As the second wind of R&B vocalist Meli'sa Morgan's career begins to swell, the 80s great finds that the winds of Hip-hop are also blowing in her direction.
When asked about what I listen to, I may roll my eyes and say “anything that’s good,” which may or may not include the writing schedule for the month, but generally holds true for whatever path iTunes’ ‘genius’ algorithm guides me along. But as for what I actually spend my hard-earned cash on, I add that most of the artists I admire are either dead or dying—and that was before the first half of 2016 had many of us muttering, “whither (insert favorite genre here) in our time…” while curled in a fetal position, intending to somehow guard what organ meat remained from what had been snatched clean from out of the belly of a whole generation of innovative and beloved artists.
In conversation with storied R&B recording artist Meli’sa Morgan—a longtime friend/colleague of Prince—I, a casual fan and admirer of the work of the late R&B/Funk-Rock legend, was primed to fall into that same groove, all but muttering “whither R&B…,” before Ms. Morgan reminded me that cycles were trending towards her, our taste, and have been for years, says she:
“If you listen to the radio, what many new artists are doing is integrating old R&B into what they’re doing now. I think hip-hop is more integrated into R&B now than it was before, with the Chris Browns and a lot of new artists, they’re integrating ideas from classic R&B.”
Yes, come to think of it there was once a young pair of rappers named Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige, who sampled Morgan’s “Fool’s Paradise” for their 1996 hit single, “Can’t Knock The Hustle”.
Nowadays one only need vide the most successful hits of the past few years, from “Uptown Funk” to “Happy” to “Blurred Lines”—the controversy and fallout notwithstanding—to see that Ms. Morgan was not only right about the direction of R&B, but of her direction within it.
Morgan, classically trained at Juilliard, and citing Chaka Khan (for whom she served backing vocals) as a major influence, she showed from early on that her powerful voice could surf the waves of ecstasy with the best adult contemporary R&B vocalists of the era. She was quickly signed to Capitol Records, and became a fixture in the firmament of the Revolution when her cover of Prince’s “Do Me Baby” topped the 1985 Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop singles list for four weeks, with the album peaking at #4. Working steadily up until the early-mid 90s, she made the decision to go incognito when the market shifted more exclusively towards hip-hop.
Morgan returned to her solo career with the release of I Remember in 2005, and having released her latest single, “So Good” in 2015, for which she intends to expand into an all new album, her voice is as strong as ever, and making inroads to contemporary markets. This piece of classic 80s R&B it seems will be with us for a long time to come.
MW: I’m reminded of the Carl Sagan quote: “When you’re in love, you want to tell the world about it,” and although he was talking about astronomy, it popped into my mind when listening to “So Good”. The lyrics do seem to describe this newfound passion that’s just straining to express itself. What was the inspiration behind that passion?
MM: It could be because I was recently engaged to my fiancé, Sebastin Commas, so I’m sure that’s how the energy and direction of that song came to be.
MW: Your voice is so strong and effortless on that single, and the production values… It’s just a great blast from the past, for throwbacks like me who dig all that stuff. I wrote in my recent Prince article how production values from 80’s popular music really made an argument for spending a lot of money on a sound system, just to soak up all of those tastefully applied arrangements. And you’re still doing that. A wise producer once said ‘a hit record should sound good no matter what it’s played on.’
MM: It’s interesting you should bring that up, particularly with this new age of downloads. Well, believe it or not, because most people play music through mobile means now, as opposed to when it was records and albums people would play on their stereo. Now a hit album has to sound good in the car, because that’s where people listen to the most music.
MW: Could we get into the reasons why you took a break from your solo career? From your credits listing, it seems like you were still working constantly through the 90s—you were guest artist and producer on all sorts of projects with Kashif, Mike Stevens, Kim Waters, Leroy Burgess…
MM: When I went on hiatus, the industry was really changing. I had signed directly to Capitol because I had a production deal with them. All of a sudden, MC Hammer came along, and then Hip-Hop and Rap music was taking the industry by storm, and in a totally different direction. And basically trying to keep up with that—you really had to have it integrated into your style and whole new look—and keep my style of music was a conflict of interest.
I subsequently decided to take a break and live my life, get married [to Shelly Garrett, from 1993 to 1998], and just spend time with family. Because musically, people just weren’t receptive to R&B music as much as they were before then. It took a good 10 to 15 years, but I think hip-hop is more integrated into R&B now than it was before. If you listen to the radio, what many new artists are doing is integrating old R&B into what they’re doing now.
MW: Sort of like what Mary J. Blige and Jay-Z did by sampling your tune in Reasonable Doubt back in ’96.
MM: Yes, that was very successful, and I thank them for that every time I get a check. *laughs* So yes, now hip-hop is integrating more R&B than they did in the 90s. Hopefully I’ll be able to do something with some of the new artists; I really like what Drake is doing, I like Pharrell. I like a whole bunch of the new artists that are out now.
MW: Finally, we’ve lost several innovative and important artists this year, most recently Prince. You and he had a very long and fruitful friendship… how did the two of you meet?
MM: I met Prince because I recorded “Do Me Baby”, which is a song that he wrote. It was produced by Paul Laurence—it wasn’t produced by [Prince]—but it was still his song, and you still have to get his clearance. We met through that project, and I recorded the song, and it was #1 for four weeks. So of course he wanted to meet me after that. We met backstage at a Lionel Ritchie concert, and we conversed. And over the course of my living and his living, we crossed paths several times.
I just really have to say… the last time I saw him was a year or so ago, right before my Unsung [TV documentary featuring Ms. Morgan’s bio] because we had to get permission for the show to use “Do Me Baby”, because he owned the rights, and I’m one of the few people he allowed to sing it on TV, or the internet. Because if you sing a Prince song on the internet and he didn’t clear it, then he had the right to have it pulled. I was one of the few whom he gave the right to sing that song freely, so I’m really appreciative of that.
So the last time I saw him he was at a party, showcasing his new artist, and we all had a great time with him; he was dancing, upbeat, dancing in the DJ booth, and talked to me for a few minutes. I told him I needed to sing [Do Me Baby] live, and he said “We’ll make that happen.” And he was… you know, Prince! Very Jehovah’s Witness; I remember that before he came in, they covered all the pictures that might have been suggestive. But he was upbeat and laughing, and having a good time, and it’s just really sad, less than a year or so later… he’s gone.
MW: I’m just bracing myself for who’s next.
MM: It’s not a good feeling losing the greats. Whitney Houston was a dear friend, and I was crushed when that happened. I didn’t know Michael [Jackson], but a lot of us felt like we knew him—I met him a couple of times in passing, you know, onstage at the Grammys, just like a ‘hello’. Prince I had much more of a real connection with. It’s a real huge loss to the music industry.
MW: I hope you’re taking care of yourself.
MM: Yes! We’re in Miami, just washed, and we’re out of the jacuzzi and now going for a swim. And that’s what it’s about; taking care of yourself, living right, and not doing things that damage your body.