Let me tell you ’bout the, let me, let me tell you ’bout the chicken grease. Despite the fact that yesterday’s track “Devil’s Pie” was released in 1998, to me “Chicken Grease” was the official introduction to the Voodoo era. Let’s rewind…
D’Angelo released his debut album Brown Sugar in 1995. He blessed us occasionally with a soundtrack appearance, but by 1998 we were all beyond restless for his follow-up. The longer the wait, the more the legend grew. He had taken up residence at Jimi Hendrix’s old studio, Electric Lady Studios. He was spending day and night with an incredible group of musicians studying the greats. He had gotten himself into amazing shape and was ready to get out from behind the piano. The music they were making was next level. Nobody was making music like this. At least that’s what we were hearing.
On September 17, 1999, D’Angelo was the musical guest of HBO’s The Chris Rock Show and it would be the unveiling of his new band and sound. I waited nervously in the bedroom of my college house with the VCR ready to record. I was on the edge of my seat when Chris Rock announced “Here to perform ‘Chicken Grease’ off his forthcoming album Voodoo, please welcome D’Angelo.” With that my favorite album was born.
D strutted to the microphone in all black including a long leather jacket which was removed exactly 45 seconds into the performance, much to the delight of the crowd. All of the rumors were true. D had been studying. D did form a supergroup. D was absolutely jacked. And yes, the music they played that night was on another level. I practically had to be restrained. DID YOU SEE THAT?!??! My brother certainly shared my excitement. I can’t recall a single performance or song that we analyzed more than the Chris Rock Show “Chicken Grease” performance. D’s dancing and facial expressions. The second verse that sounded like D was singing and spitting rhymes simultaneously. The way it built up to the call and response with the backup singers at the end. D’Angelo rarely performs on TV, but when he does, he never disappoints. How could he with that song and that band?
I want to take a minute to recognize the abundance of talent on that stage. Let’s start with James Poyser on keys. You might recognize him as “the Thank You Notes Guy” from The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon but he’s written and produced for a murderer’s row of A-list performers. D’s wildly overqualified backup singers were Anthony Hamilton and Shelby J. Those were his backup singers?! I can’t think of a more talented, soulful duo of singers. The combination of their unique, powerful voices gave the band unmatched vocal prowess. Chalmers “Spanky” Alford was always a favorite of mine because he looks like the old blues guy playing guitar with the kids. D wasn’t touring with models. He wanted cats who could play, and Spanky was one of the best. He especially excelled on “Chicken Grease.” Young Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson is in the back on the drums. Remember, in 1999, Questlove wasn’t the guy with 16 different jobs that you know and love now in 2021. You only knew him if you knew The Roots. He spent four years in the studio with D’Angelo honing his craft and transformed from the guy with the afro in the live hip hop band to the versatile percussion virtuoso. Last and far from least is the secret weapon behind D’Angelo’s music for 20+ years, Pino Palladino on bass. If Pino is putting down the bass line you know its going to be funky. If you look at the credits in D’Angelo’s albums you’ll see a lot of Pino on bass and D’Angelo on every other instrument. It’s not that D can’t play bass. It’s more like why would you play bass when you’ve got Pino?
The studio version of “Chicken Grease” was written by D’Angelo, Questlove, and James Poyser. Produced and arranged by D’Angelo. Questlove on drums, Poyser on keys, Pino on bass, all other instruments by D’Angelo. It’s the sixth track from Voodoo. Because the album wasn’t released until January 25, 2000, I had four months of only the Chris Rock Show live version of “Chicken Grease” to enjoy. When the studio version was released I found it jarring. The Chris Rock Show version picks up steam and crescendoes to a big finish. The studio version is exactly what he sings in the song: like that old bucket of Crisco that’s sitting on top of the stove, simmering to a sizzle. It’s a slow burn. It’s also insanely funky. While some songs are overtly funky, “Chicken Grease” sneaks up on you. Before you know it you’re nodding your head and tapping your feet to a song that’s content to do 45 on the freeway.
“Chicken Grease” is another one of those D’Angelo songs that reveals more intricacies with headphones. Questlove’s hi-hat is so far off the beat during the opening of the song it’s jarring. Then D’Angelo’s guitar comes in even further behind the beat. It’s like they recorded the song while up to their shoulders in molasses. As I said earlier, Pino’s bass is the secret sauce that brings the song together. A master class in laid back funk.
That’s it for the second week of D’aily. A nice funk jam for the weekend. Your homework is to find a good pair of headphones and listen to Voodoo from start to finish this weekend. You need to be prepared to discuss when the D’aily Random Song Generator chooses “The Root.” I hope you enjoy your first weekend of October. Have a good weekend. Back Monday for week three.