21 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About D’Angelo

The elusive prodigy opened up last night in Brooklyn, as part of the Red Bull Music Academy Festival New York.

1. D’Angelo started playing piano when he was 3.

 

2. In high school, he was in a rap group called I.D.U.

Frank Micelotta / Getty

That stands for Intelligent, Deadly, but Unique. He was an MC (“I was pretty fucking good too”) and co-produced the group’s beats.

3. But we can credit his pop career as we know it to Ellis Marsalis — in a way.

Alex Wong / Getty

The jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis taught music theory at Virginia Commonwealth University while D’Angelo was in high school. D had studied music theory with another VCU professor, and was going to start studying with Marsalis, but Marsalis left Virginia to go teach in New Orleans. D’Angelo’s now thankful for this — classical jazz would have changed his whole style, he said.

4. D’Angelo has respect for the “heavy metalhead” scene around his hometown of Richmond, VA, which produced bands like Lamb of God and Slipknot.

Legion Records

5. When he was about 17, D’Angelo won Amateur Night at the Apollo with Johnny Gill’s “Rub You the Right Way.”

He scored first place on his second trip to the legendary competition. The first time, he played a gospel song and got booed.

6. On another NYC trip, D’Angelo almost messed up his first big industry meeting by going to the bathroom a million times.

 

When he was 17, he came to New York to meet with Jocelyn Copper, the head of publishing company Midnight Music. “I was hell bent on walking into this meeting with a suit,” he said. “I bought brand new church shoes and everything.” But he had to excuse himself from the meeting a bunch of times to go to the restroom to take off his shoes — his feet were killing him after walking around the city all day.

7. D’Angelo wrote “U Will Know,” the 2004 song by Black Men United, an all-star collective that included Brian McKnight, H-Town, Lenny Kravitz, R. Kelly, Usher, and some 20 other artists.

D’Angelo said he hadn’t heard the song in years, but remembered all the words when it was played.

8. Then he wrote and demoed the entirety of his 1995 debut album, Brown Sugar, by himself, in his bedroom.

EMI

9. A year later, Madhouse, the Prince side project, brought Questlove and D’angelo together.

Paisley Park

The two became friends on April 1, 1996, Questlove explained. The Roots were playing a show with The Fugees and Goodie Mob, and D’Angelo was in the audience. Questlove decided he’d use the show as an opportunity to audition to be D’Angelo’s drummer, even if that meant playing in an imprecise style The Roots weren’t accustomed to. That night, he played some of the drums from “Four,” a song by the Prince jazz fusion side project Madhouse. “It was some African communication drum thing — I’ma see what type of language he speaks,” Questlove said. The two have been friends ever since.

10. D’Angelo taught Questlove the force.

Drew Gurian / Red Bull Content Pool

To create Voodoo, Questlove said, he had to “de-program” his drumming. In the ’90s with The Roots, he’d tried to play as much like a drum machine as possible, but with D, he mastered a “drunk”-sounding, J-Dilla-indebted style, and barely played any snares. “It was like being told to use the Force in Star Wars,” he said.

11. But Questlove did not executive produce Voodoo.

EMI

“No!” Questlove shouted, clearing up a common misunderstanding.

12. Voodoo opener “Playa Playa” was originally written for the Space Jam soundtrack, but didn’t end up making the cut.

Atlantic Records

That’s why there are so many basketball references in it.

13. D’Angelo doesn’t want to talk about that big GQ profile.

GQ / Via gq.com

D’Angelo did his first photo shoot in a decade in 2012, for GQ. The accompanying profile, written by Amy Wallace, covered D’Angelo’s stints in rehab, weight gain, and the fear that’s possibly held up his mysterious third album. Questlove mentioned that album — which he said was 99% done a year ago — during the lecture, at the very end, and then the conversation was over. But none of the other big GQ talking points were brought up.

“It’s very unusual for people to have any mystery left,” lecture moderator Nelson George said. D responded, “I agree.” Later, he said, “I’ve kind of put myself in a bubble.”

14. But he’s happy to give props to musicians he respects. His favorite hip-hop producers are J Dilla, DJ Premier, and Marly Marl.

Scott Gries / Getty

Scott Gries / Getty

 

15. And he loves The Beatles.

Hulton Archive / Getty

“To be able to fit all of that vision into a pop song or a 12-bar blues, that is the challenge. And they were the best at it.”

16. And he knows Sly Stone is using Auto-Tune these days.

Central Press / Getty

“He’s fucking with the Auto-Tune shit,” D’Angelo said of the 71-year-old legend, whom he spent time with in the studio recently.

17. Not all rules apply to D’Angelo.

Thinkstock

Over the course of the evening, D’angelo was allowed to ignore New York City’s indoor smoking ban. He lit about four cigarettes onstage, ashing into an Altoids tin.

18. And these days, D’Angelo records his vocals in a cave-like teepee.

Thinkstock

His extra-intimate vocal booth is made from a black tarp. Inside, there’s a humidifier and ashtray. “I’m just tryna go deep, deep in the onion,” D’Angelo explained.

19. If D’Angelo wasn’t a musician, he might be a pastor.

Kevin Winter / Getty

D’angelo’s father led a Pentecostal church, and people at home in Virginia have forecasted that he’ll someday “take the Al Green route.” But D’Angelo says that may never happen, because music is all the church he needs. “The stage is my pulpit… that’s my ministry.”

20. Right now, he’s even got a secret gospel quartet group.

They performed at a church somewhere “way up in the woods” last year. They played a song by the Pilgrim Jubilees, which the crowd loved, and ended with a cover of Fishbone’s “Properties of Propaganda,” which the crowd sat down for.

21. Ultimately, D’Angelo said he doesn’t make Christian, neo-soul, or funk rock. He makes black music.

Via Drew Gurian / Red Bull Content Pool

At the end of the evening, after discussing the changing audience for his live show and his new band’s heavy rock sound, he laid it plain: “I do black music. I make black music.”

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