In honor of the great Teena Marie, below is an interview conducted with her. During our talk, she shares her love for music and discusses a lifetime of creating it. It was with sadness that we learned of her passing, however, we were blessed to have had the opportunity to hear her story first hand. There is no question that her songs will be rediscovered by future generations of music fans seeking soulful inspiration.
Teena Marie Interview
In a day and age of commodity artists who are forgotten shortly after a year or so of a radio hit, and in an environment where hit artists of yesteryear are remembered only by those who were raised on their sounds, it is rare to find an artist who continues to resonate with new and old audiences decades after launching their career.
Teena Marie stepped on the scene in ’79 and continues to touch music fans with her amazingly soulful voice. Not only has her music swept her fans off of their feet for years, but she has also influenced new generations of hit makers. The list reads something like a who’s who of Hip Hop stars, including Jadakiss, Ludacris, The Fugees, and Snoop Dogg.
Teena Marie’s history and career within the music industry is about as distinct as any artist today, from her start on Motown (signed directly by legendary Berry Gordy), to decades later releasing records with dirty south royalty Cash Money Records. If that’s not impressive enough to distinguish her from other divas, she is one of the most successful Caucasian R&B artists of all time, whose discography boasts a treasure trove of hits. Beyond that, one of her funk soaked masterpieces, “Square Biz” happens to also place her on a very short list of female artists to first bring rap onto radio. The only other lady on that early list is Debbie Harry. Blondie’s “Rapture” and Teena Marie’s “Square Biz” both became radio hits in 1981.
Teena Marie shares her thoughts on her start with one of funk’s most iconic stars (the late Rick James), explains the inspiration behind her current culture and soul rich album “Congo Square,” discusses her career and the music business with candor, gives her insight on today’s Urban music, all while exuding sincere passion for her craft and love of music. She is engaging and delightful, but what else would one expect from legendary soul diva Teena Marie aka Lady T.
I would like to go back to the beginning for a moment, if you could tell me a little bit about your upbringing and how you were influenced by the soulful music that you ended up creating for so many years.
There was just all kinds of music in my house. I have five brothers and sisters so everybody was listening to something different. My oldest sister loved Motown. My brother liked a lot of the San Francisco groups, like Sly & the Family Stone and Janis Joplin and some real soulful stuff like Otis Redding. Then my other sister liked pop music. My mother and father had great, great musical taste so there was a lot of Sinatra around the house, Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughn. Just great, great music in my home.
I love music period, but I just really, really love the Motown sound and as I got older I really loved male vocal groups like the Dells and the Dramatics. I love the beautiful harmonies and stuff like that.
Please talk a little bit about the transition from being a fan, someone that sang, to entry into the industry.
Well, you know, actually I’ve been singing professionally since I was eight years old. I sang for Jerry Lewis’s son’s wedding when I was eight and I sang the Ave Maria. I had two amazing sisters at the Catholic school that were just brilliant musicians themselves, that were like my teachers. Like every little girl in America, I would stand in front of the TV and watch the Ed Sullivan show and do the steps with the Supremes. Every girl in America wanted to be the Supremes, no matter what color you were.
So it was absolutely amazing to grow up and end up on the same label with all these artists that I loved so much, especially like Smokey Robinson, who I absolutely adored and penned my whole writing style off of his career. I studied his music and we had the same range, so I could sing all his songs and all my friends called me Little Smokey. I really studied him as a writer of love music and poetry and I wanted to write those same kind of love songs and inspire people. So he’s the one that I really, really was… Every artist has somebody that they love more than the others a bit, that they kind of emulate, sort of emulate their sound.
Can you talk for a moment about your entry into Motown and how that came about?
I knew a man who knew Hal Davis, who was a producer at Motown, who produced…did most of those early records on the Jackson Five, “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save.” He did a lot of their stuff when they first were on Motown. And he got me an audition for Mr. Gordy. My band and I went over to Paramount Studios and at that time he was doing a movie. They signed us to play in the movie. That movie eventually was shelved and Mr. Gordy signed me to the label as a solo artist.
Interesting. How old were you?
I was probably 19.
Can you discuss your mentorship by the late Rick James?
I was at Motown for three-and-a-half years. I was actually at Motown before Rick was. I was working with all these different producers at Motown and I was also working in the demo studio, writing and producing and arranging my own stuff. But I didn’t feel like I was ready yet to produce myself. So Mr. Gordy had me working with all these different producers. Then about three-and-a-half years after I was there, after doing the solo thing, after I ended up being in a group for a while with Mr. Gordy’s son, Kerry Gordy and Benny Medina. Then I was able to get out of the group because I couldn’t stand it, and go back to having a solo deal.
After that, my manager at the time, Winnie Martin, had met and heard Rick’s stuff because he had just recently came to the company with the first album, “Come Get It.” She thought that he and I would make an awesome pairing. She spoke to Iris Gordy about it and Iris thought so as well. They put us together. I was actually sitting in Stevie Wonder’s piano room one day writing a song and Rick came walking down the hall and he put his head in and started talking to me and we were just kicking it that day and he was listening to my voice. They had asked him to produce Diana Ross and he wanted to do her whole record. He wrote “Sucker for Love” for her. He wanted to do the whole album and they only wanted him to do one song. So because they only wanted him to do one song, he said he didn’t want to do it. He said, “I really would rather work with Teena.” So that’s how “Sucker for Love” became my first single.
Rick was more a funk producer. I liked the disco music, but I really loved the funk groups. I love Rufus and Chaka Khan. I loved Parliament. I loved more of the funky stuff and I was writing more like that. I wasn’t writing disco. I would write a lot of music that sounded like Rufus back then because that’s who I loved. And I loved The O’Jays and the funk stuff that was like that. I never really wanted to be a disco artist and neither really did Rick. Disco was kind of coming to an end, too, at that time.
I don’t know. I was just kind of like a female Rick and I really, really feel like he was my musical soul mate. It was just really, really a great thing that happened and we were just in each other’s lives at the right place, at the right time. It was very powerful. A lot of people think that we did a lot more music than we actually really did together. We really only did that first record, the first album that he did on me. Then after that, I produced everything from then on by myself, with the exception of doing the second album with… I produced it with Richard Rudolph who managing Minnie Riperton.
Rick kept telling me, “you should do yourself. You should really produce yourself.” I didn’t think I was ready and that’s why I went to work with Richard. I asked the company to call Richard because I really loved the stuff that he did with him and Minnie.
Then, after that, I had the confidence enough to go into the “Irons in the Fire” album by myself, with a lot of great musicians around me.
It must have been an amazing environment to be in, with such talented people.
It was incredible. I have never, ever felt like that since. No matter where I’ve been, there was no absolutely no place in the world like Motown. To walk down the hall and Smokey Robinson comes around the corner and then here comes Stevie and you’ve got the Commodores in the building and Lionel Richie, and Bobby DeBarge was one of my best friends. The musicians that were there were just absolutely amazing and wonderful. It was just like a family and I’ve never, ever felt that family kind of vibe ever since.
Do you think we’ll ever experience that in R&B music again?
No. No. No, I don’t. I don’t think we’ll ever experience that, period, for R&B, pop, whatever. I went on to Epic. I made a lot of money. But I never, ever felt that same excitement and joy and camaraderie like I did when I was on Motown.
From the fan perspective, Motown always seemed like magic.
It was magic. I’m second generation Motown, so I’m Motown Los Angeles, you know. Then there’s a third generation of Motown, which was like Boys II Men and the stuff that came after. I believe that after Mr. Gordy left, it ended. It was the first and second generation that got to feel that deep spirituality and care of all the people that were around you, the competition that we all had. But the love that we had so much for each other and that everybody was just really genuinely excited for everybody else and their music.
It’s phenomenal. Could you talk to me for a moment about the business side, being on Motown and then moving to Epic and the hurdles on the legal end: signing the deal and getting out of the deal, etc.?
I was under a deal that was made in 1911 and now we’re talking about it’s 1981. So I’m on a pay scale from 1911, which meant that artists in 1911 were only paid a minimum of $6,000 a year.
Regardless of sales?
Yes. So imagine having “Square Biz” out, having “I Need Your Lovin’,” having “Behind The Groove,” having “Portuguese Love,” having “Young Love,” having “Sucker For Love,” having all these big, big hits and you’re still on a pay scale from 1911. So I wanted to move on. They tried to get me to stay. I really didn’t want to stay; I wanted to move on. I had met Larkin Arnold at CBS and I wanted to go to Epic. When I left, Motown sued me, and I countersued and I won.
What happened was when I countersued and won, a few years later they made a congressional bill in my name. Wasn’t anything that I set out to do. It just happened to fall in my lap. It’s very nice and I think that it’s really, really wonderful that I have a congressional bill in my name but, like I said, it’s not something that I tried to do. It was really just me wanting to move on and I actually helped a lot of other artists. A lot of other artists were able to get out of their deals because of what happened with my deal.
I never really had any bitterness or anger or… Maybe back then… I was just so excited about my life and I went on to Epic and I signed a huge, huge deal and I made a lot of money so there wasn’t really anything to be bitter. I’ve had a lot of people go, “I can’t believe you’re still friends with…” I’m like, you know what, once you’re a Motown artist, it’s just something that you always have and it’s just very, very special and sacred. I never would have had the life that I have had. I’ve had an incredible life, a great career. But had it not been for Berry Gordy, I don’t think anyone else really got it, really understood Teena Marie like he did. I’m very, very grateful about everything that’s happened in my life. I had an incredible life. So there’s no reason for anger. There’s no reason for bitterness. We’re very, very close. I just did Motown 50 in Detroit. They named West Grand Boulevard after him. I was the entertainment for the 50th anniversary.
Awesome. If you could talk to me for a moment about Hip Hop’s kinship with Teena Marie. I would imagine that kind of started back with “Square Biz” and never went away. It seems a though you’ve always been somebody that the Hip Hop world has acknowledged, has sampled, and been fond of.
Yeah, I’m like the first female rapper in R&B. The only other female that was doing any kind of rap was Debbie Harry. She came out with… What’s the name of that song?
Yeah, with “Rapture.” And I came out with “Square Biz.” “Rapture” was more of a pop record so I guess I would probably be the first female on the R&B charts to have a rap record. I guess maybe it started from there. I’ve been sampled many times, not just for “Square Biz” but for “Square Biz,” for “Behind the Groove,” for “I Need Your Lovin’,” for The Fugees, “Ooo La La La” was the main theme of the whole “The Score” album.
I really, really love when people don’t compromise or hurt the original composition. And what I mean by that is by putting foul lyrics on it and changing it from the original concept into something completely different. There’s been a few records that were very, very offensive and I don’t appreciate them at all. That’s the one bad thing about leaving Motown that really, really disturbs me because I didn’t own my publishing on Motown. So I have no say-so as to what goes on there at Motown.
And we’re talking before ’81.
Yes. From ’79 to ’81. When I got to CBS, I owned all my publishing. So anything from then on, they have to contact me and I have to hear the original composition and decide if I like it. Because some of the stuff was just really, really foul. That’s not who I am. So that part of it bothers me.
How do you feel about Hip Hop as a whole, as a genre?
Are you talking about Hip Hop as it started or now?
Right now, where it is now. Obviously, it’s changed significantly.
Yeah, it’s terrible now.
It’s terrible now. This is not Hip Hop. This is something else. I don’t really know what to call it. But Hip Hop as a culture, from where it started, is an absolutely beautiful thing. It’s fun. It’s intelligent. It’s clever. And I’m not just talking about the inspirational stuff, people like some of the innovators or even some of the people now like Common, who’s just super, super intelligent. But I’m even talking about the gangster stuff that I love. The original stuff like the Dr. Dre stuff and the Snoop stuff was awesome. Yeah, it was gangster, but it’s not like what it is now. It wasn’t just how big are your rims and this is how we base how great we are, on the size of our rims and the diamonds on our hands and stuff like that.
Hip Hop was a culture. It started from a culture of intelligence and being clever. A lot of this is degradation and that makes me sad. There’s great, great artists now. You still have great artists like Nas and Jay-Z and Common and people that are super, super intelligent that can tell stories. People like Tupac that was just absolutely brilliant. Biggie was brilliant. But a lot of this stuff is just like… some bullshit. You turn on the TV and it’s like this is just really sad. The same video hoes and it’s really wack, and that’s not what Hip Hop…what it started out to be.
I did a song on this new album with my daughter called “Milk & Honey” and because she’s only 17, we just threw it [Autotune] on in the chorus. But I was like, “don’t put this on our voice through the whole damn record. Because I can really sing and so can my kid.” So we just put it right on the hook, just to give that feeling, just for a second, and then it’s like, okay, get up off of it. Because we don’t need to have our voice Autotuned. We can hold a tune. We can hold the key. We’re not going to sing out of tune.
It’s just really, really sad. I don’t know what it’s going to take. I really just hope… It seems like it might be getting better. It seems like it’s going somewhere else.
Let’s hope so.
What about R&B?
R&B just really makes me sad. R&B makes me really sad. Like it’s either really, really wack, like what I’ve been talking about. Or it’s corny. I can’t do corny, either. I would rather do corny than foul, though. You know what I’m saying?
But it’s interesting. I’ll be on the radio and I’ll just like… Oh, my God, I can’t deal with this. Especially in Black music because when I was growing up, everything in Black music, just from R&B into Hip Hop, to the culture, everything was just so hot and fun and interesting and clever. Now it’s like, oh my God, I can’t even listen to Black radio because it’s just either really, really foul and they’re beeping out every other word or it’s just corny. So I just play my iPod because it’s terrible.
My daughter’s writing music now and I’m just so happy because she’s really, really an intelligent writer. She just came in here a couple hours ago. She was writing last night with Robert Townsend’s daughter. Both his daughter and my daughter can both sing and they both like Black music and they came in here and played me a song. They did like a mix tape. They rapped and sang on it. The lyrics from both of them… I already knew my daughter’s lyrics were tight. So she did the first verse and then Sky came in on the second and I was like… I was like, “dang, Alia, Sky’s as tight as you.” It makes me feel good because I raised my daughter on incredible classic stuff. It meant something. She got it. She got it.
And it’s just so important to me. We go around sometimes because there’s a lot of stuff that she does that I really don’t like, that she listens to, too. But we were riding down the street about a year ago. Bobby Womack came on, “Across 110th Street,” and she looks at me and she goes, “I know I argue with you sometimes because it’s just an adult-young person thing. That’s just what we’re going to do.” I was like, “right.” She said, “but I want to tell you something.” She said, “there’s absolutely nothing that I listen to that’s what that is.”
She’s like, “Across 110th Street, ma, that’s just the shit.”
Where did the soul go in R&B today?
I don’t know. There’s like a whole generation of young people that didn’t know how to play instruments. They went to a drum machine beat thing with samples. I don’t know where it went. It just was gone.
I like Teddy Riley, but I say that it ended after the group Guy came on the scene. When Guy came out and that “new jack swing” sound hit during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, that was the end of most R&B for me.
Maybe a little bit after that. Because what about Jodeci and SWV? A lot of that stuff was really great. I think what you’re saying as a whole. That’s kind of what I was saying earlier. You still have great musicians but you have to filter through a lot of crap to get there. I think I stopped really playing music after like Biggie and Aaliyah and… That’s my time period, where I look at Hip Hop and R&B, the stuff that I listen to. That’s really where I’ve stopped. I stopped after Pac, Aaliyah, and Biggie, and stuff like that.
I don’t blame you. Let’s talks about how you evolved throughout the years. I found it very interesting that you took about a decade off from making records?
My record “Passion Play” was in ’94, then I signed with Cash Money in like 2001 or 2002.
How did that happened? That’s kind of a curious combination.
It was strange. Somebody had sent a copy of my record to Ronald Williams and they said they really liked it and they wanted to meet with me. I was like, “what do you want to meet with me for? I don’t do anything like they do.” But I’ve been in some different places so I went and met with them and they were like, “no, we’re not trying for you to do us. We’re not trying to put…” They didn’t want to put me in a grille and stuff. They were like, “we want you to just make the music that you make and we’re going to start a classic label and we want you to be the first artist on our classic label.” So pretty much the record was already done. The only thing that I ended up doing with them was “Still in Love,” which was very, very much an R&B record with a sample on it.
That record seems like it achieved the highest position in your recording career. What do you attribute that to? Do you attribute that to not only you having the following that knew about your music from back in the day, enjoyed classic soul and funk, and then maybe something they brought to the table as well?
I just think it was the right place at the right time. Sometimes you end up where you’re supposed to be. I’ve had “Ooo La, La, La.” I’ve had “Ooo La, La, La” twice, once by myself, once as the Fugees [at] number one. Had “Still in Love.” But it’s not the highest position record that I’ve ever achieved. That would have to be “Lover Girl” and “Square Biz,” even though they went to number two. “Square Biz” charted number two right after Rick James’ “Give It To Me Baby.” And Lover Girl was number three in the whole United States, period. So that would have to be the biggest record. Those would be the biggest records, the biggest selling records.
But it was just a great R&B record and the sample was an Al Green sample. I wrote the melody and the lyrics to his sample and it just worked.
Overall, was your time with Cash Money a good experience?
Yes, yes. I’m very, very close to them still. My assistant is engaged to Ronald Williams.
And my daughter’s still working with them. It just was time to move on. I always know when it’s that time. They’re always gone. They’re on the road most of the time with [Lil] Wayne. So I wasn’t getting a lot of attention. But it wasn’t because I don’t care for them. Basically, I was like, “Ronald, can I leave? I think I can go somewhere else and do better and have a family where I can have attention.” He was like, “yeah.”
Can you talk about their marketing machine? Obviously, they’re known for being excellent marketers and a very distinct audience.
Then, again, it was the Motown wheel. I was back on Motown.
The marketing people were Motown people. Ronald’s distribution is through Motown. So I had the same people that were doing whoever’s on Motown right now. You’re talking about a big wheel. I’m still on Universal. Stacks Records is Universal. They’re all kind of grouped under the same umbrella.
But with me and Cash Money it was difficult because sometimes I would need to talk and they would be on a bus in the middle of the south somewhere, where nobody can answer the phone because they’re out there with [Lil] Wayne. So you can’t have a career like that if you can’t always get some answers and only one person is running everything. But it was great. They’re working with my daughter.
The distribution is the same as your distribution now. Was it just more so the day-to-day operations that were missing?
Even though it’s Universal distribution. They [Stax] have a whole different set of people. I can pick up the phone and I can get somebody on the phone. I couldn’t always get Ronald on the phone. I might have to wait four or five days because he’s on a bus in the middle of nowhere. And I’m going to get him on the phone, but it’s just going to take a little while and sometimes you need to know right now. You might be doing something right now, a question that needs to be answered, a promotional plan for a certain date.
Then also, the second album happened right in the middle of Katrina. So everything just was like bam. Like everything just halted. You can’t do a record once everything halts. Right when the record dropped, that’s when Katrina hit.
And the record before Cash Money, that was an independent?
That was my record at my own label.
Who distributed that?
A little company called Valley. It was too small of a distribution for a Teena Marie.
Obviously, you are a phenomenal singer, a great writer, have a distinct, amazing, soulful voice, but in this era of short-lived careers in all genres, what is it about Teena Marie that you could have a career that spans 30 years and beyond within the highly competitive music industry?
I think it’s a combination of passion and truth. Definitely a gift from God. I have a beautiful voice that God gave me and I don’t abuse it. That’s not to say that I’ve never done anything, because I have. But I’ve never done anything major. I’ve always known that it’s a gift. I was able to look around me and see some really, really crazy stuff with some of the people that I know from Rick to all kinds of people that were just really, really hurting themselves. By me seeing that, it told me in my head, okay, [you] don’t want to do that. My experience was my teacher. You gravitate to that or you do the complete opposite, which is what I did. And because I do have an addictive personality, I decided to do the complete opposite.
I don’t want to be up all the time. I tried cocaine back in the day. I hated it. Because I’m already in my head. So I don’t need to be pumped and excited. If anything, I need to chill out. If I had probably lived in the Billie Holiday times, I probably would have loved to hang out with her and maybe shoot some heroin. My personality is more like that. I’m trying to get out of my head. I’m trying to get away from all that. I’m trying to go and just chill out and not even think about anything.
So maybe I just came up in the right time, where the drug of choice was not mine. And then, like I said, I really saw some crazy stuff and it really let me know that that’s not what I wanted to do with my life. And I always just really, really knew that God gave me a special gift and that my body is my temple and I don’t want to destroy it.
As far as artist development- obviously Motown was responsible for launching your career. They’re most definitely known for developing artists, finding the right producers to work with them, etc. Do you feel that’s a flaw in the industry now- lack of artist development?
Oh, yes, most definitely, because there’s just too many people out there. All the little girl groups, with the exception of Destiny’s Child, which was really, really awesome, and that’s to me the last of the great girl vocal groups so far. Not to say there’s not going to be another one. But so far, that’s the last. The rest of these little girl groups that are out, all the vocalists sound the same. It looks like they all have the same choreographer. It’s all the same…“we’re going to get this girl to look like that.” It’s just really boring to me. It’s not polished. It’s not how Motown was.
I didn’t even really get to experience that… because I’m second generation Motown. So I really didn’t get to experience the quality control of artist development like first generation Motown did. Where they actually walked you around and taught you how to walk and be poised and stuff like that. But I got enough of it at Motown.
Your new album has been doing impressive things as far as sales. Could you talk a little bit about how you made that happen?
First of all, I just really wanted to make a great record and that’s all I ever really want to do. I thought about all the groups that I grew up on and everything that you and I have already talked about and I decided that everything on my record was going to be fun, either fun or profound. And fun can be profound. It doesn’t have to be lyrically deep to be profound. Some of it does, some of it doesn’t.
But I wanted to be able to write, make a record that you could just play and not have to skip all over the place. I thought about all the artists that I loved and the music that I came up on and I decided to dedicate every single song to someone or somebody that inspired me. So that’s why “Ear Candy” is for Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye. That’s why “The Rose N’ Thorn” is dedicated to Sara Vaughn. That’s why “Milk N’ Honey” is dedicated to John Lennon and Smokey Robinson. That’s why Ms. Coretta is dedicated to Ms. King. That’s why the soldiers have their own song.
I called it “Congo Square” because I’ve always had a deep affinity for New Orleans since the moment I got off the plane years and years ago. I felt like I had been there before. I thought about Congo Square and that being the place where in slavery times, on Sundays, the slaves were allowed to go dance and sing. I thought, what an amazing inspirational sound that must have been. People that were oppressed in the most…the worst of ways and how on Sundays they could lift themselves out of their pain and feel joy, even for a day, even for a few hours. What an amazing, beautiful sound that must have been.
Then I thought about New Orleans jazz and Louis Armstrong being the father of jazz and Billie Holiday penning her whole style off the way Louis played his horn. Just all the incredible musicians that have come through there and just the little guy on the corner who we’ll never know him unless we’re there in New Orleans as a local. We just get the opportunity to hear him stand on the corner playing his songs. The musicians now today that are still making great music. People like Jill Scott, people like Erykah Badu, people like myself that just really, really love great music and try to inspire and not bring the world down. I thought it would be really awesome if Congo Square would be our address. So it’s the address of everyone who ever tried to inspire, that came through.
Then right at the end, in November, I actually found out that my ancestors are from New Orleans. My great-great-grandmother was married in the St. Louis Cathedral, which is right next to Congo Square. I could have found that out 40 years ago. I could have found that out when I did the first Cash Money album or the last one. But I found that out right as I was completing this particular record. It’s my 13th record and 13 is the number in the universe that is full circle. So it was supposed to happen like this. It was my destiny.
That’s phenomenal. Thank you for sharing that.
Oh, you’re welcome.
So it starts, obviously, with making a quality record and being passionate. I could feel your passion as you spoke about your motivation.
My passion and my honesty. I’m truthful and I’m honest in my music. And I’m still very passionate about music. I still love what I do.
And obviously your fans have been feeling that for years.
How do you connect with fans today?
Oh, I’m on Twitter with them. I’m on Twitter and it’s really kind of fun, just talking to people and seeing what they’re going through and just regular stuff and concert stuff. I’ve invited some of the people that’s on Twitter to come to the shows depending on where I am. It’s just a great little way of networking and meeting people. Met some really nice people. I’ve got about 8,000 people following me now [on Twitter].
Amazing. Thank you so much.
Thank you, too.
(Images courtesy of Concord Music Group)
Interview and forward by Israel Vasquetelle
Teena’s new album Congo Square is available in stores including online at Amazon.com and iTunes. You can learn more about Teena Marie on her website.
(Special thanks to Jen Dixon, Tony Samuel, and Jasmine Vega.)