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D’Angelo Talks New Sound, Career Highlights & Neo Soul Debate at Red Bull Music Academy Lecture [EXCLUSIVE]

From his mastery on the piano and his signature falsetto to impeccable songwriting, D’Angelo‘s music transcends genres and generations. The singer is one of the most widely praised R&B artists of the ’90s, and he’s still embraced for his work today — though new music has been hard to come by.

With a lauded career and two albums behind him (and another, ‘James River,’ that fans have been patiently waiting for), the Red Bull Music Academy Festival New York invited the ‘Brown Sugar’ creator to the Brooklyn Museum on Wednesday night (May 21) to discuss his music catalog, pick his brain about techniques and discover what’s in his future.

Moderated by author, filmmaker and critic Nelson George, the lecture, titled ‘A Conversation with D’Angelo,’ kicked off with his present status. He opens up about the new band he’s using and the fact he’s playing more guitar, which is a transition that can be heard in his recent work.

The move is “a natural progression,” D’Angelo explained. The rock-funk sound he showcased when he opened for Mary J. Blige and performed at the Essence Festival last year was a surprise for fans — this wasn’t the same D’Angelo they remember from the ‘Voodoo’ and Soultronics era.

“I don’t know what people were expecting from us because we got a lot of new material,” he told the packed auditorium. “And I think there was kind of a lot of confusion in a lot of people’s faces. And then in other people’s faces, they were really receiving what we were doing… If it’s confusing at first, that’s a good thing.”

D’Angelo’s past had to be a part of the discussion as well. The Richmond, Va., native revealed that he’s been playing the piano since he was 3 years old and studied the instrument formally for a short period when he was a young teen. Although that was short-lived, he also learned a lot about music while he was part of hip-hop group IDU (Intelligent, Deadly But Unique). D’Angelo sang the hooks for the collective and served as a producer. IDU’s DJ and fellow producer Ron Flowers, aka “Baby Fro,” would invite the group to his place, where his dad, who was a professional DJ, had an extensive vinyl collection.

“His house was like a record store, and those records were kept in pristine condition,” D’Angelo shared. “And that’s where I really went to school. That was like hip-hop and Music 101 for me. That’s where I learned about the meter… and all that s—. And then when we were listening to records strictly to find samples and break beats. And then I stopped listening to records for break beats. Instead of listening and stopping for the break beat, I’m listening to the whole record.”

And if anyone could attest to D’Angelo’s knowledge of finding the beat, it’s The Roots drummer and fellow Soultronics member Questlove, who came to the event to show support for his friend. He was invited onstage to talk about his friendship with the crooner. Questlove conveyed that D’Angelo essentially deprogrammed his actual drumming style, which was likened by DJ Premier and other artists to a “drum machine.” “That’s just me trying to emulate my favorite [hip-hop] producers,” D’Angelo said.

Since the event was intimate, Red Bull Music Academy will ensure D’Angelo fans get the change to see the entire conversation since it was filmed. The video will be available on the Academy’s website. And to add to to the interactivity on the web, fans were able to ask D’Angelo questions via Twitter by using the hashtag #askdangelo. One of the questions asked was his involvement in Black Men United’s ‘U Will Know,’ which was featured in the 1994 film ‘Jason’s Lyric.’ The R&B supergroup Black Men United included Brian McKnight, R. Kelly, Tevin Campbell and a very young Usher.

“That song really is what got me my deal [with EMI],” revealed D’Angelo, who co-wrote the song with his brother Luther. “It was on my first demo. Jocelyn [Cooper, former president of Midnight Music] shopped it. I think that was the one. It was the one.”

“It was my first demo, and I had this whole process with signing [with a record label],” he continued. “Just the direction I was going in was different, and so it was a perfect fit. And Jocelyn, being the great publisher that she his, placed it for the movie. And it was like wow. The only thing I had done [at that point] was this song called ‘Overjoyed’ for the Harlem Boys Choir. So here I am with all my heroes.”

The night ended with D’Angelo reminiscing about the Soultronics, his future plans — including his hope to make a proper gospel quartet album — and his thoughts on neo soul. With former Motown Records president Kedar Massenburg, who coined the term, in the house, D’Angelo wanted to plead the fifth on whether or not neo soul should even exist as a genre. Eventually, he mustered up a diplomatic statement on the issue. “Anytime you put a name on something, you put it into a box,” he admitted. “You won’t be in a position where you can grow as an artist.”

“I never claimed that I do neo soul,” said D’Angelo, closing out the lecture and squashing the debate. “When I [initially] came out, I always said I play black music.”

D'Angelo Questlove
Drew Gurian/Red Bull Content Pool

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