Erykah Badu Shares An Early Version Of On & On, Complete With A Rap (Video)
Twenty years ago this month (February 11, 1997), Erykah Badu opened the doors to her musical house of worship. Baduizm was a way of life, an inviting presentation of Soul music that stood apart from most of what was out there. Despite its refusal to conform to a very formulaic time of music (especially in popular R&B), the LP was a major mainstream win. Badu shined a light on originality, deep thought, and sheer skill. As several tribute features published this week reveal, she brought a host of respected peers along for the journey and the windfall of recognition. Moreover, Badu blazed a trail for others to follow (as she is still doing today).
“I auditioned for every record label that I could get a meeting with: Bad Boy, Priority, Sony. Shit, I don’t even know if some of the labels I met with still exist anymore,” Erykah Badu reflects to Billboard, during a period of her life where she was a theater teacher, yoga instructor, and hostess in one of Steve Harvey’s restaurants. At one point, she left Dallas to relocate to New York City to cultivate the career of her dreams. “I even went to Boca Raton, Florida. to do a showcase for Sony [Records]… Jermaine Dupri’s dad [Michael Mauldin] owned it. Destiny’s Child was playing the same one. But the label didn’t really get what I was doing, because it wasn’t commercial or mainstream. They wanted to put me in artist development; I didn’t know what it was. It seemed like jail or something. [Laughs] So I was like, no. [Puff Daddy] didn’t like [the demo] either.” As 2017 artists analyze the impact of March’s South By Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, it proved pivotal for the Lone Star State songstress. “I had been performing [there] every year since I was about 19 or so. And this particular year, I had the demo with me. I was passing them out, and I happened to hand one to a lady named Tammy Cobbs, who was Mobb Deep’s manager. She passed it on to Kedar [Massenburg].”
Kedar Massenburg, soon to be Motown Records’ President who would later work closely with Jayo Felony, A+, and Ray Benzino on the Hip-Hop side took interest. The exec with a Universal Records imprint was captivated. “As soon as I heard “On & On,” I knew that I had to get involved,” he tells Billboard. “The thing that struck me immediately was the beginning, because Erykah had used a beat in the intro that Daddy O, a member of a group I managed called Stetsasonic, had created: Audio Two’s ‘Top Billin.’” The late 1987 First Priority Records single produced by Daddy O, Milk Dee, and Gizmo assured Kedar that Badu (who now DJs as “Fat Belly Bella”) had something unique. “I first played ‘On & On’ for D’Angelo in my car, and he was like, ‘Yo, Key’, man,… she’s incredible, you gotta let me produce the album.’ I said, “Nah, D, you couldn’t even finish your own album! You think I’m gonna think I’m gonna let you produce Erykah?’” Instead, the exec asked D’Angelo to do a Dallas show, where Badu could open. In addition to D’Angelo (who Massenburg was managing) having a reputation for tardiness, Kedar says he wanted to avoid a romantic triste between his two acts. Kedar says he went into a venture with Badu on her publishing too. The executive offered to match the best offer she received from the usual administrators, such as Warner Chappell, or EMI.
The same song that Badu used to win over her backers is one she would change if she could go back and do it again. “The one thing I wish I’d done differently on the album is ‘On & On.’ Originally, we came with a really raw track. But I made one compromise by letting Kedar hook me up with a producer who wanted to make it into more of a ‘song’… it took the rawness out of it. I like the raw version that nobody has ever heard a lot better. I wasn’t mad at the newer version, it just took the street out of it a little bit.” That version she is referring to presumably had the homage to Audio Two. She had a vision for herself well before Kedar/Universal Records. “Most of Baduizm was written before I signed. Sonically [the demo] was just right for me. It was the way I wanted it to sound: very raw and under-produced. I did add a few songs.”
According to Kedar, on her own, Badu leaned very Hip-Hop, and often integrated rapping from her group. She says Baduizm‘s “Appletree” was the first song she ever penned without a Rap verse. Ironically, she says that DJ Evil Dee of Black Moon and Da Beatminerz was the first person to break “On & On.” The Bushwick, Brooklyn native played the cut on HOT 97 during his tenure at Emmis Communications.
In addition to working with Beatminerz affiliates, Badu had another group on her radar during recording. “I was in love with this group called The Roots from Philadelphia. They weren’t very popular or famous at the time, so I didn’t know how cooperative Kedar would be. But surprisingly and pleasantly, he trusted my vision. He got me on a plane to Philly and I came back with ‘Other Side Of The Game,’ ‘Sometimes’ and ‘Afro.’ So I added those to the track listing.” Through working in Sigma Sound Studios with The Roots, Badu met a keyboardist named James Poyser. He would join The Roots, after first becoming part of Soulquarians.
David Ivory, an engineer for many of those Philly sessions in the same studio where David Bowie recorded “Ziggy Stardust,” says that it was a special vibe. “A lot of times they would just jam. Scott [Storch] walks in the door, Common’s in the lobby, [Questlove] is playing drums, Rahzel [was involved and they would jam for hours]. Nobody was a big star at that point, everybody was still coming up, a big posse of contributors. I mean, I worked with [the Roots] for eight, nine years on all those records, throughout the ’90s. And Erykah was a great part of the middle of that.”
Despite a strong bond in the City of Brotherly Love, there were doubts on the magnitude of Baduizm. Pitchfork pulled a quote from a September 1998 VIBE interview, where Questlove admitted doubts to his collaborator’s commercial viability. “The last thing I said to Erykah [Badu] when we finished [that] album was, ‘Don’t you wanna sell any units? You got a chance: You sing. Stop tryin’ to be so artsy.’ I said, ‘It’s brilliant, but it’s not gonna do anything.’ I thought the marketplace wasn’t ready.” Badu reportedly told The Roots’ band-leader, “Watch. You’ll see.”
Internally, Kedar watched the fashion and social impact of the LP happen in real-time. “We came up with a campaign around the phrase, ‘What’s your -izm?’ With marketing, it was me and Erykah. That’s it. Everyone thought I was crazy… this little girl from Dallas with this thing on her head… but when they got into the album, they changed their tune. People started wearing head-wraps again.” Massenburg saw that with D’Angelo and cornrows too. “I came up with the name Neo-Soul, so that people knew that they were getting a certain level of consciousness. That it wasn’t your standard, ‘Hey, I’ll cheat with you,’ or, ‘When I leave my man, I’ll get with you.’ No, Erykah’s talking about reincarnation. ‘I’ll see you next lifetime.’ That level of consciousness wasn’t typical.” He believes Badu “solidified” what Tony! Toni! Toné! started, and D’Angelo expounded upon, culturally.
With that consciousness, Baduizm was the perfect title. “It’s an expression of me and the way I feel,” she told Planet Groove host Rachel Stuart at the top of 1997. “’Badu’ is my last name, ‘izm’ is what should get you high and Baduizm [is] the things that get me high. Lighting a candle, loving life, knowing myself, knowing my creator, loving them both … Using my melanin. Using my power, to get to where I need to go to do the creator’s work—that’s what I’m here for. And I’m still fly,” she explained, as Pitchfork points out.
Baduizm would debut at #2, and scan over 1 million units by mid-March, 1997. Erykah’s confidence in herself and her vision was manifested with an eager audience. The LP garnered the Texan two Grammy trophies, beating out well-heeled, and far more established peers such as Whitney Houston and Mary J. Blige.
Kedar would bring Badu to the Motown machine for her subsequent four studio albums (where she remains today). Throughout her career, Erykah has accumulated four Grammy Awards, two BET Awards, and three Soul Train Awards (an event she now hosts).
Today (February 21), Badu has personally shared some throwback footage from a 1995 open mic, taken so early in her career, the MC introducing her mispronounced her name. Filmed at Brooklyn’s Moon Cafe, the footage features Ms. Badu in her signature headwrap, performing what may be the version of her debut single “On & On” she mentioned in the same Billboard interview. The version of song fans know and love appeared on Baduizm and earned Badu the Best Female R&B Vocal Performance award at the 1998 Grammys, making this ’95 rendition truly inspiring. It’s proof that artists often spend years crafting work before fans hear it on a large scale, and it’s a thing of beauty to watch a favorite record literally evolve in front of your eyes.
As Heads will likely notice, Badu drops some familiar rhymes before going into song (“when it comes to rhymes I got plenty, degrees 120,” words that would reappear on her 2002 single “Love of My Life [An Ode to Hip-Hop]”) at the 1:33 mark. From then on, it’s the “On & On” we know well, albeit with a few switch-ups. For example, she sings “I was born under water with one dollar and two dimes,” whereas on the Baduizm version, it’s “three dollars and six dimes.” Again, this performance is showcasing the fluidity and ever-changing nature of music.
Badu posted this footage to her Facebook page with the caption “I guess you just gotta take that first leap…huh? One night I did.”
Badu last released a mixtape, But You Caint Use My Phone in 2015. That Top 20 release was through Motown and her own Control Freaq imprint.