The inside track on one of the most protracted and anticipated releases of the decade with analogue engineer Russell Elevado, who accompanied D’Angelo every step of the way.
Michael Brown was just six years old when D’Angelo began recording Black Messiah. Riding high off the back of Voodoo, D’Angelo booked studio time in New York in 2002 and began tentatively laying down drum and guitar lines for a follow up that almost never came. Twelve years later, it was Brown’s shooting by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri and the riots that ensued which ultimately triggered the album’s release. The Grand Jury’s failure to indict the offending officer was enough to break the spell: “The one way I do speak out is through music,” D’Angelo reportedly told his tour manager Alan Leeds after the verdict in November 2014. “I want to speak out”.
Rewind to 2002 and Sear Sound Studios, New York City. “It was just him and myself in the studio with the assistant,” remembers Russell Elevado, the engineer, producer and incidental confidant who accompanied D’Angelo every step of the way.
That D’Angelo has opted not to discuss the album publicly has left more than enough room for narratives to be written in his absence. Self-doubt, procrastination, perfectionism, insecurity, reinvention or pride, something had held him back from finishing the record. And all we’ve got to go on is the twelve track album whose sound, as much as its song-writing has been painstakingly dissected for clues.
Released in 2000, Voodoo would trail both engineer and artist over the fourteen years that ensued. Elevado had won a Grammy for that record, working with vintage equipment in an all-analogue chain to develop a middle ground between crisp, clear hip hop textures and classic funk and soul from the early ‘70s.
For both, Voodoo had been serendipitous in its spontaneity, a coming together of the world’s best jazz, soul and hip hop artists for a series of furiously creative sessions which also spawned Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun and Common’s Like Water For Chocolate. Questlove, Q-Tip, Talib Kweli, Mos Def and DJ Premier joined jazz giants Pino Palladino, Roy Hargrove and Charlie Hunter to collaborate with D’Angelo, who played the role of bandleader with assurance. It was the jam, but Black Messiah was going to be different. “Brown Sugar he did by himself, but Voodoo was more about hanging out with these cool musicians” explains Elevado. “This album was more ‘let me see what I can do by myself’”.
Of course, they weren’t in the studio for twelve years solid and D’Angelo had been here before, living with his own malignant strain of writer’s block in the years that followed Brown Sugar. But unlike Voodoo, the early Sear Sound sessions were more about experimenting in solitude. Elevado doesn’t elaborate. So much has passed since those early days, he’s had to draw up a timeline of events to piece the chronology of the album back together again.
What’s certain is that, barring a few abortive sessions around 2008, D’Angelo didn’t get back to work seriously on Black Messiah until 2010. A sabbatical, marked by his much-documented time in rehab had taken the best part of what should have been his decade. Signing to RCA gave him a renewed impetus. Elevado estimates that they spent close to twenty months in the studio over the four year period that followed.
The picture he paints of this time is one of intense but exacting creation. A canvas muddied with erased and redrawn lines where an eye for detail masqueraded as obsessive perfectionism, procrastination veered towards self-destruction and the finish line receded even further with every step. And yet, what finally emerged was all the stronger for it.
Looking back, Elevado can see the funny side. “I’ve kind of created my own monster” he muses. As an engineer who won’t use plug-ins, with an artist who only does his vocals on tape (the finished album is said to have used about 200 reels), Elevado would get D’Angelo whatever he needed wherever they were. “I’d set him up with my own tape machines in his hotel room”, he explains. “We’d literally put blankets up on the walls, we’d rent those plexi-glass go-bo’s that live guys use to section off the drummer for the hotel room, but he’d barely do anything with it.” The truth is, D’Angelo, it seems, would only really vibe when he was in the studio.
And this is where the album’s central paradox lies. When D’Angelo was with other musicians, things usually happened pretty quickly. When he was by himself, they ground to a halt. “Once Pino [Palladino], Ahmir [Questlove] and D got together, something magical always happened,” explains Elevado. “’Another Life’, ‘Tutu’ and ‘The Charade’, those were all live takes, just like Voodoo. They came up with ‘Another Life’ in literally three hours out of thin air. We never edited the song, the arrangement you hear is a live take.”
Russell in the studio
It was all the more exasperating then that other tracks took years to complete. “He’s such a perfectionist, especially with vocals, some of the time it was him wanting to be inspired to do a certain vocal take.”
And because everything was analogue, this process stretched Elevado to the limit. What went on in the mix sounds nothing short of extraordinary. “The usual process was that the song was tracked, and I’d do a rough mix, usually enough for him to be able to do vocals. He’d be happy with that mix for a little while and then he’d say ‘can you tweak that a little more?’. He liked it when I did something in the mix that could inspire new ideas and that would keep evolving and evolving.”
They’d work on ‘Really Love’ one day, and recall ‘Another Life’ from a year earlier the next. You don’t have to understand how a mixing desk works to see that running eighty faders at once might get confusing. Sometimes half of these were just for background vocal blends. “At any time during the three years or however old the song was, he could change the background blends three or four times, sometimes pretty drastically, sometimes subtly,” Elevado explains. “If there was any project that could have benefitted from the speed and ease of revising mixes in Pro Tools, this would have been the one”. But then, the record wouldn’t have sounded like it does. You can almost hear the indecision of the solitary mind on ‘Prayer’, just as you can the freedom of collaboration on ‘Another Life’.
Knowing how it was put together, it’s hard not to imagine the finished record like a VHS that has been taped over so many times the clarity of the image has begun to deteriorate. To devotees of that pristine, dry sound on Voodoo, the raw crunch and splutter of tracks like ‘1000 Deaths’, where D’Angelo’s vocals are shrouded in reverb to the point of being incomprehensible, was a shock.
And yet despite sharing a kindred spirit with the great, politicised funk records of previous decades, Black Messiah is not a conventional protest album, nor does D’Angelo want you to believe that this is his second coming. ‘Black Messiah’, as he explains in the liner notes refers to the aspiration to change the world for the better, and is an album about individuals within society: “Black Messiah is not about one man. It’s a feeling that, collectively, we are all that leader”. Break down the tracks and the record begins to seem more and more like the pieces of a modern life, with all its attendant complexities, responsibilities, passions and insecurities.
As RCA’s deadline loomed, more and more material was left on the cutting room. Having spent four solid years living with these tracks, Elevado admits it was hard at times to retain a sense of perspective. He says that ‘Really Love’ must have been mixed twenty times, a consequence of the fact that “every single processing, every single echo is tape. Every single reverb is either a plate or a spring or a slap that’s treated to make it sound like it’s reverb.” No wonder the sound is dense.
He references John Bonham in his attempt to capture “really raw sounding drums”, and took inspiration from Rudy Van Gelder, Eddie Kramer and The Beatles to get a “sound image” in his mind from which to work. Having a peerless collection of vintage mics, compressors, pedals and tape machines to draw on obviously helped. “From there I could twist and take apart the frequencies to make my own sounds”. ‘Sugah Daddy’ is a case in point, complete with vocals fed through a Leslie cabinet and phasing and echoes on the horn section that referenced both Led Zeppelin and J Dilla simultaneously. For artist and engineer alike, Black Messiah was about breaking new ground with old means.
Describing this further, Elevado evokes a sense of timelessness, in an era where sonic signifiers and production techniques have been uprooted from their original contexts. “In 2000 Voodoo was released at a time when most productions were still recorded to tape, Pro Tools was still in its infancy and CD sales were at a peak” he explains. “Fast forward 15 years and there are a only a handful (like a single hand) of major productions using tape but CD sales are declining rapidly.”
By the time D’Angelo came to release Black Messiah late 2014, America’s place in the world had also changed immeasurably but the issues were still fundamentally the same as they had been in the early ‘70s.
‘1000 Deaths’ opens with the words of New Black Panther chairman Khalid Abdul Muhammad, recorded in 1995. As Khalid’s voice fades, he is joined by that of fellow Black Panther Fred Hampton, taken from a 1971 documentary investigating his death. In a single minute D’Angelo rewinds through the recent history of black struggle in the United States to find himself in exactly the same spot. Back to the future indeed.
A New York Times review of the documentary at the time wrote “Whether ‘murder’ is the official word for the case seems a moot point. A Federal grand jury has criticized the police and its investigation of the shooting. And, Mr. Hanrahan, one of his assistants and 12 policemen were indicted in August by a special grand jury for allegedly having conspired to prevent prosecution of the policemen participating in the raid.” The circumstances surrounding the death of Fred Hampton may have been radically different but the resonance with Ferguson is undeniable.
What is extraordinary about Black Messiah is the extent to which its sound itself contributes to these over-riding themes. That it plays like it was recorded forty years ago is crucial to understanding what it means to be alive now. Even the cover, evoking the Civil Rights marches of the ‘60s and ‘70s exploits that tension. It is in fact a still from a 16-mm film shot at a festival D’Angelo headlined last summer. “Traveling at the speed of light and then / At the same time I’m in the same spot too”. By the time he reprises ‘Back To The Future’, the track has become a muffled counterfeit of its former self, and it could just as well be 1971 or 2015.
“I’m not sure I really made a point to sound retro,” Elevado says. “I wanted to sound contemporary at the same time”. On Black Messiah, they are one and the same.