Legendary soul singer Teena Marie is back with a new album called "Congo Square". Check out this exclusive interview with Teena as she talks about her relationship with legend Rick James, her views on rappers who have sampled her in the past, her relationship with Cash Money Records, her Motown relationship and details on her extensive catalog. This is a must read for any music fan!
By William Hernandez
WHO?MAG: Talk to me about your new album Congo Square?
TEENA MARIE: The name of the album is Congo Square. Congo Square is the place in the French Quarter where on Sundays, during slavery, the slaves were allowed to go dance and sings. The majority of the slaves in New Orleans were from the West Indies. I thought about what an amazing inspiration sound that must have been. I've always had a deep affinity for New Orleans to the people, the food, and the culture. Since the moment I got off the plane years ago, it seemed to always call me like it was my second home and they always treated me as such. I thought 400 years back and then I thought about jazz and Louie Armstrong being the father of jazz and him being born in New Orleans. Just the incredible musicians that have come through there; people like Billie Holiday who emulated her whole vocal styling off the way Louie played his horn. Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, all the blues artists such as John Lee Hooker, the guy on the corner that nobody really knows his name, but he writes his songs too, and they're very profound; just the incredible music that comes out of New Orleans. I decided to entitle the album Congo Square because of that. I thought about the younger artists still coming through that are keeping the inspirational music alive like Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, and myself. I thought it would be awesome if this would be like our address where we live. Each song on the album is dedicated to an artist that I loved when I was growing up. Each song reflects a certain artist style. When I was coming up, the music was so positive and inspirational I wanted to try and do a whole album that would reflect that inspiration that I had when I was growing up.
WHO?MAG: Who handled the production duties on the album?
TEENA MARIE: I produced the album. Five tracks are produced with my bass player and one track was done with Terry Lynn Carrington, the Jazz drummer. She and I wrote the song. Everything else I did myself.
WHO?MAG: How did you develop a relationship with MC Lyte and Faith Evans who are on the album?
TEENA MARIE: MC Lyte is a friend of mine and so is Faith [Evans]. They both live here in California. Lyte has been a friend for years and I know Faith through mutual friends. We hang out a lot. I though she would sound amazing on "Can't Last Day". That song is dedicated to the Philadelphia sound, the Gamble and Huff sound. We did the backgrounds together. I took my voice off the second verse and put her on and she did her thing.
WHO?MAG: Why did you decide to sign with Stax/Concord records?
TEENA MARIE: I got an award in Philadelphia in September, the Lifetime Achievement award from the Rhythm and Blues Society. A guy from Stax just happened to be there. His name was John Burke. I was actually in negotiations w/ another record company at the time. He heard I had a really awesome album and he said if he could hear it. I said "well, I'm already negotiation and I have one copy in my room. I'll let you hear it if you like." He called me two days later and asked what he had to do. I told him he had to call really fast because we're already negotiating. He did and out bid the other record company. I always end up in very beautiful, interesting places. From Motown to Cash Money, I end up in different places. I think Stax is historically the most soulful label. You can't really call Motown a Soulful label. It was the sound of young America. It was everybody: Black, White, Brown, whatever. Historically, Stax is legendary for the soul artists that were on the label. I am definitely a soul artist and it seems timely. I'm very excited about it.
WHO?MAG: Talk about your history. How did you get into singing?
TEENA MARIE: I started singing when I was 8 years old, professionally. I had my first social security card at 8. I sang for Jerry Lewis's son's wedding when I was 8. I was on the Beverly Hillbillies. I started forming my own bands when I was 13. I was singing all over Los Angeles through out the years until I signed with Motown. I was in so many bands playing all over LA.
WHO?MAG: How did you develop a relationship with Rick James and how was he in the studio?
TEENA MARIE: I was in Steve Wonder's office one day. I used to go in there and play his piano. I'd sit and write songs in there. My manager had told me about Rick. I was in Motown before he was. She told me about this guy they had just signed and they thought I should work with him. He happened to walk down the hall one day when I was sitting in Steve's office playing the piano. We just started talking and became really good friends. Then we started working together. Rick was amazing he was brilliant. I get offended when all I hear about Rick James from time is "Super Freak". This man wrote some incredible music from "Fire and Desire" to writing "Déjà Vu" with me to writing Smokey Robinson's "If Not Ebony Eyes" to writing all the Mary Jane Girls music. He was just electrifying in the studio. He knew what he wanted and was very much instrumental in teaching me in the very early days about how to work with musicians and get what I needed out of them to get my sound.
WHO?MAG: How did the song "Square Biz" come about and did you think it was going to be the monster record it became?
TEENA MARIE: It was written by my bass player Alan McGreer and I. He just used to say that all time. That was his reply. That was like his yes answer. He said it to me one day and I told him that was a great title. He had came up with some music and I'm going to call this "Square Biz". I loved the bass line that he wrote and I wrote the lyrics to it. At the time, it was the very beginning of rap music. I really listening to like Sugar Hill [Gang] and stuff like that; I can do this. So I decided to put a rap to it as well and it worked! Yes, I did know it was going to be big. You kind of know over the years when something is going to be really big.
WHO?MAG: How did you develop a relationship with Cash Money Records?
TEENA MARIE: Actually I had finished another album. The way that I work is I finish my albums by myself and pay for them myself. Somebody who had a copy landed it in the hands of Ronald Williams, Baby's brother. I got a call saying that they really wanted to talk to me about signing with them. I thought that was really strange. I was like "what are we going to do. They're a Rap label and we're just opposite ends of the pole." But when I talked to them and they flew down to New Orleans, they told me we love what you do and we love this album. We'd like to put it out. We'd like to start a classic label and have you be the first artist on our classic label. That's how that came about.
WHO?MAG: Do you feel the album was promoted properly?
TEENA MARIE: The first or second album?
WHO?MAG: The first one.
TEENA MARIE: I think it could have done better. It did great. It was 10 thousand copies away from gold. I think something can always be better, but it was great. It was awesome to sell those kind of records after being away for so long. It got me another Grammy nomination. I think the second album landed in a really tough time because [Hurricane] Katrina happened and the guys lost their houses. They were in buses. They were traveling all over the country in a bus because they had no where to stay. That was just untimely, but we're still really good friends. My daughter actually is still working with them.
WHO?MAG: What is the story behind the song "Portuguese Lover" come about?
TEENA MARIE: I was actually just dating a Cape Verdean guy and I just wrote one night in the middle of the night in my little apartment that I lived in back then. It was just about him.
WHO?MAG: Talk about the album Wild and Peaceful?
TEENA MARIE: The first album that was produced by Rick [James]. There were only 6 songs on it. The first side was the "Wild Side" and the second side was the "Peaceful Side". There was no picture on the album because Mr. Gordy thought that it would be good to just let people hear the music first and not judge anything, just on it's own merit. They did a seascape on the cover because I'm a Pisces. It sold very well and people have been embracing me ever since.
WHO?MAG: How was it being on Motown records during the late 70s and early 80s?
TEENA MARIE: It was awesome. To walk down the hall and turn the corner and see Steve Wonder, turn another corner and Smokey [Robinson] right there, hanging out with all of Debarge, Commodores, Diana Ross was still there when I was there. It was just amazing as a child. My earliest memories were of the Supremes when I was like 8 years old. Every little girl in America wanted to be one of the Supremes. I ended up on this label with all these amazing artists that I have loved all my life. Smokey Robinson happens to be my mentor. I really feel he taught me how to write music. It was incredible and everybody was so nice. It was very competitive, but everybody loved each other. It was very much like a family. I have never felt that same way at any other label; except at Motown.
WHO?MAG: How was it reuniting with Smokey on the Sapphire album?
TEENA MARIE: It was great. I called him. I had to call Mr. Gordy, because I didn't have Smokey's number. Mr. Gordy called him and told him to go down to studio and do it with me. He heard the song and it was the perfect song for him. It was so reflective of his style. It was definitely thrilling for me. I had recorded some of his songs when I was early in my career on Motown. That was actually the first time we actually got to sing together and it was just amazing.
WHO?MAG: How was it working with Gerald Levert (RIP) also on the Sapphire album?
TEENA MARIE: Gerald was awesome. He just a teddy bear He was very much about the business, but fun at the same time. He was really on top of his game. I felt very sad for his family. He was very quick in the studio. I taught him the song and he learned and it went down very quick.
WHO?MAG: What are your thoughts on hip hop music?
TEENA MARIE: (sighs) I don't know what this is really called now. This is not really hip hop. This not where hip hop came from. Hip hop was very profound, lyrically profound. It was a whole cultural statement. At this point it's turned into something else. It's not positive like it was. There's still great artists, but you have to filter through a whole bunch of garbage. I can't really call what's going on hip hop now, but from the start of hip hop; the inception, from DJ Jazzy Jeff and all the early pioneers Salt and Pepa, from where it first came from, it was amazing. Even the Gangsta rap stuff in the early days like 2pac. That was just a whole another thing than what it is now. This now to me it is just cultural degradation.
WHO?MAG: How do you feel about hip hop artists sampling your music?
TEENA MARIE: Well, I don't like the compositions to be degraded. If they do something to it and it is positive, because I'm a very positive person, if it's not degrading to the original composition, I think it's great. First of all I think whoever wrote the song in the first place should be the first artist that is written as the writer. I've seen many compositions of song that not just I've wrote, but many kinds of other people where our names are the very last name on the writing composition. The song would have never even existed if it hadn't been for our song. The main thing is they should put the original artist listed should be the original artist as the writer first. Then everyone else go behind that.
WHO?MAG: Do you have a certain criteria to clear a sample?
TEENA MARIE: Yes! Lyrical content. It makes me mad because my first four albums on Motown I didn't own my publishing. They don't have to come to me to get permission. Some of the degrading stuff that's gone on some of my records, I don't like at all. As far as what the Fugee's did with "Ohh La La La" it was not degrading. It wasn't anything I would ever be ashamed of. It was something I was definitely proud of and made a lot of money also. I think that's great. Like I said, I don't like when they lyrically degrade the original composition of the record.
WHO?MAG: How did you feel when The Firm sampled "Square Biz" for their song "Firm Biz"?
TEENA MARIE: That's what I'm talking about. I hate it. It's horrible and very degrading. The Firm is degrading. I can't even repeat the lyrics that Foxy Brown put on my song.
WHO?MAG: How about when Snoop Dogg sampled you for his song "Crip Hop"?
TEENA MARIE: I don't think I was too excited about my song turning into a Crip anthem.
WHO?MAG: How about when LSG sampled you for their song "You Got Me"?
TEENA MARIE: (laughs) That was funny to me because there's 13 writers on it and on the original song, there were only 2 writers: myself and Richard Rudolph who was married to Minnie Ripperton. They used and sampled our music over and over again. That means it took 11 people to write the words. That's crazy and it's whack!
WHO?MAG: You did a song with Afu Ra called "Open". How did that come about?
TEENA MARIE: I don't remember the lyrical content, but I remember it was fun. I remember it was not degrading and I had fun. I was in the video. I don't remember too much about it.
WHO?MAG: How was it working with Richard Rudolph?
TEENA MARIE: Richard Rudolph was an angel. I was the first project he worked on after Minnie passed away. We became very close because she hadn't even been gone a year. He was more glitzy with the arrangements then Rick was. When Rick couldn't do my second album, he kept telling me I should produce myself. I didn't think I was ready. I was still just a kid. I was only 22, something like that. I like the stuff Minnie and him did together. I had Motown contact him and ask him if he would co-produce the second album with me. It was more elegant than the first album, the strings, bigger arrangements, just more polished. It was nice. I had two different sides: I had the funk side and I had a more polished side. I blended all of it together when I stepped up and produced my third album and every album since by myself which kind of made the Teena Marie sound.
WHO?MAG: Talk about the success of "Fire and Desire"?
TEENA MARIE: It's still one of the most requested R&B ballad of all time, still. People are always telling me that on radio. It's just really a magical song. Rick and I had a magical thing together. It really touches people and when you hear it to this day. It brings people back to whatever they were feeling and even younger people that have heard it from their parents. It's just one of the most requested songs when I do my catalog at my shows.
WHO?MAG: Talk about the Brocker Initiative you worked on?
TEENA MARIE: I'm not working on it. It's already done. It's not something I set out to do. What happened was when I left Motown, they sued me and I countersued and I won. This was years ago. They changed the amount of years you can bind an artist to a contract. It used to be seven now it's only five. They raised the amount of money you have to pay an artist per minimum wage. That went down in like 1983. It's been a long time.
WHO?MAG: What advice would you give to up and coming artists?
TEENA MARIE: Especially to a song writers; if you're a songwriter, open your own publishing company because it's really inexpensive. It's only $150 to $200 dollars. Don't let anyone tell you you're not a publisher and that they'll publish the stuff for you because it's not that deep of a thing. Because over the years, my publishing has enabled me to sustain myself and keep it moving. Because I am a song writer and I did write almost everything that I've ever done. I've made a lot of money over my publishing. I always tell young people to be true to themselves. As an artist, write from their heart. Don't follow other people's trends. Try to make your own statement and have people follow you because that's what really makes artists great.
WHO?MAG: I want to beat a dead horse, but I wanted to ask you what were your thoughts on the Dave Chappelle skit on Rick James?
TEENA MARIE: It really wasn't accurate because that's not really what he said. Rick never said "I'm Rick James B&$@". Rick used to always say "I'm Rick MF James". I'm not going to say the words, but that's what he used to say. It was funny. Rick liked it. So if Rick liked it, then I liked it, but it really wasn't accurate.
For more info on Teena Marie go to www.officialteenamarie.com and www.ivoryqueenofsoul.com