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The Elusive Erykah Badu

Twenty years ago, she dropped Baduizm, the album that created a genre. I wanted to know how she did it and found something I hadn’t bargained for.
By | |Photography by Elizabeth Lavin

If you go looking for Erykah Badu, you will likely never find her, even though it seems like she’s always around. It’s like catching a butterfly: you have to wait for it to come to you. If you chase it, if you try to keep it for yourself, it will flutter away, always just out of reach. You’ll lose it.

But maybe you shouldn’t try to catch it. Maybe you should simply be happy it’s there at all, marvel at how it brightens up the day and the energy it brings with it, enjoy being in its presence. Why do you really want to capture it, anyway?

Maybe it’s best to let Erykah flit in and out of your life. Isn’t it better to stumble upon her outside of a head shop in a strip center off Garland Road? That happened to me one night while out for an evening walk with my son. She was low-key glamorous in baggy jeans and a sparkly puff of hair, winking as she passed by, and it was just a moment, but it was a Moment, five seconds that live in my head like an hour.

Isn’t the fact that she’s here enough? And not just here, but here. For two decades, long after most would have left, Erykah has lived among us in Dallas, and not in a US Weekly, telephoto-lens, “Celebs Are Just Like Us!” way. She’s there at your gym, working out in pink Nikes and a hat like she’s about to deliver the Gettysburg Address. She’s with one of her daughters at Walmart at 4 am on a random weekday. Why is she there? Why are you?

There she is, in front of her house that overlooks White Rock Lake, sitting at a card table with her girls, passing out cups of water to runners and bikers on a hot summer day. She’s at Beauty Bar on a Thursday night, sitting in with DJ Sober at his Big Bang party, or visiting the kids at the Dallas International School. She’s stranded at DFW Airport during an ice storm, in a fur and “Badu in Japan” hoodie. You never really know when you’ll find her, and that’s the point.

Maybe you were there when she performed an aerial ring routine with the Lone Star Circus. Maybe you were at the Bad Boy Family Reunion show at the American Airlines Center, when she showed up unannounced and took over the stage near the end. Or maybe you happened to be at Dealey Plaza the day she filmed her video for “Window Seat,” slowly disrobing until she stood where JFK had been shot, naked, in and out in one take, here and gone so quickly you could hardly believe what you’d just seen.

Doesn’t it make more sense that way? Shouldn’t you want to be on the rooftop patio of a local restaurant for a 40th birthday party, and then suddenly Erykah Badu is there? That happened to me, too, a couple of years ago. The party was for a guy I barely know, a man of means who also brought in A Tribe Called Quest’s charismatic leader, Q-Tip, for a DJ set that night. He invited me because he thought I’d enjoy the musical acts he’d hired, which he had kept secret from all of his guests as a present to them.

And it was so much better that way, to have Erykah swoop into my life unexpectedly, to stand 5 feet away while she led a three-piece band (that later grew to include Q-Tip as well), playing to a small crowd like she was onstage at The Bomb Factory in front of thousands. I have a photo from that night, but even that feels like I went too far, trapping the significance behind filters, cropping it, diluting the purity of it.

Twenty years ago this month, she released Baduizm—a landmark blend of hip-hop and soul and that ineffable spirit that can only be described as “Erykah,” delicate and fierce, ethereal and street-level—and it still surprises me that we share the same space, that we are in Dallas together. Baduizm peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, basically created the neo-soul genre, sold more than 3 million copies in the United States alone, and earned her two Grammy awards. I remember seeing the video for “On & On” as a senior at the University of Texas, and it is sort of baffling to me that the woman in the emerald green dress and head wrap with the voice unstuck in time lives around the corner from where I get tacos most mornings. That she could appear at any moment—and that she does.

So maybe you don’t catch the butterfly. Maybe you stop trying. Maybe you just ask the people around it what they saw. Maybe you find out they all see something different.

“Badu is a really powerful being. She is unique, original, creative, and very giving. She’s a natural teacher. She likes to share. So it’s just always cool to be around her because she’s into something new, some fast or some kind of different practice. You know? Or just a new tall hat. She’s like that magical gypsy lady in a great movie, that character that’s, like, mysterious and wise and silly at the same time.”—Khnum “Stic” Ibomu, Dead Prez

Stic wasn’t looking for Erykah. She landed in his apartment one day, looking at hats.

“My wife, Afya, was making hats for Common, the rapper, so he used to come over all the time and grab hats,” Stic says. “I knew Common since, like, Florida, before he was signed and Common the rapper. My wife was making a lot of hats for different people in the crew. For Talib [Kweli] and everybody. So Common really started liking the hats. Every week he would be, like, ‘Can you make three hats?’ For a year or something.”

One day, Erykah came over with Common, whom she was dating at the time. The four of them clicked right away and began double dating, hanging out regularly. Erykah, Common, and Stic were all Pisces, and they were all artists, and Afya was a health educator, and they were all into that, too.

The bond she formed with Stic and Afya would outlive her relationship with Common. Music was eventually part of it—Dead Prez featured on “The Grind,” from 2003’s Worldwide Underground—but that was never the point. When Afya became pregnant, Erykah had one of their friends, a personal trainer named Revolution, drop by every day to deliver fresh green juice to make sure Afya got all the nutrients she needed. They planned for a home delivery, and Erykah told them she wanted to be there when the baby came.

When Afya went into labor, Erykah was flying home to Dallas after finishing up a tour. She changed her flight during a layover in Chicago and went to Brooklyn instead.

“She came through with the guitar and house full of folks just for moral support,” Stic says. “This was our first time—it was all natural at home. She kind of would play songs and sing and just rub Afya down.”

The labor lasted 52 hours. Erykah stayed awake with Afya through all of it, never tiring, and felt she had found her calling, or at least another one.

Itwela, now 15, was the first baby she caught. She began studying and training and has helped deliver dozens since then, never charging for her service. The most recent was in September, when she was there for the new wife of Tracy Curry, aka the rapper called The D.O.C., aka the father of Erykah’s 12-year-old daughter Puma.

“It varies for her. Everything varies, so there’s no really set schedule. It’s infuriating and it’s also part of her charm. Like, ‘Come on, Erykah. I’ve been waiting here for 18 hours, where are you?’ ‘I’ll be there.’ ” —James Poyser, writer and producer, member of The Roots

Poyser wasn’t looking for Erykah. He found her in Philadelphia, recording songs with The Roots for Baduizm. He wasn’t a full-fledged member of the band yet. Their manager, Richard Nichols, invited him to come in and check out this new singer they were playing with.

The connection between the two of them was instant. They wrote a couple of songs together during the sessions, and he’s been one of her main collaborators ever since, appearing on all of her studio albums. “We’re sister and brother, almost,” he says.

But working with her almost killed him. What everyone eventually learns is that Erykah goes at her own pace. This is possibly the secret to how she’s always remained current, never fully attached to any trend or scene. It gives her a timelessness, usually for better but occasionally worse. She can be two steps ahead of everyone: she was saying “stay woke” back on “Master Teacher”—a song from 2008’s New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)—years before it was a Twitter hashtag. But she can also be stuck in the past, like when she tweeted in April that high school girls should wear knee-length skirts so male teachers aren’t distracted.

On a practical level, going at her own pace means you have to wait. A lot. If it feels like work, she doesn’t want to do it. She stalls, reschedules, shows up when she shows up, puts it off until it can’t be put off anymore. Somehow, it gets done. On Mama’s Gun, Poyser found out what “somehow” sometimes meant.

“It was very intense, because Erykah has a lot of ideas,” he says. “I was really trying to help her bring her ideas to the forefront and help her do what she wanted to do. It was just a lot of work, was a lot of hours in that studio. We had four rooms running at once—one mixing, one studio cutting strings and cutting different parts, cutting vocals in another studio, and music in another studio. Pretty much slept at the studio for three weeks. I had a full beard. Common came through and said I looked like Tom Hanks in Cast Away.”

The price for that: “I had a bit of a stress attack. The top half of my body just stopped working. I had to go to the hospital, get an EKG. They thought I had a heart attack or a stroke or something. But I wouldn’t have changed anything.”

He’s never stopped working with her, and never tries to rush her. He knows now. You just have to let her flit in and out of your life.

“I’m forever thankful for her using my song on Baduizm, trust me. Without that, I don’t know exactly what would have happened to me. There wasn’t a lot of opportunities back then in the ’90s, unless you had a record deal. I haven’t seen her lately, ’cause she’s doing her thing, man—yeah, everybody’s doing their thing. But you know that’s still my homie.” —Ty Macklin, Shabazz 3

Macklin wasn’t looking for Erykah. He was looking out for himself.

Not that that ever matters. Erykah has her own gravity. It doesn’t feel at all accidental that she calls the umbrella organization that handles all of her affairs Badu World. That’s what she’s always been, a planetary force, pulling people into her orbit, taking them with her.

D Magazine’s staff photographer, Elizabeth Lavin, was assigned to shoot a portrait of Erykah for the magazine’s 40th anniversary, in 2014, and ended up running away with the circus. She became something of a staff photographer for Erykah, too, shooting promos for the Soul Train Awards and whatever else she needed. Erykah offered to be Lavin’s doula during her pregnancy.

That’s just how it goes, and it was like that long before you could attribute it to stardom. People didn’t even realize what was going on until it had already happened and they had been swept along in her wake. Like Macklin. He first met Erykah when they were both students at Booker T. Washington High School. They reconnected when she came back from Grambling State and they were regulars on the Dallas hip-hop scene.

His group Shabazz 3 had a song called “I Gosta Handle Mine” that he made the beat for in his bedroom, chopping up a bass line by jazz legend Ron Carter and adding keys on top. He rhymed over it with his cousin Jonathan “Fatz” Dangerfield.

“She fell in love with that beat, man,” Macklin says. “Any time we would do a show together, if she was on the same set or something, she would always do the ad-libs for it. So once she got her deal, she was like, ‘Yo, let me use that track.’ And, man, honestly at the time, I really didn’t know the severity of a record deal. We were just underground cats. So I was like, ‘Nah, we’re rapping on it.’ ” He laughs.

Eventually, his manager convinced him to send Erykah the tracks. She used Macklin’s beat as the basis for her song “Drama.” She recorded it with Bob Power, who had been behind the boards for A Tribe Called Quest’s watershed album The Low End Theory. That’s when Macklin knew what she had done for him.

“I was like, ‘Yo, this shit is taking off—it’s the real deal,’ ” he says. “Like, it’s Bob Power, A Tribe Called Quest. Bob Power is working with my song. And, man, she actually got Ron Carter on the actual track. Like Ron Carter’s actually playing on the track. So for me to sample him and then actually have Ron Carter playing on the track—dude. I still get choked up about this shit.”

“I could compare it to a person who’s never met their real mother meeting their mother for the first time. It’s just like, ‘Wow, you really do exist in real life. You’re a real person. I can’t believe it.’ They always say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, but she’s my biggest hero, and she’s more than I could have imagined.” —Zach Witness, producer, But You Caint Use My Phone

Witness wasn’t looking for Erykah, but he was ready to find her. He first saw her when he was 5 years old and she was performing “On & On” on Nickelodeon’s All That. He watched it in the living room of his mom’s East Dallas home. After he graduated from high school, he spent three years working on a single remix of her song “Bag Lady,” from Mama’s Gun.

“ ‘Bag Lady’ is talking about letting go of past baggage so that you can move on,” he says. “I was dealing with a lot of stuff that had happened in my past. That remix for me was really therapeutic. It was also a tribute to her, because during that time, she was a spiritual guide to me and really helped me get through a lot of tough times and figure things out.”

Erykah came across the remix on a site she follows on Twitter and reached out to Witness to tell him she loved what he’d done and that she knew they would work together. Witness thought, Okay, sure, right. He introduced himself to her a few weeks later at “By Way of Dallas,” an art exhibition put on by the Dallas Is Dallas collective. As they talked, she asked if he was interested in recording a gender-flipped take on Drake’s “Hotline Bling”—her son Seven actually came up with the idea of switching the point of view for the song that became “Cel U Lar Device”—and asked if he had a studio. When he told her that he used his bedroom at his mom’s house, she wasn’t fazed: “Alright, perfect, then we’ll do it there.”

Again, Witness thought, Okay, sure, right. But, sure enough, she called him the next weekend to say she was coming over. “Literally, in about 20 minutes, she just came in, knocked out the vocals for the song,” he says.

They kept working, the connection deepening, the songs for what turned into the 2015 mixtape But You Caint Use My Phone coming together quickly and naturally over 11 days. It was mostly just the two of them, but not always.

“There was a point when André 3000 [from OutKast and Seven’s father], Erykah, and myself were all in my bedroom studio working on music together. I was going nuts on the inside the whole time,” Witness says. “Talk about surreal.” He laughs. “There were also times when we had to keep the music down low when we worked late into the night, because my mom’s room is right next to mine.”

And so he’s been swept along now, too. Like Macklin, Erykah took Witness’ music from his bedroom and out into the world. When she posted “Cel U Lar Device” to her SoundCloud page, it got a million plays in less than a week, another million the next. He performed at her Bomb Factory birthday show last year, and they continue to record together, their strong vibration established. And Witness still thinks, Okay, sure, right.

“I really don’t know why she worked with me, to be honest,” Witness says. “I guess she saw something in me or just believed in me. I produced for various local rappers and stuff. On paper, it doesn’t make sense.”

“She paved the way for the whole city to see that you can make it here in Dallas, you don’t have to move to LA or New York. A lot of my friends from Philly, New York, LA, they live here now. Everybody sees that Dallas is a cool place to be. They see that she never moved.” —RC Williams, Erykah’s keyboard player and music director

Williams wasn’t looking for Erykah. She turned up at school one day when he was a senior at Booker T. Washington.

She came back not long before “On & On” was released, in December 1996, and instantly made her the school’s most famous graduate. She played the class her single, and then invited some of the students to perform it with her. Two of them have backed her on it hundreds of times since: Williams and bassist Braylon Lacy, who both joined her band around 1999.

“It was kind of irony that we played with her later,” says Williams, who has been her bandleader for the past decade or so.

He was a student at the University of North Texas when he was hired to fill in for a friend of his in Erykah’s band, and was thrown into the deep end right away, a headlining set at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. He joined the band full-time after that, traveling around the country to play shows and record songs for Mama’s Gun—to Detroit to work with the late J Dilla, to New York and Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios, where the Soulquarians had set up shop.

Williams became a student of hers, listening to what she listened to, the hip-hop and soul records and whatever else from her deep collection, absorbed it and incorporated it, letting her guide him to the sound she wanted. He watched how everything in her background came to the foreground when she was onstage.

“She’s a true entertainer,” he says. “Out of all the artists that I play with, there’s just something about Erykah, how she can capture the crowd, not just with her voice, but she used all her arts influences—she used her ballet or she just used her experience as an MC. She has a lot of different ways to capture the audience.”

Erykah was training him for the job he has now: taking her ideas and building on them, embellishing them with the band, returning her spark of inspiration with one of his own, giving her something to work with. Williams got his chance in 2002, during a European tour; he was still just part of the band then, not leading it yet. He had been passing her tapes of the music he was working on, beats and riffs, bits and pieces, but she hadn’t given him any feedback. Finally, she came to him one day and asked him to help write and produce her next record, Worldwide Underground. He ended up as co-executive producer.

“I was just so surprised,” he says. “Because she has all the big-time producers that she worked with—James Poyser and everybody. For her to give me that first opportunity to actually be a producer, that was just—she taught me the game on writing and producing and everything, when it comes to working in the studio and stuff like that. I would never forget that. That was a big move in my career for me to be an executive producer of that record, which we got Grammy-nominated for and everything.”

Because of that chance, maybe even because he happened to be at Booker T. the day Erykah came back to visit, Williams has been able to work with Prince, Snoop Dogg, Pharrell Williams, Roy Ayers, Bootsy Collins, The Roots, and more. And he didn’t have to move away to do it. His own band, RC & The Gritz, has hosted a popular Wednesday-night jam session in Deep Ellum for a decade and released two records, including last year’s The Feel.

She swooped into his life unexpectedly but right on time.

“She’s like a roll-through type of chick. She’ll roll through in some funky car and beep the horn and be like, ‘Let’s roll.’ I remember when things were starting to take off and she came to my house. She propped up in my doorway with her back and feet on the door like a cat. Like she was suspended in air through my doorway, like her magic started increasing.” —Tisha Crear, city of Dallas cultural affairs coordinator

Crear didn’t look for Erykah. She never had to. Erykah would always pop up, changing the atmosphere with her presence alone, tilting the room toward her just by walking in the door.

She remembers a long-ago birthday of hers, at Reciprocity on Tyler Street in Oak Cliff, when Erykah bounced in during a poetry reading with a whole kiddie birthday party in tow. She made Crear change into a purple bikini she’d brought along, and they all started shooting each other with water guns.

They’d gone to Booker T. together but didn’t really connect until later, when Crear came home from NYU. Erykah was working at a coffee shop on Greenville, a minimum-wage gig to support her artistic pursuits. They were all trying to do something. College was over or at least left behind, and everyone from Booker T. was back. The air practically crackled with creative energy. Crear calls it “a big gathering time.” She and Erykah started a project together, Soul Nation, with five other women—mostly theater, but a little bit of a lot of other things, too. Whatever moved them.

They all knew there were stars in their midst, overwhelming potential that couldn’t go overlooked forever. And then Erykah was the one who took off—but never really left. Crear never believed she would. So she still doesn’t have to look for Erykah. She still rolls through.

“We went through this little period of time a few weeks ago where we kept unintentionally having lunch together at Spiral Diner,” Crear says. “We kept showing up at the same time.”

“She’s managed to, like, create her own space. You know, it’s relevant. It’s hip. It’s always on point. She’s always on point. It’s just Erykah. That’s who she is as an artist. She expresses herself as an artist in everything she does.” —Rob Free, Erykah’s cousin and bandmate

Rob wasn’t looking for Erykah. He didn’t have to. She was pretty much always there.

In the beginning, before there was anyone else, it was just Erykah and Rob. The Funky Cousins, as they put it on the title of the demo tape they recorded as a duo called Erykah Free. Baduizm started right there. The idea of Erykah Badu started right there.

It goes back even further. They grew up together—Erica Wright and Robert Bradford back then, cousins and best friends—roaming around South Dallas and Oak Cliff with their sisters, going on little-kid adventures.

“We told scary stories at night,” Free says. “Scared the shit out of each other. Pranks—I was a prankster. It was good shit, man.”

That was the foundation they would return to build on. After graduating from Booker T. Washington—he was a senior when Erykah was a freshman—Free went to the Art Institute of Chicago, where he had a group called Kinetic Order. They signed to a subsidiary of Elektra Records in 1993, around the same time Erykah had moved back to Dallas, after dropping out of Grambling. Kinetic Order’s label deal fell apart before anything really happened, and Free was ready to come home, too.

“I was still producing and making music,” he says. “I knew Erykah was working on some music, and she had a project that she was working on. It fell out. The bottom fell out of it as well. I was like, ‘Hey, why don’t I send you these tracks and you can start writing to them? Wait for me to get back to Dallas. When I get back to Dallas, we can start writing and producing a project together.’ ”

When Free arrived, they turned one of the rooms in his grandmother’s house into a studio and got to work. Erykah had been rapping under the name Apples since she was 14, but her cousin didn’t want that for this.

“You should try singing over this stuff,” he told her. He had a beat he called “Appletree,” as spare and breezy as its title. “Let’s try something different.”

Different worked. With Erykah mostly singing and still rapping a little and Rob rapping more and producing the music, they quickly caught on in the scene that was coalescing around spots like Reciprocity in Oak Cliff and Dread-N-Irie in Deep Ellum. It was a golden age for hip-hop; they opened shows for the Wu-Tang Clan and Mobb Deep and A Tribe Called Quest.

A show at Caravan of Dreams in Fort Worth, headlined by soul singer D’Angelo, took them out of their bedroom studio forever. But it also broke them up, at least in name. D’Angelo’s manager Kedar Massenburg, who was there that night, wanted to sign Erykah to his new label as a solo artist.

They might not have been Erykah Free anymore, but Rob stayed on, writing and producing for her, and he’s still there, as a founding member of her electronic supergroup of Dallas producers and musicians, the Cannabinoids. He’s always been there, no matter how crowded it got, no matter where it took them. It always comes back to the beginning.

“We did a show in LA at the Palladium, an Erykah Badu and the Cannabinoids joint, and the sound was just so banging,” Free says. “That shit was hitting so hard. We did Erykah’s interpretation of ‘Life’s a Bitch’ [from Nas’ Illmatic].  It was ill, man, because we were both spitting it. We were both in the zone and we were rocking. It was just like a hip-hop moment between me and her. It kind of took me back to when we used to do Erykah Free shows.”

Okay, so I went looking for Erykah, anyway. I tried to catch the butterfly.

I spent a month and a half chasing Erykah, trying to set up some time with her so we could talk about the 20th anniversary of Baduizm and everything that has happened since then. I had talked to dozens of people trying to figure out who she was, but I still didn’t know. I texted back and forth with her assistant, always leaving with a promise that, yes, it was going to happen, sit tight. Yes, I’d get to tag along during one of her always-busy days, go behind the curtain. Just wait. We’re meeting now. I’ll confirm something soon.

Finally, in early December, I was told I could talk to her on the phone the next day at noon. It wasn’t what I wanted, but it was something, so I agreed. Her assistant texted at 6:30 the following morning, saying Erykah needed to push the interview back until 1. Fine, no problem. I got her cell number. So close.

I called exactly at 1 pm and she picked up on the second ring, her voice muffled and distant. Not as in detached—more like she was on speakerphone in a space shuttle, like the call had to travel through another dimension. She immediately asked if she could call me back in an oddly specific seven minutes. I couldn’t quite make out why, only that it had something to do with her grandmother. Sure. I let the butterfly go.

“I do appreciate you’ve been working hard on this,” she said. We’d been on the phone for 20 seconds.

Then, more than four hours later, as I was walking into my son’s middle-school band recital, she texted an apology and asked if I was available. I told her where I was going. “Awesome !!!” she texted when I told her about the concert. She said she could talk after 9, when her kids went to bed. “Tell your kid to kick ass.”

I called at 9 and she picked up right away again, this time the connection sounding more earthly. We talked for an hour—about my kid and hers, what she’s tried to teach them and what they’ve taught her, about why she stayed in Dallas and taking care of her two grandmothers, about helping mothers deliver babies and how she hates to work, about how she still doesn’t know what goal she’s supposed to be striving for in the music business and how no one has ever made her do one thing she didn’t want to.

The truth is, she wound up interviewing me, asking me about my son and his concert. She even sang for me. I told her my kid plays clarinet and she said that was her first instrument, too, and that was probably why her voice sounds like it does, like she is always trying to mimic a clarinet. It was a warm and funny conversation, like talking to someone I’d known for years. But it came hours before I had to turn in this story and several weeks after I was supposed to. There was physically no way to incorporate it. She may be able to bend time, but I can’t. So I have to keep that conversation to myself.

I get to. 


Zac Crain

Zac Crain

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Zac, senior editor of D Magazine, has written about the explosion in West, Texas; legendary country singer Charley Pride; Tony…

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