As quiet as it’s sometimes kept, Grammy award winning artist Jody Watley has been at the forefront of some of the most groundbreaking trends and movements in modern pop culture – political statements, music and music video innovation, and the place where all those tracks meet. Check just a fragment of her résumé:
The video for her classic 1987 song “Still a Thrill” (from her Grammy-winning eponymous debut album of that same year) dazzlingly incorporates waacking, the underground freestyle dance (think of it as an even more beat-driven cousin to voguing), and is the first time a major pop star used their artistic platform to showcase this particular means of body expression. But Ms. Watley had actually brought the dance to widespread American attention a few years earlier as a teenage dancer on the iconic TV show Soul Train. Now, waacking has fans and practitioners around the globe, many of whom use the music of Ms. Watley in their routines as a show of respect for an OG who’s kept the flame burning.
Her groundbreaking 1989 cut “Friends” carved the template for both R&B/hip-hop and pop/hip-hop fusions to come, as it was the first time a rapper (the legendary Rakim, of Eric B. & Rakim) wrote original verses for an R&B/pop song.
The video for “Friends” was a landmark of subversive/progressive representation that has still not yet been matched – or given its due as a taboo-shattering cultural artifact. Set in an underground New York dance club, and featuring performances by Miss Watley and Eric B. & Rakim, the club’s denizens are made of up straight, gay, and transgender folk, of all races, body shapes and sartorial aesthetics. B-boys jostle alongside drag queens, Rakim rocks the mic, and Jody serves face and fierceness. It’s a warm utopian vibe. The gathering is organic, and lacks the opportunistic marketing tactic of gay-friendly advocacy that is now on trend for pop divas.
Long before making his mark as a film director, David Fincher (Se7en; Fight Club) cut his stylistic teeth on Miss Watley’s sleek, hugely influential music video for the 1989 smash “Real Love,” perfecting a signature visual look that he would later impart to other pop divas.
Unhappy with the constraints of being on a major label, she parted ways with her industry home and started her own label Avitone Recordings in 1995. Through it she has released four critically acclaimed CDs (Affection, 1995; The Saturday Night Experience, 1999; Midnight Lounge, 2001; The Makeover, 2006) which have collectively spanned the genres electronica, ambient, R&B, and House. They’ve also reinforced her roots in and solidified her ties to the global dance underground, as everyone from 4Hero and King Britt to Masters at Work and Junior Vasquez jumped at the chance to work on these projects.
A fashion-forward visionary from her Soul Train days, Ms. Watley never used a professional stylist but, as a solo artist with a singular vision and keen instincts, carved her own look by weaving vintage clothing and contemporary street fashions from her own closet with high-end pieces from fashion designers who hadn’t yet caught the public or industry eye (Jean-Paul Gautier; Rifat Ozbek.) Photographers from the legendary Francesco Scavullo to firebrand Steven Meisel lined up to work with her. For her iconoclastic and influential eye, she was honored with a feature in VOGUE Italia’s groundbreaking “Black Issue” in 2008.
But that was all then. “NIGHTLIFE” is now.
“Nightlife,” lushly co-produced by Ms. Watley and rising hot production team Count De Money, is a horn-laced, bass-driven, beat-pumping call to glamorous arms. It’s an anthem of uplift and inspiration where the dance-floor is a designated refuge of self-creation and spirit preservation. On one hand, the track celebrates dance music tradition, its classic sounds and motifs (nodding to disco, House, soulful R&B,) while looking squarely to the future. As an artistic statement, it’s a perfect encapsulation of Ms. Watley’s career thus far: This is where I’ve been / this is what I’ve done / this is where I am and what I’m doing right now / this is how I’m mapping the future.
When asked what inspired the song, she cites old-school classics like McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now,” and the O’Jays’ “Message in Our Music.”
“Those were songs that made you dance but made you feel inspired,” she says. “It really started from there. I wanted to hear music like that so I had to write it because I haven’t heard anything like that from anyone else in a long time. All my songs start with what I’m feeling and what I want other people to get from it. There’s a strength that resonates through [“Nightlife”] just the same – but in a totally different way – as my first solo single, ‘Looking for a New Love.’ I want people to feel great because things in the world aren’t great and we need sources of strength and inspiration, someplace to go to feel good about ourselves no matter what else is going on in the world.”
As one third of the seminal R&B/pop trio Shalamar, whose rich, distinctive harmonies propelled the group to stardom, Ms. Watley was the femme anchor for what was so unique a sonic blast that the British music press coined the term “the Shalamar sound.” But the classic Shalamar sound actually had two acts. The second was the one most people are familiar with, but the first featured the underrated Gerald Brown before he left the group. (He’s the one singing co-lead on the group’s first mainstream hit “Take That to The Bank.”) “Nightlife” is a reunion of old friends as Gerald joins Jody to sing the song’s catchy hook, “It’s in the music…,” which has its own story behind it.
“Well, the hook is something that came about because I performed the song for about two years before recording it,” explains Jody with a smile. “I’ve been opening my show with it for a little while now, and it’s really grown and taken shape organically. If I’d recorded the song when it first came to me, it would be missing so much of what’s there now because a lot of elements slowly kicked into place. One of those is the line, ‘It’s in the music.’ As time went by I just started hearing it in my head. I had been listening to Change, “Glow of Love,” some Shalamar, and Phyllis Hyman, “You Know How to Love Me,” and it just hit me – It’s in the music. And I was like, ‘That needs to be the tagline for the song.’ I recorded it first and then I thought, ‘I’m hearing a male voice alongside my voice for the first time in forever.’ [Laughter] So then I got Gerald Brown to add his voice with mine, and that provided the element I felt that line deserved.”
Driven by a career-best vocal performance, “Nightlife” is the kind of multi-purpose dance anthem you listen to while getting dressed for the club, and then lose your mind to when it comes blasting through club speakers. And it pays homage to both Ms. Watley’s dance roots and her embrace of the here and now as it pulls the thread of waacking into its grooves, with the diva commanding, “Waack it / just waack it out…” Her love for the form has everything to do with her love of freestyle dancing.
“When I say ‘I’m gonna waack it, gonna waack it out / now turn, turn and walk it out…’ I’m visualizing people listening to it,” she smiles, “even if they don’t know what waacking it out is. They know it means to do something and to have fun with it, and then walk it out. That’s the spirit, embracing the freedom and the rhythm of the music. I think that element of my dancer background is always in my music – even with the ambient and mellower things. The groove has to hit you just like the lyrics. It has to all come together.
“Waacking, I’ve been doing since I was a teenager on Soul Train. It’s showing the music because you’re hitting the accents, and that can be any range of movement. It can be kicking your leg. It can be hitting a pose where it’s a fashion pose, or hitting a pose where it’s just you falling to the ground and hitting a beat, whereas voguing is more fashion poses specifically. Waacking is about showing the music, hitting beats. I love it because it’s freeing and fun. It lets you hear music in a different way. You’re not just dancing to the song; you’re listening for specific elements – like a bass-line, or a lyric line that makes you go boom-boom. It makes you see the music by movement.”
A thumping preview of the forthcoming EP Paradise (due in early 2014,) “Nightlife” has already garnered acclaim from both longtime fans and tastemakers like the Okayplayer website, who praised it as “born to rip the runway…” Those reactions are cool validation for a sense of purpose and integrity that hasn’t always been understood by industry types, but that is at the core of Ms. Watley’s relationship with her music, her fans, and herself.
“Everything I’ve ever done has been to be distinctively Jody Watley,” she says thoughtfully, “from my first solo album through right now. Everything that I will ever do always has to be authentic to me, work that I can always be proud of first and foremost. It’s not so much about, ‘Oh, this is going to be popular,’ or ‘Oh, this is going to be a big hit.’ It’s always been so personal to me, everything that I do. And the fans can feel that. They connect with the honesty.”