Jody Watley in the Soul Train tunnel
Jody Watley in the Soul Train tunnel

The Okayplayer Interview: Jody Watley Speaks On Rakim, Soul Train + Reclaiming The Name 'Shalamar'

Jody Watley

Images courtesy of Jody Watley

For those who came late, Jody Watley is a name synonymous with soul, an icon of music, fashion and dance who set the defining trends of at least four or five distinctive eras of black culture---which is to say, American pop culture. Which is to say: global pop culture. Stepping into the spotlight at the tender age of 14, the Chicago native parlayed a stint as one of Soul Train's most original and recognizable dancers into an invitation to be the front-diva of Don Cornelius' disco-era brainchildren Shalamar--and never looked back. Shalamar not only established the blueprint for the '80s boogie and r&b sound that would succeed disco, Watley herself embodied the integration of visual expression (dance, style and just plain swag) and music into a new kind of diva for the MTV era. Shalamar, however, was just the beginning. At every stage of her solo career, Watley established herself as an innovator, never merely a star, whether it was notching up the first official diva/MC duet with Rakim's cameo on "Friends" (1989) or witnessing her lyric on"Looking For A New Love" become an iconic line of dialogue (and then election slogan) for Arnold Schwarzeneggar.

She's kept that spirit restless well into the new millennium, always eschewing formulas for success that were established by anybody else, seeking out collaborations with DJ Spinna and Mark de Clive Lowe and remaining intimately in touch with the underground laboratories of dance and fashion scenes. In 2015 her career arc is trending toward a perfect circle with the unveiling of Shalamar Reloaded, a new incarnation comprising Watley and new members Nate Allen Smith and Rosero McCoy. Currently on tour for a live show that covers the full spectrum of Watley gems, including separate segments for her various careers, Shalamar solo and otherwise. That tour comes to New York's renowned Lincoln Center next Thursday June 25th in special "Night To Remember" edition of Mobile Mondays' silent disco series, so Okayplayer took advantage of the opportunity to get the backstory on any number of prophetic Jody Watley moments, starting with, How did you know Rakim was the greatest?

OKP: So while us Okayplayers are just old enough to fondly remember the video for “A Night To Remember” we're really more from the "Hasta La Vista" and Eric B & Rakim era of Jody Watley...

Jody Watley: That’s the hottest part of the show!

OKP: can we start there? That song ("Friends" featuring Rakim) is also special to a lot of DJs and record nerds because a lot of people say it was really the first combination of an established soul singer with a rapper making a cameo. The only other one I can think of that's comparable was Heavy D and Janet Jackson...

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

Jody Watley's 1989 track "Friends" f. Rakim was the first credited duet between diva and MC.

JW: That was definitely after and when I approached the label and told them that I wanted to do it, they didn’t get it. I pitched it as a duet, actually, because there was nothing that I knew like it, and I was just hearing his voice. His voice is second to none. I thought it would be so...just, cool and leftfield--and luckily he was into the song and it worked out. The video that we did, we did in New York and it was really authentic as well. It was real B-boys and transgender people and drag queens--and a lot of people didn’t get it at the time. But “Friends” was very groundbreaking, because like you said it was soul and hip-hop; it was a pop hit, it was a dance hit it was an r&b hit and I was really proud of it. It’s a real song, and I always think if you’re doing things from an authentic place that it kind of transcends time. And now people are collaborating, even sometimes when they don’t need to.

OKP: It has became a standard template that’s still in effect, it was almost the template for radio remixes and tracks throughout the '90s and 2000s. Did you ever feel that that was acknowledged? The person that’s most associated with that is probably Puffy, just because of Mary J. Blige and all those combinations with rappers, all of those Bad Boy remixes that dominated radio in the late '90s. But certainly other producers throughout the decades have used that formula. Has any of them formally acknowledged your role in establishing that template?

JW: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think that we get the acknowledgement that it deserves.

OKP: Just in terms of the behind the scenes history, was there a particular Rakim track or remix that grabbed you and made you think: That’s the voice I want to have on my song?

JW: “Paid in Full,” for sure.  And that was the other thing—when I brought it up with MCA they said “Why don’t you do it with Will Smith?” because he was popular and commercial. And it didn’t work for me. No disrespect to him, but I’m a fan of Rakim! It’s just his voice and the lyrics that I had written to the song. I was just hearing his kind of menacing...his delivery. And it was so unexpected, that’s what made it special. For me, it was that I loved him and I wanted his voice on that record. He was the only one that could do it, and so I dug my heels in and eventually got my way, fortunately.

OKP: Were you guys sort of in the studio face to face at the same time, or had you laid the track and then asked him to come in?

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

Jody Watley & Rakim, circa 1998

JW: We were in the studio together. That was interesting—he came with his posse and it was two different worlds but it was really cool. He just wanted to make sure, the whole time, that I dug what he wrote. I told him “just write your verses like they would be sung verses.” And I loved it. I didn’t ask him to change anything. It was perfect [the way he recorded it].

OKP: That’s inspiring to know--that you were actually in the studio, feeding off each other's chemistry.

JW: I wish we had selfies and stuff back then!

OKP: Speaking of uncredited innovations, one of the other moments that stands out from that era of Jody Watley is the "Hasta La Vista, Baby" line (from "Looking For A New Love"), which became such a cultural catchphrase and moment...I'm sure you know what I'm referring to. Was that ever acknowledged?

JW: No. I think that my fans always say it, people will say “Arnold Schwarzenegger, he took your line. You should have trademarked it!”—true [laughs]. But I was kind of floored by the whole thing. It was authentic, though. I was upset with a guy who had done me wrong, and when I was writing the lyrics to it, I don’t even know where it came from. It was just “How can I say, y’know, “F you” but in a classy way?”

It just came into my mind, “Hasta la vista, baby.” And the “baby” with Arnold Schwarzenegger, because he punctuated it the same way, I was like, That’s my line! But it was cool. It’s one thing to have hit singles and to experience that, but to also be a part of those pop culture moments like that is really rewarding for me too.

OKP: On the record, it sounds like a spontaneous ad-lib. But was it something that you considered and wrote out as a written lyric for the song?

JW: Yes. That was exactly the way I wanted to say it. I wrote it like that.

OKP: Did you ever have a chance to run in to Arnold Schwarzenegger in the years since then?

Jody Watley photographed by Victoria Pearson

Jody Watley photographed by Victoria Pearson, from the cover shoot of her self-titled solo debut.

JW: No, and I wish I would have. I would say, Pay me! [laughs]. “Throw me a check!”

OKP: So when you perform live now, what’s the difference in feel or setup between the Shalamar portion of the show and the Jody Watley portion?

JW: The Jody Watley portion of the show takes everything up 20 notches. It's more loose, more funky, it’s me freestyling and being me. The Shalamar section is very precise in its choreography. The great thing that I really enjoy is it brings that side of the dance and performance. The songs, they feel new. They’re classic songs, but because of the setup and new members they feel new. But when it goes to my portion of the show, the energy just grows. When it gets to Jody Watley, everyone goes bananas. Some shows, depending on capabilities of video and whatnot, there’s a fashion montage that transitions out of the Shalamar section into the Jody Watley section. It’s a lot of innovative fashion and things that I’ve done in that way. And then we open up the second half with “Lookin for a New Love” and everybody goes crazy. And hopefully they will at Lincoln Center, now that I’m saying it!

OKP: It strikes me that that particular moment that Shalamar occupied, especially the early '80s coming out of disco and into classic boogie and the Paradise Garage era—that’s had a real revival lately with Daft Punk and other producers kind of idolizing the production and the sound of that era. Do you feel like you’ve found a whole new audience through that revival?

JW: I definitely think so. I think one of the unique things about my fanbase is from my own solo music from the '80s through a lot of the underground electronica stuff that I’ve done and working with a range of people from Mark de Clive Lowe to DJ Spinna, it’s always kind of skewed a bit younger. And then the Shalamar sound has come back around and younger people are discovering it. Nate, the new lead singer in Shalamar, he’s 29 and he loves classic soul and dance music. That’s what his mom played in the house. A lot of his bands and dance crews, that’s the music they love. They love the soul and rhythm and dancing to it. Even working on my current EP Paradise, I was influenced again by that music which I had gone away from, obviously. And it kind of feels full circle in a way, but not in a way that’s nostalgic, if that makes sense. It’s fresher, to me.

OKP: Are any of those people that you mentioned involved with the production on Paradise?

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

Jody Watley at the entrance to the Soul Train tunnel.

JW: Yeah. Mark de Clive Lowe produced and wrote with me the title track, “Paradise” which also features strings by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. I really was happy to be able to get him on there. And also with the song “Nightlife”, that has production by Soulpersona out of the United Kingdom.

With Masters at Work, when I worked with them we did “I Love to Love” and Roy Ayers was on it and it was cool to collaborate with him. I tend to gravitate to what I’m into and not so much to what’s popular or might be a hit. Throughout my career, now, it’s still about what feels right for me.

With Spinna, we did a makeover of Chic’s classic “I Want Your Love,” from my last release The Makeover from 2008. And it ended up being a #1 dance hit here in America and in the UK. And I’m trying to get him to remix this, because we’re working on a Shalamar single and I want him to do a mix for it.

OKP: When you were talking about doing these new Shalamar remixes and things—it’s my understanding that you just got back the legal rights to use the name Shalamar, correct?

JW: Correct. I acquired the rights last year and the first show we did was in Washington D.C. and it was a private event. Since then, we sold out B.B. King’s in February, we’ve done Harris Resort, Yoshi’s in Oakland, we just did the Shrine in Chicago this weekend and totally killed it. I was kind of sad, because my guitarist Levi Seacer—who a lot of people know from Prince and and NPG—he fell ill with some heart issues and he had to go into the hospital and couldn’t do the show. But we dedicated the show to him and rocked the house. We’re a well-oiled machine now and are having a great time. We just did the Happy Days music festival in the UK. It’s really a business I’ve learned to just keep paying attention to and keep growing within. There were some misuses of my likeness, and that’s what first got my attention about it. Looking into how to have greater control with what was going on with it, that’s how it came to be.

Once I acquired [the rights to perform as "Shalamar"] the thing was: How can I re-brand it and make it fresh? And make it not just a nostalgia show--that’s boring to me. I think it’s important with any business to reach new fans and a younger generation. To bring forth fresh imaging and to do new music, which we’re working on. And to have fun. To enjoy the people that I’m working with and spending time with...and I get to do that with them.

OKP: It sounds like there was an unrelated party? I was wondering if the issue was if the name was owned by Soul Train…

JW: Oh no, it was last used by [the Soul Train label imprint] S.O.L.A.R. Records, which went out of business in 1990. And so it was just really in many ways a dead brand, but there were some people doing shows in the UK using my likeness and tried to do a couple shows in America doing the same. And that’s not good business.

OKP: I think a lot of people who are solo Jody Watley fans might now know all of your history with Soul Train. You actually started as a Soul Train dancer, is that correct?

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

Jody Watley with Gerald Brown and Jeffrey Daniel, performing as Shalamar on Soul Train

JW: Yes. Many, many moons ago! [laughs]

OKP: Well, I’m sure you’re aware the founder of Okayplayer is pretty obsessed with Soul Train. So we’re going to have to talk about Soul Train. I know this is taking you back...has he already picked your brain about all this stuff?

JW: Yes, I first got in contact with Questlove during the Myspace days, and he messaged me and he had all these questions about Soul Train. He wanted to know about [dances on] certain Soul Train lines and so we connected and bonded over Soul Train. I actually got on his case because he had some inaccuracies in his book. But I messaged him on Facebook and said “Well done! However…” and I busted his chops a little bit. But I would like to be able to get some of his archives, which I know he has!

OKP: There was a bit of a Soul Train book battle, at the time, given that Nelson George did a Soul Train book as well. Did you talk to him for that?

JW: I did, yeah. They’re also working on a Soul Train musical for Broadway and I just think it’s really cool. The Soul Train documentary was great, the one that they did on Vh-1 a few years ago, The Hippest Trip In America. And I think that the great thing—again, it’s like the people that own the brand now are finding new ways to reach new audiences and help a younger generation to discover what was and will always be such pivotal cultural phenomenon in television and music and dance and style. I think it’s really great that it continues to be rejuvenated in that way.

OKP: There has always been that thread of dance and dance culture and choreography throughout your career. Did you think of yourself as a dancer first? I know you were very young, but did you always harbor an interest in singing and just happen to get on television by dancing on Soul Train? What came first in terms of artistic love?

JW: I always wanted to be an entertainer; a performer and a writer and a model and a business owner. My mom, she says at three I was making proclamations! I wanted to do it all and am so fortunate and blessed to get to be able to do it all. When our family moved to Los Angeles, I wanted to be on Soul Train. It was my goal. But I did hope that it would lead to other things. Even now, I have a dancer’s spirit in that freestyle dancers are hustlers. We’re always making things happen. There’s a spontaneity in that culture where nothing is given to you, you really have to work for it and bring it all the time And so that spirit is still very much a part of me but I think I’m pretty well-rounded as a singer, songwriter, producer. For myself, I usually put dancer last at this point.

It’s interesting, because for a while that seemed to be a negative connotation. Like, “Oh, she’s just a dancer” as if that’s less credible. But everyone starts from somewhere and that just ended up being the vehicle that got me to be in Shalamar and started my professional singing career. I was a Soul Train dancer for three years and I’ve been a recording artist for decades now. So I’m more of a singer than a dancer.

OKP: Do you still get excited about or stay current with dance and choreography? Here in Brooklyn the Flex scene has gotten a lot of people excited. Do you keep up with that kind of thing?

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

Jody Watley featured in the artwork for Shalamar's Friends LP

JW: Yeah, I do. Rosero, in my band, is always out at the clubs more than I am and he tells us what we have to do. Out here, it’s like the whip dance--and so in “A Night to Remember,” when we do the whip dance everybody goes up and gets excited about it and it’s a younger thing and we kill it.

I just try to keep up with music, art, all of it. The whole shebang. But I’m not out there twirling at the clubs. I like to still go out and take it all in, but Rosero, he’s the general of the dance. He’s an incredible dancer. It’s a tie between him and Nate--and it’s a trip because Nate is like having Michael Jackson on stage, but it’s not Michael it’s Nate! You don’t often see the dance and singing combination done so well.

Dance...I love it. I go on Youtube and look at all sorts of random dance videos. The kids are either Waacking, which is a freestyle dance that I’ve done since I was a teenager. I get all these girls and guys from everywhere from Korea and Taiwan and the UK and India—the most random places—they’re all discovering Waacking and they look at me and call me their Imperial Queen Mother of Waacking! And they reference the “Still a Thrill” video which was all freestyle Waacking. We did it in Paris and it still holds up today--as an artist, that keeps me connected and keeps my spirit young because I’m always connected with young people and I love that.

OKP: You said just now that you’re pretty well rounded but "renaissance woman" is probably more like it. I mean speaking of fashion; you’ve been very active in fashion and dance and music all at the same time. Were they always kind of there? As someone coming into the industry so young, were there people around you who influenced you in that sense of being an all around artist or impresario?

JW: Thank you! I think coming out of Shalamar—because it was a put-together group and being in the midst of a sexist environment—and I’m generally a quiet person, kind of more introspective until I’m on stage—coming out of that, I was very headstrong in that--from the very beginning, with wherever I signed to--I wanted to let them know that my voice was going to have to be heard. So I was very specific—even with Shalamar, though we were a made-together group, I was able to influence the style. Album covers for The Look and Friends--those were concepts that I had, because I wanted it to be more fashion. I’ve always been a fighter for things that I believe in. I grew up with two very fashionable parents and was looking at fashion magazines and being a fashion illustrator as a hobby and learning how to sew.

It was important to me. I just wanted to be Jody Watley and be for real with it and not be just a girl that was a puppet for some producer. I went in with a mindset of, This is who I want to work with, this is how I want it to look. And did my own styling. I would go to the directors and have tear sheets and books and said, This is how I want it to be. There were always voices saying, You need to be more urban, you need to sex it up, you need to do this or that...and I said, The only thing I need to be is just me. I think I’m all those things without trying to be all of them. I think that that’s the best part, and to look back at videos like "Real Love" and "Looking for a New Love’" up through what I’m doing now, it’s always been authentically me. No stylist--but having the best style.

I think that’s what artistry is, it’s really your voice and not the machine telling you, This is what you should do. In some ways, I think I would have been—especially after my first couple of albums—even bigger than I was if I had played the game a little more, but I didn’t want to do that.

OKP: Part of the reason I ask is that I recently learned that you have a family connection with Jackie Wilson, the Motown legend...

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

Jody Watley, Rosero McCoy and Nate Allen Smith are Shalamar Reloaded.

JW: Yes, he was my godfather. He was close friends with my father.

OKP: Was that a big, direct influence on you? Either negatively or positively? The Motown image was so much about the “total package” with music and dancing--and yet it was, for a good while, not about the artist making decisions. Did that impact you directly, or was it more so in the background?

JW: It probably--without me realizing it--did have an impact. The first time I was on stage, it was with Jackie Wilson. My dad, even though he was a minister, had lots of show business friends. Johnny Taylor was one of his best friends and he knew Sam Cooke. And I think when you’re little and you listen, even when you don’t know what you’re listening it, I think subconsciously the seed was planted in me in those ways. And even my dad, being in the church world and having people wanting him to conform to protocol and whatnot. He was very much his own person and I think that that’s a part of it, too. Not being afraid to be your own person because in life there’s always someone trying to turn people—to get you to be someone that you’re not and succumb to pressures. To live up to yourself and what you think and believe. Being associated with them definitely had an impact on me.

OKP: When you were a part of Shalamar and before you had time to step out and be Jody Watley yourself, did you feel kind of constrained by the product that was Shalamar? Or was it set up in a way that encouraged your input and side of yourself?

JW: I wouldn’t say it encouraged it. I was always fighting for certain things and coming into my own, still learning myself. When I became a member of Shalamar I was still in high school, and when I left Shalamar I think I was only 23 or 24--which is pretty ballsy when I think about it now! It kind of makes me laugh.

But I’m my own person and I’d had enough of everything that was going on at the time. I just wanted to be happy and go on with my life. It was a blessing to go on with that experience. But, like I said, so many people are afraid to make big decisions or even small decisions and so they end up stuck. On this journey, it’s what you learn and what you do with that knowledge. I definitely have always had to call on my determination and strength and perseverance and resilience. Even when the odds might be against me or people were against me. I’m never swayed by that.

OKP: To bring it full circle, can you tell me a little bit more about the Shalamar remix projects that you’re working on, and how do you balance that with the Jody Watley solo persona and the new Shalamar project?

JW: What’s happening now—I think it’s a part of the theme of Paradise. Paradise is in the music and what that invokes. Up next are the dancer remixes from Paradise and at the same time a new Shalamar single, and with that there will definitely be remixes. That’s my thing, and I’ll continue to to do that and continue to stay connected to a different and evolving fan base and I think releasing a new single with the new guys, it takes it into this era. Beyond what we’re doing with live concerts. If you had asked me five years ago “Would I be doing Shalamar reloaded?” I would have laughed and said no!

But you know, things come at you for different reasons and it just gave me an opportunity to make Shalamar work for me in a way that doesn’t feel dated. I hate the thought of it being like that, but this doesn’t feel like going back. It feels right on page with where i’m at, which is always moving forward. It’s exciting and I don’t know what woman wouldn’t want to spend time with two young hot guys either.

OKP: Well said. What date should people expect that new single?

JW: It’ll be out this summer, actually. In fact, I’m hoping that we can debut it at the festival, but—it’s being mixed right now...

OKP: If you want to release it online, I know an excellent website…

JW: It’s one of my favorites.