Photo: Russell Webster
Producer Chucky Thompson Revisits 25th Anniversary Of Mary J. Blige's 'My Life' & Creating The Bad Boy Sound
The massive success of Mary J. Blige's triple platinum 1992 debut What's the 411? brought along matching egos. When the GRAMMY-winning "Queen of Hip-Hop Soul" started to plan her follow-up album, 1994's My Life, she kept turning down producers who raised their fee; Chucky Thompson got one placement and was willing to do it for free.
Thompson's initiative would go on to change the sound of '90s hip-hop and R&B. His ear for slickly layering recognizable classic soul/R&B samples under hard beats prompted then Uptown Records executive Sean "Diddy" Combs—then Puffy—and Blige to let the then 24-year-old multi-instrumentalist to produce over half of her GRAMMY-nominated masterpiece, now the subject of an Amazon Prime documentary.
A native of Washington, D.C., Thompson got his start on congas in go-go music legend Chuck Brown band, The Soul Searchers. The once aspiring artist manager became a founding member of Diddy's in-house production team at Bad Boy Entertainment, The Hitmen. Thompson was responsible for singles like The Notorious B.I.G.'s "Big Poppa," Craig Mack's "Flava in Ya Ear," Total's "Can't You See," and Faith Evans' "Soon As I Get Home." The skilled musician would also work with Nas, Raheem DeVaughn, Jennifer Lopez, Snoop Dogg, Frankie, Emily King, and TLC.
These days, Thompson has evolved from producing and writing music into developing film projects and mentoring aspiring talent. He took some time from a session recently to chat with GRAMMY.com about commemorating the 25th anniversary of My Life, his secretive work on Diddy's newly developed Love Records, and how he's paying respect to his D.C. go-go roots.
How did you end up landing so many credits on the My Life album?
Mary is the reason that I signed with Bad Boy. I had two situations: Hiram Hicks and Puff. Hiram could get me TLC, but Puff could get me Mary. We had a mutual friend, and I was sending tracks. One track was supposed to get sent to a group in D.C. that I'd done a remix for. It was "Be With You." I was only contracted to do one song, but that one song pulled us into a different room outside of the What's the 411? album. She loved it and did something amazing on that record.
She was coming from a triple platinum success, and a lot of the producers and people that were part of the debut album were submitting astronomical budgets [for the second one]. I could understand, but Mary wasn't with it. I give lots of thanks to Puff and Mary for even trusting me because it was a brand new situation. I didn't know Puff or Mary like that, but that one session for "Be With You" allowed us to feel the energy. She came to me and Puff to ask if I'd like to do the full My Life album. Man, I wanted to do backflips when I heard her say that. It just lined up. Certain things are just life and God; that situation came from me being in the right place at the right time.
Who's responsible for Mary J. Blige becoming a songwriter?
Mary and Puff's relationship is where a lot of the lyric writing came from. I was pretty much just an instrumentalist. I'm just happy that they trusted me enough to give them a blank canvas, but the lyrics had nothing to do with me. I didn't know exactly what was going on with her; the documentary actually showed me a lot about what was going on.
Just like the My Life album is medicine for a lot of people, as we were pulling in Curtis Mayfield and Barry White samples, that was medicine for Mary to expose herself the way that she did. She's a soldier. Imagine writing a letter talking about the most personal stuff, then it ends up on MTV. She was in the studio crying a couple of times, but she'd wipe the tears and go back to work. I'm just happy that things turned out the way they did.
How did you feel earning a GRAMMY nomination for Best R&B Album in 1996?
I'd just signed my deal at 24 years old. At that particular time for everybody, it was crazy energy around. We were working on B.I.G.'s next project, Mary's project, and not quite Faith Evans just yet, but she was in the room. Getting that GRAMMY nomination almost made me feel like anything was possible. It just solidified all of the things that were happening to me.
"My Life" was never a single, so that lets you know what type of turmoil and twist that was happening. Mary's fans and the people that loved her gave it so much love, it became this underground classic. It wasn't even marketed and promoted like that. I was buggin' that the album was certified triple platinum like What's the 411? When I got the nomination, I was over the top in the quasars, man. Getting a GRAMMY anything is the biggest deal in music.
What was a typical session like whenever The Hitmen made records?
My first real session with Bad Boy was with [producer] Easy Mo Bee. Puff asked if I wanted to go to the studio and hang out with him. I'd never met him or anything. I showed up at the session; he had a guitar there, and I just started playing along with what Easy Mo Bee was doing. He heard it and immediately wanted to record it. That became the guitar parts on "Ready to Die." That was always the energy.
Puff would give us money to go buy records; we went and found the record that became "Who Shot Ya?" People don't know that "Who Shot Ya?" was an interlude for the My Life album. The reason why B.I.G. didn't get on the record is because we snatched him up off the block in Brooklyn on a Friday. He comes in and raps; it was so gangsta and dope, but the problem was because of what he was saying on that particular verse, they would've had to place a parental advisory label on Mary's LP. So we switched up and put Keith Murray on it.
A typical session was brotherhood, and that's how we kick it with each other to this day. I keep in contact with everybody: Nashiem Myrick, Stevie J., Mario Winans, Harve Pierre, Rashad "Tumblin' Dice" Smith. We talk damn near every month at least and stay connected.
What was special about working on Usher's debut project?
When I was in the position to sign this deal with Puff, I just started working on a bunch of stuff. I didn't really have an artist in mind when I did "Think of You." Black Moon had used Ronnie Laws' "Tidal Wave" sample, so I took the idea and freaked it into a song. I sent it up to Puff, and I didn't know what his plans were for it.
Usher was around; we were all living in that house up in Scarsdale, N.Y., and that's how I met Faith Evans. I met Faith when she wrote that record with Donell Jones. I kept hearing all of these background vocals and craziness going on. Faith, this chick who was straight New Jersey, heard the beat and some other things. Puff pulled her in on the My Life album. That's how I wound up doing her whole debut album. She told me I was gonna do it. She didn't ask. Situations like that happened because we were always around each other.
Faith is straight gospel. I didn't grow up playing in church, but I grew up in the church enough to snatch up certain melodies. A friend of mine, Kervin Cotton, and I wrote "Soon As I Get Home" when I was 16. I'm on piano between sessions playing this one part. I didn't know she was listening to it, but she told Puff to tell me to make the record before I left New York. I had my bags packed and on the way out the door. Puff had a session already ready for me.
I go upstairs, pissed and ready to leave. I'm talking to the engineers about when I have to leave to catch my flight. I whipped through that song so fast just because I was trying to get out of there. She called me later that night and told me to call her answering machine because she put the hook on there. Puff mixed it, and that's the version that you hear. Now, "Soon As I Get Home" is a classic.
What did playing in Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers teach you about music?
Everybody's looking for the fountain of youth. For Chuck, it was the youth. He used to tell me a lot of his friends weren't older than him, but they looked older than him because they don't interact with kids. Chuck was 75-years-old with 18-year-olds coming to see him. Age ain't nothing but a number; it's about the energy you bring and how you're moving.
Chuck taught me about music, money and people early on with his band. You're dealing with all of these personalities, and you have to address them differently. It's all to get one goal accomplished. Chuck fired everybody, but everyone still loved him. It was a mission of mine as soon as I got back from the successes and accomplishments from New York, my first mission was to come and work on a record with Chuck. We worked on three albums together. It felt like life robbed him because he had so much more in store. He passed away working with dates still booked. He was super inspirational to me.
Could you share details about the music you're working on with Shania Twain?
Love Records is the new thing that's about to happen. I've been working behind-the-scenes. Stacy Barthe, who is so dope, is signed to Love Records. She was in the Bahamas with songwriter Denise Rich, who has a yacht out there. They were in the studio working on stuff. It just so happens that Shania Twain walks in on the boat.
Shania was so gangsta with it, she greets Denise and asks, "Does the microphone work?" Denise, Stacey, a guitar player, a bass player, and Shania wrote a song. Denise sent it to me to add some additional production on it. The song is called "Naked," and it's talking about the same stuff as Mary: opening yourself up and having somebody care about what's inside of a person. It's a work-in-progress. Things are moving fast.
Is there anything that you're exploring outside of music?
There are so many different facets to production, I've always wanted to cover all of the bases. I've teamed up with one of my CHUCKLIFE365 interns, Kirk Fraser, who's worked on BET's "American Gangster" and ESPN's 30 for 30 on Len Bias. We've been working together the last three years.
We did a documentary on the Tuskegee Airmen with Robin Roberts for The History Channel. We're working on my documentary, Chucky Thompson Presents D.C. Go-Go. It's not the go-go music story; it's my story with go-go music. A lot of people don't understand the music. They don't even know what it takes to make a go-go record. I got a segment based on the music: another based on the movement where it's been deemed the official music of the city, that process, and how it got there.
That's very important for our city. Last part is the mainstay: what happens in the city versus mainstream. A lot of people feel like go-go been on: others feel it never got on. That conversation is very important for the movement of it. I got a lot of celebrity looks like Anthony Hamilton and Lalah Hathaway. The people that matter to me most are in this project, and they don't do interviews for just anybody. There's a trust factor there. This is to show people that may not know what it is, how it's made and how it can be used. I wanna see a go-go band in Kansas City. We have a few other projects, but I just want to put the flag down for my city and let them know we're about to expose some things. By September of 2022, I should be done.