Betty Wright: Lil Wayne Has ‘Total Recall,’ LP Is a ‘Movie’
If Betty Wright comes off as no-nonsense, abrupt even, she’s not in a rush to apologize about it. “When I’m in recording sessions, I’m real good for saying, ‘Child, y’all are going to have to slow that down,’” muses the 57-year-old soul singer-songwriter-producer. “I have to be honest and real. That’s just me.” Maybe such brazenness comes from the fact that Wright has nothing to prove. After all, the Miami native and otherworldly vocalist — that’s a four-octave vocal range, thank you very much — has been an R&B fixture ever since she released her 1971 breakthrough single ‘Clean Up Woman.’ And the influential standards continued: ‘Where Is the Love,’ ‘Tonight Is the Night’ and ‘No Pain No Gain.’
Wright would go on to win a Grammy and become one of the first female artists to record and release a gold album on her own label — 1988′s ‘Mother Wit.’ Through the years, she’s toured with reggae deity Bob Marley, recorded with shock rocker Alice Cooper, appeared as a vocal coach on Sean “Diddy” Combs’ MTV reality show ‘Making the Band,’ and logged studio time with Lil Wayne. But Wright is all about the here and now. Her latest album, ‘Betty Wright: The Movie,’ is a labor of love backed up by the legendary Questlove-led Roots crew. There are collaborations with the diverse likes of Joss Stone, Snoop Dogg, Lil Wayne and Lenny Williams. But it’s Wright’s powerhouse singing that stands center stage. The BoomBox caught up with the influential diva to discuss her legacy, current project, her surprising views on hip-hop and why Questlove may be the best producer in today’s music business.
Was there a concept behind the album title ‘Betty Wright: The Movie’?
Every time I have written a song from the time I can remember writing, people would always say, “I can see what you are singing about. Just like a movie.” Sometimes when you have a song you listen to it and say, “It’s OK. It’s music to drive to.” But then there are songs where you can actually hear it as a movie. You can see the actual scene of the lyrics. I think that’s the kind of writer God put me on this earth to be. When you listen to my music, you can see the whole story.
During your career you have produced your own work as well as such acts as Joss Stone and Tom Jones. Can you describe just how challenging it was to segue into producing, something that was a rarity for female artists and performers?
Let me say this. The saddest part about it is there were many female producers back in ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. But because we came up in an era when performers were not clearly defined, we’ve always thought that the engineer is the producer. Had we known that back then, ‘Betty Wright Live’ there would not have been any other names on it. If it was my live show and I wrote it, and put together the choreography, then who produced it? I did. That’s just a fact. There have always been female artists and singers putting bands together all the time. But we were not always getting credit for that because we didn’t know any better. But in this day of the Missy Elliott‘s and the Lady Gaga‘s, that’s changing. Still, we have to stand our ground. Society doesn’t want to see women in that position because they think it’s a masculine trait to be in charge. But people have to understand that the hand that rocks the cradle rocks the world.
Listen to Betty Wright’s ‘Grapes on a Vine’ Feat. Lil Wayne
Can you talk about how The Roots became involved in ‘Betty Wright: The Movie’?
This is the funniest story ever. It’s a Grammy story. I’m walking out from a pre-performance because God blessed me to be nominated for a single I put out last year about domestic abuse called ‘Go.’ But in that same category was The Roots with John Legend. Henceforth they win, but I get the chance to perform on the pre-show with Cyndi Lauper and Mavis Staples.
Not bad company, huh?
Right! So, I’m going over to the regular Grammy telecast and I see Questlove and The Roots and I say, “Hey, congratulations…because y’all better be glad y’all are my boys…I would snatch that Grammy and run. You just want to beat up on grandma.” Everyone starts laughing. I end up riding home with the guy I had decided I was going to do my record with — S-Curve Records’ Steve Greenberg who I did the Joss Stone record with. Sure enough, Steve ends up sitting next to Quest, and they get to talking and their brains start working. The next thing you know I get a call like, “You know, it would interesting to see what you guys could do on a couple of songs together.” And this is after I performed at the Grammy Jam with The Roots and people were really feeling it. Next thing you know, two songs with The Roots became, “You know what? Questlove wants to work on the whole album.” I could take credit for us getting together, but I really had nothing to do with it [laughs].
How tough was it to give up that control to Quest and the band?
Me and my partner Angelo Morris co-write just about everything on the album. He’s been my musical director for 25 years. We just said we were going to put ourselves in The Roots’ hands. I knew that if I came in and I was trying to run things I would get nothing done [laughs]. It was a blessing. We took the songs to another level. The Roots and I wrote a new song too. It’s called ‘You and Me.’
It seems like you and Questlove get along rather well. Was he easy to work with?
I love Quest! He’s extremely quiet, but focused on his craft. There are a lot of things that go on around him, but he still keeps his attention. I wish there was a machine that can help him go back and remember every single thing that he is doing right now because he is doing so many things. He is just a phenomenon. I hope I didn’t frustrate him too much because I always say what’s on my mind.
On your album you not only collaborated with The Roots, but Lil Wayne and Snoop Dogg. What is it about hip-hop that has allowed you to embrace it in such an emphatic way?
I have to tell you that I love people. When I see the kids coming up and see what they have done with the music, it’s amazing. I used to hate sampling, but it was basically because everyone was getting paid but us. But when they began to do the legislation and get it right, I realized that the kids just did something that if maybe we were smart enough we would have done it as well. The hip-hop artists helped us to stay relevant and they have brought a new generation to us.
A lot of artists in your generation have been very critical of today’s music. Do you sometimes feel the same way?
We have to stop hating on folks and allow them to be able to express themselves without censorship. That doesn’t mean that I want to hear you cussing every minute, but they are writing about their pain. When I was growing up, we came up in a society where there was not a lot of money and the husband felt like, “Well, if I’m only bringing $200 home, maybe I won’t come home. I’ll just get drunk and feel good for about five minutes.” Those were the things we wrote about: lost hope and lost love and falling in love. Now the rappers today write about police harassment, drugs and becoming successful. I don’t know who said this, but my generation was willing to die for what they believed in. Today’s generation is willing to kill for what they believe in. We have to make sure that we keep working from our palette and they work from theirs. That way the children that are growing up today will get to see all of the above.
What was the experience like working with Lil Wayne?
I’ve been working with Lil Wayne since he was 15. We’ve had an association for a while. I’ve worked with him as a producer. Wayne is definitely a talented artist. He has total recall, which is so much of an asset in this business. He’s creating those raps and he’s not writing them down. They are coming off the dome.
Take me back to when you had your first commercial breakthrough with your 1971 hit ‘Clean Up Woman.’ How did you get away recording that kind of risque material at the age of 17?
I was grown in a crazy kind of way. I was in high school when I did ‘Clean Up Woman.’ That record was gold before I was even 18. Everybody in my family was entertainers. I had a brother who played with Junior Walker & The All-Stars, King Curtis & The Kingpins, and my sister sung with KC & The Sunshine Band, so we were already doing this. But the thing was I knew how to act. My mother said I was always a better actress than I was a singer [laughs]. That’s what I do in my music. When I do these songs, I become that person in the song. If I want to sing a love song, I’m going to be that lover. If I’m going to sing a song about dancing, you are going to see me do some dancing.
You have had your own solo hits and worked on recording sessions with everyone from Alice Cooper and Stevie Wonder to Erykah Badu and the aforementioned Lil Wayne. How have you been able to have such a ridiculously diverse and rich career?
I think because of my mother, God rest her soul, she instilled in us something that I cannot put a dollar value on. She taught me a brand of humility. I see people talk about it, but not walk about it. My mother told me from a little girl, “There’s nothing good but God and nothing great but God.” I have lived my life having to be able to sing background on a lot of sessions. I’ve had a blessed career and it’s still going strong. I want people to listen to this new album with an open heart. You don’t have to love Betty Wright. But there’s something about me that you are going to love.