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.
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.