By Nina Bhadreshwar

When I was running The Real State magazine in London 1993 and part of 1994, I had scarce knowledge of R n B. It wasn’t my vibe; I preferred more rugged beats and lyrical content more political, spiritual, more real than ‘I want you,’ ‘get between the sheets’ etc. I wanted music I could dance to or feel. But my P.O.Box told me R n B was the new flavour so I better get with it.

  I sighed and asked one of the mag’s biggest fans, a Karl Kani-d, Timberland-and-braid-wearing Camden youth, Adelaide, to do the reviews if I bought the records. Adelaide was the most enthusiastic R n B fan ever – she raved about Usher before Usher raved about Usher. She knew everything there was to know about Black Street, Jodeci, Ginuwine, Aaliyah, R. Kelly, Destiny’s Child, Brandy, Toni Braxton….long before the internet. So I just let her do her thing, tolerated and printed it. Yet her passion was contagious and I did at least know who these people were and had listened (albeit under duress) to most of the tracks.

In retrospect, it was because the vibe was so totally different to the ragga-rave/jungle/heavy-beated hip hop I was immersed in, it was too much of a mental leap. I didn’t not like it; I was just on a different mission.

 However, when I landed in Los Angeles and had terrified some of the locals in South Central with my hardcore ragga tapes (‘Girl, that’s way too fast! You can’t dance to that round here! Are you on drugs?’), I quickly had to shift gear. Hanging out at lowrider rallies and spending days doing precious little in Watts helped prepare me for the slow-slow- slow-bangsmackwhassatwhoosh –slow-slow-slow rhythm of Death Row Records.

 Part of my remit was to get interviews with R n B artists and create this image of the classic empire Suge was building. And it wasn’t hype then – he really was. Suge knew his music, he knew what sounded right and with whom. And he was a pragmatist, not  a talker. He got things done. He freed many creative buckwild prodigies from out-of-date, non-popping contracts and deals and they joined the sexy Death Row roster. Back then, he managed more R n B artists than hip hop, from those on the label itself (Michel-le, Jewell, Danny Boy, Nate Dogg) to those from the East Coast – Black Street, Jodeci to name but a few. Suge could get the best out of the most impossible people and combinations. He was utterly brilliant at it.

For me, young and new to LA, it could be overwhelming sometimes so the job and its many perks were usually wasted. One time, I turned up to interview Black Street at the Hyatt Hotel on Sunset Blvd at 3pm, (a date and time organised by their manager), only to be greeted at the door of a darkened room by Teddy Riley in his underwear.

‘The others have gone shopping…do you want to come in and wait?’  Er no. I was terrified and scurried back to the elevator, apologising with a mutter about rescheduling. 

Then there was the first time Jodeci  came up with Suge. Or rather Devante first. I was in the reception sending off magazines and mail and in walked Suge, Danny Boy (Suge’s rescued lost boy and RnB protégé) and this lean dude in a slip of a black hockey vest, baggy jeans. He had  light, almost green eyes and I couldn’t see any free skin – he was covered in tattoos. I just gawped. I’d never seen so many: on his neck, his shoulders, his face. Thankfully, he smiled and came forward to shake my hand.

‘Hi. How are you?’ he said kindly.  Now I was even more confused: polite, charming and covered in tattoos?

Later that afternoon, I had to go down to the sixth floor and Suge, Devante and Mr. Dalvin got in the elevator. Devante had his shades on and kept grinning at me which was very unsettling. I couldn’t get out of that elevator fast enough.

I didn’t see much more of them although we did speak on the phone and I dealt with per diems, paperwork, studio scheduling and other areas. It wasn’t until events like Death Row parties or the Mother’s Day event that I really got to witness RnB at its finest. I loved oldies by now and appreciated having The Whispers and The Temptations brought in but it was ‘90s RnB which really set fire to my imagination. May 1995 was a mix of Toni Braxton’s ‘Breathe Again’, Shaggy’s ‘Mr. Lover Lover’ and Jodeci’s ‘Freek n U’ on repeat. Jodeci’s R n B in particular put the brakes on my hyperactivity and allowed me to fully process what was going on (and begin to enjoy it). I began to acclimatise to a different vibe. 

Only Suge could deal with that group though. ‘Diary of a Mad Band’ is a euphemism. Psychotic for real! You never knew how drunk, high or crazy they would be, if they’d turn up, if they’d perform. But if they did turn up, they always performed and, if they performed, they always blew the house away. Grown women swooned and these guys were barely in their twenties. I preferred the crazy contrasts and musicality. One of my fave tracks of ’95 was ‘No More Pain’ with Pac and Devante – a lethal combination and there should have been more. Devante had miles of the dopest instrumentals and hooks. He could structure exotic soundscapes and Getty buildings out of a keyboard and recording desk, give you feelings you didn't know existed.

I know hindsight is 20-20 vision but I wish more than anything I had made more of an effort to keep things cool up there as that was a one-off. It truly was. I’ve not heard anything since that compares to the density of talent and creative collaborations that were going on 1994-96. When the bad energy and darkness came in crowding around all this light, I wanted to bolt. Get out.

Big Pimpin' was one of the oldest rappers/poets up there. Dre had found him when Big Pimpin' was homeless and used his gravelly tones in The Chronic. Big Pimpin' understood the game inside out. He used to buy me KFC suppers when the food runs were made and I was broke but still had to be in the studio to sort stuff. He could see I wanted to bail.

‘Don’t run away,’ he said. ‘You gotta deal with it.’

But I didn’t know how to. I was angry, frustrated, stupidly young. I don’t know what I could have done with the character I had at that time but I know, if I feel bad about anything, it’s that. Because all this wonderful energy and creativity, this burst of light that had taken years to come together, was broken up in such a toxic, violent and long-lasting way.  

Yet I would do almost anything to hear some of those sounds, those unreleased, some unrecorded songs again. And if Devante was busking on a street corner in North Carolina, I would not be the only one flying up for the event.  He had the passion of Gospel, the musicality of a true poet and the anger of a young black American male. He was the perfect foil for Pac’s raging raps and soulful blues and they understood each other completely. Likewise Daz  - for his hip hop.  Daz came from a real musical place and had been raised in church like Snoop and Nate. You need to understand – back then, music wasn’t from youtube or buttons. It was truly in your soul, your history, your family. It was the one language we had, the one tool, the one weapon. There was no internet, there was no alternative. That’s why it was called Death Row. This was our only way so we put everything we had into it.

There will never be another because now there are options, cautions, get-out-clauses, rationalisations and remixes. It was a winning dynamic when it kept to the blueprint but balance was everything; when that was tipped, chaos ruled. Outside forces could permeate and dictate - the very thing we fought so hard against.

 We used what we had to get what we needed. And I’m so glad it existed at all. The negativity and bad energy didn’t come from the music – it came from the greed, fear and envy of men’s hearts. And we should never allow that to defeat music and light.

 I still believe the music was a gift from God and nothing will change that.