Brown Sugar was released on July 3, 1995 and it became a refreshing reminder of how potent the mixture of Soul and R&B can be on a record.
Upon its release, Michael “D’Angelo” Archer had created quite a stir with his song “U Will Know” performed by Black Men United, from the Jason’s Lyric movie soundtrack from the previous year. The song featured 40 R&B artists and groups who were among the most promising and current talent from the genre.
At a time where female and male groups were dominating the charts, D’Angelo arrived on the scene with a quintessential, vintage sound that was reminiscent of popular Soul and R&B singers from the 1970s and early 1980s Prince. His debut album was trans-formative in regards to his production and recording methods. It helped to ignite the genre now known as Neo-Soul and create a new wave of Soul singers for the ladder half of the 1990s.
D’Angelo produced, arranged and wrote every song on the album, which made him abnormal among his contemporaries of the time period. He ultimately became one of the more iconic figures in the R&B and Soul scene of the mid to late 1990s and set in motion a rebirth of authentic Soul music.
Like most R&B singers, D’Angelo’s musical foundation was built in the gospel tradition. At the tender age of 5, he was playing the piano inside of his father’s church in Richmond, VA. From the ages of 5 to 15, he played the piano and organ in his father’s church and from 15 until he was signed to his recording contract in 1993, he served as the musical director for his grandfather’s church.
After winning the Apollo Amateur Night three times in a row in 1991, he dropped out of school to pursue a full-time career in music. For the next few years, he split time between New York City and Richmond, VA honing his craft as a songwriter and musician to begin producing his debut album. His record “U Will Know” eventually led him to sign a publishing deal with EMI Music in 1993 and here is where his story begins.
Between the years of 1990-1994, the majority of Brown Sugar was recorded in Richmond, VA, Battery Studios and RPM Studios in New York, New York and Pookie Lab in Sacramento, California.
Soul Culture recently sat down with Luther Archer, the brother of D’Angelo and co-writer of two songs on D’Angelo’s debut album, Brown Sugar to talk about the influences behind the album and what made it become a success.
Archer tells the story of how he co-wrote “U Will Know” and how it helped D’Angelo receive his first recording contract.
“I was just getting out of the Marine Core and I was staying at my mother’s house,” says Archer. “That’s where Michael was living and I came home from the base in Quantico, VA it was where I was stationed at the time. He let me hear this track he was working on and there was a yellow legal paper pad lying on the ground and I picked it up.
“I began writing the lyrics to the song and I ended up finishing them in about 5 minutes. I remember giving the lyrics to him and then I headed out to go somewhere. By the time I came back, he had completed the whole song. I was taken aback that he finished it so quickly. I was going through some things at the time and the music made it real easy for me to come up with the lyrics for the song.
“I remember after he finished the song I went back out around midnight that same night to play the song for a couple of local record label people because they had to hear how good it was. Nobody here in Richmond caught on, but it lead to him getting his recording contract.”
All of the songs with the exception of “Lady” were written and produced in Richmond, VA. Archer recalls how rich the quality was in the pre-production recordings of the songs that made Brown Sugar.
“I would say the concepts for all of the songs on the album were constructed at my mother’s house in Richmond, VA, says Archer. What they ended up doing was using a lot of the pre-recorded production material Mike did in Richmond and when he went up to New York with Bob Power to Battery Music studios there were a couple of things that Mike changed. And when he would come home he would let me hear the songs. A lot of people including myself thought that the pre-production material sounded better than the actual CD recordings people heard off of the album.
“I know we’re talking about Brown Sugar, but the transition from Brown Sugar to Voodoo he was able to capture more of the pre-production feel than he had on the Brown Sugar CD. Brown Sugar came out sounding more clean to me and one of the charms of the music for me was how dirty soul it was and he captured some of it on Brown Sugar, but some of the people who heard the pre-production stuff wouldn’t contradict my statements. There was some gold on those tracks.
“All the pre-production material was done on a Sonic Keyboard and with a four track recorder. What he learned to do by layering his vocals was reminiscent of Marvin Gaye and he drew comparisons to him with that technique. There was such a rawness to what was done in the pre-production phases and that’s not to anyone’s demise or anything like that, but I just think that if the engineer at the time was able to catch the true essence of the music it would have been more funky and it had that back in the day type of feel to it. If that version of the album ever came out, it would be something I would love to have or a person would love to have in their collection.”
Archer gives a glimpse into his influence on D’Angelo, D’Angelo’s mindset when creating the album and how they worked together.
“I think the original sound that came from Brown Sugar was due to rebelling against the norm and not wanting to sound like what was out there in mainstream back then,” says Archer. “My influence over Brown Sugar had a lot more to do with us growing up together. With me being the older brother I introduced to him some of the records I used to bring home when I was in college. Michael was the creative force behind the tracks and the construction of the album itself. He used to bounce ideas off of me during the album. I remember specifically that he told me he was going to do a song called “Shit, Damn, Motherfucker.” He let me hear the song entitled “Alright” and it ended up being my favorite record off of the album.
“He would tell me that he wanted the album to be a house that has rooms with different curtains hanging in each room. I, partly helped in shaping his musical foundation. When he first started writing, he would ask me to help him with the lyrics and I think that was based more on his age being that he was so young at the time. He asked me to contribute to some tracks that ended up never making the album, but Brown Sugar was his baby all the way around.”
“The way we worked together initially is he would give me a music track and he would allow me to come up with a melody and the lyrics or he had a melody in mind and he would say ‘this how I want it to sound’ and I’d write the lyrics. We did this for the song “Higher,” but for “Smooth” everything was in place and they just needed a third verse for the song.
D’Angelo – “Higher”:
“The songs I co-wrote on the album were songs he told me about. They were ideas he shared with me. The first song I co-wrote was “Higher” and it was more of gospel type of record. He gave me the reigns to take that song where I wanted to. The other record I co-wrote was “Smooth” and I knew about that one for a while because he wrote it when he was 17.”
D’Angelo – “Smooth”:
Archer spoke on the buzz the album was generating before its release.
“First of all, I was happy for him and I didn’t realize the impact it would have until the Brown Sugar album release party,” says Archer. “The party was held at the Supper Club in New York at the time. I saw so many veterans in the industry paying attention to the music and I remember Kedar Massenburg and Jocelyn Cooper telling me how big of a deal the album was becoming. I heard the music and compared it to what was out at the time I could tell it was way different, but I didn’t have any foresight into what it would become.”
The first single to be released off of the album was “Brown Sugar,” a song co-written and co-produced by Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest fame. “Brown Sugar” peaked at #5 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Charts and #14 on the Billboard Hot 100 Charts.
The next two singles to be introduced to the public at large were “Cruisin’,” a remake of Smokey Robinson‘s 1979 hit song, which peaked at #10 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Charts and “Lady” co-produced by Raphael Saadiq. “Lady” peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Charts and #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 Charts.
Archer remembers how “Lady” almost didn’t get made for the album.
“I remember when he was staying with me in Charlottesville and he went out to Oakland to work with Raphael Saadiq,” says Archer. “He came back with the song called “Lady” and I was just blown away when I heard it. It started hitting me that this record was going to be big. He was working with people whose records I was buying. I remember him not wanting to go out there to do that record with Raphael Saadiq. Jocelyn Cooper from the publishing company called me and told me to use my big brother influence to help him get on the plane. The end result was a masterful combination on record.”
The final single to be released off of the album was the infectious tune “Me and Those Dreamin’ Eyes of Mine,” which featured D’Angelo playing all of the instruments and providing all of the background vocals for not only this record, but all 10 songs on Brown Sugar. There were a handful of records that ended up not being on the album. One song entitled “Magical” and another “Get on The Floor” were co-written by Archer.
“One of the last songs he wrote for the album was a song called “Jonz in My Bonz,” says Archer. “To me, this song showed a transition in his music and it eventually lead to the album, Voodoo.”
Brown Sugar debuted at #6 on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart in the summer of 1995 and went on to sell 1.5 million albums in the US and it garnered a cult following. It remained on the charts for a staggering 65 weeks. To this day, it’s regarded as the one of the standards for what great albums are measured by in the R&B, Soul and Neo-Soul genres respectively. This album earned 4 Grammy nominations among other accolades during the time period. The music speaks for itself and to define it as classic would be a grave understatement, but in this instance it’s a grand compliment.