Nate Wonder & Chuck Lightning talk about their band Deep Cotton and producing Janelle Monáe
Contemplating the future of music
by Travis Atria
Travis Atria spoke to Nate Wonder and Chuck Lightning for Issue 57’s cover story on Janelle Monáe. The following is an extended talk with the duo.
Since Barack Obama’s election, there has been a lot of talk about living in a post-racial society. It’s a nice thought, but if Trayvon Martin’s death and the poverty rates in this country have taught us anything, it’s that post-racial America is still a pipe dream. However, there is one place where that term actually carries quite a bit of weight—the world of music. Music is once again leading the way in creating a world without racial separation, a world without the distinction between “us” and “them,” just as it did during the civil-rights era. And nowhere is this idea more present than in the work of Janelle Monáe and her Wondaland Arts Society. Speaking with Chuck Lightning and Nate Wonder—two foundational members of Wondaland, as well as executive co-producers of Monáe’s work, and the founding members of the band Deep Cotton—it becomes clear how purposefully and consciously they utilize this idea. Luckily for them, the current era might be the most exciting time to be a musician. Record labels no longer hold sway they once did, there are more outlets and ways of connecting than ever before, radio’s power to segregate and delineate has been nearly erased, and the very idea of genre has lost much of its meaning.
In this brave new world, Wonder and Lightning have already done important things and are set to do more. They are Afrofuturists—a term invented to describe the small but persistent community of Black sci-fi artists stretching back to Funkadelic, Sun Ra, and beyond—and they know their history well. They can wax poetic about Iggy Pop and Stevie Wonder in the same breath. They are branches on the musical family tree connecting things that might not have seemed to have any connection, like Debussy, James Brown, and Simon and Garfunkel. And, in that very act of connecting, they have done something radical. They have shown us that the traditional lines separating music—lines that once seemed made of stone—are nothing but dead air begging to be filled with new and wonderful combinations of sound. Perhaps someday we’ll figure out the same thing with the lines that separate people. Until then, Lightning and Wonder will continue to create.
They recently spoke to Wax Poetics about this and more.
When you say that you are executive co-producers of Monáe’s work, what exactly does that mean?
Nate Wonder: When we started, all three of us were financially invested in what we were putting out as far as music was concerned. We funded our projects independently. All three of us determine how we allocate resources to make an album.
Do you have any say in terms of the styles, the production values, or the actual writing on her albums?
Nate Wonder: We have meetings to discuss that kind of stuff. Before working on the album, we try to get a vision. We have a diversity in terms of what kinds of music we like. We like a lot of different styles of music, and so what we try to do is have a conversation at the top of working on the album that allows us to say, “Here are the things we really want to focus on this time around.” We have a guidebook for what’s going to work and what won’t work. There were several songs [on The Electric Lady] that were in different spaces or may have been in a completely different genre that had to get fashioned in a different style to get on the album.
Can you give an example?
Nate Wonder: “Sally Ride” sounded like Hendrix, like “Axis: Bold As Love” at first, then it turned into a Simon and Garfunkel moody song, then it went to James Brown, “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” then it got to what it is on the album.
One thing I really love about her albums is how you can read so many influences from so many genres into it, but it still sounds new and unique.
Chuck Lightning: Well, the way the music business is, sometimes when you get into the business, you say, “Rock isn’t really happening, I’m not going to do that, I’m going to do what’s going to chart.” But I think that we wanted to synthesize everything we love—the way people like OutKast, Prince, Stevie [Wonder] do—and make this crazy music that still gives people what they want, but also be true to what we love.
Nate Wonder: Earth, Wind & Fire talks about going to the well, going back to the well for inspiration.
Chuck Lightning: Yeah, or like Otis Redding, when he was writing Sitting on the Dock of the Bay, he was having a conversation with his wife and she was asking him what he was listening to, and he said, “Dylan, the Beatles.” He said, “It’s time for old Otis to change.” We are the children of those artists. Even Stevie Wonder, when he was making Talking Book, he was listening a lot to the Beatles, a lot to Hendrix, a lot to things outside of R&B music to figure out how to move R&B music forward. So, I think it’s just interesting that people tend to try to box all these genres in and try to act like there’s such a big huge difference between early Funkadelic and the Stooges. When you listen to the records, you know that’s not really the case. There’s more commonality between [Funkadelic’s] Maggot Brain and [the Stooges’] Fun House than there is dissimilar things, but you’ll never hear people bring up those records in the same breath, and you have to wonder why that is. I won’t get into that, but I will say that you can definitely put Maggot Brain on and then play Fun House, and you could even argue about which record is the harder record, and which is the more punk record. I think this is really interesting that we allow race, and culture, and all these other things to kind of box in our viewpoints on the kind of art that people make, and how it should be marketed, and who should listen to it, and who should buy it, and who should love it, and who should support it.
Absolutely, and going back—you were talking about Hendrix, and also Simon and Garfunkel, and things like that. I feel like those are influences that R&B artists or whatever you want to call it, they wouldn’t claim those maybe even ten years ago. It wouldn’t seem to fit in, but I think you guys do an excellent job of connecting those dots that don’t seem like there is an obvious connection between them.
Nate Wonder: Thank you. I grew up listening to that kind of stuff. My dad played Simon and Garfunkel as much, or almost as much, as he played Stevie Wonder. The thing is, I don’t feel like [I’m that] unique in that area. I mean, not everybody’s father has a doctorate in music, but I don’t think I’m unique in terms of people having diverse tastes, and I think that as we enter into this new phase as human beings, where we’re so digitally connected and our musical catalog can be as diverse as we want it to be, there is no restraint on that. I think that our idea of genres becomes less and less real, and less and less of a valued commodity than it was. It just doesn’t make any sense to define things in such a broken up kind of way. That’s just not how we listen to music anymore. People can get access to any song they want. Before, if you think about how it used to be in the ’90s, if you listen to metal, you probably just listen to metal because you could only afford to buy music that you really liked a lot. You would be like, “I’m not wasting money on that CD; it costs too much.” You don’t have any money to do that as a kid, but now you can get all the music for free basically, or you could use your mom’s Spotify account, and so your ability to expose yourself to different styles and genres of music is a real thing. Even radio—the idea that there is urban radio, which is Black radio, and White radio, which is alternative radio, it just doesn’t really make any kind of sense anymore. It’s just ridiculous, really. Who doesn’t listen to all these different styles of music? You can’t help but be exposed to these things at this point in time.
Chuck Lightning: I think what’s interesting is if you really want to see people moshing to “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” you should go to a Black park. I think we just haven’t seen that part of the culture yet. They don’t know that it really exists in the way that it exists. They just don’t have any idea yet, and there is no name for the genre, outside of Afropunk, which has been growing. The Afropunk Fest is great. We’ve been playing it with Janelle for five or six years now, and it’s just grown into a huge thing in New York. I think there’s all this nascent stuff that’s been underground, this love that people of all cultures have for all music, for all art. For us, when we first started working on [Monáe’s first EP, 2007’s] Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), that was around the time when the iPod was around in a big way, and the iPod shuffle had just been introduced. One day, I was out and about, I had my iPod on shuffle and it went from [Stevie Wonder’s] “Boogie On Reggae Woman” to “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” by Nirvana. It was such a crazy moment for me. I was like, “That can happen?” A spark went off in my head, and we were having these conversations, talking about the iPod generation of the time and talking about how our whole culture is on shuffle now, because there’s so much media in the world. The cost of sharing it, broadcasting, and consuming it, is just coming down. How much time do you have to pay attention to things? There’s so much. I think for us, it is about putting the option out there to inspire people that there’s all this music out there and if you love R&B and soul music, there’s so many different sides of R&B and soul music.
That brings me to something I wanted to ask Chuck about. In an article you wrote for The Believer, you talked about the story “The People Who Could Fly,” a re-telling of an old African folk tale where slaves fly up from the cotton fields and back to Africa. You also wrote about being a Black artist in the age of Obama. I feel like those things are connected, and the way they are connected—I found out about a thing called Afrofuturism…
[Both laugh knowingly]
Chuck Lightning: “I found out about a thing called Afrofuturism.” That was great. [laughs]
Well, I love the fact that Janelle uses sci-fi to talk about experiences of Black people or just marginalized groups in general. And that story you mention in the article, it seems like that is a good example of Afrofuturism. I was thinking about it in terms of, obviously it has some historical relevance with artists like Parliament or even Hendrix, but I didn’t know that there was an actual term for it until I heard about Afrofuturism. I think you guys are part of that, and I wonder what that means to you and how comes out in the art.
Chuck Lightning: You should check out this film called The Last Angel of History. It’s really wonderful, and it kind of traces Afrofuturism all the way from Sun Ra, through Clinton, and all these people you need to be up on. But I think for us, we really love science fiction, we love fantasy. I mean, that’s just another area, man. It’s just a way to get into exploring the mind, exploring the future. I think the thing about it for us is that even before Obama, we’ve been believers in hope, and we’ve been believers in the resilience that it takes to build the community and build new communities. I think if we can envision a future, even if that future seems dystopian, if we can envision a future where people are surviving and where at the very least there are people of color still present, [laughs] let’s start there, then we can begin to really build a future for our families. But for us, it’s not just about color—it’s about ageism, it’s about sexism. Especially with this album it’s very much about women, electric ladies, and trying to push for the increasing feminization of the world, which we think is good for world peace.
Yeah, I like that she includes other groups like gays, women, et cetera. It seems like it’s almost another way of expanding and continuing the civil rights movement.
Chuck Lightning: Let me put it this way, Nate and I have this band called Deep Cotton, and we have this song called “We’re Far Enough From Heaven Now We Can Freak Out,” and there is this line in it, “Who can cook, who can clean, who will paint the fence?” I thought about the fact that all revolutions come down to those three questions. [laughs] Because at the end of the day, after you get the landowner out of the way—
Nate Wonder: Who’s gonna build?
Chuck Lightning: You get you get the factory owner out of the way, whoever it is, then you still got to worry about, now who’s going to paint, who’s going to clean, who’s going to cook? Almost all revolutions come down to that point as to, “How are we going to run our household?”
You must approach Deep Cotton in a different kind of way, because it’s your own thing, but I wonder when you’ve got your own thing and you also have a collective of artists and you’re all helping each other, how do you determine what you use for yourself and what you give away?
Chuck Lightning: I guess it just comes down to passion, who has the most passion around an idea or song or whatever. Janelle gets songs from us because she’s more passionate about certain songs that we made. It just comes down to who is the most passionate about, you know, runnin’ point on the idea. The passion can be a good compass for what the song or idea needs to turn out to be.
Going back to radio, I’ve been doing a lot of research on Curtis Mayfield recently, and one of the big things about his life and that era was the segregation of radio, and the fact that White stations wouldn’t play music from an artist like him who was considered too Black. It’s kind of amazing to think about how far things have come, where not only is that not true anymore, but the very idea of radio is kind of quaint.
Nate Wonder: We actually did a lot of listening to Curtis Mayfield for this album as well. It stemmed from when we did the Nobel Peace Prize concert. We did a song called “Move On Up.” We just wanted to explore that song and explore his catalog, and it also caused us to go more deeply into the same issue you were talking about. We looked at it more deeply with Jimi and with Bob Marley. You know, Bob never broke on Black radio, which is a really odd concept—same thing with Jimi. It’s a very disheartening thing. It makes people like us cry when we think about those kinds of things, because it’s very hurtful to think that we as people could take something so special and just disregard it because of the stigmas we put on different groups of people, and that something as uniting as music wasn’t able to break it. Honestly, the idea that Bob Marley couldn’t break Black radio; it’s a very odd concept.
Chuck Lightning: But so many of our innovators have been kind of stuck out there. Sly [Stone] was kind of in a weird space. I remember reading a book about Sly, and his drummer Greg Errico was talking about how they never played for Black audiences. They went to Harlem to do a show, and he was all nervous because they never played for Black audiences. [laughs] This is the artist’s dilemma. How do we move it forward?
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