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.