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Goddess of Groove: Meshell Ndegeocelloby Peter Aaron

Music journalists and record industry types like to cite Meshell Ndegeocello as having sparked the 1990s neo-soul movement. But the Grammy-nominated bassist and vocalist thinks those people are crazy.

“‘Neo-soul’?” she scoffs, “What is that? I was inspired by Al Green, Gil Scott-Heron, Curtis Mayfield. To me what I was doing then was nothing ‘new’—the only thing new was the time I was playing it in. But that’s a problem with playing music, all of these separate labels and genres they use to market what you do. I’ve never understood that. I try to be very careful not to get stuck in any one genre. To me it’s all one big thing.”

Born Michelle Johnson in Germany, Ndegeocello—the latter half of her reinvented name is Swahili for “free as a bird”—was an Army brat, although one of the rare ones who didn’t move around excessively. From the time she was two, her father, a lieutenant and a jazz-loving saxophonist who played in a military band, was stationed in the Washington, DC area. “People outside of DC mostly equate the city with the government, but it’s an amazing place for music and culture,” Ndegeocello says. “Duke Ellington was from DC. Henry Rollins, Roberta Flack, Fugazi, the Bad Brains. My dad was raised in Richmond, Virginia, so besides jazz and blues he was also into country and bluegrass and exposed me to that music. You have four different universities in DC, so there’s great college radio. Seeing acts like Allan Holdsworth at the 9:30 Club was key for me.”

But beyond her formative environment lies the big question: How did the woman who’s perhaps the funkiest bassist of her generation, a singular stylist whose sex-oozing sound has deeply changed the R&B landscape, come to choose her instrument in the first place? “It was a fluke,” she says from behind some impressive red horn-rims. “I started out on clarinet and then I wanted to play the drums, but my mom was against that. My brother played guitar and one day when a friend of his had left his bass at our house, I picked it up and we started jamming. I was about 15, and I thought, ‘Damn, if I can play the bass I’ll be able to play with my brother!’ So that’s all it was at first.”

At first. But not long after she’d picked it up, Ndegeocello would take her bass out of her bedroom and onto the stage. Washington, DC, is the home of go-go, an indigenous funk sub-genre marked by extended, party-fueling jams, percussion breaks, and band/audience call-and-response vocals. The teenage bassist’s popping, rubbery lines fit right into the uniquely local phenomenon and won her spots in three of go-go’s top bands; Prophecy, Little Bennie & the Masters, and Rare Essence. “Go-go is very groove-oriented music,” she relates. “And I’m all about the groove [laughs], so it was perfect for me.”

But by the late 1980s Ndegeocello had gone as far as she could go in DC, and the groove was starting to feel more like a rut. So she beat it north to New York, where she fell in with Vernon Reid’s Black Rock Coalition collective and even auditioned, albeit unsuccessfully, for his band, Living Color. She also started doing regular solo shows—just her voice, her bass or keyboard, and a drum machine—and started to build a buzz on the Lower East Side. The buzz soon lured Madonna, who signed the striking singer-songwriter to her Maverick Records label. The resulting debut, 1993’s Plantation Lullabies, was hailed as an R&B game-changer for its seamlessly flowing mix of funk, deep soul, and hip-hop and its provocative themes of race and sexual identity; the smash disc also birthed the hit “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night)” and pulled in three Grammy nominations.

The following year, however, Ndegeocello’s profile would get its biggest bump, when music journalist Andrew White introduced her to a friend he thought she’d really hit it off with: John Mellencamp. “Andrew could tell John and I would have a good rapport,” she recalls, “and so the next thing I knew I was on a plane to [Mellencamp’s home in] Indiana. We just played and recorded live in the studio and it was great. It changed my life.” The sessions led to Mellencamp’s Number One version of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night,” a track that prominently features Ndegeocello and made her shaven head a common sight on MTV for most of 1994. (No doubt the hit helped her land session work with the Rolling Stones, Chaka Khan, Alanis Morissette, the Indigo Girls, and others.)

In the ensuing years Ndegeocello followed up Plantation Lullabies with seven more albums that push the boundaries of R&B and pop by adding rock, jazz, psychedelia, dub, and unapologetic experimentalism; standouts include 1996’s Peace Beyond Passion, 1999’s Bitter, 2003’s Comfort Woman (all Maverick Records), 2007’s The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams (Universal Distribution), and last year’s Devil’s Halo (Mercer Street Records).

“Meshell has a rare commitment to her muse,” says ex-Lounge Lizards and current Elysian Fields guitarist Oren Bloedow, one of Ndegeocello’s longtime sidemen. “Only artistic considerations play a part in her process, so her topics and lyrics tend to be uncommonly frank and refreshing.”

In 2007 Ndegeocello, who has a 10-month-old son with her partner and a 21-year-old son from a previous relationship, fled New York for Hudson, attracted by the town’s affordability and burgeoning arts scene. “I hate New York, I tried to live there several times and it’s not my bag,” she groans. “But I love Hudson. It’s a red-light town, a small town but really culturally diverse.” Since the move she’s ventured even farther out musically by performing with outrageous local noise band the Bunnybrains, and has even taken a direct interest in newly created community radio station WGXC by playing at and curating a recent benefit held at Club Helsinki. “I was flattered to be asked to be involved, but, really, how could I not support [the station]?” Ndegeocello says. “The people involved with WGXC are great, and I think it’s really important to keep radio independent.” It all goes hand in hand with her music’s way of making, according to AllMusic.com, “the political personal and the personal political.”

“I’m a woman, I’m black, and I’m gay—I can’t escape being political,” she says with a chuckle. “But it’s always been my hope that by writing about my own experiences I can give voice to others who feel the same way.”

www.meshell.com



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