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.
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.