the year was 1993 and i was in chicago visiting the (then) seminal tower records (alas, we didn’t have anything as cool in minneapolis). i spent the previous months devouring rolling stone magazine reading all about madonna’s new record label (maverick) and how it would be home to new and unique musicians doing their own special thing. there were rumblings of a new r&b musician/electric bassist that was about to explode on maverick named me’shell ndegeo’cello.
so there i was in tower flipping through the stacks, looking for the latest musical treasure and i came upon it, ‘plantation lullabies’ – sporting a wild psychedelic cover and a sticker with critical comments advocating the promise within… ‘tho i hadn’t heard a note, i had to have it. hell it had tunes with names like ‘if that was your boyfriend (he wasn’t last night)’, ‘shootin’ up and gett’n high’ and ‘i’m diggin’ you (like and old school record)’ – these were not song titles i was used to as a white boy from minneapolis. i knew of jazz and soul – but i didn’t know about jazz and soul. yea, i was a prince fan, and i thought i was all worldly and shit, but nothing’ could prepare me for the album – it truly opened my ears to a new sound. i was hooked.
fast forward 3 years to 1996 and her second disk ‘peace beyond passion’ was released. while ‘lullabies was an aggro mix of funk, soul, jazz & r&b; passion gelled all of the genre’s into one amazing new sound. equal parts spiritual and sexual, the album is a blistering attack on the hypocrisy of christianity and misogyny of the time. indeed, you knew you were in for an interesting ride when you heard the first words she uttered on the album: “jesus cured the blind man so that he could see the evils of the world”. a couple of tracks later the blasphemy get’s amped up a bit with “maybe judas was the better man / and mary mad a virgin just to save face”. the album isn’t all blistering commentary on christianity – also name checked; homophobia, self-hatred, social discourse and racism pop up. the interesting thing here however is the way in which she weaves the politics and the profane in a way that challenges and satisfies. the music is lush, silky smooth and forms the perfect bed for her poetry – culminating in the hopeful ‘god shiva’ and ‘with a tear and a smile’ – the message here, things may not always be golden, but if you seek out the passion, you will indeed find peace. easily my favorite album from her.
that same year, i had the chance to see her live for the first time at first avenue. imagine a sold out room packed with 1400 gay men, lesbians, black, white, asian – young and old. it was the first time i had truly ever encountered such a radical mix of people all intent on one thing – enjoying the groove laid out on the stage… there was no posturing. there were no fights. the room was a sweaty mass of people jumping and dancing and digging the music. the show easily rates in my top ten for live music experiences.
over the course of the next ten years, there would be 4 more records. diverse entries like ‘bitter’ (a mellow, introspective/quiet paean to a broken relationship), ‘cookie; the anthropological mixtape’ (blistering social-hip hop), ‘comfort woman’ (soul-psychadelia circa 1976 free-form jazz), ‘spirit of the infidel’ (free-form instrumental jazz; the closest thing to coltrane in years) all leading up to her latest ‘the world has made me the man of my dreams’ – the most consistently engaging album since ‘passion’ – it’s groves are equal parts jazz and soul, and live, even a healthy dose of rock – and the words, well meshell is one of those rare artists where you can separate the lyrics from the beat and the poetry comes through.
last night, i had the chance to catch her live again (my 3rd time seeing her). wasn’t at all sure what to expect, but knew it’d be an interesting ride. the first surprise, no keyboards. the album features a healthy dose of electronica/synth – however would this translate with no synth’s? also odd, no center spot mic for meshell… instead, she was literally in the back – surrounded by her band (two guitarists, another bass and the drummer). subconsciously was she sayin’ the music was just as important as the words? at time’s the vox even took a backseat to what the band was whipping up. all i can say is the new record positively explodes live. stripped down, raw funk/rock propelled by exquisite drumming and simmering guitar – a helluva, show. while it’s an overused phrase, the only thing i can come up with is religious experience… seriously – eye’s closed, body grooving – transcendent.
meshell likes to live in the present and the future and as such, tends to avoid the “hits” of her past, at one point, someone yelled out for her to play ‘boyfriend’. her response? a simple, “not a fucking chance”. she is so completely comfortable in her own skin – so alive when the music is playing. she doesn’t doubt herself (or her setlist for a minute (in fact, many times it looked as if she was just grooving there in the back, enjoying the band and the moment as much as we were). there’s only one other performer i’ve ever seen that is as comfortable in their own skin while on stage; prince.
from the opening tune (a seering electric take on prince’s ‘all the critic’s love u in new york’) through the finale, meshell and company kept the crowd transfixed. my friend amy came with me and at one point said to me “sex with this woman would be amazing”! i was also texting landry (who lives in the same neighborhood as meshell) and she msg’d: “she’s the hottest mf going!” lol
indeed, she is the hottest mf around. can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.