
the street, I gotta keep in mind that I ain't nobody
different than I was ten years ago, before I had a record
deal. Everything that you write is just a reflection of you,
so you can't lose touch with where you came from, because
otherwise that's gonna affect what you do.
B: No matter how many after-show parties I go to, no matter
how many award shows I play on, even if I wanted to feel
like I was more important, I just can't. None of this makes
me feel any more confident.
D: Yeah, it makes you more self-aware!
B: It makes me question myself more. Every time I get off
the stage, I think to myself “Was that a piece of shit?”
D: And then you don't know if motherfuckers is being real
with you, or just blowing smoke up your ass.
B: You can see why the ego comes in.
D: I saw you accept an award, man, and it tripped me out.
B: Oh, I'm terrible at speeches.
D: No, it was the bomb, man. Everybody wants to get up there
and say something important, and you were just casual.
B: Yeah, I always feel weird about saying something
F: Are you guys still perplexed by fame?
B: It's something I've never gotten used to, and I'll never
take it for granted. I always have a feeling that it's just
going to fade out. Everytime I make a new album, I'm
starting over again.
D: Yeah, man. It ain't promised tomorrow.