Bobby Brown was my introduction to R&B. I grew up in rural Northern Wisconsin in the 1980s with a pop radio station and not much else. We didn’t have cable, so I had limited access to MTV. I was at the mercy of WIXX in Green Bay. They played all the hits you’ve heard a million times, but around here they definitely skewed more toward hair bands than anything hip hop or R&B. As far as I knew the only black people making music were Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Prince, Lionel Richie, and Whitney Houston. Then sometime in junior high DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince and Bobby Brown infiltrated the rotation at WIXX and my life changed forever.
My only concern at that point was finding more of whatever it was Bobby and JJ+FP were doing. Options were limited. I was 12 years old. I couldn’t drive. I didn’t have any money. Branching out past what I heard on the radio was a struggle, but at least pop radio was slowly starting to embrace more hip hop and R&B. I got into LL Cool J, Bell Biv DeVoe, Young MC, Tone Loc, Kid ‘n Play, and MC Hammer. Once I had access to a mall and more than a dollar or two in my pocket my buddy Tyson and I had a routine. Our parents would drop us off and give us a few dollars for lunch. Most of the time I’d get $5, but occasionally maybe they had a little more money on them or my grandma would hook me up and I’d have $10 or $20. The assumption was that the $5 was for lunch, but Tyson and I knew that we could get two tacos at Taco Bell for under $2 and that left us $3 to buy three cassette singles at Sam Goody or Musicland. Sam Goody and Musicland had a lot more diverse selection of music than what we were hearing on the radio, so our best chance at being introduced to new hip hop was to go to the mall, look at the singles, and guess. Which one looks coolest?
You can call this racist, prejudiced, or whatever you want. I call it playing the odds. We weren’t looking at any white people. If every artist that I’m listening to is black and you put two cassette singles in front of me, one had a guy who looked like Bobby Brown and one had a guy who looked like Garth Brooks, I was picking the Bobby Brown guy 100 times out of 100. In the years that Tyson and I were cassette single hunting I promise you I never came home with a tape of white dudes. Actually, I take that back…I’m pretty sure there was some 3rd Bass in there. Shout out to Prime Minister Pete Nice.
At some point Boyz II Men blew up and they were in constant radio rotation. I didn’t need to buy a single to discover them. However, our single hunting did unearth Jodeci and R. Kelly. I realize how ill-timed an R. Kelly reference is today, but I spent a good portion of high school listening to that R. Kelly and Public Announcement album and 12 Play. My real R&B love was Jodeci. I’m certain that I never heard Jodeci once on radio in Green Bay, but I was playing the hell out of them throughout high school because I thought they looked cool and gambled 99 cents on the “Come And Talk To Me” single. Guy, Silk, Shai, H-Town, Johnny Gill, En Vogue, SWV were just a few of the other early-90s R&B acts I was into, most of whom I discovered the same way.
Then I went to college an hour down the road in Oshkosh and things changed. I had regular access to cable and music videos for the first time in my life. I had a great local music store, The Exclusive Company, within walking distance. The internet was becoming a thing at that point and but it certainly hadn’t evolved yet to a point where people were using it to discover music. We had a computer lab on campus with internet connected computers and my buddy Craig worked there. He showed me e-mail one day and said, “You just type an address here, then type your message here, and press send and the next time they look at their computer they’ll have the message.” I’m pretty sure my response was, “Fuck you. What kind of year 3000 wizardry is this?”
The internet wasn’t quite ready for streaming, but there was one life-altering development in discovering new music that finally led me to my topic today: listening stations. There would simply be a CD player with some headphones and a limited selection of new CDs that you could sample in the store. Tyson, Craig, and I made a trip to Fox River Mall in Appleton, Wisconsin, sometime in the early-fall of 1995 and entered a store with multiple listening stations. Tyson and I eagerly made a beeline to the stations and Craig likely stood there cursing us and everyone else because he hated the mall and anywhere with a crowd of people. The “urban” listening station at that particular store included an album titled Brown Sugar by D’Angelo. I had never heard of D’Angelo, but he passed the eye test. Cool looking young black guy on the cover. Same cool guy chilling on a stoop on the back cover. There’s a song called “Shit, Damn, Motherfucker” too?!??! I might like it. Might as well listen.
And then I heard “Brown Sugar” for the first time and life was never the same.
Have you ever watched the singing competition The Voice on NBC? The best part of The Voice is the blind auditions where singers come up to a stage to sing for one of four celebrity coaches, but the coaches have their backs turned so they can’t see the singer. If they like the sound of the person’s voice enough they’ll press a button so they can add the singer to their team and mentor them. Why am I explaining this? If you don’t understand the concept of The Voice I don’t know where you’ve been for the past ten years. Anyway, a handful of times every season a singer will open their mouth to sing and barely get two notes out and one of the coaches will immediately slam their hand down on the “I WANT YOU” button with great force and excitement. That was me when I heard the “Brown Sugar” for the first time. I was standing in that music store with the name that’s escaping me, slamming the “I WANT YOU” button less than ten seconds into the song. He hadn’t even sung a word yet. Just a jazz organ then some bass, drums, and a falsetto voice gliding over the top of it. D’Angelo had me before he sang a single word.
I didn’t just buy a single that day. I must’ve struck it rich because I spent $12 on the whole damn CD. I couldn’t stop listening. Immediately Jodeci, R. Kelly, Guy, and all the others became obsolete. This guy with the organic, soulful sound over hip hop beats was like an R&B graduation. Enough of that kids’ shit. This is for grown-ups. I was 19, by the way. That was 26 years ago. I’ve been hooked on D’Angelo ever since.
The album Brown Sugar was released on July 3, 1995. The title track was also the first of ten tracks on the album and the lead single. The credits on the album are a Prince-like “Composed, written, arranged, produced, and performed by D’Angelo (see additional credits on LP labels).” He was only 21 years old at the time. The additional credit on “Brown Sugar” states that it was produced by D’Angelo and A Tribe Called Quest DJ/Producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad. “Brown Sugar” peaked at #27 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart. It was nominated for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance at the Grammys and lost to “For Your Love” by Stevie Wonder. It was also nominated for Best Rhythm and Blues Song and lost to the same Stevie Wonder song. Brown Sugar was also nominated for Best R&B Album and lost to TLC’s Crazysexycool. I disagree with all three of those decisions, but you already knew that.
Fun fact about “Brown Sugar” that most people probably realized immediately but I feel obligated to mention: it’s about weed! If you’re reading this, you likely already knew this. For many years, being the square I am, I was under the impression he was singing about a woman. Seems obvious, right? Nope. This gave a whole new meaning to the line, “Always down for a ménage à trios, but I think I’ma hit it solo.” I’m not a big fan of weed songs, likely due to the fact that I have very limited experience with it. However, I don’t care what the hell D is singing about on “Brown Sugar” be it marijuana, a beautiful lady, a Rolling Stones song, or a delicious baking ingredient. The shit is dope.
As if this post wasn’t long enough, I have one more fun gimmick for you before I wrap this up. I’ve always been fascinated by D’Angelo’s evolution as a live performer. If you see him in concert you’re not just going to get a rehash of the studio version…at least not anymore.
This is “Brown Sugar” live in September, 1995. Nothing wrong with this performance, but it doesn’t stray far from the studio version.
I missed the Voodoo tour when it came to Milwaukee in July, 2000, but I’ll save that story for another day. I was able to purchase a bootleg CD of one of his shows off of eBay years later. This time D’Angelo and Soultronics took “Brown Sugar” and mashed it up with another Ali Shaheed Muhammad-produced classic, “Check the Rhime” by A Tribe Called Quest. The combination infuses some funk into an otherwise laid back track.
Fifteen years later comes my favorite version. It brings back more elements of the original but keeps the funk of the 2000 “Check the Rhime” version. Chris Dave’s drums sound amazing and the groove is killer. Pino Palladino changes up the bass line enough to make it feel new but still keep that “Brown Sugar” sound. Isaiah Sharkey’s guitar is the missing ingredient from the previous versions. It’s never the main focus of the song. It just lingers in the background, but it’s adds another element that I dig to an already amazing track.
I advise you to make your Wednesday a good one and play every version of the song in succession. “Brown Sugar” isn’t just a song. It’s the anthem of a movement. It kicked off the Neo-soul movement of the late-1990s and ushered in a soul music comeback. While I prefer D’Angelo’s later work, you can’t lose with anything he’s done. “Brown Sugar” is still one of my favorite songs and albums and saying that I think it’s his third best album out of three still leaves it in my top ten albums of all time. He’s just that good. Some still consider it his best work.
I’ll try to keep these posts shorter, but I couldn’t help myself with this track. I’ll be back tomorrow and I’ll try to keep it under 2,000 words. Good day to you.