Groove Theory: Beck and D’Angelo

Photographer Jonathan Mannion
May 03, 2012

Today, it was announced that D'Angelo will give his first US performance in ten years, this summer at the Essence Music Festival. To celebrate, we're looking back more than a decade into our archives at Jon Caramanica’s FADER #3 cover story, a conversation with Beck and D'Angelo about the future of soul music, written in the year 2000.

One day, one room, one tape recorder. Beck and D'Angelo—the interview.

Beneath the surface is where it counts—under layers of affectation, tradition and expectation, out of the glare of fame and away from the scrutiny of self-examination. Way down is where you find what matters, that repository of formative ideas, thoughts and processes that mold the essence of a person. Everything else is, in a sense, just elaborate, intricate baggage—crucial, but not integral.

You might not know it to look at them, but Beck and D’Angelo are cut from the same cloth—grounded in the same musical attitudes of blues, soul, rock and hip-hop while innovating on those traditions to take them in new directions. Of course, no contemporary musician is more flexible than Beck, who has established himself as a master of mimesis over the past decade, drawing upon a staggeringly vast range of influences to create his sound—no two tracks are alike. This eclecticism is more than just an excuse to drop names, or styles, but a reflection of popular music as the great continuum that it is. In Beck, we see music reimagined as a fertile playspace, ignorant of boundaries and categorizations—a melange of Jagger, Veloso, Prince, Lydon and whoever all else, dancing ’til sunrise.

While Beck and his party dance, though, D’Angelo and his spirits seek refuge indoors. Compared to Beck’s sponge, D’Angelo is a filter, collecting influence upon influence and ruminating on it until a final, precise conclusion is reached. He creates a sound with nothing extraneous. As a result, D’Angelo is the closest the last decade has had to a soul singer, as opposed to an R&B crooner. In an era where mechanized lotharios regurgitate themes and beats, D’Angelo’s facility is in delivering pained, complex emotions, almost solely through voice. It’s a gift from a lost era, and all the more important for its distinctiveness.
But if all it took to get by in music was nostalgia, there’d be hundreds of stars. What sets this pair apart is their reverence for past masters and their ability to translate that admiration into music that eclipses the rest of their generation’s revisionist schlock. Their meeting was as much of an experiment as either of their music; a few minutes showed us the two had more in common than their sounds might reveal. They’re both careful students, and finally brought together face to face, the two soul stirrers cut through the haze to find broad swaths of common ground, jumping from old blues to Rakim to callous over-production to the swindles of fame. Of course, at the end of everything, it all came down to the songs…

D'ANGELO: How long do you sit with a song? I know it depends on where you at, but how long do you usually take?

BECK: It’s different. I have songs I did in four hours—written, recorded, mixed, done. And then I have some on this album I spent six weeks on, 16 hours a day.

D’ANGELO: No doubt.

BECK: And two thirds of the work you don’t even hear on the final song. Shit just went out the window. I don’t think there’s one way, but it is satisfying when the jams come easy, and you don’t get sick of it. It’s just always fresh.

D’ANGELO: I’m famous for that—I take forever for one song. The thing that’s hard for me is that if I take two weeks away from a song, then come back to it, I’ve lost that initial energy about it.

BECK: You go through a lot of stages. The inspiration, then you hate it, then you’re bored of it, then you don’t care about it, then you’re just putting up with it. Then you like it again, and then it becomes part of you. It’s like 12 stages. After a certain point, and you’re playing the same songs on tour night after night after night, they become like appendages. You don’t even think of them as songs anymore.

FADER: Do they lose the fire after playing them night after night? De La Soul was just here last week, and every time they do “Me, Myself & I,” Posdnuos will be up there chanting “We hate this song. We hate this song,” all over the chorus. Pos is smart, and that’s not what De La’s about anymore, but they’re obliged to perform it. Do you ever get that way with old material, sort of a love-hate thing?

D’ANGELO: You said it. You love it. You hate it. You put up with it.

BECK: I don’t have that. I don’t think of it like that. I’m beyond bored with it. It’s like my arm. Are you bored of your arm? You use it every day. That’s the eternal struggle, though, is trying to keep it fresh, come up with new shit. People always wanna hear the old shit—that’s always gonna be the case. The shit you’re inspired by, it’s never going to strike a chord until you’re over it.

FADER: One thing that strikes me as different about the way you two put together records is that, Beck, you draw upon a vast range of influences, and very willfully—tropicalia, old-school hip-hop, electro and so on. Whereas D’Angelo, you seem very preoccupied with capturing a particular mood. And two years or more in the studio just to capture that one mood. Where you’re [Beck] -trying to capture ten moods—it’s frenetic. It’s experimental. It’s saying “I was listening to this. I’m filtering it and this is how it’s coming out.” Where you’re [D’Angelo] honing things down to a point, cutting out all the bullshit—doing vocal tracks ten times until it’s right. Is that the way you’ve always worked?

BECK: I respect what he’s doing. I wish I could do that, but that’s not my strength. My strength is to come from ten different directions at once.
I wish I could have that focus—going for the one thing and nailing it.

D’ANGELO: Thanks, man.

BECK: No, I’m serious. I’d rather listen to his record than my record. It makes you feel good. Mine is another thing, it takes some work.

D’ANGELO: Man, this guy… Beck is funky. I don’t look at MTV or BET a lot. I don’t really listen to the radio. But I caught some of what you put out. I caught you on an award show with your band, and it was wild. Everything you were doing was kinda where I was trying to go; this is when I was writing for Voodoo. Even the choice of instruments—you had a kid up there playing a farfisa. And you was doing some James Brown steps, with the horn section and everything. It was just a return to some basic shit; that’s where I’m trying to go. And it’s dope to see you do it, because even though you’re not on the black side of the music, you’re doing shit that’s reminiscent of what we used to do, and I wish that more black artists would do that.

FADER: Take those risks?

D’ANGELO: Yeah, take those risks. That’s the shit, man.

FADER: If you look at the state of contemporary R&B in the most broad sense, it’s an extraordinarily stagnant genre. It doesn’t attempt anything.

D’ANGELO: It’s pop music now.

BECK: It’s the equivalent of what country music’s become. Country music’s become Billy Joel. And it’s all kind of gravitating to that center.

FADER: Well, if one person becomes successful at something, everybody moves there. When Curtis Mayfield passed, it got me thinking about the state of contemporary soul music, and how in the ’90s, we don’t really have that many soul icons. Back then, we had a Sam Cooke, a Curtis Mayfield, a Marvin Gaye, more than you can count on two hands. People whose records you could consistently buy, and count upon.

D’ANGELO: The whole cycle was that. It’s like you said about seeing motherfuckers being successful at using a format. Back in the day all those cats were really, really good, so that caused a chain reaction. It ain’t that now. It’s on some business-savvy shit now.

BECK: That’s what was good about the rock world at that time too, because they were looking over at the soul world and realizing that they had to live up to that shit too. Like the Stones, they had to live up to that shit too. I feel like it was such a healthier environment for music back then.

D’ANGELO: And you had the civil rights era, and all the shit that was happening in society, and music was playing a big part in it, as far as closing those gaps. Like when you had Jimi Hendrix, doing what he was doing, it was less a thing of an individual genre, but people really looking at the big picture. Jimi was blending so much shit together—he was deemed as a rock n roll artist, but he put so many influences into what he did—Curtis Mayfield, blues, whatever. Sly Stone even was picking up on that, and Miles Davis was trying to do the same shit. They were looking at a bigger picture.

BECK: That was true about Hendrix, too, because he came from that blues background, but he was down with Dylan too, and it’s interesting to see something like that.

FADER: But in the ‘60s, what was of paramount importance to American society was equality, civil rights, politics. It was fundamentally about political and social change. The music was central to the consciousness. But now, you can put out a record that’s fairly ignorant, become financially successful, elevate to the middle class, and in a fairly superficial way, eliminate all those problems.

BECK: It’s all about comfort now. People wanna hear the sound of comfort. They don’t want to hear anything that’s in between. They want the couch that doesn’t have any hard spots in it. They just want to settle in for the ride.

D’ANGELO: See, that’s the thing. Motherfuckers could care less about politics or certain things. Everybody just wants to party and floss. The whole deeper consciousness of it is gone.

FADER: When was the last time that any contemporary music had that though? Since disco, it seemed that it’s all gone in that direction.

BECK: I think it’s since about ’82 or ’83. In ’83, hip-hop went off on its own. New wave kinda took in hair metal, went off that way. For me, the biggest inspiration on this record was that era of ’79 to ’82, where punk rock was mutating into something else. It was maturing, becoming more experimental. You had Talking Heads. You had Johnny Lydon doing film. People were experimenting with beats. All the original New York punk bands were -getting into hip-hop. That was the last cool moment in music for me.

D’ANGELO: You’re talking about Talking Heads and Blondie, and I always look at that period after punk came in, and I don’t really know much about it, but I saw it as a kind of commercialization of what punk was. But they were expanding on it.

BECK: See, I think they were taking it to the next place. I like punk in its pure form, I grew up with that, but there was such a possibility happening at that time. But you listen to all that late punk, early new wave stuff, and the beats were heavy, and they were straight out of hip-hop. You listen to all those early Gary Numan records. It’s hip-hop, but it has another sensibility over it. With my record, I was -trying to capture the rawness of the punk, and the smoothness of the R&B and hip-hop. That just seemed like the logical place. Since then, it just seems like we’ve been lost in the wilderness, flailing and retreading things.
D’ANGELO: My favorite period of time in hip-hop was around mid-’80s, late-’80s.

BECK: It was still a little experimental.

D’ANGELO: It hadn’t quite blew up yet. The only thing you would see on MTV was maybe Run-DMC with Aerosmith, or Salt ’N Pepa, but there was still a large undercurrent happening. And until the early ’90s, that was a real golden period.

FADER: You would see all these videos on MTV—Stetsasonic’s “A.F.R.I.C.A.”, Rakim’s “Follow the Leader”. And that presaged, two years later, MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice, even though it was just a small breakthrough.

D’ANGELO: Well by then, running that shit on Yo! MTV Raps, it was clear that it was making money.

BECK: But they need somebody to come and simplify it for the broadest dissemination. That’s the struggle, to keep it…


BECK: For me, it’s not pure, because my music is so completely bastardized.

D’ANGELO: But I don’t mean clean, I mean honest, true to yourself.

BECK: Having your inconsistencies and vulnerabilities.

D’ANGELO: Take Prince as an example. The shit that he’s doing now isn’t purely Prince.

BECK: I wouldn’t tell Prince what to do, but I would love to hear him make a record, just him and a piano that’s out of tune. He has so much soul and it’s caught up in the machines of production. His records always had a slickness that I liked, that I thought was cool.

D’ANGELO: He need to bring out the old drums, and a piano, and that old guitar he used to play, not that big symbol joint.

BECK: I say just give him a two-string guitar and see what happens. He’s such a genius that he needs a little limitation.

D’ANGELO: That’s dope. Motherfuckers don’t think like that.

BECK: People would go nuts if he did that. They want the pure, unadulterated Prince. If you’re in the game long enough, you begin to think you need to have all the accoutrements of fame and what sounds good.

D’ANGELO: He thinks he needs to go farther, to top what he’s already done.

BECK: He needs to go under what he’s done.

D’ANGELO: He needs to go back to the ABCs.

FADER: He got so preoccupied with the politics of it—not being on a major label, not having major distribution—he lost vision of the music. And now that he’s back on a major label, he’s thinking he has to let it all hang out, bringing in the extra musicians, producers, whatnot.

D’ANGELO: My theory about it, I think the forces that used to be around when he was making great shit aren’t really around him anymore. He had Wendy and Lisa, who were very integral. You had The Time and Morris Day that was lighting a fire in his ass every night.

BECK: That has a lot to do with your music, who you surround yourself with. A lot of my music comes out of the personality of the people I was hanging around with. That’s why so much of my album is silly, because I had the guys from my band hanging out, making jokes, causing all kinds of trouble. After a while you’re just on the mic trying to make them laugh, and that’s how it comes out.

FADER: That’s why records are like timepieces; they definitely capture the essence of what that year, that month, that moment was about. It must be strange to have that type of thing documented so literally, then disseminated so widely. It’s a soul-opening experience.

D’ANGELO: I can’t think about that shit. When I was doing the first album, I never thought of it. After that, though, I became aware of it, and that really fucked with me. I had to block that shit out of my mind before I wrote.

FADER: Because then you’re writing for thousands of people.

D’ANGELO: You’re self-conscious.

BECK: And that’s dangerous because then you feel like you have to say something important, and you have to do something that’s worthy. That’s the other trap, thinking you have to be worthy. But people didn’t like you because you were worthy; they liked you because you were unworthy, because you didn’t care.

D’ANGELO: That’s the shit.

FADER: Is that hard as human beings as well, not just as recording artists?

D’ANGELO: As a human being, I know that I make a living off of this, but this is something that I love. If I wasn’t making a living off of it, I would still do it. When I go out in the street, I gotta keep in mind that I ain’t nobody -different than I was ten years ago, before I had a record deal. Everything that you write is just a reflection of you, so you can’t lose touch with where you came from, because otherwise that’s gonna affect what you do.

BECK: No matter how many after-show parties I go to, no matter how many award shows I play on, even if I wanted to feel like I was more important, I just can’t. None of this makes me feel any more confident.

D’ANGELO: Yeah, it makes you more self-aware!

BECK: It makes me question myself more. Every time I get off the stage, I think to myself “Was that a piece of shit?”

D’ANGELO: And then you don’t know if motherfuckers is being real with you, or just blowing smoke up your ass.

BECK: You can see why the ego comes in.

D’ANGELO: I saw you accept an award, man, and it tripped me out.

BECK: Oh, I’m terrible at speeches.

D’ANGELO: No, it was the bomb, man. Everybody wants to get up there and say something important, and you were just casual.

BECK: Yeah, I always feel weird about saying something important.

FADER: Are you guys still perplexed by fame?

BECK: It’s something I’ve never gotten used to, and I’ll never take it for granted. I always have a feeling that it’s just going to fade out. Everytime I make a new album, I’m starting over again.

D’ANGELO: Yeah, man. It ain’t promised tomorrow.

Groove Theory: Beck and D’Angelo