Petrified, nervous, insecure, scared … None of these are words fans of Erykah Badu would associate with the neo-soul songstress, whose captivating musical stylings seem unflappable and effortless.
But they're all various ways Badu describes her experience making "Re:Generation," a fascinating new Grammys-produced music doc that pits five producers (Mark Ronson, DJ Premier, Skrillex, Pretty Lights and The Crystal Method) with the task of dabbling in five extrinsic genres (jazz, classical, rock, country and soul, respectively).
Badu, along with Yasiin Bey (a.k.a. Mos Def), Trombone Shorty, Zigaboo and more, were recruited for Ronson's jazz squad, where they had just hours to conceive a track for a performance that night. The celebrated crooner gives us a candid take on her "Re:Generation" encounter, delayed acting career and more.
So how did you get involved in "Re:Generation"?
They asked me to do it. And I said "Hell yeah," because it's an honor to be amongst Mark Ronson, Zigaboo, and Trombone Shorty and all these wonderful musicians, the Dap-Kings ... We all live in the same tribe when it comes to music, we do different things, but it comes from the same place, and I felt at home.
And you had met Mark Ronson before, but you guys had never collaborated on anything before?
Yeah, he came to the studio when I was working on "Mama’s Gun," and we just hit it off. We were kindred, brother and sister. I can tell it, I can definitely tell it.
Out of all the producers in the movie, Mark seems like he landed most in his element, getting the jazz genre. How do you think you guys would have fared in a more disparate genre, something like country?
Probably the same way. We would have brought the best out of one another, I think. I was petrified, of course, because we only had three hours to write the song, and had to perform it that same night. I was a little nervous, and I wanted it to be good. I didn’t want to let my peers down. This was an opportunity for them to see how funky I am … I just had to kind of take my time, and I guess the main word that I would use for this experience is "surrendering."
Did you know that you were going to be working within that genre, or was that a complete surprise?
When they asked me, I think they had already chosen the genre, but I was scared because they said jazz and I don't read music. I was hoping it wasn't a situation where the notes had to be perfect or anything, because I couldn't do that, either. I would just have to do it intuitively because that's the way I write. And sometimes it takes a long time for me to memorize or do something that I feel in my heart and in my head, so that made me a little nervous, because a lot of things that I do come out really good when I take a lot of time. So I feel like I didn’t have enough time … but it ended up being right where I live – interpretive and free.
Did you have any reservations about pulling the curtain back and letting folks bear witness to your creative process?
Definitely. I'm very sensitive about it and I think that's one of the peculiar things about this film. You're watching a bunch of insecure people reluctantly share their feelings through music, and everybody's trying to find their way through that, because everybody's scared. Everybody in my group, anyway [laughs]. We tried to please each other because that's how and why we do what we do. It's therapy.
So there had to be a lot of bonding among the group through this process.
Oh yeah, absolutely. You had DJ Premier holding a mic in one corner, Mark Ronson is holding a mic in another corner, and we’re all in this semi-circle, and there's Zigaboo in the middle. So I'm so overwhelmed, I'm starstruck, I'm a fan. I'm trying to be rock-star cool and [laughs] I'm amongst the crème de corps of funk.
There was a little bit of drama in the other collaborations, but it seems like for the most part, your guys' process went very smoothly.
Yeah, I mean, everybody was very humble. There was humility in the room that was so beautiful and respectful. [We were] real fans of each other. And not just musically but [personally] we seemed to bond as well. We had several kinds of conversations during the time of working on this project, we had spiritual conversations and conversations about race, conversations about food and the world, and Michael Jackson -- the black one and the white one.
That's an amazing marriage. And there was a time when we were rehearsing where we all became one living, breathing organism, and nobody said anything. And we were just all playing, locked in. I had a tambourine, and I was locked in with Zig. Mark was locked in on the rhythm guitar. It was what music is supposed to make you feel. I wanted it to be like this forever. So my process of writing is forever changed as a result because I detest deadlines because I write from my heart. It's there before me and [here] I was glad to have one because it challenged me to see most of my feelings, to bring them up on queue … and I never knew that. I always made it complicated and a struggle, but I thought that's where it came from, out of my struggle. But this time it didn't. It came out of pure surrender.
This isn't your first time appearing in a music documentary. Can you please ask Dave Chappelle to do another "Block Party"?
Absolutely, absolutely. I'll tell him as soon as we finish here.
Thank you. You were really impressive in the movies "House of D" and "Cider House Rules." Why haven't you acted in so long?
Just because I haven't really been interested in it. Music is a very free, non-time-consuming mental work, free mental work. I have three children, they come first. I choose to live in Dallas, Texas, and they ain't shooting any movies out there. And my kids are in the age now where they need help with their homework, and grooming and fashion and stuff. I think that's more important, the upbringing. So I put [acting] on hold. I’ve got plenty of time, though, I just started. Y'all ain’t seen nothing yet, it’s the beginning.
So it's something you think you'll go back to?
Definitely. I've been acting since I was about 4. I've always loved theater. I've always been in community theater and things, so it's something that comes quite natural. I want to start training again because as an actor you have to train, and what you train most for is to be able to surrender once again and get into a place where you become valuable to the cast. That's a job. This here, what I'm doing, this ain't a job. I love this.
Do you have a dream role that you'd come back to acting for?
Yeah, I would really love to do something with action, some kind of action where I kick ass and my power is that I heal people's hearts.
Somebody definitely needs to write that.
Yes, you write it.
All right. It's going on the To Do list. Are you a movie buff?
I'm a big film fan. I'm a filmmaker fan as well. Yeah, my favorite filmmaker is Alejandro Jodorowsky. He's Chilean, but he lives in France right now. He came here in the '70s; he came out with the theory for the "Rocky Horror Picture Show," the midnight showing kind of thing … really creative. The messages are very strong in his films and the art is aesthetically and visually very stunning and embarrassing and disturbing and relieving, and there's a little light porn, too. So you go through almost every aspect of feeling when you watch his films.
So what's next for you on the music front?
Right now I have an album coming out with a group I put together called The Cannabinoids. We just finished a tour, and we're going on another tour this week, to Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand. And I'm in a group called Rocket Juice and the Moon, with Damon Albarn from The Gorillaz, Tony Allen, the drummer from Fela Kuti, Flea, the bass player from The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and myself. It's real tribal and beautiful.
And I just did two songs with The Flaming Lips, we did a project together. Also, I did a song with Robert Glasper. I'm working on my own album which comes out at the end of the year, fourth quarter. And I'm gonna start working on this other project I can't tell you about. It'll definitely give you a hard-on, I promise. If you love music.
So you don't have much going on at all, huh?
[Laughs] Nope. And I'm also a midwife, so between all that, I'm learning to catch babies.