Erykah Badu Talks Samples, Soul Train, And Her New Mixtape

thoughts of a queen

Photo via @fatbellybella Twitter.

Few artists demand the respect of being called a queen quite like Erykah Badu. She rose to prominence in the late ‘90s by ushering in the neo-soul genre, the collaborative transformation of soul and contemporary R&B, and—after treating us to multi-platinum and gold albums throughout the aughts—continues to engage with us and the rest of her 1.53 million Twitter followers as @fatbellybella, where she casually dropped a remix of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” just a few short weeks ago (but not without finding herself unwillingly connected to D.R.A.M.'s accusations that Drake's track was stolen from his "Cha Cha").

Since then, she’s been named the host of this year’s Soul Train Awards, performed Live Nudity, her one-woman show, and announced that she’ll be dropping a mixtape this week, But You Cain’t Use My Phone, the title of which is a nod to her closing lyric in her hit single “Tyrone." To help our anxiety as we await her new music, she chatted with us about everything she’s been working on, while schooling us on Soul Train and sampling music in hip-hop. It’s far more than we think we’re worthy of from the Queen of Neo-Soul, but we’ll take it.  

Congratulations on being named the host of the Soul Train Awards. This is your second time around, right?
Yep! The first time I was me and Heavy D and Patti LaBelle.

What are you bringing to the awards this time?
I have the opportunity to be an associate producer on the show, so I’m writing and stylizing a lot of the show, which is going to be really cool. I don’t know exactly what happens—I mean, I do know, but I can’t tell you. I think it’s going to be a pretty cool experience for me to do that alone. I’m doing a lot of one-woman things these days.

Right, like your “one-human” show, Live Nudity. What were some of the unexpected challenges of putting on your own show?
I expected it would be a lot of hard work, so I was geared up for that: Running a crew and staff, and also trying to pinpoint exactly what I was going to articulate, as well. I had moments where I had to take a breath and had to encourage myself to keep going. It is a lot of hard work.

I’m sure. But based on how it went, do you think it’s something that you’ll take on the road and do long term?
Yeah, I think so. I have not started planning for that yet, but I see it in the future.

Going back to Soul Train, what memories do you have of the show?
I just remember getting up every Saturday morning and looking forward to the politics of the week, what was going on, who was singing what, who was gonna be on the show. What the new styles were; clothes, hair. Just being front row, center for that week’s event. It was a really big deal in our house every Saturday. I get excited when I think about it. It’s like starting the second part of Saturday morning, because you start out with all the cartoons. [Sings opening jingle] Ya know, we started the second part [of Saturday morning]. We were out of the bathtub by then, had our hair combed.

Absolutely. What I love so much about Soul Train is that there are so many generations that can relate to it. What do you think has helped contribute to its longevity?
It's music and it’s us. I think the platform is really necessary, showcasing who we are. It came at a time before video, so the only time we got to see those artists was on a 2-D cardboard square album cover. Everything that we got about these people had to come from this photo, ya know? Until shows like Soul Train blew up. It gave us another perspective, helped us grow with the music a little bit more. And Soul Train [performances were] lip-synced because—here’s what I think—you didn’t want to lose the groove of the thing, sonically, with the bass and everything and how it was mixed. You want to hear it like that. So, we want to see you perform it. Most of the performances were lip-synced. Now, Aretha Franklin’s performance was one of the first live Soul Train performances ever, ‘cause she’s Queen of Soul and Queen of Soul can do what she wants.

What’s your go-to dance in a Soul Train Line?
Go to dance? The snake. You know, the snake with your head goes to the right or the left.

Yeah, like what Chris Tucker does in Rush Hour.
Right, right.

How do you think that you’ve been able to maintain a connection with your fan base even after all these years? Because in the same way that Soul Train had its longevity, you have, too.
I think it’s just the place that I’m coming from, ya know? I do this for therapy. It comes up out of a need to sing and to write and to perform and to create, and I draw inspiration from things that are happening currently in the moment. I live in the moment, so I guess I haven’t thought of things too much in the perspective of “past” and “future.” I try to live right here, in the moment, and as long as I have the energy, I’m going to continue to create and evolve. It’s kind of part of how [the fans] have made me, whoever they are.

Speaking of creating, we hear you’re dropping the mixtape this week.

What can you tell us about what we can expect?
Well, the name of the mixtape is But You Cain’t Use My Phone. The first single was “Hotline Bling,” and all of the songs are phone-related. That’s why I called it a mixtape, because it’s some reinterpretation, some remakes, some samples. It’s a collection of thoughts that I’ve had about the phone. I just thought it would be fun. And I’m feeling it because it’s exciting! I feel really creative, so I wanted to share that with everybody.

When D.R.A.M had issue with Drake’s “Hotline Bling” allegedly being reimagined from “Cha Cha,” you were kind of misquoted on your response to that.
I was only taking the opportunity to congratulate D.R.A.M. for inspiring us with “Cha Cha.” “Cha Cha” was an underground necessity for artists like myself. Like, okay, this is what’s going on. Love his voice—it’s a little reminiscent of [Andre] 3000’s voice in some ways. And I felt compelled to tell him how awesome he was. But I can tell you how I feel about hip-hop and people jumping on somebody else’s shit when it’s good. That’s what hip-hop is about.

I think the term “hip-hop” is derived from, if we feel a hip beat, we hop on it. Back in the day, it was all samples. The Sugarhill Gang and Afrika Bambaataa came along and started adding instrumentation and song synthesizing. The “hip” thing was to be hopped on, and if you got some good stuff and it gets hopped on, that means you got some good stuff! That’s a nod to you. But it could be disparaging, especially if you’re not looking at it from that perspective. But I wasn’t really too concerned about what D.R.A.M. was saying. I didn’t even pay attention that much. It just came across my Twitter feed, and I wanted to tell this brother how awesome he is, despite what he’s thinking or how he feels. He needs to know that we are feeling him. He needs to know that this is some awesome work. We love that.

We are in a strange time, too, where we’re trying to draw the lines where people claim ownership over their art.
Yeah, I’m kind of iffy. I have one foot over here and one foot over there because we’re in a time in music where somebody has created a flying car and a few other people have jumped on it, but they haven’t created any kind of street signs or stop lights for them. So it’s kind of like the Wild, Wild West in the sky up here. I think that’s what the Internet is doing, to and for our music right now: It is evolving the way we can put out music, the way we can sound, what music we can put out. We can put out anybody else’s music, as long as we don’t charge for it. We can duplicate anything we want. It’s all here. And once we put music out as artists, it doesn’t really belong to us anymore. It kind of just belongs to the world. It’s open for interpretation, and to create dialogue and some kind of fallout, or some kind of inspiration.

But, like I said, I have one foot over here, now I have one foot over there, too. This is some people’s way of life. And a lot of the samples and things were done by artists who, first of all, didn’t get a fair deal and never saw any money really off of these things they did. And I mean, don’t take it personal, we want what’s coming to us and we feel that we need—and when I say “we,” I mean collectively, as artists who may fit into that category—we need to be respected and paid for these things. We want some kind of reciprocity or return on our creative investment.

Watch Badu host the Soul Train Awards 2015 on Centric and BET Networks on November 29th at 8 p.m. EST.