Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Return of the Jungle Love: On Jesse Johnson

As a brown sugar toking D’Angelo fan who has been digging his sonic voodoo since seeing him jam live that memorably crazy night in 1995 when he played the Supper Club for his debut album release party, for me the release of Black Messiah on December 15 was an early Christmas present that stayed in constant rotation throughout my holiday season spent in Baltimore. “Don’t you want to listen to something else?” my Baltimore host (and former Village Voice jazz critic) Don Palmer asked.
Standing in the kitchen, I’d already played Black Messiah twice since arriving a few hours before. Looking at Don, I smiled and simply answered, “Nope.” I was thrilled that D’Angelo’s team was able to finally deliver Black Messiah to the world as the first Christmas miracle in centuries. It was an album as complexly layered, bugged-out and soulful as I’d hoped, but the Newport puffing southern man had also brought along guitarist/singer/producer Jesse Johnson for his magical mystery journey into sound.
Two months later, seeing Johnson performing alongside D’Angelo and his fellow Vanguard posse this past weekend on Saturday Night Live, especially on the second number “Charade,” where both he and D were able to get into some rock star guitar theatrics, was equally as special. All incognegro in his winter hat and shades, perhaps the getup was Johnson’s way of forging his own identity on stage or the set was really that brick. Regardless, his playing sounded splendid.
Back in 2011, I interviewed Jesse Johnson in Philadelphia on MLK Day in the living-room of our mutual friend and radio personality Dyana Williams. Over a light lunch and Perrier, the former pink suit wearing Johnson told me he was in the studio with D’Angelo. Although vague on exactly what kind of aural tests they were conducting in the lab, Johnson hinted modestly, “We’re just fooling around. I’m not really sure where D is going with it, but I love working with him.
“The only problem is I don’t smoke, but everything I take to the studio now smells like a cigarettes. We’ve played together on a bunch of stuff. He’ll play bass or drums or I’ll play bass. We just jam and record to get licks and things.” Thankfully for both the new jacks and the old heads fans, Johnson was willing to make the smoky sacrifice in the name of Black art, muddy soul, singing in tongues and a little brimstone thrown into the mix.
While neither D’Angelo nor Jesse has spoken publicly on the process of their years in the making collaboration, I assume D learned a few things from the man that the press still keeps referring to as guitarist for The Time as though he never released a few dope solo joints of his own beginning with his 1985 album Jesse Johnson Revue (the bridge between Ernie Isley and Vernon Reid) up to his underrated bluesy excursion Bare My Naked Soul in 1996 and the rock-soul militancy of Verbal Penetration in 2009.

Friday, November 14, 2014

P.M. Dawn/Jesus Wept (Slept on Soul)

Back in the early 1990s, when so-called “realness” began reigning supreme over rap music, most anyone not subscribing to the sinister outlook of street narratives was perceived as a fake punk just asking for a beat down. The equivalent of young Black kids being teased by their peers for “talking white,” the rules of rap realness kept the music as grimy as possible, caught up in a trick bag of ghetto demands. Real men, according to macho hip-hop mythology, represented and rapped about the streets, their honey booty sweeties and “playing the game” with the precision of hustler.
Unable to be merely content doing their own thing, some artists were determined to tear down any aural agitators who dared not to embrace the soiled imagery of crack infested buildings, pissy projects staircases and dope boys slinging rock on park benches until the break of dawn. While a few bohemian crews, namely De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and whoever else was down with the Native Tongues, was given a ghetto pass, perhaps because they socialized at the same spots (Union Square, The World) or recorded at the same studios.
Without a doubt, many hardcore hip-hop fans never really gave P.M. Dawn a chance. With their hippy clothes, surreal lyricism and Dr. Strange personas that reeked of Black mysticism and white witchcraft, P.M. Dawn wasn’t hanging in deathtrap hip-hop clubs, banging out beats on abandoned cars or worried about their baby mamma’s hounding them for child support. Indeed, as Prince Be later explained on the hypnotic single “Reality Used to Be a Friend of Mine” (1992), “What is real, a positive plane, reality and life are not the same.”

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Eternal Soul: The Aaliyah Story (excerpts)

Wax Poetics Magazine Remembers Aaliyah’s Musical Legacy and Examines Her “Eternal Soul”

Story Online on August 5th

Print Edition on Sale August 13

New York, NY – July 14, 2014 –R&B star Aaliyah will be on the cover of the upcoming summer issue of Wax Poetics. Journalist Michael A. Gonzales, who lays claim to being the first journalist to interview the vocalist, wrote the 5,000 word piece, which will premiere in its entirety online on August 5th. Gonzales has a storied career as a journalist, having covered popular culture for more than 20 years and interviewing countless R&B legends, including Sade, Barry White, Curtis Mayfield and Sade. Below are quotes from the story.

Excerpted quotes from “Eternal Soul,” Wax Poetics (#59) cover feature on singer Aaliyah by Michael A. Gonzales.

Aaliyah on meeting R. Kelly: “He was just completing Born into the ‘90s, and I sang for him. I sang for him and he liked what he heard. Still, we didn’t start working on the album until a few years later.”

Aaliyah on working on with R. Kelly: “We vibed off of one another, and that’s how the songs was built. He would vibe with me on what the lyrics should be. He’d tell me what to sing and I’d sing it. That’s how the whole album was done. We put in a lot of hours; as far as the music, we’d be in there all night making sure it was perfect. There were times when I was tired, but I knew I had to push on if I wanted to come off.”

Aaliyah on sex/marriage scandal: “I faced the adversity. I could’ve broken down, I could’ve gone and hid in the closet and said, ‘I’m not going to do this anymore.’ But, I love singing and I wasn’t going to let that mess stop me. I got a lot of support from my fans and that inspired me to put that behind me, be a stronger person and put my all into making One in a Million.”
Aaliyah on Timbaland and Missy producing much of her second album One in a Million: “At first Tim and Missy were skeptical if I would like their work, but I thought it was tight, just ridiculous. Their sound was different and unique, and that’s what appealed to me. Before we got together, I talked to them on the phone and told them what I wanted. I said, ‘You guys know I have a street image, but there is a sexiness to it, and I want my songs to compliment that; I told them that before I even met them. Once I said that, I didn’t have to say anything else. Everything they brought me was the bomb.”

Aaliyah on covering Marvin Gaye’s classic “Got to Give It Up”: “I don’t know how Marvin Gaye fans will react, but I hope they like it. I always think it’s a great compliment when people remake songs. I hope one day after I’m not here that people will cover my songs.” 

Aaliyah’s first collaborator R. Kelly on his early days: “(Kenwood Academy music teacher) Miss McLin started me writing (songs) every day. I’d write a song and she’d tell me it was the most beautiful song she’d ever heard. She also started me messin’ around with the piano. I just wanted to make her happy.”

R. Kelly on songwriting: “I write from everyday experiences and what moves me; that, to me, is a true writer. I love all forms of music. Everything that comes into my mind and hits my heart, I write it and record it. I love songs that mean something, and have some kind of truthfulness to them.”  
Singer Courtney Noelle on Aaliyah: “There are so many artists trying to recreate the Aaliyah vibe in their music Aaliyah was so relatable and cool; she wasn’t over sexualized, so we didn’t worry about mom disapproving. She sang, danced and acted, but she did it all so effortlessly. She was just so beautiful and graceful.”   

Eternal Soul” by Michael A. Gonzales

Eternal Soul (The Aaliyah Story)/Wax Poetics #59

Wax Poetics Magazine Remembers Aaliyah’s Musical Legacy and Examines Her “Eternal Soul”

Cover Story by the First Journalist to Interview the Singer Offers New Perspectives on the “Princess of R&B”

Story Online on August 5th

Print Edition On Sale August 13

New York, NY – August 4, 2014 – As Hollywood reshuffles the casting deck for a posthumous bio-pic on R&B star Aaliyah, the summer issue of Wax Poetics delves into the singer’s background and career as it celebrates the 20th anniversary of her debut album Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number (Jive Records,1994). In his cover story “Eternal Soul,” veteran journalist Michael A. Gonzales fuses exclusive content from interviews with the late singer with recent recollections of those who guided her career, to reveal fresh insights into her short life.

Gonzales lays claim to being the first print journalist to interview the vocalist, just as her professional career was taking off. Having first met the singer at a Motor City Sheraton back in 1994, Gonzales says, “Aaliyah was a sweet, shy young lady. But I could tell immediately that she was serious about her art.” After going on to achieve fame as a singer and actress, Aaliyah died on August 25, 2001 at the age of 22 in a plane crash that also killed the pilot and eight other passengers.

Gonzales has a storied career as a journalist, having covered popular culture for more than 20 years and interviewing countless R&B legends, including Barry White, Curtis Mayfield and Sade. “When I first heard the R. Kelly-produced Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, I was already comparing Aaliyah to pop legends Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, Marilyn McCoo and Janet Jackson. She had a soothing and slightly-reserved soprano that was pop while still being soulful.”

Featuring stunning images shot by celebrity photographer Jonathan Mannion (Nicki Minaj, Jay-Z), “Eternal Soul” largely focuses on the singer’s musical legacy while briefly touching upon the sex scandal surrounding Aaliyah and her musical mentor R. Kelly. Covering the time-period between her first two albums Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number and the groundbreaking One in a Million, the article was culled from interviews Gonzales conducted from 1995 to 2005 with the late singer as well as R. KellyWayne WilliamsTimbaland,Missy Elliott, and Kelly’s former music teacher Lena McLin.

The chorus of voices Gonzales interviewed to compose “Eternal  Soul” also includes Michael J. Powell, who produced Aaliyah’s earliest demos and is also best known for Anita Baker’s Rapture album; Jeff Sledge, former Jive Records A&R man, photographer Terrence A. Reese, who shot the Age Ain't Nothing But A Number album cover; engineer Jimmy Douglass who has worked with producer Timbaland since the beginning of his career; Jason King, inaugural and founding faculty member of The Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music; fledgling artist/singer Courtney Noelle, the first lady of Wiz Khalifa's Taylor Gang; Bill Banfield, composer and professor at the Berklee College of Music and pop journalist Elon Johnson.
Wax Poetics is a quarterly American music magazine dedicated to vintage and contemporary jazz, funk, soul, Latin, hip-hop, reggae, blues, and R&B in the crate-digger tradition.Wax Poetics #59 can purchased through their online store beginning August 5th.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Slept on Soul (new column @ Launches Slept On Soul by Michael A Gonzales 
Monthly Column Debuts July 1

(JUNE 30, 2014) NEW YORK - Respected music critic and journalist Michael A. Gonzales will launch a new column, Slept on Soul, July 1 on the popular music website soulhead. Debuting with singer Chico DeBarge’s post-prison gem Long Time No See from 1997,the monthly column will revisit great soul records audiences paid little attention to when they were originally released.
“I’ve loved many albums that, for some reason, didn’t connect with listeners,” Gonzales said. “And Long Time No See represents the kind under-the-radar record I’ll be spotlighting. It displayed a mastery of style, honest lyricism and musical depth, but inexplicably nobody seemed to care about it.”
soulhead founder Ron Worthy said, “soulhead exists to uplift classic artists and shed light on the best in new music. Michael is an exceptional journalist who is enthusiastic about everything he covers. He’s been a contributor to our site for the past year, and his colorful, confident style connects with our readers. We know our readers will love it!”
Gonzales has written about popular culture for over twenty years. He has penned features for, among others, Wax Poetics, New York, XXL, The London Telegraph, and Pitchfork Review. He is a frequent on-air contributor for TV One’s popular Celebrity Crime Files.
soulhead® is an music lifestyle community targeting passionate music fans looking for unique and relevant content that enhance their lifestyle. Focusing on urban music, including new and classic soul, funk, jazz, and progressive electronic, the site offers reviews of albums and concerts, free mp3 downloads and streams and rare interviews and movies. The soulhead® brand was conceived by Ron Worthy, new media visionary, product developer and disc jockey, and is wholly owned by Buzzworthy Media Ventures, LLC of Brooklyn, New York.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Here Come the Warm Jets

Back home, in Harlem building where M. lived on the sixth floor, he turned on the stereo and put on a bulky pair of headphones. A few weeks before, for his eleventh birthday, his hip mother bought him a copy of Brian Eno’s strange debut Here Comes the Warm Jets.
“He’s way better than Elton John,” she said as he stared baffled at the album cover. Knee deep in his David Bowie, Kiss, Queen phase, he had never heard of Eno, but dug his hair and mascara. The warm buzzing guitar soaring through the title track like a fighter jet frightened him.
It took a few listens before his young mind started to comprehend Eno’s bugged-out brain. The man was crazy, no doubt, M. thought as epic guitars glided between majestic notes, lyrics slowly faded in, incoherent babble was buried in the music. What M. could understand, at least to his Catholic sensibilities, appeared to have spiritual undertones.
“Father, we make prayers on our knees,” the voice murmured. “Dawn enter here, for we've nowhere to be, nowhere to be, nowhere to be. Father drowned we're on our saints/paid to appease though we've nothing these days, nothing these days.”
From the moment M. heard "Here Come the Warm Jets," airplanes and prayers were eternally connected in his head. Years later, when he was the music critic for Blur magazine, he wrote an essay on Eno that a few people read, but he still believed was brilliant. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Black Pulp News (2014)


In April 2013, Pro Se Productions, a Publisher known for balancing tales hearkening back to classic Pulp Fiction with stories pushing the boundaries of modern Genre Fiction, released a title that caused a ripple in the Genre Fiction and Pulp communities.  BLACK PULP is a collection that takes the wonderful style of Pulp Fiction, established in the early 20thCentury, and wraps it around fully realized black heroes and heroines, something that was not done in Pulp’s classic era. This best selling collection features work from a variety of authors, including bestselling authors Walter Mosley and Joe Lansdale as well as notable authors such as well known crime author Gary Phillips, Imaro creator Charles Saunders, Mel Odom, Christopher Chambers, Gar Anthony Haywood, Ron Fortier, Kimberly Richardson, Michael Gonzales, D. Alan Lewis, Derrick Ferguson, and Tommy Hancock.

Co-editor of BLACK PULP, crime novelist Gary Phillips observed, “While revisionism is not history, as the films Django Unchained and 42 attest, nonetheless historical matters find their way into popular fiction. This is certainly the case with New Pulp as it handles such issues as race with a modern take, even though stories can be set in a retro context.”

Pulp fiction of the early 20th century rarely, if ever, focused on characters of color and the handful of black characters in these stories were typically portrayed stereotypically. BLACK PULP brings some of today’s best authors together with up and coming writers to craft stories of adventure, mystery, and more -- all with black characters in the forefront.

Black Pulp offers exciting tales of derring-do from larger-than-life heroes and heroines; aviators in sky battles, lords of the jungle, pirates battling slavers and the walking dead, gadget-wielding soldiers-of-fortune saving the world to mystics fighting for justice in other worlds. Various outlets, including the Los Angeles Review of Books and The Huffington Post, covered the release of BLACK PULP and positive reviews continue to stack up. “BLACK PULP,” Pro Se Productions publisher and Black Pulp co-editor Tommy Hancock, "has been a phenomenon for Pro Se.  Not simply because sales have been spectacular for the resources available to us, but also because this title has brought awareness of the company to many writers, whole communities that we’re happy to be associated with.  And it’s not simply because it’s a great book with fantastic talent telling unbelievably good stories. It’s more about discussion, about bringing new stories into this classic style, individuals and entire groups getting a voice in a way they didn’t because of society in the early 20th Century.  New Pulp is what we call this type of fiction because of the chance to blend the best of the past with the sensibilities of today. You really see that with BLACK PULP and the impact it’s had.  And we want that to continue. It’s why there will be a BLACK PULP II and other similar volumes as well.”

Currently, ASIAN PULP is in development from Pro Se and will, like its predecessor, feature Pulp stories, this time with Asian protagonists.  ASIAN PULP is slated for a mid 2014 release. BLACK PULP II is currently being developed as well. Many of the authors in the original volume are returning, as well as new names.   BLACK PULP II is scheduled for late 2014/early 2015 release.

The collection that started it all, BLACK PULP features a new essay on the nature of Pulp, both classic and modern, by award winning bestselling author Walter Mosley. The other writers contributing original works to the anthology are: two-time Shamus award winner Gar Anthony Haywood, two time Award finalist Kimberly Richardson, Dixon Medal winner Christopher Chambers, critically acclaimed novelist Mel Odom, Spinetingler Award nominee Michael A. Gonzales, and award winning leading New Pulp writers Ron Fortier, D. Alan Lewis, Derrick Ferguson, Charles Saunders, Tommy Hancock, and Chester Himes award winner Phillips. This collection also features a classic story by Joe R. Lansdale, winner of the Edgar Allan Poe award, and multiple Bram Stoker awards.

BLACK PULP is available now from Amazon at
and via Pro Se's own store at! It is also available via Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords as an Ebook, with format and design by Russ Anderson. With a pulse pounding original cover by artist Adam Shaw and stunning cover design by Sean Ali, BLACK PULP delivers hair raising action and two-fisted adventure out of both barrels!

For more information concerning BLACK PULP, BLACK PULP II, or ASIAN PULP, including interviews and review copies when available, email Morgan Minor, Director of Corporate Operations at Pro Se at
For more information on Pro Se Productions, go to Like Pro Se on Facebook at

Friday, January 10, 2014

Louder Than a Bomb: On Amiri Baraka and the Black Arts Movement

Photo: Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal

Yesterday afternoon writer Amiri Baraka died at the age of 79. This past summer, while attending a uptown party for my friend Florence Tate at Graham Court, I had the pleasure of meeting him in person for the first time. Over the years, we'd been in the same room together, and I even interviewed him (thank you Fayemi Shakur) when I wrote about Nina Simone for Wax Poetics. 
As a music critic, at least most of the time, I'd devoured not just Baraka's classic Blues People (1963), but also his plays, poems and sometimes wild ramblings.  
      When my editor Miles at first proposed that I write about the Black Arts Movement, I thought about those long ago days when I was a messenger in 1982 and found a copy of the collection Black Fire, which Baraka edited with poet/critic Larry Neal. While I had spent my youth reading Marvel comics and Harlan Ellison/Kurt Vonnegut paperbacks, at nineteen I was rediscovering my Blackness through music and books. Discovering Black Fire at some used book store, this tome included the works of Ed Bullins, Stanley Crouch and Sonia Sanchez. Without a doubt, the writings in Black Fire put me on a completely different path of literary communication. 
      Their's was writing that wasn't afraid to scream or explode like textual time bombs. Absorbed by the funk and fury of the contributors, I carried that thick ass book around for months. When I put out the call yesterday to my writer friends that I was penning a piece on the Black Arts Movement, my buddy Robert Fleming sent me a passionate statement that expressed how many of us felt about the elders that paved the way for us to do our thang.  I
      "One of the reasons I went into writing was the Black Arts Movement, especially the work of Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Larry Neal, David Henderson, Calvin Hernton, Don L. Lee, Ish Reed, Tom Dent, Broadside Press and Third World. I still have some of the publications and magazines from that time. They inspired me to write poems and short stories. As I got older, I came to know some of the writers and artists. 
      "I spent time with Herndon in Ohio and Dent in New Orleans. Larry Neal was a favorite of mine. I worked with Nikki Giovanni as an editor on the news magazine, Encore. I corresponded with Baraka and later got him to sit for a fully length interview for a magazine, Black Issues Book Review. We'll miss his vision and fury. I don't think that period, the Black Arts Movement, is well represented in the libraries or the book stores because of the politics, emphasis on nationalism, and the anti-minstrel aspects of our culture. We were proud to be black then.
    "Now, we chase the dollar will do anything to get it. We are not afraid to shame or humiliate ourselves. The young folks could learn a lot from that era and the work that represented it. We should revisit the books and art from the Black Arts Movement." 
      Indeed, I couldn't agree more. While there are thousands of books about the Beats or all the folks who chilled at Gertrude Stein's, the Black Arts Movement gets little love.  Yet, even if the literary world chooses to act as though the Black Arts Movement wasn't worthy, for some of us that black fire is still burning.

Baraka and the Black Arts Movement