Let’s talk some real stuff here. When you’ve been involved in the music industry professionally for as many years as I have (and we are not saying the exact number but…), it can be easy to view new music with a little bit of bias. I mean, I was listening to Aretha before she came to Atlantic in 1966, I was at home playing Stevie Wonder’s “Talking Book” the day it came out in England, I was transfixed by EW&F’s “Keep Your Head To The Sky” as I sat in a packed Madison Square Garden in 1975 and I danced till I dropped at The Paradise Garage to the music of First Choice, Loleatta Holloway, Diana Ross and Chic throughout the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. I remember Leroy Hutson’s first performance at The Bitter End in New York and Phyllis Hyman’s entrance through dry ice at The Greek Theater as she sang “Living All Alone.” Not boasting, just memories, memories. And, etched in my consciousness forever, is seeing D.J. Rogers at The Total Experience nightclub on Crenshaw Boulevard in the ‘hood in Los Angeles, in the early months of 1976. He was on a show with then-RCA labelmate Zulema, a good buddy of mine from my six months of living in the big Apple in ’75. I was there with the then-love of my life (no names but he was a piece of work!) and trying to make sense of it all. Not necessarily a happy time but Zulema’s arrival in town brought a little sunshine into my life. And, that night at The Total Experience, Zulema and D.J. Rogers gave me some salvation…
Now, those of you old enough to know his music will know that D.J. Rogers was more than capable of bringing salvation. A sanctified, sho’ nuff, stone-to-the-bone righteously right reverend musical preacher, D.J.’s gospel roots came through on every song he sang that night. It didn’t hurt that he had Billy Preston (looking sharp and fine) on keyboards and some singin’ sisters behind him (whose line up could have included any of L.A.’s finest like Merry Clayton, Carolyn Willis and who knows who…the memory banks just ain’t that great for me to recall the names!). All I know is in the midst of heartbreak and realization that the relationship I was trying to have was doomed to fail, D.J. Rogers delivered the kind of musical sermon that took me out of the blues and into the light…
A long preamble to simply this: D.J. Rogers Sr. begat D.J. Rogers Jr. and aside from my personal connection with his father, I just knew I had to hear his music when I learned he was going to have an album issued on Motown Records this year. I had had a little taste of Jr.’s work: a few years back, I received a
sampler of then-forthcoming music from Universal Records and included was Jr.’s stomp down reading of The Rolling Stones’ classic, “Miss You.” And then, nothing…till I was over at the home of two of my L.A. buddies, Kris and Deb Peterson and they had a copy of a compilation I had done on D.J. Rogers (Sr). I was surprised to see it and then learned that both ladies knew his son, Jr. and that he had an album coming out…
Well, that was about a year ago and when I spoke with Motown publicist Serena Gallagher, I literally begged to write the bio for D.J. Rogers Jr. – without even hearing the music! Once I heard it, I knew that I wasn’t simply listening to the work by the son of a musical preacher man but I was hearing the closest to a contemporary soul singer I had heard in a long, long while.
“EmoSoul” is the name of the Motown debut set by D.J. Rogers Jr. and it is simply brilliant. No need to pick out highlights because it is, as they say, all good. It doesn’t hurt that the album includes duets with labelmate India Arie and fellow soul man Carl Thomas but cut-for-cut, it’s a record that transcends the neo-soul category currently being bandied about as a useful catch-all for artists who don’t fit the hip-hop mould.
My interview with D.J. Rogers Jr. for his Motown bio was pretty extensive, as you can imagine:
* Early beginnings: “I was born in Carmel, California and of course, my father being the great DJ Rogers Sr., I was exposed to music right away. But I didn’t start off singing. I started out playing drums in church. I actually wanted to play bass but didn’t quite catch that. I was playing in this little group at my grandfather’s church with [current hitmaking producer] Warryn Campbell and his sister. I used to watch them sing and they got all the attention. Well, I was behind the drums so I couldn’t get up and move around so I figured, ‘I got to start singing!’ I was ten, eleven at the time…”
* Out on his own: “I was around fifteen and doing music became a serious thing. I was in St. Louis. I was in this hotel in the Union Square Mall and there was a piano there. It was late at night, had to be around eleven o’clock, midnight. I was feeling very emotional – I started playing the piano and that’s really when I started writing… Of course, I had to make a living and had to survive..and music seemd like the only thing I was good at naturally…”
* Back in Cali(fornia): “I came back to Los Angeles and I went up to the Bay Area and that’s when I met DJ Quik. I stayed up there for a while and around 1991, 1992, we struck up a friendship. That’s when I started honing my studio skills. It was kinda funny: here I was, this young guy who had a history growing up in church and I was involved with this Compton-based rapper! Anyway, I ended up touring with Quik for about two-and-a-half years, mainly singing background vocals and dancing. One night, I went down to a talent show at The University of Southern California…I was wearing this way too funky DJ Quik tour jacket! One of the comedians who was supposed to perform didn’t show up so I said, ‘let me go out and sing.’ I did Jodeci’s “Come And Talk To Me” accappella and the crowd went crazy. At the end, this guy comes up to me and wants to hook me up with some big time music industry executive…”
* The business: “The next morning (after the talent show), I was singing for this executive – I sang Brian McKnight’s “One Last Cry.” By the end of 1992, he had signed me to a contract. I was seventeen when we met but he waited till I turned eighteen to do the deal. I felt good but all my life, I had been around some of the greatest entertainers so I had no reason to be starstruck about getting a deal. Anyway, we started working on my first album and this executive asked if I wanted to be on a soundtrack. Well, the soundtrack was “Above The Rim” and it turned to be one of the biggest black soundtracks at that time. I did the song “Doggystyle” and it was supposed to be first single from the album and I was supposed to be the first artist through a production deal this executive had done with Arista Records. We had done half an album and then, business-wise, things started falling apart…”
* A turning point: “When ‘Doggystyle’ came out, it was a major turning point in my life. I was losing my mind. It was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me…and yet it gave me the most problems also. The kind of people I was around were people who only cared about money. I remember, I was in my car and everything falling apart. I was running out of money. I asked myself, ‘why, why, why is this happening.’ I swear I got an answer: God said ‘I didn’t give you this gift for you to be signing about sex doggystyle..’ and I promised I wouldn’t sing that kind of music again. That’s when I started changing my life. That was in 1993. The situation with that executive fell apart but he kept me in this contractual commitment for three more years – and that’s what made me become a songwriter. In 1996, I co-wrote “Only You” for 112. I was in New York and I met Puff Daddy, Mase, Notorious BI.G. and things were happening with music. It was whole other energy from what I had been dealing with. Everything was different. I was networking, meeting people… “Only You” came out and started blowing up… Meantime, I needed to make some money and I had these friends who kept telling me I could go over to Australia and do some shows…”
* Stop To Start: “When I came back from Australia, I was supposed to sign with Elektra as part of a group with (producer) Stevie J. but it didn’t work out. That’s the time when Biggy died and everyone around was in mourning. I ran into Heavy D. at an American Music Awards party and he said, ‘call me’ – we had met a few weeks before that. He told me that the head of Universal had this idea about having a young urban singer remake the Rolling Stones’ song ‘Miss You.’ I went in the studio and did the song in forty-five minutes! I ended up doing a deal with Universal in 1997 and I started working on my album. I was signed by the head of the company but I was working with another A&R person and every song I finished, she turned down – so I started sending my songs to others. That’s how Carl Thomas got my song “Summer Rain”. That record started blowing up and it looked like Universal was going to revamp my situation but it still wasn’t coming together...”
* ‘Drop Me To The Sixth Floor’: “Universal Records was considering dropping me and so I hear, [Motown President] Kedar Massenburg said, ‘if you’re going to drop him, drop his ass to the 6th floor!’ I felt good because I knew the work Kedar had done with artists like Erykah Badu and I thought, ‘this is someone who really ‘gets’ it, gets what I’m trying to do.’ Anyway, Kedar went to bat for me and in October 2001, the company moved me over to Motown. Some of the songs on the album come from the sessions I did for Universal Records a couple of years ago. I went in and did some new recordings and the album was finished this spring…”
* My music, my father: “My Dad was ahead of his time. I talked with Eddie Levert (of The O’Jays) and he considers my father to be one of the ‘baddest’ singers around. My Dad and have had issues but we’re closer now than we’ve ever been. What he’s heard of my album, he likes my music and he respects me as a writer. I feel like with my music, I’ve found a way to bridge spirituality in music for my generation the way he did for his. There’s a lot of ministering happening in my album. The greatest gift I’ve been given is ability to interpret emotion…I called it “EmoSoul” because it’s not just emotions, not just a feeling but a way of life. For me, this is so much deeper than just me making a record to make music…”
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.