My Life was released on November 28, 1994 and it lived up to expectations set by fans of Mary J. Blige and the larger music community. Coming off the triple platinum success of her debut album, What’s the 411? Blige retained her crown as the reigning Queen of Hip Hop-Soul with the release of her follow up album and reestablished her dominance on the R&B landscape. Upon the album’s release, Blige was coming off a hectic two years promoting her debut album and remixes album, which became highly successful as well.
This album became an introspective masterpiece due to the many complications Blige was dealing with personally. During this juncture, she was battling clinical depression, alcohol and drug related problems and a tenuous, abusive relationship with K-Ci Hailey of Jodeci. All of these factors combined with the production gifts of Carl “Chucky” Thompson and Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs laid the foundation for one of the most legendary albums of the 1990s and in R&B/Soul music history.
Mary J. Blige’s career began in 1989 when she was signed to Uptown Records by then CEO, Andre Harrell after he listened to her demo of Anita Baker’s classic, “Caught Up in the Rapture.” She became the youngest and first female act signed to Uptown Records. Once signed to the label, an up and coming producer named Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs began working with Blige to craft her image and sound for the viewing audience. Her first recording was singing the hook for then popular rapper and label mate Father MC on his song, “I’ll Do 4 U,” in the fall of 1990. She sang background vocals for much of the talent on the Uptown Records roster until the recording of her debut album took place in the winter of 1991.
Her singing style was refreshing reminder of past R&B songstresses such as her influences Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan and Anita Baker, but she brought something new to the discussion with her hard girl persona and descriptive lyrical content. These two things made her stand out amongst her R&B/Soul counterparts. Her vocal prowess reigned supreme over Hip Hop infused tracks with sprinkles of hard drum beat patterns and synths. The combination proved to be explosive for the What’s the 411? album.
My Life would catapult Blige into another realm and showcase her writing and vocal abilities. Thompson and Combs provided the soundtrack of recapturing the essence of 1970s Soul and early 1990s Hip Hop music while Blige wrote soul stirring lyrics and displayed stellar vocals on all 17 songs on the offering.
Between the winter of 1993 through August of 1994 the majority of My Life was recorded in The Hit Factory studios in New York, New York.
SoulCulture recently sat down with Carl “Chucky” Thompson, co-producer of fifteen songs on Mary J. Blige’s second album, My Life to talk about the methodology behind creating such an iconic album.
Thompson speaks on how he became involved with the My Life album and the vision he had for Blige as a recording artist.
“Right around the time I met Sean Combs, I was dealing with him from a management level,” says Thompson. “I was sending off tracks to him to show him the level of my talent and at that time he was only interested in me doing one song for Mary’s album. I was only contracted to do one song and one interlude for the My Life album. The reason I was brought in to do her first song was due to her hearing a remix I did for a group out of Washington, DC back then.
“It was a group named Lake and I did it as a favor for them and I remixed the song. Another friend of mine and I were working together and sending out songs to Puff and I specifically told him not to send out that song. He ended up sending it anyway and that ended up being the one song that she wanted. I had to go back and kick it with the guys and explain what happened and they ended being cool with how everything went down with the situation.
“Due to the success of her first album, a lot of the producers who worked on the What’s the 411? album their prices for their tracks skyrocketed. Many of those producers were up and coming producers back then and once the album went triple platinum it allowed them to ask for more money. The money they were asking for from Uptown Records for their tracks were outrageous. They were coming back with prices like $80,000 for one track.
“So I’m the new guy and I had one song done with her and she loved that song. It actually changed the direction that Puff had for her My Life album and it really opened the gates to make them say that this album could really define her. It started off of as one song and then Puff came to me and said, ‘Look man, we really have a chance to do her whole project and it’s not going to be for a whole lot of money, but the opportunity will be there. So are you down or what?’ I said, ‘Down? I’m willing to do her album for free.’
“Because I was a fan of her work and when we met in relationship to our backgrounds we connected instantly. We both knew older soul music and it was just a whirlwind of things happening. We were all young and we all knew that the soul brought us together. I was just fortunate to be able to play a lot of different instruments and the songs I was working on before I got there helped turn the page. I play about eight different instruments and the fact I was into Hip Hop enabled me to put melodies over top Hip Hop music and blending different ideas. So by the time I heard the What’s the 411? album it just felt like my calling. It was that album that made me seek Sean out for management.
“My vision for her was to let people know that she was to be taken seriously as a true singer. People got caught up in her image and I just knew that she was more than that. I really wanted her to be considered one of the divas of R&B and Soul music. I felt that vibe when I stepped out of the door to meet and work with her.
“My idea for the My Life album was to not make it be the greatest album in the world, but I just wanted people to think it was OK and say that it was an alright album.”
Thompson reveals how the concepts for the My Life album came to be and how his personal bond with Blige help to create an original sound for the record.
“Puff really didn’t have an idea for where he wanted her second album to go, but he knew he wanted it to be Hip Hop and he wanted it to be soulful,” says Thompson. “With me coming in and my background being from Washington D.C. you’ll know that the city is a live music town. We have Go-Go music and other flavors here as well. New York wasn’t really known to love funk music and stuff like that. Their thing was more Hip Hop and more of that type of vibe. So when I came in and brought soul along with different sounds it was a fresh sound for her and it was a fresh sound for Puff.
“She really took to my production style and the ideas that Puff had for her, which I could carry out. A lot of the sample ideas came from Puff and I just flipped it and made it work for her. Every day it was something new or I already had something that just fit in with where we were trying to go with the album. At the end of the day, it was a three headed horse and everybody was on the right page.
“At that time, there was a lot going on with her. When I met her she didn’t say much and I didn’t say much. She just took to that specific song and she had one other song at the time and it was called “No One Else.” K-Ci from Jodeci produced that record for her. What ended up happening is she started opening up to me and during then I was married to my first wife. My ex-wife and Mary would just sit and talk and there was a lot going on with Mary. They both had that connection being from the hood and the camaraderie between those two got her more open to me.
Mary J. Blige – “No One Else”:
“As I would hear stuff that would be happening to her and her relationship with K-Ci, it was crazy. Her vibe when she came into the studio I used to feel what she was going through. We created a real bond. Puffy and her had a bond, but then Mary and I started to have a bond and it enabled me to really get a grasp for how her album should sound.
“I laid a platform for a lot of those emotional records on that album. There would be times where she would be in the studio singing and it would be the dopest take in the world, but she would be crying. Those are things you can’t create, those emotions are coming from an unseen place. We would just record and document and go off on the vibe she would be on. It was a situation where we probably could have made forty My Life albums if we kept going.”
The lead single from My Life would be a track produced by Poke and Tone of The Trackmasters with some inclusion by Thompson, entitled “Be Happy.” It peaked to #6 on the Billboard Hot R&B/HipHop Songs Chart, #29 on the Hot Billboard 100 Chart and #30 on the UK Singles Chart. The song includes elements from Curtis Mayfield‘s 1979 song, “You’re So Good to Me.” Thompson briefly mentions his involvement on this song.
“Three songs were started on before I became involved with the My Life album,” says Thompson. “‘Be Happy’ was one of those songs. ‘Be Happy’ was actually produced by Poke and Tone of the Trackmasters, but what ended up happening was I came in playing all of these different instruments and bringing a different vibe.
“Poke and I instantly hit it off and he asked me one day to play the keys over top of this song for him. I said to him, ‘No problem.’ Because I love the record so much and the record felt just like Uptown. I said to myself I knew exactly what to do with this when I played the keys over top of the record. I ended up adding some other pieces to the song as well.”
The next single to be released off of the album was “Mary Jane (All Night Long)” produced by Chucky Thompson and it peaked at #37 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip Hop Songs Chart, #39 on the Hot Billboard 100 Chart and #17 on the UK Singles Chart. Thompson explains how this record came together.
“I wanted to go off of the vibe from the “Love No Limit (remix)” from the What’s the 411? remixes album,” says Thompson. “So I picked three different records to choose from and Puff gave us money to go the record store and buy whatever we needed. Nashiem Myrick and I would go to the record store and Nashiem was the studio manager at the time and he played a big role in the success of the album as well.
“Puff would give us a grand at a time and would tell us go to the Tower Records store in Times Square and grab what we needed. So I picked three different records and combined them. One was “Keep Rising to the Top” by Keni Burke, another was “Close the Door” by Teddy Pendergrass and “All Night Long” by the Mary Jane Girls. I had a vision for her “All Night Long” record and I wanted it to be the signature Uptown record. Puff ended up playing the tune for her and it was one of those nights that they couldn’t wait to get into the studio to make it happen. The song was completed in one night.”
“I’m Goin’ Down” and “You Bring Me Joy” would be the final two records released as singles from this album. “I’m Goin’ Down” was a remake of the Rolls Royce hit record from 1977. It debuted at #13 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip Hop Songs Chart, #22 on the Hot Billboard 100 Chart and #12 on the UK Singles Chart. “You Bring Me Joy” sampled Barry White‘s 1977 hit record, “It’s Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next to Me,” and it propelled to #1 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Songs Chart and #29 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip Hop Songs Chart.
“This record I produced as just a producer,” says Thompson. “We hired the musicians for ‘I’m Goin’ Down,’ but I was in charge of the sound and making sure it sounded the way it should sound for her. I critiqued everything and made sure everyone played the record to a T. There were couple of changes I made to the arrangement of the record, but then Mary came in and put her vocals to it. She knew what she wanted to put on the song and it served as the same purpose as the ‘Sweet Thing’ record for her debut album.”
“’You Bring Me Joy’ was a song idea that actually came from Puff. It used the sample from Barry White’s record ‘It’s Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next to Me’ and Puff loved that record so I basically put my own spin to it and Mary once again did her thing vocally.”
Thompson went on to give a glimpse on the creative process of four other songs featured on the album.
“I had started on the ‘My Life’ record before I began working with Mary,” says Thompson. “I used to love Roy Ayers and the twist to it is because I’m from Washington DC I used to hear different records played different ways. One of my favorite bands of all-time is a Go-Go band called Rare Essence. I got a lot of my influence from Rare Essence.
“‘Everybody Loves the Sunshine’ is the sample I used for that record in particular and I was just goofing around with it and I wanted to play the record like Rare Essence used to do.
“We were at Puff’s house one day and I was playing an assortment of tracks there and when I played that record he came running into the room saying, ‘Yo, I was just thinking about using that record for Mary.’ So he took it to Mary for her to listen to it and she said the exact same thing about how she wanted to use it on her album as well. Mary put her words to the music and it was her true story.”
Mary J. Blige – “My Life”:
“‘Be With You’ was a song remix that I did for a group out of Washington, DC called Lake. The idea behind that record came from the ‘King of Rock’ song by Run DMC. Pete Rock did a remix for ‘King of Rock’ so I took his vibe and style at that time and just tricked it out to make it more R&B. It had the Hip Hop bass to it, but then I put the R&B melodies on top of it. It was the first record she picked produced by me. I was only contracted to do a song and an interlude on the album and I ended up producing all of the songs except for two.”
“’I Love You’ contained a sample of ”Ike’s Mood’ from an old Issac Hayes album. This particular sample was an idea that Puff came up with. He wanted to use the piano from that record. So I took that song and I acted like I was Dr. Dre on it by thinking about what he would do with the record because I was such a big Dr. Dre fan at the time. I put the little sounds in it and stretched the drums out some and I was also thinking about the Motown sound as well during the process of putting the record together. My thought process was coming from a million different places, but they were solid places. To me, sometimes where you come from is more important than the actual music. I was focused on tricking this record out and making it sound much more than just a New York record.”
“Nashiem and I went record shopping and I came into the studio one day and Nashiem was listening to one of the records we bought. This particular record was a 14 minute long song. Nashiem was one of those types of people who would sit down and listen to a 14 minute song and find one section to use as a sample for a new song. Nine minutes into this song he found what he was looking for and he kept it looping for hours in the studio. Biggie and Puff came into the studio and this one loop kept playing over and over again.
“Puff got the idea to use it as an interlude for Mary’s My Life album. Biggie originally rapped the verse on the interlude and he was later replaced by Keith Murray and it became “K. Murray Interlude” on her My Life album. This sample ended up being used for the Notorious B.I.G.’s song, “Who Shot Ya.”
“K. Murray Interlude”:
Notorious B.I.G. – “Who Shot Ya”:
“I still have that recording with me today and him saying that phrase had absolutely nothing to do with Tupac. The reason why Keith Murray was brought in was due to B.I.G.’s verse on the interlude. If we kept his original verse, Puff would have been forced to place an Explicit Lyrics sticker on the album and he didn’t want to do that to Mary so they brought Keith Murray in to replace Biggie.”
There were two songs that we were left off of the album “Everyday It Rains” and “Stay With Me.” “Everyday It Rains” ended up being on The Show movie soundtrack in 1995 and “Stay With Me” was a song that didn’t quite come together before the due date. The El Debarge sample eventually landed on Notorious B.I.G’s debut album, Ready To Die.”
The My Life album debuted at #7 on the Billboard 200 Charts and reached #1 on the R&B/Hip Hop Album Chart and stayed in the top position on the chart for eight consecutive weeks going into 1995. Like her debut album, My Life went triple platinum, but due to the dissolving of Uptown Records the record didn’t receive the proper promotion and one can only wonder if the label had stayed together how many albums it would have sold. This album is regarded as her breakthrough album and it ascended Mary J. Blige to the forefront of R&B songstresses.
Many of the culture writers of the mid-1990s didn’t fully embrace the record, but over time it has garnered the accolades it’s so deserving of. The album was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1996 for Best R&B album. In 2002, Blender Magazine ranked My Life #57 on its 100 greatest American albums of all-time. The following year Rolling Stone ranked it #279 on their 500 greatest albums of all time. In 2006, it was included in Time Magazine’s 100 greatest albums of all time.
It is safe to say this record is timeless and the word classic alone may not do it enough justice.