Redwalls as tight as their '60s-influenced harmonies

 

June 24, 2005

BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC

Born Dana Owens in Newark, N.J., Queen Latifah has starred in TV sitcoms and Hollywood films (including "Living Single" and "Beauty Shop"), headed her own production company (Flavor Unit Entertainment) and numerous other businesses, and signed on as a spokeswoman for a line of plus-size intimates (Curvation).

At age 34, she is also a pioneering force in the development of hip-hop, one of the first female rappers to be taken seriously, and a talented singer who took a surprising turn toward jazzy standards on 2004's "The Dana Owens Album."

To this impressive list of accomplishments, Latifah hopes to add the Perry Farrell or Sarah McLachlan-like role of founder of an annual summer concert tour. Described as "the black Lilith Fair," the initial bill for the Sugar Water Festival features neo-soul queens Jill Scott and Erykah Badu, the rap duo Floetry and Latifah herself.

We spoke as she prepared to bring the show to Chicago tonight.

 

SUGAR WATER FESTIVAL

WITH JILL SCOTT, ERYKAH BADU, QUEEN LATIFAH AND FLOETRY

  7:30 tonight

  Charter One Pavilion, Northerly Island

  Tickets $60.50 to $76

  (312) 559-1212

 

Q. How did this tour come about?

A. This is an artist-oriented thing. My partner Sha-Kim Compere and I toured on Lilith Fair a few years ago and just thought it would be great to do a tour that was owned and operated by the artists on it, something that could be done as a festival and geared toward an urban audience. So we kicked it around for a while and approached Jill and Erykah, and they got it right away, and Floetry jumped on board as well. We just made it happen.

Q. What makes you feel a kindred spirit to Erykah and Jill?

A. The whole vibe: the music they make, the kind of style they have. Me and Erykah are both Pisces, and I performed on her last album, so we're cool with each other. Jill as well. We have our own style, but we're coming together.

Q. Since you first entered the hip-hop game, the misogyny of many rappers has grown much worse. Does that frustrate you?

A. It doesn't really frustrate me. There are a lot more people out there who think the way we do than you would imagine. It's just that publicly, that other image gets more play. It's what is pumped to the people through radio and videos and magazines. But I think people want to hear good music, period. It ain't about all that, especially the people I grew up with in hip-hop. We're older now, and we want to hear Common, we want to hear Kanye [West]. We want to hear Jay-Z, too, but at least we know he'll give us clever lyrics to go along with the "big hoes" stuff.

Q. What sort of set will you be doing? Is it more along the lines of the jazz standards on your last album or old-school hip-hop?

A. I'll be mixing it up: four or five songs from "The Dana Owens Album" and some blasts from the past. For me, music is music. I listen to all kinds of music, and people who love music don't listen to one type of music. Radio would rather segregate things and play specifically to a certain audience, and that's cool. Luckily we can make our own CDs at home or listen to satellite radio and let them mix it up. But my hip-hop records have always been pretty musical. They've been jazz-influenced, reggae-influenced, Latin music-influenced. Records like "Ladies First" [from 1989's "All Hail the Queen"] and "U.N.I.T.Y." [from 1992's "Black Reign"] had singing hooks anyway, so bridging that gap was not too hard. And you should see how the audiences get excited when we give them a taste of the new and then hit them with the old. You go through several moods when you watch one of my shows.

Q. Has your musical diversity worked against you in your career? Other rappers who've branched out as much as you have been written off as "soft."

A. You have to be strong in your own spot. You can't worry about what other people say about you. The strength has to start from the inside. I can sit with the rawest rappers out there, but as far as putting all that on my record, that's not my style. I'd rather give other things to the public and keep that for myself and my crew when we are just freestyling. It's not necessary for me to put anymore of that out there when I know I have all these other gifts to offer. I have talent; I don't have to chase other rappers out there. A Tribe Called Quest had a great career, and are about to drop another album. Busta Rhymes, De La Soul, to me it's the ones who tried to follow the trends who are not out there anymore. Those trends play out and that's not really who you are, so you can't outgrow them or surpass them.

When you pump the people with short attention spans, it is what it is. We devalue our own music. It's not anyone else's fault. If we treated our artists with the respect they deserve as they've made record companies millions and millions of dollars, then you'd see more of that. But many of us do respect our hip-hop history. I'd love to see more old-school tours going around. That music was the bomb. I could go see a concert with Slick Rick, Eric B & Rakim, Run-DMC, EPMD. I'd be more quick to spend my money on that than I would on most modern rappers. I know those artists know how to do a show; secondly, they have the hits I love, and thirdly, it's a respect thing: That was the era when hip-hop was hitting me as a kid.

Q. You've succeeded as an actress, a businesswoman and an entrepreneur. Where does music fit in for you these days? Is it still your first love?

A. Music will always be the first love. It's just in me. Everything else is the result of hip-hop. If it wasn't for that music, I don't know if I would've gotten into acting; I know I had that ability, but I don't know if I would've been able to get in. I thank God for hip-hop music and it being a starting place for me to explore my creativity and see what I'm capable of, whether it's singing or acting or business.

There's nothing like being on stage and performing for a crowd: Whether they love you or hate you, it's real and it's right there. You are receiving energy right away, and most of the time it's positive energy. Life is tough; life can be hard, so why not go to a place where you can get good energy all day?

 

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