Phone Interview Conducted on January 19, 2011
‘Now or Never’ is the fourth album-to-date by R&B singer/songwriter Tank. Tank is, by far, one of today’s most successful and prolific songwriters in the world of real R&B music. Akim Bryant got an opportunity recently to catch up with Tank regarding the making of his latest album, how he feels about Chris Brown’s past behavior and his unapologetic addiction to sex...
Akim Bryant: This is Akim Bryant for SoulMusic.com, here with Tank. Actually, he was born Durrell Babbs and he’s now the artist everyone knows as Tank. He just released his fourth studio album on Atlantic Records called ‘Now or Never’. The critical acclaim for it continues to grow. In addition to his singing, Tank has also written a number of hit songs for everyone from Chris Brown to Jamie Foxx to Kelly Rowland, you name it. So welcome to SoulMusic.com, Tank.
Tank: Man, what you want me to say? You gave it all.
AB: I gave it all up?
T: I love it.
AK: Well, for the first question I want to go all the way back to the very beginning of your career. What was your very first big break?
T: My very first big break was when I got to tour to sing background with Ginuwine and Aaliyah in ’97. And that right there just kind of kicked off the whole thing. Of course, I got to see the world and really got to see first hand what it would be like as an R&B solo artist because I didn’t start doing R&B until ’96. So that was my first real taste of R&B and getting a real opportunity to do it on that level that early in my introduction. That’s how I met the guys from Blackground and that’s how I got my deal and my publishing deal and all that. That’s where it all started.
AB: OK, so you got the publishing deal and the recording contract all at the same time?
T: All at the same time. They wanted it all, baby.
AB: That’s dope, which is pretty rare for an artist these days. Congrats on that. Fast forward to today, the Grammy nominations, the dozens of songs that you’ve written for a number of artists, what do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
T: I think it’s standing the test of time. In coming out in 2000 with my first single and it being 2011 and I still matter. People still want to hear what I have to sing and what I have to say and what I have to play. I think that’s the biggest accomplishment in all of it.
AB: Your latest album is called ‘Now Or Never’. What does that title represent for you?
T: It represents my part in the fight to keep some of this real music alive. The real emotion. The real musicianship. The real stories. You know what I mean, relatable music to life and love and relationships. Keeping that passion alive. I love everything else that is going on as well, but I think there is definitely a balance. We can’t forget the roots. We can’t forget about where this thing originated. So we always have to remind ourselves and I think this album helps do that for a lot of people.
AB: Is there a certain song on this album that best represents the album as a whole?
T: Wow, that’s a good question. That’s the first time anybody has ever asked me that. It’s tough, because I went sexy mid-tempo with “Sex Music” and then I went straight urban ballad with “Can I”, like let’s just get it in. And then I went Maxwell on you with “Amazing”. Then I went epic on “You Mean That Much”. And then I went classic with the Bonnie Raitt cover “I Can’t Make You Love Me”. So the project as a whole for me, one song doesn’t represent without the other.
AB: They’re all connected.
T: They’re all connected.
AB: You mentioned the Bonnie Raitt cover that you did. How did you, of all songs, boil it down to that one as the one you wanted to cover?
T: You know why…it wasn’t even my initial idea. Craig Kallman (CEO of Atlantic Records) brought it to me and said, “man, I have a song that I think would be an amazing song for you to cover” and I was like, “ok, well let me hear it, my ears are open.” And he started playing the song and my eyes were closed and I was like, “this is it”. Everytime I hear the song, ever since I was a kid, it just did something to me. And so it was just one of them moments where it was undeniable. As soon as he played the first two seconds of the song, it was done. I had to have it.
AB: I think it’s a great cover and fits you perfectly. And I think it’s awesome to hear a nice R&B version of that song. I think it works out nicely. You’ve worked with a lot of people over the years, done a lot of collabos. Do you prefer to work on your solo projects or in collaborations with other people?
T: I think probably collaborations with other people. My thing is my thing. It’s not as much of a challenge to be me as it is to try and dig into other people’s minds and figure out where they’re trying to go or where I can help them go. Because I’m not really the producer that makes the same record for everybody. Some records sound the same and if a record (of mine) does sound the same it’s because they (the artist) literally asked me for it, like “please can I have a record that sounds like…” And I’m like, “I don’t really do that, but you asked me so I got to give it to you.” But I’m very much into helping artists create their own thing because we’re all individuals. We all have a story to tell. So I love that challenge of somebody saying, “hey, we need a record for such-and-such, what do you think?” Or, “we need a record for such-and such, do you got something?” and I’m like, “no, I don’t have nothing but can I sit and talk with her, can we build, can I get on the phone, can I just hear her story and figure out where to go from there?” I’m a tailor. It’s easy to dress yourself. Ain’t a whole lot of pressure because you know how to wear it. But when you’re dressing somebody else, that’s when the pressure is up.
AB: I like that. I spoke to Marsha Ambrosius recently and she spoke of basically the same thing. She’s a team player and likes to collaborate with people as opposed to just doing it in a silo. You also helped out on production for the “Dreamgirls” soundtrack back in 2006. That was a major, major movie and soundtrack. How was that experience?
T: It was long. You realize what it takes when it comes to making these major, major films. It takes a long time. It was my first soundtrack, but it was great that it was that because everything else is going to be a piece of cake. We actually did a musical movie, “Dreamgirls”. It don’t get more musical as far as integrating the music into a movie than that right there. It was amazing, man. I even got to try out for one of the parts just by being there musically and the director seeing me and liking my personality. It just segued into a whole other thing. I almost got the part of “C.C.”. It came down to me and Keith (Robinson). I was almost in “Dreamgirls”. I was trying to bat two for two, baby. But you know what…I was in “Dreamgirls”; I was in the choir scene. It wasn’t the scene I wanted but…
AB: What happened to the “C.C.” role?
T: They picked Keith. It came down to me and Keith Robinson and they picked him. They were like, “yo we got to go with Keith, man.” And I was like, “yeah alright, well forget you then..lol.”
AB: I’m sure that was a great experience for you. And I read something that said you’re possibly going to do a collaboration with Lalah Hathaway and possibly involving Anita Baker. Is that true?
T: Well, yeah. Anita came out of the studio and was like, “I want a song from you, Tank” and I was like, “I want to give you a song.” So I be trying to run these people down, like, “you said you wanted a song from me.” And Lalah Hathaway the same thing, she would like for us to do something together. I just saw her at BET Honors so I think it’s really just a time issue, everybody trying to get on the same page at the same time and just getting it done. We all have a mutual and wonderful respect for one another so it’s not egos or anything like that. It’s just a matter of us being able to get in there and rock it out.
AB: I think there would be some dope creations to come out of that. If anything, I would definitely like to hear Lalah Hathaway record (Anita Baker’s) “Angel”.
T: She is nuts.
AB: That was amazing on The Soul Train Awards. Is there anyone else you would like to work with?
T: I’m just trying to get it in. I love to just move around in different areas. I love the R&B. I love the hip-hop. Would love to move into some Josh Groban and do some stuff with him. You know, just figure out how we can make this thing international. Get out of the States, find some artists over in London somewhere or over in China or Japan. I don’t know, just start creating and thinking outside the box. Not the same 808.
AB: Exactly, it is getting old. Who influenced you as a child growing up?
T: My cousin, Alphonso Jiles influenced me. He went to Berklee College of Music and he could play every instrument, write music, write the songs for the choir and all of that. I would just sit there and watch him like I was mesmerized by him. He’d teach my mother and my cousins songs and they would sing them upstairs in my grandmother’s house. I’d just sit there, I couldn’t move. When he would leave, when everybody would leave, I would go downstairs, get on the piano and try to do everything that he did. And that was the birth of it. That’s how it started.
AB: That was the bug that bit you.
T: I used to get on his drums. He used to kick me off his drums…”get off my drums, Durrell!” And I’d be like, “I know how to play.” “No you don’t. Get off ‘em!” It started off like that, you know. So I had to fight to get my musicianship-on.
AB: So if it wasn’t for that, you wouldn’t be doing music today basically.
T: No, not at all. It was just something about hearing him play, hearing certain chords. When I heard the “Charlie Brown’s Christmas”, it was something like that. You know how a fly sees the light and they know when they go towards the light it’s going to zap them and kill them but they still gotta go towards the light; it’s just something so attractive about it. I mean, music didn’t kill me but it’s one of them things I couldn’t avoid. It just drew me in.
AB: Yeah, seems like that even to this day. So you Tyrese and Ginuwine at one point were going to put together, basically an R&B supergroup. What happened to that situation?
T: We’re on hiatus for a second but I don’t know, I think there might be a reemergence of that idea altogether. We’ve been talking about it and cats really realize that this is the biggest R&B event that never happened. So we’ve been talking about it and I think we plan to really revisit that thing in a major way.
AB: Whose idea was it originally?
T: Me and Ginuwine.
AB: Are you also looking for a fourth member, possibly?
AB: OK, keep it between the three of you.
T: You just ruined the whole LSG essence.
AB: Yeah, LSG was big.
T: There’s something powerful about the number three so we’re trying to roll with that.
AB: In the beginning you were signed to Blackground Records and worked a lot with Timbaland and Aaliyah over there. What are some of your fondest memories of Aaliyah?
T: Umm, more so her coaching. She was a goofball so any game we could play from tag, freeze-tag to whatever, we just got it in. But she really had an eye out for what I was doing. She was always like, “Tank, I’m tellin’ you, you should be like this and do like this. I’m tellin you, the girls gonna love it when you do this…” You know what I mean, she would just give me her full Tank package of how Tank should be. And I’m just sitting there looking at her like, “that’s not gonna work.” “I’m tellin’ you Tank, it’s gonna work, watch.” And I’d see myself trying some of the stuff she was saying, like secretly trying it but not telling her I tried it. But she had an eye out for what I was trying to do and she would give me constructive criticism and just give me things to help me out and push my career along.
AB: One of my absolute favorite Aaliyah songs that you were actually involved with is “I Can Be”, which was out the box a little bit for her.
T: And that’s exactly what she asked me for. She was like, “listen, I want to be different. Give me the different songs. Everybody else is going to give me whatever, but I want your songs to put me on the edge.” She was like, “I want to be something that I haven’t been.” So when he played the track, I was like, “oooh, I got an idea.” Nobody has ever seen Aaliyah like this: I can be the other woman in your life. It’s racy and then it’s sexy and at the same time it’s her growing into her thing, you know. It was really dope.
AB: Yeah, the way it was delivered and the way she sang it, it was just…yeah. Actually, I might go listen to that when we’re done with this. You’re currently nominated for a Grammy for a song that you did for Chris Brown, his ‘Graffiti’ album. The song is called “Take My Time”. How does it feel to still be recognized?
T: It’s great. It was my ninth Grammy nomination so I’m like, “I can get used to this.” I can get used to being at the Grammy’s every year. I love it. I want to win. This nomination thing is…I’m almost over it. Not quite but I’m almost over it. I need some hardware now. I got a certificate for Jennifer Hudson. I don’t think that’s fair but I need some hardware now. It’s just giving me more goals. It’s making me want to reach higher so that I get to stand on that stage at the main ceremony and say a couple of words.
AB: And I hope you do win. Congrats on that. What’s your opinion on Chris Brown’s situation right now and the way the media views him?
T: Well, I mean, I think that he’s young. We do have to take into account when you give young people things too early and too fast. When things come like that, there’s a certain level of responsibility that’s not necessarily intact yet. Everything comes with growth and experiences. The media is what it is. They’re going to try and create a story. However they can make the story exciting, no matter what that does to you, they will. If it means magnifying the worst part of it to get a great story then that’s what they’ll do. But he’s no different than any other 21 year old kid and going through the same things. He just happens to be a superstar. I think that he’s going to be alright. He just has to be mindful of even the small choices that he makes, be it Twitter, all that stuff. You gotta be conscious of all that stuff, although you just want to be young and just have fun and just be carefree, you can’t now. That’s gone, unfortunately. Now everything you do is under the watchful eye of somebody who can either tear you down or build you up, most trying to tear you down. So I think he’s going to be fine. He’s just got to keep (his) eyes open.
AB: Most definitely. All the way from the beginning of your career until now, there’s never been a point where Tank has been out of shape. You’ve always been able to maintain that. Does it involve a healthy lifestyle or are you just lifting weights…what is it?
T: This is really a lifestyle for me. Lifting and eating certain kinds of foods and all of that. It just became a lifestyle. Don’t trip. I do eat. I get desserts and all that. I get it in. But I keep everything within reason. I just don’t overindulge.
AB: Where does that come from? Is that something that’s always been in you?
T: I’ve been an athlete all my life so that’s just where it comes from.
AB: What sports?
T: Basketball, football, period. All my life.
AB: This latest album, the very first single was “Sex Music”. The previous album was “Sex, Love and Pain”. Would you consider yourself addicted to sex?
AB: Without a doubt, right?
T: Yeah, not even a question. How are you not? Would you really have to ask that question to any man? There’s no rehab for that. We are born with that urge, naturally. Period. Other things, you just kind of fall into and you digress and your life goes bad. I don’t know anybody who’s ever ended up homeless because of sex.
AB: That’s interesting.
T: We don’t need rehab for that. We just…you know.
AB: Yeah, it’s just natural instincts.
T: Natural instincts, baby.
AB: I agree. So that wraps it up here for me. Is there anything else you would like to add and tell your fans?
T: Tell them I love them. We got more coming sooner than you think.
AB: What’s the best way they can keep up to date with you?
T: Twitter, of course @therealtank. And then my website, therealtank.com.
AB: Awesome. I just want to wrap it up also by calling out some of my favorite songs that you’ve written. I already mentioned Aaliyah’s “I Can Be”. “Come Over” was a big one for me. Omarion’s “O”. I love that. To this day, I love that. A song that many people probably haven’t heard was Ray Lavender’s “Stay”.
T: Oh, “Stay”, I’m surprised you know about that.
AB: That was a dope song. I wish it got out there in the mainstream but things happen. And then LeToya Luckett’s “Regret”. When I first got the album, that was the song that stuck out the most for me. And second to that was “Over”.
T: Ok, you got your homework in. I like what you’re doing over there.
AB: I appreciate you for everything you do. I think you’re one of the great songwriters of our generation, especially in R&B music. I hope you continue to do what you do. And I hope you get that Grammy Award that you deserve.
T: Thank you very much. I absolutely appreciate that, man. OK, Akim
AB: Thank you, man. T: You be safe now.
AB: Alright, you too. Later.
About the Writer
With nearly a decade of experience in programming content for Music Choice (24/7 music channels, cable-on-demand shows, website and cell), Akim Bryant has just begun to scratch the surface of journalism having already written for GIANT and The Source magazines as well as a number of start-up publications. This self-professed R&B junkie also has a strong knack for the art of interviewing. Be on the lookout for his semi-autobiographical debut novel coming out in 2012.