Timeless Affairs: Voodoo
Welcome to Timeless Affairs, the corner within Steppin' Into Tomorrow, where we'd like to shine a spotlight on essential albums that have shaped our culture (and lives in some cases). We lovingly revisit, explore and zoom in on these gems in their entire length. Digging out stories and fun facts from the making of the masterpieces that have built the foundation of music today and continue to shape the future.
D’Angelo’s ‘Voodoo’ is celebrating 22 years of existence, and it’s as stunning today as when it first hit the record store shelves on January 25th, 2000. Very likely the first great album release of the new Millenium and most definitely a desert island pick of mine. Here at Steppin', this album seems to be a sort of a Holy Grail for many of us, therefore it's only right to celebrate with every chance we get. Revisiting this album is a spiritual experience each and every time - an absolutely timeless piece of music by one of our era's most influential and profound artists. Michael Eugene Archer a.k.a. D’Angelo.
D’Angelo is a mythical being. Multitalented vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and songwriter. Born as the son of a Pentecostal preacher, he’s been experimenting with music as a toddler already. Picking up keyboards at around the age of three, adding more instruments along the way, and taking part in many talent shows. Mimicking artists such as Stevie Wonder, George Clinton, James Brown, and Prince, in addition to playing church music.
“When I was going to church, they used to say: ‘Don’t go up there for no form or fashion,’" D’Angelo recalled in a 2014 RBMA lecture “I guess what that means is you’re up there singing for the Lord, so don’t try to be cute. He don’t care about that. He just wanna feel the spirit moving through you.”
At 17, he and his band Michael Archer and Precise rocked the crowd on the legendary Amateur Night at the Apollo. For a brief period, D’Angelo featured as a member of a Virginia rap group called I.D.U. (Intelligent, Deadly, But Unique), as an emcee. He also produced songs for Black Men United and Boys Choir of Harlem. The breakthrough debut album ‘Brown Sugar’ has brought D’Angelo into mainstream consciousness in 1995 and his sophomore album ‘Voodoo’ followed five years later.
A glimpse of Voodoo’s behind-the-scenes atmosphere was nicely captured in this mini-documentary:
The making of this album was a product of the Soulquarian takeover of the Electric Lady Studio’s, Jimi Hendrix’s personal studio in New York’s Greenwich Village. D’Angelo, in collaboration with Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson and sound engineer Russell Elevado, transformed the Studios into their laboratory. Many nights were spent watching Soul Train, studying classic albums of the soul masters like Al Green, Sly and the Family Stone, Fela Kuti, George Clinton, Prince, or Curtis Mayfield, calling them their “Yodas”. They were looking for creative ways to channel their ideas and techniques of playing, recording, translating the feeling. You can really hear this on tracks like 'Send It On' or 'Playa Playa'. Throughout the entire process, they were using the same exact analog equipment as Jimi Hendrix or Stevie Wonder used to record their music. Original microphones, vintage equipment, and recording on tape. The same Rhodes that Stevie recorded ‘Talking Book’ and ‘Music of My Mind’ in the ’70s. Hardly anyone was doing this at the end of the ’90s. The amount of influences from the past has been abundant, however, sonically the album is extremely forward-thinking. Questlove talks about what an impact this collaboration has had on his approach to drumming, playing with more feel, dragging behind the groove while maintaining the beat, creating a more human, organic sound. This method was pioneered by the legendary producer J Dilla, who never quantized his beats.
Voodoo’ is a love movement and its’ title alone sort of evokes the magical effect of this masterpiece. You can get spellbound, even captivated, listening to these grooves. In an interview with Jet magazine in 2000, D’Angelo revealed his inspiration behind the title:
“I named the album Voodoo because I really was trying to give a notion to how powerful music is and how we as artists, when we cross over, need to respect the power of music. Voodoo is an ancient African tradition. We use ‘voodoo’ in the drums or whatever, the cadences and call-out to our ancestors, and that in itself will invoke spirits. And music has the power to do that, to evoke emotions, evoke spirit. That’s something I learned in the church when I was very young and that’s what I wanted to get across.” — D’Angelo for Jet magazine, July 3rd 2000
D’Angelo wrote on every song apart from the ‘Feel Like Makin’ Love’ cover of the Roberta Flack classic from the ’70s, and he also produced the entire album. To pull this all together, he’s assembled a brilliant musical ensemble of the highest caliber, consisting of Questlove on drums, Pino Palladino holding down the bass, James Poyser on keys, jazz virtuoso Roy Hargrove on horns, Charlie Hunter playing guitar and bass at the same time(!), more guitar by Spanky Alford, Mike Campbell, Raphael Saadiq (also co-production on ‘Africa’ and ‘Untitled (How Does It Feel)’), and Giovanni Midalgo on the ‘Spanish Joint’ congas. On top of that, there are guest appearances by Gang Starr’s DJ Premier on ‘Devils Pie’ and Redman and Method Man on ‘Left & Right’.
The themes on the album explore different stages of intimacy, sexuality, reclaiming and embracing inner femininity, and mutual understanding. As Saul Williams has written in the albums liner notes:
“To be the son of a preacher man was once African American cultural royalty. As traditional churches have grown empty many of us have been left to wander these haunted castles like that displaced Prince of Denmark, contemplating the paths of our mothers: that electric lady that landed us here in the first place. The Aquarian Age is a matriarchal age, and if we are to exist as men in this new world many of us must learn to embrace and nurture that which is feminine with all of our hearts (he-arts). But is there any room for artistry in hip hop’s decadent man-sion? Have we walked our Timberlands soleless…soul-less? When you pour that wine on the ground in that video shoot that has become your life will you be ready to hear the voice that pours from the bottle to inebriate the very ground on which we walk? It is libations such as these that are the start of every voodoo ceremony. And let us not forget that that is why we have come.”
After Voodoo's release and tour, D'Angelo withdrew himself and became silent until 2014 when his third studio album Black Messiah came out. Dutch filmmaker, Carine Bijlsma, has produced a remarkable documentary on the man while following him on his wildly successful comeback tour. The piece is called Devil's Pie. We can't recommend it strongly enough.
It took about 5 years to get this album to the final version, so as you can imagine, there must have been plenty of raw leftovers from all of the countless rehearsals at Electric Lady. At a certain point in time (was it 8 years ago?) some of these have been leaked and broadly bootlegged all across the internet. The Outtakes never got a proper legit release, but you can find some exquisite Funkadelic, EWF, James Brown, Johnny Watson covers, along with D's originals here like 'Joe Texan' for example. Feel the funk.