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Erykah Badu Promises Soulquarians’ Return, Remembers Dilla at RBMA

A Red Bull Music Academy conversation reveals insight into Badu's past and future

Last night at Brooklyn Museum in Prospect Heights, the elusive Erykah Badu spoke in detail about her career for roughly an hour as part of an event hosted by Red Bull Music Academy. The overarching theme of the night — billed as a “conversation” with the artist as moderated by Ego Trip’s Jeff “Chairman” Mao — was “time,” which dominated the back-and-forth whether it was broached directly or not. The 42-year-old Badu, who released her first album Baduizm in 1997, mentioned on various occassions throughout the night how time has moved incredibly quickly for her, that she feels like it was “just yesterday” that she was at SXSW in Austin, Texas, handing out the 19-song demo cassette that became Baduizm. But she also insisted that her art is not a prisoner to the march of time — give or take an acquiescence to the $0.99-a-song format. 

That, actually, has always been true. She told brief anecdotes from her days as an emerging artist, when Kedar Massenburg — who signed Badu as head of Motown records and coined the term “neo-soul” — worried that her headwraps and Afrocentrism were relics that would limit the size of her audience (her vision eventually won out). She has released music steadily over the past 16 years (five studio albums in total, with no break longer than five years) but has recorded without a concern for calendars. Baduizm, she explained, started out as a rap project between her and a cousin before she began to write songs over the beats he would send her while she was attending Grambling State University in Louisiana. Worldwide Underground was birthed on her tour bus during her Frustrated Artist Tour. She said that collaborations with B. Rashad Smith and James Poyser — a longtime member of the Roots who was later termed by Badu as her “studio husband” — that started out as larks soon became an album featuring contributions from friends and kindred spirits like Common, Dead Prez and Angie Stone. She mentioned that her last two albums, the New Amerykah series, were recorded as a single album between 2003-2005, despite being released as two separate records (the first leaning toward the political, the second towards the emotional) in 2008 and 2010. She stressed that she’s as excited and curious about music and her career now as she’s ever been, revealing that the Soulquarians — an amorphous collective composed of artists like Badu, ?uestlove, D’Angelo, Mos Def, Common and Q-Tip — will be appear again in some form. 

Badu also dug into her pinpoint memory. She recalled the exact night that she heard her breakthrough single “On & On” on the radio in New York City — February 7, 1997 — which was two years after André 3000 first played it in a club, and four days before she conceived her first child with him. She also regaled the crowd with stories about J. Dilla, the rap producer whose death at age 32 has left a hole in the Soulquarians that can only be filled by the inspiration he continues to provide. She reminisced of flirting with the shy, reserved Dilla in order to break his shell, of his candy obsession, and his attention to detail that stretched to how he arranged the Coke cans in his refrigerator.

There remained an energy in the room throughout the night, even as Badu unraveled moments and memories long since passed. She made passing references to new work, which is undoubtedly on its way at some point. The conversation was a milemarker in a still evolving career. There will be more.