“I Would Sing into the Computer’s Mic”: The Making of ‘New Amerykah Part One’

Unwanted labels from critics, writer’s block, 2-track GarageBand demos, J Dilla tributes, and the four-year odyssey behind Erykah Badu’s fourth studio album.

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After the release of her 1997 debut Baduizm, Erykah Badu’s ascent from 26-year-old industry newcomer to global superstar happened at a pace that would have overwhelmed anyone. “I got about 15 awards that year, including Grammys, a BET, and American Music awards,” she told Evelyn McDonnell in a 2008 Interview Magazine feature. “I met the love of my life, André Benjamin, and had a baby when my second album, Live [1997], was released.”

From there, Badu dropped the critically acclaimed Mama’s Gun in 2000. As the album made its way into the world and sold over one million copies, music critics dubbed her the “queen of neo-soul”—an undoubtedly weighty crown to bear. It wasn’t long before Badu felt creatively stifled and overwhelmed by the ever-increasing pressure that came with the label. “I hated that because what if I don’t do that anymore?” she told Melena Ryzik in a 2008 New York Times interview. “What if I change? Then that puts me in a penitentiary.”

After dropping 2003’s Worldwide Underground to a generally lukewarm reception and conceding that she was experiencing writer’s block, Badu embarked on the Frustrated Artist tour in 2003 and 2004 to give herself a much-needed break from studio work.

After Roots drummer Questlove gave the burned out singer her first computer for Christmas in 2004, she started using iChat to talk to fellow Soulquarians J Dilla and Q-Tip. This direct line of communication gave ambitious producers a way to send her beats and encourage a much-anticipated return to the studio.

Unfortunately, her very first attempts to re-enter the creative realm fell flat. Frustrated by these initial struggles, Badu questioned if she still had the singing and songwriting magic displayed earlier in her career. “I had the baby in 2004, so in 2005 I kind of got up out of the bed, got in the world again, and started to record, and it just wouldn’t come,” she told Interview Magazine. “I thought I had lost my creative net.”

But when Badu’s son showed her how to use GarageBand, the newfound freedom to create anywhere and everywhere helped her break out of the slump. “For some reason, something woke up in me in 2007, and it came through by way of the digital world,” she told Interview Magazine.

In addition to having a new recording tool at her disposal, fresh sounds from producers like Shafiq Husayn, Madlib, James Poyser, Questlove, Karriem Riggins, and 9th Wonder helped reignite the spark Badu felt earlier in her career. “I dug deep down into the bottom of my hip-hop coin purse to find some of the freshest scientific, mathematical absurd geniuses that I could connect with because I was feeling pretty twisted myself,” she told Janeé Bolden in a 2007 SOHH interview.

With different producers sending her a slew of new beats to choose from, it wasn’t long before she started layering her vocals on top of the tracks. “I learned GarageBand and began to pull these tracks onto my Mac and throw vocals underneath,” she told Interview Magazine. “That’s how New Amerykah came about. I claim to be an analog girl, so I’m in this new world, invading its space.”

While she balanced homeschooling her daughter, touring, and recording demos for New Amerykah Part One, Badu found that making music on a computer allowed her to work around various time constraints. “I could be here, in my own space, with headphones on, and the kids could be doing what they doing, and I’m cooking dinner still, I’m making juices still, and it’s just so easy to sing,” she told The New York Times.

In fact, Badu felt so free while recording rough versions of New Amerykah Part One songs that she wouldn’t even bother singing everything through a proper microphone. “I was at home in Dallas making this,” she told Tamara Warren in a 2008 Venus Zine interview. “I would sing into the computer’s mic.”

Though it would make a better story if all of the album’s vocals were recorded this way, Badu explained how she re-sung and re-recorded some of them at Electric Lady studios in a 2008 Electronic Musician interview with Ken Micallef. During studio sessions, careful consideration was given to Badu’s proximity to the microphone as well as her position in the control room of the legendary recording space. “I put my mouth right up on it like an MC,” she said. “I sit right in the control room between the two speakers next to the engineer, and I can hear what is going on very well.”

Badu brought a meticulous attention to detail to Electric Lady sessions, but she ultimately stuck with the vocals that felt right. “I might do a vocal take 100 times and not get it, then come back the next day at 3 a.m., and laying down on the floor, my ears will get it,” she told Electronic Musician. “Pitch is good but feeling is better. I never cut and paste or punch in, I like a single vocal take.”

After putting such exhaustive effort into making sure that her voice conveyed the desired feeling and sound, Badu was understandably wary of an overzealous engineer or studio hand adding their unwanted touch to a flawless vocal take. Thankfully, based on available interviews, it seems like this sort of tampering wasn’t an issue.

In addition to the constraint-free demo-recording process, expertly crafted tracks from talented beat makers, and intricate vocal recording, New Amerykah Part One owes a debt of gratitude to the musicians who added new dimensions to the music. With industry heavyweights like late Roy Hargrove, Jr. on trumpet, Thundercat playing bass, Karriem Riggins hitting drums in addition to producing a track, James Poyser showing off his keyboard dexterity, and Jef Lee Johnson strumming guitar, the combined talents of all involved resulted in a gorgeous, textured sound that blended production methods old and new.

Esteemed engineer and producer Mike “Chav” Chavarria held down many of the duties behind the boards throughout, helping Badu maintain the magic of her original demos while simultaneously enriching them.

According to Chav, the Shafiq Husayn-produced “Me” is perhaps the most shining example of a rough demo take turning into a polished, album-ready song. With the original version of Badu singing over Shafiq Husayn’s beat recorded in Dallas, she brought the 2-track version to L.A. so Thundercat could layer in some added bass. From there, Badu and Chav went back to New York City for a studio session with Roy Hargrove. With tight time constraints preventing them from setting up a proper recording session in Pro Tools, Hargrove also played trumpet over the primary source Dallas recording.

This unorthodox method of recording was both an unprecedented and illuminating experience for Chav. “On this record, I did more over 2-tracks than I have ever done on any record,” he told Electronic Musician. “And that is because it came straight from her laptop, and we couldn’t get Pro Tools sessions from producers. We were able to build around them.”

With so many fascinating angles of recording to dissect, it’s easy to overlook the equally important lyrical content of New Amerykah Part One—which would be a tremendous disservice to the thoughtful songwriting demonstrated throughout the album

The beautiful “Telephone” came to be while Badu was recording in L.A. with a proposed super-group that consisted of herself, guitarist Doyle Bramhall, Dr. Dre bassline supplier Mike Elizondo, Jazzy Jeff, two members of Prince’s Revolution, and Questlove. As the incredible collection of talent worked on some new material, they received a devastating phone call informing them that J Dilla had passed. “We were hanging out in LA and we got that call,” she told Eothen "Egon" Alapatt in a 2011 Red Bull Music Academy interview. “How we express ourselves is through music and that day we recorded this song ‘Telephone.’”

Fans of the moving Dilla tribute may have noticed the interesting lyrics, “It’s Ol’ Dirty/He wants to give you directions home/They won’t be too long/Said it won’t be too long,” and wondered about their intended meaning.

According to Badu’s Red Bull Music Academy interview, this section of the song was inspired by a story Maureen Yancey shared with her. According to Yancey, the painkillers prescribed to Dilla during his time in the hospital caused frequent hallucinations and he would sometimes have conversations with people who weren’t there. When his mother asked him who he was talking to, he told her it was Ol’ Dirty Bastard.

Ms. Yancey asked Dilla what ODB had said to him and he responded, “He was telling me which bus to get on when I cross over. He said, ‘Don’t get on the red bus, get on the white bus. The red bus looks fun, but that’s not the one. Get on the white bus.’”

Badu was so moved by the story that she decided to incorporate it into the lyrics as a tribute to her collaborator and friend.

In addition to using her voice to pay tribute to important people in her life, New Amerykah Part One showcases Badu singing candidly about her journey of self-discovery. On “Me,” she shares her thoughts about being under constant public scrutiny at a relatively young age and learning to accept changes in her age, appearance, and life circumstances.

With the album’s 12-year-anniversary approaching on February 26th, now is the perfect time to sit down and listen to this weighty 11-track masterwork in its entirety again. Clocking in at just under one hour of total playing time, the thought and care Erykah Badu put into each individual track is evident throughout.

Whether singing over a five-year-old 9th Wonder Fruity Loops beat on “Honey,” paying a moving tribute to one of the greatest producers of all time on “Telephone,” utilizing dusted Madlib production on “The Healer” and “My People,” or giving fans an intimate peek into her mind on “Me,” the record serves as a remarkable union of soulful vocals and modern beatmaking techniques.

Though a difficult period of creative self-doubt was required to achieve the final product, it was likely worth it. New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) will undoubtedly remain an enduring and essential part of Erykah Badu’s catalog for many years to come.

(This article is a modified and updated version of a story that was originally published on Micro-Chop.)

Thanks for reading, see you on Wednesday!