Aaliyah: Angel So Fly

Photographer Jason Keeling
August 25, 2011

Baby Girl, better known as Aaliyah, conjured the future between the beats. She was as enigmatic and cutting edge as R&B, pop and the rest of the music world may ever see. We glimpse the brief life of an angel. So fly.

Missy Elliott:
Me and Timbaland flew to Detroit. They was testing us out to see if we could make a hit record for Aaliyah, because she was coming off the project for R Kelly and I guess they wanted to try some new producers. We was kinda nervous because we hadn’t done records for any artists of that caliber, but when we first met her, she treated us like she knew us for years, like we grew up with her. She was always very sweet, always smiling and she made us feel like we was big producers when we didn’t have no record out. Even coming off a big album, she never once treated us like we were beneath her.

Me and Tim, our sound was so far left that it was kinda hard for people. They liked it, but they didn’t know if they really liked it, because it was so different from everything else on the radio. But the weird thing was, as soon as we did “One in a Million,” she immediately thought it was a hit. We didn’t have to convince her, she was like, I’m telling you, this is hot. I knew then there was a chemistry. She wasn’t close-minded. She was an artist that got it.

After that, we became family. She was my little sister and Tim was my brother. And we became the Supafriends! We felt like we was gonna save the world. We was gonna change music every chance that we got. We felt like we was gonna always be family. Forever.

I think when “If Your Girl Only Knew” first came out, people kinda said, Oh, she got a new sound. But then when “One in a Million” came out, the beat and the melody were so different from anything. I was in a club one night, the DJ took it back TEN TIMES, no lie. And this was in the middle of him playing, like, Biggie records and Tupac records, and here goes “One in a Million” in the middle of all this street rap! That’s when I said, OK, this is something different—we are going somewhere else, we are kind of switching the sound.

Sometimes when I’m talking to Ciara, we’ll bring Aaliyah into the conversation. I know that she would be somewhere in outerspace at this moment, because she grabbed onto the same mentality that we had: be risky. We always said we don’t want somebody else to do it before we do it, so let’s just take it there. How do you know if people are gonna like it or not if you don’t at least try it?

I never seen Aaliyah get mad. She was always so relaxed and reserved. I remember one time at an awards show, me and her and Tim went and got these outfits. I ain’t dressed like somebody else since junior high school, but we all got these Pony burgundy outfits. We was so mad cause we felt like she’s gonna win, and she didn’t get anything! And she was like, It’s cool. But us, we was like, Nah, man, that One in a Million album was a classic! But she was like, I’m just happy to be nominated. I never seen her go out of character. She was always sweet and caring and compassionate. Just a good person.

With the sunglasses, I think it was just persona. I mean, she was always a star, but when people can’t see your eyes, they really don’t know how you looking. Your eyes tell a lot, and by her covering them, they really never knew what her personality was. I think once she took the sunglasses off and got into her girl clothes, it was like, Wow, she’s grown. I think people started to feel like they knew her.

Even though she had the big baggy pants on, there was still like a sex appeal. She was like that round the way girl, cause at that time, you had a lot of females dressing in baggy clothes. She kind of related to the regular chicks but at the same time she had a sex appeal to her, so I think it translated. It was a mystique and it gave her room to keep growing each album.

I still get guys that are like, I used to love me some Aaliyah, or, I got her on my screensaver. I think every guy had a crush on Aaliyah. If a guy tried to approach her, she was always nice, but you know, it wasn’t like, OK, I’m gonna call you in an hour! But she was always like, Thank you so much, and that was that. She was very focused on her music and her family, so I don’t think she really took to anything they said, until her third album, when she was like, OK, I’m grown now. Maybe I’ll give you a call.

Right before she did Queen of the Damned, she came to my hotel and she had these huge gold teeth from one of those comedy stores. I kept begging her to do the lines, and she was doin them with these big teeth that was sticking out of her mouth. And we just laughed and laughed and laughed, over and over again. That was my last, greatest memory because, like, she’s a clown! She liked to have fun.

I was in Jamaica when I found out she passed. Somebody called me, but there were so many different rumors on other artists like Luther [Vandross] and Whitney [Houston] at the time that I really cursed another artist out cause I thought they were playin. People were calling cause they thought me and Tim was with her. Then when they started saying this person was with her and this person and this person, I kept hanging up on people. But when I called Tim I could tell something was wrong.

It’s like losing a family member. It’s not like Aaliyah the superstar, the celebrity. It’s like my little sister. You feel empty, you feel in shock, you feel angry. That’s a feeling I can’t even really explain.

Most people look at her as an angel. That’s what she was. I’m not saying that because people feel like they have to say great things because somebody passed away. It is what it is. She was a sweet person with great, incredible talent who didn’t compromise who she was for the world. It was like: I’m gonna be a trendsetter, I’m gonna be an icon, even when I’m gone, you gonna always remember me.

Missy Elliott is a rapper, producer and songwriter who, with Timbaland, wrote several Aaliyah hits including “One in a Million,” “If Your Girl Only Knew,” “4 Page Letter” and “I Care 4 U.”

Aaliyah and best friend Kidada Jones, photographed by Jason Keeling.

Kidada Jones:
Me and Aaliyah met at a Tommy Hilfiger fashion show that I styled in about ’93. She had really small feet and so did I and she didn’t have shoes for the show so I remember loaning her my shoes. Then we met again on the Tommy Hilfiger photo shoot when we were both in the ad.

You know when the dogs are at the dog park and they run up to each other and their tails wag and they smell each other? It was just easy. As soon as we met we just started talking and that was it. We were like four or five years apart. We were into fashion, music, boys, pop culture. Sense of humor, that’s what I would say was our common ground. We used to do prank call after prank call. Once we pranked my dad [Quincy Jones] and she acted like she was Christina Aguilera. She was asking my dad to do something on her record and she was just singing, and he totally believed it was her. When he was like, What number can I call you back at? she gave him my home number. He still didn’t realize that it was us! I called him right after and he goes, Christina Aguilera just called me, but then he looked up the number and he figured it out.

Her mom allowed me to be her guardian for a little bit. I was a few years older so when she went to Europe, I was the guardian—which was a complete and total nightmare. I’ll keep it mild, but it was just young fun and maybe I didn’t really understand the boundaries. We got in trouble quite a few times, but she was the funnest friend. A lot of friends have quarrels, and maybe we had a couple disagreements, but our friendship was based on going out and having a great time. We ate breakfast late at night. We got our nails done a lot. We shopped a lot—when no one even knew what Kitson was, we would be there all the time. We spent a lot of time getting matching outfits and clothes. We had boyfriends at the same time, so we would get them the same presents. We even vacationed together, we went to Fiji.

We did a lot of making up dances. We had one to “Too Close” by Next—that was our JAM! When we would go to the club we would dance together like those two girls in House Party. We did it all the time! Every time we got to a dancing place we’d end up doing the House Party dance. Right in the middle of the party! I mean, we didn’t even care! People just thought we were stupid.

I think about her all the time. She was so sweet. She just left like a sweet coating over everything. Anytime she’s brought up or her music comes on the radio, it’s sweet, but it definitely sounds like she found a niche before it was here. If you listen to her music it’s so relevant today, but we had it so long ago.

There was an edgier side to her that people didn’t know. She was more forward thinking than most people. Deeper. She was fine spending time alone. She was a thinker. A little risky in fashion, she was trendsetting. We were in the process of starting a girl’s clothing line, it was called Dolly Pop. Right when she passed we were getting ready to sign our contracts for that. We were making plans for this brand that was gonna be girly and cute and have Japanese inspiration. This was seven or eight years ago, so the whole Japanese inspiration wasn’t at the forefront.

Her instinct was definitely forward and a little brave. She was a risk-taker. She absolutely pioneered the whole falsetto over a heartbeat, and the whole feminine-meets-tomboy mysterious dance routine. That’s her. She very much paved that way for girls. And then you see those girls go from girl to woman. From her first video to her last video, you see Aaliyah go from teenage girl to woman. She evolved at a really nice pace.

Kidada Jones was Aaliyah’s best friend. She is an actress, model, and jewelry and fashion designer.

Dame Dash:
I knew her as an artist first; I mean I always liked her music, her dancing and whatever. Then when I met her we just kinda hit it off. It was like we had the same rhythm, the same ambition. She was taking over, like just into everything. She was already a fashion icon, she was getting into movies, she had already planted that seed. If she was alive today she would be so relevant. I see little bits of her everywhere I look, in a lot of artists.

The thing with Aaliyah is that everybody liked her. I mean, people who didn’t like anybody liked her. Didn’t just like her, were obsessed with her. She was just super-cool. She had this certain swagger about her. Her coolness was just innate, it was in everything she did. It was like trying without trying, you know what I mean? She wasn’t exactly dark, but she was into sphinxes and all those Egyptian things. She was adventurous.

For somebody to be so sweet and still be so fearless, that’s not something people are used to, I guess.There was nobody pulling her strings, it was all her. The vision, the style was all her. She really wanted it. She died working, you know? She didn’t die playing around.

Damon Dash was Aaliyah’s boyfriend at the time of her death. He is a film producer, entrepreneur and the co-founder of Roc-a-Fella Records.

Photo by Juan Algarin.

Jomo Hankerson:
I was in my last year at Pepperdine when we started Blackground in ’91. Pop [Barry Hankerson] had been managing R Kelly for several years and the Jive relationship was blossoming. When we brought Aaliyah on to our label, she was around 12. She had already won second place on Star Search, and her mom—my aunt Diane—is a phenomenal singer, so it was always in the stars that she was gonna be an entertainer. For the first album she went to Chicago and worked with R Kelly. Things were great at that time and R Kelly really understood what to do with her album. The big thing was that we were just trying to do great music. At the time there were some other young artists out and people made a big deal about their age, so when we came out with Aaliyah it was a big thing for us to say, This music is great no matter how old she is.

I think a lot of that mysteriousness they talk about was just what she was. She seemed like she came here already grown up, from the beginning. She was a person that you wanted to hang out with, like wanting to be at the cool kids’ table. I was eight or nine years older than her and she was still cool. You just wanted to be around her.

Even though she was so successful on the first album, there were a lot of questions about if the second album would be as great. But Aaliyah was very focused about what she wanted. She wanted to be taken as an artist, not as a product of a super producer, so it was very important to her to put her own stamp on things from the bottom to the top. In the process of recording One in a Million, we got a demo from Timbaland and Missy. The song was called “Sugar and Spice,” which felt a little too kiddie to us, but the structure of the record, the melody, had what became Tim’s signature triple-beat on it. We were overwhelmed, and we sent it to Aaliyah. She called us back like, The track is crazy, this is the best thing I’ve ever heard. So we flew Timbaland and Missy into Detroit to work with her.

The thing about “One in a Million” was that nobody thought it was the record it turned out to be but us. We had a lot of resistance to it when we sent it out as the single. Some radio program directors really had a problem with the crickets, the program director in Chicago at the time literally said he wouldn’t play a record that had crickets in it. It didn’t fit into any category. It was a club record, but it was a ballad. It was bass heavy, but it was a huge pop record. And unfortunately, the way radio works, they like to know where to put a record when they hear it.

Atlantic thought we should remix the record and take the triple-beat down to make it more radio-friendly, but we were very bullheaded about it. We heard they were trying to get remixes done, so we took the tapes out the studio! Back in those days before ProTools you could really control where the music went. If you had that two-inch reel, you had the record. So we grabbed the two-inch reels and all the tapes so nobody could do any unauthorized remixes and we stuck to our guns on that version of the record.

At the radio stations where we would finally get it played, the phones would light up, and they couldn’t not play it afterwards. It took a long time, but when it broke, it stayed forever. It paved the way for Aaliyah to become that trendsetter. We felt like we were on the cutting edge. Did we really know 15 years later Tim was gonna be still dominating? We knew he had the ability, but who could guess that?

She was really in her power zone for Aaliyah, and she was like, awesome. That was the only way to put it. She had done Romeo Must Die, which was a big hit, and she had acted really well in that. She was getting movie roles, she was about to film The Matrix [sequels]. She was just in a creative power zone. She never left a hit in the studio. There’s so many times that artists would pass on a record. Aaliyah got all her hits. She never let one pass her.

She was a force of nature. She definitely was.

Jomo Hankerson is Aaliyah’s cousin and, with his father Barry, runs Blackground Records, which released her music.

Barry Hankerson:
She was my niece. Her mother was a very focused person, very task-oriented and she raised her children like that. So Aaliyah was a perfectionist. She knew what she liked at a young age. She had a great deal of insight into where she was going with her music. I never really had any chance to see her as an adult. She was still a little girl to me when she left here. My sister was with her most of the time. She made sure that Aaliyah had a young life, she made sure Aaliyah went with her friends shopping at the mall.

She could do anything with her voice, but she never over-worked it to where she would be in your face with it. She was more smooth and subtle in her lyrics—very sensual, very subdued—but the power of her range and her ability to sing on key in very high octaves, as she grew, she was getting more and more in control of that.

Detroit always had a strong jazz community. If you listened to the radio station WJZZ and WJLB, you would hear very similar programming, even though WJLB was an R&B station. You could hear George Clinton and the next minute you could be listening to George Benson, the next minute you may have a Miles Davis record, and she was always listening to that.

It really popped open for Static and Missy and Timbaland as well as Aaliyah; that was a crucial role that I had, because nobody had ever heard their music at that point. In fact, Craig Kallman at Atlantic Records told me I was crazy for even listening to it. We did One in a Million with very little money. We were stressed because we had been so successful with the first album, and we knew we had to follow it up, but she was never worried. She was just like, It’s gonna be fine Uncle Barry. This is my time. Don’t worry.

Barry Hankerson is Aaliyah’s uncle, her manager and the owner of Blackground Records.

Photography by Eric Johnson.

I first met Aaliyah when she was 19, when I got a job singing background vocals for Ginuwine. Aaliyah came to one of the rehearsals and she watched us for like 30 minutes. After that, we got a call saying Aaliyah wanted her background singers to sound like us. Soon after that we got the call saying, “Tank you need a job, and you’re hired.”

It was crazy to see the Aaliyah I knew behind closed doors and then the Aaliyah that got on stage and put the shades on. [Offstage] she seemed like a fun teenager, not even thinking about the fact that she was this big superstar that just sold two million records. You would never be able to tell by the way she and her friends ran around giggling and cracking jokes. In practice she’d always be trying to figure out what games we could play, like, Let’s play tag! Then all of a sudden it was showtime and it just clicked on.

Aaliyah’s interaction with her dancers and the way she slid in and out of the choreography was very smooth. Somehow she was just dancing and then the next minute she was on the speakers. When I was with her at the Hot 97 Summer Jam in New York, there must have been 15 dancers on stage, explosions, confetti. It was the biggest thing I’d seen in a long time and she was at the center of it, controlling. That show right there, it was like, Yeah I’m a singer, but I want to be a performer.

She was really adamant about developing the power in her voice. She was like, I like singing pretty, and I like having the angelic voice, but I want to sing harder. I want to sing from the soul. With singing, it’s not totally about what you can do, it’s about being able to see where to put these things. Aaliyah could do all the runs, but to be like an artist painting, to know where to put the tree, it takes a little more imagination. Her confidence was everything. She was like, I’m a woman and I’m Aaliyah, I can try it if I want to.

Tank is an R&B singer and songwriter.

Method Man:
The word in the hood was, she had a cockeye. Cause she always wear them shades, yahmean? But the next album came out and it was like, Whoa, she killin it on some real warrior shit. I didn’t see anyone doing what she did. I mean, Britney Spears tried but I laughed at that fuckin video. It was hilarious, yo. I liked that song Britney bit, where Aaliyah had the snake [“We Need a Resolution”]. It was deep.

[As far as rappers go] she was our pop princess. To be associated with R Kelly in any way at that point in time, that was street credibility. Some people just have that “it” factor, where it doesn’t matter where they’re at, they appeal to both sides. White kids adored her; that’s a hard bridge to cross right there, man, but she had a lot of talent. And when you meet the girl there’s a level of comfortability I can’t even describe. Her and a friend of mine were best friends, so we used to hang out. We went to Universal Studios [to a photo booth], you know those little corny sticker pictures? We used to go do stuff like that. I remember watching a home movie of her and her friends portraying the Spice Girls, that was kinda kooky. It was like being around your little sister. It wasn’t Aaliyah the big superstar. It was just Baby Girl.

I’ve always said that a comedian ain’t funny to me if he try too hard to be funny. Same shit with sexy. Aaliyah didn’t have to try hard. She was a total package as far as singing, dancing and entertaining. She was killin all that, and it was a relief to find out she actually ain’t cockeyed. And her moms was mad peace but very stern, remind me of my bougie aunts and shit. Not bougie in a bad way, but you know, Nigga I ain’t havin it.

The best way that I can describe Aaliyah is this analogy here: being around Biggie so much when I did the song with him, actually hanging out with him, it get to a point where you don’t see a big, fat, greasy black muhfucka. It get to a point where you forget the nigga fat. It’s just something else. The heart and charisma, man. That’s the best way to describe it. You just forget that the person does what they do or you know, they sold like X amount of records or they just won this many awards and Soul Training and the next day y’all just chillin at fucking Fat Burger or some shit like that.

Method Man is a rapper and actor.

Typography by Mario Hugo.

Eric Ferell:
I first worked with Aaliyah on the photoshoot for her first album Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number. She was 15 at the time. She was very, very shy and really reserved and it was funny because I noticed that she kept looking at me strangely that day. Later on, as we got closer, she told me that it was the first time she’d had her makeup done professionally, and wasn’t used to being stared at and having her makeup checked. “You know, back then I didn’t know the routine so I thought you were weird,” she used to say. It took her a long time to get accustomed to it because she was really into the tomboy thing and was resistant to too much glamour. I think there was part of her that didn’t want that sort of attention, because somewhere down inside she thought she wouldn’t be taken seriously. She wanted to come off a little tougher, like, I’m not this bubblegum girl. I think it was a good choice because it left her room to grow.

Then, all of a sudden, she turned into a woman overnight. I remember when we were getting ready for that the MTV awards show, and she wore the yellow and black Cavalli dress. It was the first time she’d really worn something couture, like a full-on gown. When she walked out I teared up and she asked me, What’s wrong with you, and I said, You’re a grown woman!

We had all these little code words, her family really introduced me to the word “irk.” If someone was irking her she would bend the tip of her index finger down so we all knew, it was our inside joke. On the set of Romeo Must Die, for example, there was this one production assistant who was a little overzealous, so every time she would talk to her, Aaliyah would hold the finger up and we’d be in the background cracking up. I remember this one time when her and Damon [Dash] were dating and she played a joke on Eric [Foreman, her hair stylist] and me. They were in the other room having what we thought was a heated argument, and it got so bad. Things sounded like they were breaking, and Eric and I were looking at each other like, Should we go in there? Should we call the cops? All of a sudden I see the two of them peek around the corner and burst out laughing. She was such a practical joker. And honestly, in the eight years that I knew her, what I remember most is the laughter.

Her family would travel with her—sometimes it would be her mother Diane, [her brother] Rashad and her dad. In those rare moments that no one was available, it would be myself and Eric—she still felt at home having us there. And she always had Wilson! She had this pillow named Wilson, like in the movie Castaway where Tom Hanks has a Wilson volleyball that he paints a face on and talks to because he’s been isolated for so long. So she had this pillow that she would take everywhere—on the plane, to the hotel, everywhere.

I always called her my muse because something about her motivated that kind of energy. She would be the first to admit that she had a slightly dark sensibility, and I do too, so we would go there together. Every idea I came to her with she would take it a step further. I felt like she was the first young R&B chick to explore more rock & roll elements, and musically she was open to a lot of things. I started sharing my tastes with her, like Portishead and Björk, and she latched on to a lot of things. She was always willing to stretch out and tap into other places for inspiration.

Eric Ferrell was Aaliyah’s makeup artist for eight years.

Mark Ronson:
We hung out quite a bit—we used to go to Cheetah, this big club on Monday nights, that even Jay-Z rhymed about [in “So Ghetto”]. Aaliyah was the absolute superstar, but I just knew her as my girlfriend’s sister’s friend. She would roll into Cheetah and everyone would be going nuts. One time she came in with Mase, I think they were on a date, and I was like, Holy shit. There was just something about seeing them walk into a club together. I guess it would be like seeing Chris Brown and Rihanna, but amplified by five thousand.

She had this amazing girlish energy. You know when someone can tell if you’re not in a good mood and they put their arm around you, almost a grandmotherly grace. She was extremely aware of other people’s emotions and it always seemed like she was there to make everybody feel all right on a spiritual level.

I still remember, and I said this in my speech out of guilt for beating Timbaland for the Producer of the Year Award [at the 2008 Grammys], getting the “One in a Million” 12-inch, putting it on my turntable, and playing it over and over even though I didn’t quite know what to make of it. Aaliyah sounded like a fairy whispering over this insane hi-hat pattern. There were no other slow-tempo records then, there was just Ginuwine’s “Pony” and “One in a Million,” so if you were gonna play them in a hip-hop club you were making an event of it.

I remember I was DJing something really weird, like someone’s office Christmas party, in the Manhattan Center. There’s a studio behind it that Timbaland used to use all the time. You had to actually walk past the ballroom to get there. Aaliyah walks by and says, I’m just working with Missy and Timbaland in the back, you should come. And I was like, I’m gonna get in so much trouble, but I just put on an album and ran back there. There was much more mystery around them all, and Timbaland and Missy weren’t in videos at that point, so they seemed like these weird mythical geniuses that came out of nowhere and changed pop music. If it wasn’t for Aaliyah being the face and voice of their sound they might have never got to where they did. They were presenting this sort of brilliant but challenging breakthrough music through this beautiful young girl who could sing it perfectly.

Mark Ronson is a producer and DJ. He appears in Aaliyah’s “More Than a Woman” video.

Buy FADER #54, the Aaliyah Icon issue, here.

Aaliyah: Angel So Fly