Black Music Month: We Salute Grammy Award Winner Betty Wright
Repost from LEON NEYFAKH
When you first hear the opening seconds of the song “Sanctified,” by Rick Ross, your instinct might be to give credit to Kanye West, who co-produced it, for finding one of the most breathtaking vocal samples in hip-hop history. Even if you’ve never really listened to old gospel music, the melody seems like a recovered treasure, recorded by a woman with a voice weathered by air that no longer circulates on this earth. None of that is true, though: “Sanctified,” the best track on Ross’s new album, “Mastermind,” and probably the best rap song of the year so far, is not built around a rediscovered sample. Instead, the song owes its existence to a last-minute favor called in to the soul singer Betty Wright, late one night in February, just as Wright was drifting off to sleep in her chair after a long day of vocal coaching.
“I was saying, Boy, if I could just get up those steps, get in my bed—I’m not even taking a bath till the morning,” Wright, who is sixty years old, said in an interview on a recent Sunday afternoon, not long after getting home from church. But, when her phone rang, she answered it. On the line was DJ Khaled, the Miami-based hip-hop impresario, who is responsible for some of the biggest hip-hop hits in recent memory. Khaled is also one of Betty Wright’s best friends in town, along with Puff Daddy, whose New Year’s Eve party she never misses, and Lil Wayne, whom she’s known since he was fifteen and whom she trained in the art of breathing, phrasing, and pitch. Wright is close with other rappers, too: a few years back, she recorded an album with the Roots, and in 2001 she helped Trick Daddy, whom she has also known forever, wrangle a chorus of schoolchildren to sing the hook on his single “I’m a Thug.”
Though she is remembered around the world for two singles, “Clean Up Woman” and “Tonight Is the Night,” both now more than thirty years old, Wright has quietly conjured a second act as a confidante, muse, and teacher to some of the world’s best-known hip-hop artists. “We are all very, very close,” she said of her Miami rap friends, and a few of their moms. Sometimes, when there is tension between the artists whom she keeps under her wing, she serves as a mediator. “You know, they are somebody’s children, and I’m somebody’s momma,” Wright said. “So we have a really good kinship. I ain’t trying to be in their sandbox—I built the sandbox, but I watch ’em play in it.”
Wright herself has been playing in the sandbox since she was two years old, when she joined her mother and siblings in a gospel group called Echoes of Joy. Later, at the age of twelve, she was discovered by a pair of songwriters and producers, who heard her humming a song at a record store. Her first big hit, “Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do,” came out two years later; it contains the lines “Girls, you can’t do / what the guys do / and still be a lady.” It will sound familiar to anyone who has heard the Beyoncé and Jay Z song “Upgrade U,” which samples it.
But back to that phone call: “Khaled is like my son,” Wright said, which is why she answered, despite the late hour. “He says, ‘Ma, I need a favor.’ And he begins to tell me how he’s got this deadline, and the next day this record goes up for pre-orders, and they’re trying to get this voice onto it.” Khaled didn’t say whom the record was for, only that it was urgent—they had tried a bunch of different approaches on the hook, and nothing was working. He sounded kind of sad, speaking almost in a whisper, as he begged for her help. “I said, ‘I’m so tired,’ ” Wright recalled. “I said, ‘My voice is so raggedy.’ I said, ‘The best I’m gon’ be is raggedy.’ ” Khaled told her, “I will take your raggedy. I will take it. Please, Ma.” Wright told Khaled that she needed to get an hour of sleep, but she could make it to the studio around midnight.
It wasn’t until after she arrived that she found out that the song was for Rick Ross and Kanye. No one had to tell her—she heard their voices coming from the next room, where they were FaceTiming with the engineer. She knows both artists well. She had recently convinced Ross, who lives a few minutes from her in Miami, to do a little singing on a track for her new album, “Living … Love … Lies,” and she met Kanye years ago, when he introduced her to his mother, a longtime fan.
After listening to a demo, Wright recorded the “Sanctified” hook in fifteen minutes, sitting down on a sofa while she sang because she was too exhausted to stand. She assumed that Kanye was going to speed up the sample, as he is known to do with soul melodies, so she performed it slowly, infusing it with an extra intensity so that the final version “wouldn’t sound like Minnie Mouse.” Afterward, Wright was embarrassed about how it sounded, and in the morning she considered asking the engineer to delete her take. When Ross and Puff called to tell her she’d killed it, she was speechless.
There was a time when Betty Wright felt serious hostility toward hip-hop, a result of repeatedly hearing her music get sampled by artists who had not sought permission to do so. “There was no norm,” she said. “So people were just sampling music and having a good day.” In the early nineties, she pursued legal action against the group Color Me Badd, who used snippets from “Tonight Is the Night” on their hit single “I Wanna Sex You Up.” After receiving a settlement, Wright went one step further, recording a goofy but devastating dis track in which she took Color Me Badd and their producer, Dr. Freeze, to task. Wright’s verses on the record, which is long out of print but can be heard here, deserve to be quoted at length:
Baby, that ain’t sampling, that’s stealing!
What’s the matter, can’t you write with no feeling?
You oughta come clean with the real deal
If you had real talent, you wouldn’t have to steal!
Dr. Freeze, that was cold, but stop in your tracks
You stole my song, now I’m taking it back!
You’re the Milli Vanilli of the writing world
Such a big, big man, to steal from a girl
Did you think I was asleep, or dead and gone?
Baby, even in my sleep I keep my ears on!
The verse ends with a machine gun to the whole rap industry: “Just start giving credit where credit is due / And money, too! / You sampling suckas, this song is for you!”
Wright’s tangle with Color Me Badd roughly coincided with the passage of a law protecting artists from having their work used in new music without compensation. When Puff Daddy sampled “Clean Up Woman” on Mary J. Blige’s single “Real Love,” in 1997, Wright was no longer angry about rap and instead was interested in it. “You can’t sit in judgment and say, Oh, this new generation doesn’t write anything,” she said. “They write—it’s just a different brand of writing. They’re taking what you’ve already created and spending their time maybe doing a lyric, or they’re chopping it up … and editing it.” Now that the anti-sampling laws are on the books, she said, there’s nothing to complain about, because “the older generation gets to eat along with the new generation.”
In the course of the nineties and aughts, Wright became more and more integrated into the world of hip-hop, in part through her vocal coaching—she met Puff Daddy while working with Jennifer Lopez on her hit album “On the 6”—and in part because so many rappers remembered her music from when they were kids. Angelo Morris, a musician who has been working with Wright for almost three decades, said, “ ‘Tonight Is the Night,’ especially, is just an anthem, it seems, for hip-hop-generation babies, because most of their parents listened to that song and they grew up on it.” Plus, he added, “She was a rapper before they were rapping, because she used to talk a lot on her records. I remember we were in New York once, and we were in a cab and the cabbie looks back in the rearview mirror and says, ‘Betty Wright?,’ and she says, ‘Yeah?,’ and he says, ‘I recognize you from your speaking voice.’ ”
Though much of Wright’s coaching work is focussed on singing, she has also been able to help rappers with their rapping. “I’d teach them breathing and stamina,” she said. “And, you know, the worst part for me was when they always had to have their hype man say the last word of each line, because they’d run out of breath.” She would tell them, “Listen, there’s nothing wrong with keeping your hype man so it’s doubly emphasized, but you don’t have to run out of breath—you just gotta know where the spot is to breathe.”
When she was brought on to work with Lil Wayne, she said, she was initially perturbed by his refusal to take notes on what she was teaching him. “Wayne being a person with this whole photographic memory, it was one of the most trying things for me,” she said. “Because I wanted him to write stuff down! I felt like, Listen, I’m giving you all these golden nuggets and you’re not going to write anything down? All this good stuff I’m saying to you? All these pearls of wisdom?” But it turned out she didn’t have to worry. “Baby, that kid memorized everything I said. Every exercise, everything I ever told him, he could quote it back to you. I can’t figure it out. He and Jay Z get the cake for that memory. They got it, baby.”
I asked Wright if her mentoring ever goes beyond the technical aspects of music, and was not surprised when she said that it’s not uncommon for her to get phone calls at 3 A.M. from rappers and other musicians in need of a little encouragement, wisdom, or faith, which, as a deeply religious person, she has a lot of. “There’s always a time when you think you’ve done your last song or you’ve written your last rap or, you know, people are not checking for you,” Wright said. “And then I always say, Well, that could be your swan song if you let it, but then you can always go back in and just come from a different space. Write from the pain that you’re feeling right now.”
When she said this, I mentioned that Lil Wayne had recently announced that his forthcoming album, “Tha Carter V,” will be his last, and asked if maybe she could persuade him to change his mind. “Oh, he actually said it out to everybody now? I didn’t know that he actually made an announcement,” she said, sounding a little taken aback, as if she’d known Wayne had been thinking about retirement in private and was wishing he wouldn’t really go through with it. “Well, I’m hoping that that is not real. But, you know, that may be the way he feels. And, when you’ve done so much so young, sometimes you may feel that you’ve lived your life, you know, burning the candle at both ends. But I hope he just takes a little rest and comes right back.”
It feels shortsighted to say that Wright’s appearance on “Sanctified” might alter her legacy, if only because she has already had such a long and successful career. But it’s hard not to hope that, with the success of “Sanctified,” we start hearing her voice on more rap songs—that, some twenty years after she went to war with the genre for sampling her old music, she becomes the go-to vocalist for hip-hop producers and artists who want something new and original on their tracks.
Wright says that, for now, she’s going to focus on herself. “Living … Love … Lies”—the album that features Ross reluctantly singing—came out just a few months ago, but she’s been so busy working on other people’s projects that she has barely had any time to promote it. Meanwhile, Lil Wayne has been trying to get in touch with her for more than a week—maybe to ask her to do something on his album, maybe not. “I don’t exactly know,” she said. “I just know I’ve heard that his new stuff is fire. And I’m certainly pleased to know that.”
Not a lot of people born before 1960 can say that, obviously—especially not churchgoing women who grew up singing gospel songs, and who might be expected to feel somewhat alienated by the things that Lil Wayne raps about. It’s been pointed out, in fact, that there’s some serious dissonance between the heartfelt tribute to Jesus that Wright delivers on the “Sanctified” hook and the rest of the song, which includes, among other things, a line by Kanye in which he talks back to God after God tells him he’s too aggressive.
When Wright saw people talking on Twitter and Facebook about the irony of her praising the Lord on a song by a group of proudly sinful rappers, she laughed it off. “Folks were saying, ‘Oh, my, she brought the Word in the middle of a rap record—only she would have the nerve to do that,’ ” she said. “But all of my babies know that I preach all day.… I ain’t trying to hide no light under no bushel. Everybody needs a little light in their life, and when they need prayer they know where to come, because they know I love them all, and I ain’t judging nobody.”
Wright said, “As long as you keep yourself in love with people, you can transcend time.”
Source: The New Yorker