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DJ Lynnée Denise | Longreads | April 2020 | 16 minutes (4,096 words)
Hive is a Longreads series about women and the music that has influenced them.
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As a teenager, Luther Vandross co-founded his favorite singer’s fan club. I can see him now, watching her seasoned shoulder bounce and measuring the funk in the Black church two-step she makes in post–chitlin circuit venues. He’s standing stage left, holding onto the curtain for balance; he’s lip-synching every song, calculating the mastery of her diction and phrasing; he’s studying her like a text, setting the stage for his own practice — one that would place him at microphones behind David Bowie, Chaka Khan, Barbra Streisand, Cissy Houston, and Donna Summer. This Luther was Twenty Feet from Stardom and rising.
Young but wise, Luther Vandross the teenage boy understood how Patricia Louise Holt from Philadelphia became the legendary kick-your-shoes-off and snatch-your-own-wig when the tension builds between music, voice, and audience type of singer. Luther Vandross presided over the fan club of none other than Ms. Patti LaBelle.
Strange things happen when an artist is moved to a new depth by another. We become fanatical about the fantastical beings who place us deeper into the abyss of craft. The management of details of who these artists are and how they come into being become a rite of passage. We obsess over the decisions they make to bring an album to fruition and take pride in knowing as much as we can, from the major to the minor: collaborations, music video direction, hair color, shoe size, inspiration behind the lyrics. We fancy ourselves experts of our muses. And when it comes to Black music, the stakes are higher — people stay questioning our responses to the brilliance of Black artists; reading them as tribal reactions as opposed to a focused study of mastery. But no. I’m from the school of Luther — and by that, I mean I’m a listener committed to homemade scholarship, community-based research questions, and an organic framework to interpret the artistic offerings of those I crown as legends.
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There’s a strong chance that I became the unofficial president of the artist Joi’s fan club 25 years ago. For 25 years, I’ve paid attention to her musical movement and to the ways she holds court on stage. Today, I feel confident that if asked to write a dissertation that argues the genius of what I refer to as her crunk-funk sound, I’d have my Ph.D. Dr. DJ Lynnée Denise. Joi occupies space in the lineage of artists who thrive across genre lines. How is that possible? Ask Prince, ask Aretha, ask Nina, ask Stevie. Black people live hyphenated lives, so it’s fair to say our musicians embody and shift the context of what W.E.B. Du Bois called “double consciousness,” musical cross-pollination made available to the Souls of Black Folk.
The three of us — Joi, Du Bois, and myself — have something in common: Nashville.
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I saw Joi for the first time while I was sitting in the living room with a group of artists I met during my freshman year at Fisk University. She was in a video wearing a trench coat, hanging on a meat hook in a blue-lit walk-in meat refrigerator. She was squirming on beat with the hope of being released. The video was for her first single, “Sunshine & the Rain.”
It was Du Bois who taught me about the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a masterful a cappella ensemble, who with their carefully crafted compositions saved the university from collapsing in the face of mounting financial struggles in 1871. They toured cities along the route of the Underground Railroad using harmony to trace the path of freedom before eventually landing a paid gig in England, performing for its Queen. Du Bois graduated from Fisk in 1888, 109 years before I did. In his famed essay “Of the Sorrow Songs,” credited by Black theologian James H. Cone as one of the first pieces of writing in the 20th century to treat Black music with serious academic inquiry, Du Bois reflects on Fisk’s institutional significance: “To me Jubilee Hall seemed ever made of the songs themselves, and its bricks were red with the blood and dust of toil. Out of them rose for me morning, noon, and night, bursts of wonderful melody, full of the voices of my brothers and sisters, full of the voices of the past.”
In 1993, I stepped onto the campus of Fisk University less than three months after the L.A. Riots. I had Latasha Harlins on my mind: a young Black woman who was gunned down by a Korean shop owner in South Central Los Angeles for allegedly stealing an orange juice. When the shop owner was sentenced to probation in November 1991, less than six months before a jury acquitted the officers responsible for the beating of Rodney King, L.A. blew up in flames. I arrived on campus with inspiration brought on by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s insightful observation that riots are “the language of the unheard.” That outburst of symbolic rage brought me a sense of peace. With one suitcase and a green trunk plastered with stickers that ranged from images of Marley to Meat is Murder slogans, I showed up ready to learn and receive.
Upon arrival, an upperclassman escorted me to Jubilee Hall’s third floor, and just as Du Bois described, it was pristine, brick-based, and towering above my West Coast head. In this place of Black music history, I had a room of my own and a branch from Joi’s family tree was down the street.
Joi is the daughter of legendary NFL football player Joe Gilliam. A member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, he was the franchise’s first Black quarterback to start as a season opener. Both Joe and Joi were legacy students at the historically Black public university Tennessee State, walking distance from Fisk.
The local artists in the room witnessing me witness Joi’s video for the first time knew who she was and dismissed my awe with, “Oh that’s Joi.” I was in her hometown. She was their hero. “Joi from down here,” they said with regional pride from blunt stained lips. “She been on that different shit for years.” I took that to mean Joi was ahead of her time and an inspiration to the folks who watched her take shape.
Her absence in the city of Nashville, or more accurately the ghost of her dopeness, made me think about what it meant to leave home in order to be seen. Like when your ambition outgrows your zip code and the only way forward, as you’ve been told through myriad migration narratives, is to move north from the South; even though what you offer the North is rooted in the back-homeness of the funky South. Joi journeyed to Atlanta — 250 miles below Tennessee. She complicated the idea that Southern folks have to leave the region to become known or relevant. So, when André 3000 proclaimed at the 1995 Source Awards that “the South got something to say,” Joi was one of the leaders in saying, through her music, what needed to be said.
After my encounter with the “Sunshine & the Rain” video, I listened to the song on repeat for what felt like a year. It filled the void created by LaFace’s TLC and the Sean Puffy girl group hip-hop soul phase that I struggled to embrace as I was figuring out my own listening practice on an HBCU campus where musical tastes were shaped, almost exclusively, by homecoming anthems and Top 40 hits. Don’t get me wrong, I loved to see the Chicago students at Fisk rush to the dance floor when hearing the first two bars of the “Percolator,” and I fucked with Mary J. Blige from day one and still do. But I had real questions about the war on originality that was creeping into the Black musical lexicon in a Bad Boy kinda way. The art of sampling was now complicated by intellectual property laws and there was less cutting and scratching, which meant that turntablism was, in certain ways, becoming a less crucial, or at the very least a less prominent, part of the sonic footprint of the culture. Plus, audiences of the music seemed to be growing less and less concerned with the original songs — and by default less concerned with the Black musical lineages shaping my ear as a DJ. It was a pivotal moment for me, defined by my acceptance of the loneliness that comes with walking against trends. I made up for it by going in deep. I had a campus radio show on WFSK where I organized weekly themes that explored different eras and genres of Black music: Black women funk artists 1970–1975. New Wave 1983–1987. Jazz trumpeters 1963–1969. In the face of my early days of digging through the crates, the corporatization of hip-hop was creating what music scholar Harold Pride calls “pedestrian listeners” out of my peers and further alienating lesser known artists whose work stretched listeners with innovation. For me, Joi was a bridge.
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Dallas Austin is one of the minds who, alongside Pebbles, gave the world TLC. Around the exact same time, Austin was working on Joi’s debut album The Pendulum Vibe — together they created a call to arms for folks looking for sophisticated melodies and enough lyrical depth to drown in. Songs like “Fatal Lovesick Journey” had me pondering codependent relationships while puffing Black & Milds and drinking Alizé. There was well-placed wailing, playful and unapologetic sexual confidence, and a genre-defying Southern-rooted sound. Anti-formulaic, the music from this album spoke to my heart and gave me hope that Black America had something to compare to the brilliant U.K. soul coming out of London. Though raunchier in her approach, Joi was in the Mica Paris and Caron Wheeler category for me. I even had fantasies of her settling down in London like Jhelisa and her cousin Carleen Anderson did in the ’90s, leaving their Black American (Mississippi, Texas) imprint on the British sound and reinforcing Paul Gilroy’s notion of the Black Atlantic.
I recognized these women and Joi as kindred spirits. After about the 50th listen of the Pendulum Vibe (and after spending that year with “Sunshine & the Rain”), I sat myself down and said with all honesty, “This a bad bitch and the masses ain’t gon’ understand.” Predictably, critics have long used the abstract term the underground in describing the spirit of Joi’s work. I’m skeptical of the word “underground” because it makes an assumption about what success looks like and sometimes strips the agency of artists who don’t aspire to have commercial appeal.
But was I happy to have an “underground” to turn to when H-Town wasn’t enough? Yes indeed. Sitting with the work of these artists, both from America and overseas, felt like a humanizing way to break from the overly familiar. Humanizing because the music compelled me to listen with insatiable curiosity. Something that white men who own record stores and collect Black music are not only allowed but encouraged to do. Knowing that Joi existed was a way for me to stay aligned with wayward women. Excavating their sonic stories, the way Saidiya Hartman does Gladys Bentley’s, became a primary interest to me. Joi was a gateway into a world made up of women musicians who, compared to their male counterparts, were pushed to the sidelines of Black music history — Nona Hendryx, Lyn Collins, and the women of George Clinton’s P-Funk empire: The Brides of Dr. Funkenstein and Parlet. Embedded in Joi’s vocal cords is a deep knowledge of Funkentelechy and “Dandelion Dust” cosmology, a heavy load of legacy to carry. I was a believer.
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Ever since I can remember, I’ve been one of those people who rolls their eyes when I hear my favorite song from a new album that I’m spending time with being played on the radio. I’m suspicious of what becomes widely accepted, afraid to see the artists I love hand over their authenticity to the police of mediocrity guarding the door of pop music in America. And yeah, everybody gotta eat, but why eating gotta equate to contractual agreements that alter your purpose? Prince’s decision to pen the word “slave” on his face in the ’90s gave us an idea of what can happen when sitting down at the negotiating table with corporations who measure your worth by your marketability. Our collective ear becomes less sophisticated, we develop a forgetfulness that separates us from our pasts. I wanted to keep Joi in my personal library of “underground” artists where she was protected from the fuckery — following her own North Star to musical freedom like the Jubilee Singers.
Joi’s recorded performances embodied all the funkiness my little soul had been waiting for at a time when Black radio was pinned under the thumb of payola. She’s cut from the same cloth as Jimi Hendrix, Betty Davis, and Vanity. One minute she gives you seasoned performer on a FunkJazz Kafe stage alongside Too $hort; then range and multidimensionality on stage with FishBone and De La Soul the next. I traveled to see both of those shows from Fisk University, leaving “the yard” for places like Memphis and Atlanta to experience Joi in action. My fellow Joi-chasing friend and I coordinated our travels so that we could make it back in time for 10 a.m. classes the following morning; driving along the highway, we passed various symbols of the Confederacy — flags, bumper stickers, and Cracker Barrels. We were two women from Cali on a mission. We invested time and our scarce college-level income into loving her work because Joi always delivered, which made the payoff immediate.
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Between 1996 and 2006, Joi recorded three more studio albums. Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome, from 1997, became a highly desired cult classic, shelved before its release due to the collapse of EMI. It was then picked up by FreeWorld, Dallas Austin’s newly formed label following EMI’s collapse, which folded shortly after. Fortunately, it can now be purchased through her website, a gift for fans who were searching high and low for a copy. Her next two albums were 2002’s Star Kitty’s Revenge and 2006’s Tennessee Slim is the Bomb, which was released on Raphael Sadiq’s Pookie Records. The music industry’s instability led Joi to reissue both albums independently, in the spirit of Prince. He had become one of the first major artists to market his albums through a personal website to be in direct conversation with fans in an effort to cut out the middle men — middle men who were typically attached to the bodies of white record company executives or Black music moguls like Berry Gordy or Suge Knight who modeled their music businesses after them.
In addition to her solo work, Joi had a major hand in shaping the Atlanta Dungeon Family/Organized Noize sound. She sang background on Goodie Mob’s classic first album Soul Food. Equally impressive was her work on projects with a range of artists like George Clinton, Sleepy Brown, Big Krit, 2 Chainz, Queen Latifah, and Tricky from London. She collaborated with Raphael Sadiq’s on his Lucy Pearl project, replacing former En Vogue songstress Dawn Robinson and adding a welcomed edge to the group’s live performances. In addition to studio collaboration, she joined Outkast on their final tour in 2014 and was a backing vocalist for D’Angelo’s The Second Coming Tour in 2015. And still, with curriculum vitaé in hand, Joi found time to help, as she would say, “wipe down” a few aspiring singers through her artist development business, Artisan Polishing.
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The very first time I met Joi was in Nashville in 1995. With the same woman I had traveled to Memphis for Joi’s shows, I was trying my hand at concert promotion. We had a little money, a venue, and enough love for Joi’s two-album catalog to take a chance. Within a week, Joi agreed to perform for an amount that had little to do with what was acceptable for her craft and effort and more to do with her willingness to help us see our dreams through and to come home to show her people where she had been. It’s no small feat to have Joi on your roster of events as a young promoter in the industry, and she gave us the cultural capital and experience we needed to break into that world as young Black women. Almost a decade later, I would connect with Joi again when she was featured in an event I produced in Brooklyn called Slum Beautiful: Music from the Gut of Black America in 2010. The title of the event was taken from a song from Outkast’s Stankonia album. I wanted Joi to do the work of reminding New York of its connected history with Black Southern culture and people — it’s a city that tends to forget. The next time I saw Joi was in Atlanta for an event I organized called Erotic City Weekend, bringing the work of Prince and Joi’s unique performances back together again.
In 2015, I made my way back home to Los Angeles after being away for nearly 20 years. Synchronicity had it so that Joi had left Atlanta and moved there a few years before me. We connected on a more personal level and spent significant time talking about our shared love of the many interconnections of Black music. It was through our conversations that I learned about the Caravans, a 1950s soulful gospel group that featured among its members Shirley Caesar, Inez Andrews, Albertina Walker, and James Cleveland. They were responsible for ushering a new style of gospel that complicated the notion of sacred music with their collective blues ministry sound. She also encouraged me to pay closer attention to Parliament singers Glen Goins, Garry Shider, and Walter “Junie” Morrison, as their voices, too, embodied the tension that exists between Black faith and psychedelic funk. I learned in those moments what it means to be a student of the artform you’re undertaking.
Shortly after landing, I began creating events in L.A. and inviting Joi to make various appearances. My work had taken a turn over the years. I was excited about my developing relationship with the academy, as I had become a lecturer at California State University, Los Angeles in the Pan-African Studies department. I worked closely with the department to shape the social experiences of Black college students who often found themselves at the mercy of and/or ignored in official university events. In 2016, I invited Joi to conduct the Q&A following the screening of the Afro-Punk documentary with the festival’s original founder and the film’s director, James Spooner. During the conversation, Spooner shared with the audience that it was the first time he had been invited to screen his film and talk about the roots of Afro-punk since his departure from what had become a corporate funded cultural institution. Most recently, I invited Joi, along with Jessica Care Moore, to be on a plenary for a conference I coproduced with UCLA in honor of the late, great Aretha Franklin. What I love so much about Joi is her proven record that she is committed to blurring the lines and steeped in the art of interdisciplinarity. She engaged with students, wowed faculty, and in the process, brought a funky sensibility to the art and practice of scholarship. Upon spending a considerable amount of time listening to her latest album, I decided to visit Joi at home, which brought our multi-decade relationship into its third dimension.
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In 2018, Joi sat her ass down in a studio and pulled diamonds from a year of solitude to create her most recent album, S.I.R. Rebekkah Holylove. The journey of the album begins with three words that push us to the other side: Bitch I’m Free. S.I.R. Rebekkah Holylove is what happens when anticipation meets expectations. It is noteworthy that this album, too, was produced independently. Joi’s is the only voice on the album. Don’t be fooled into thinking that there are three other bad bitches in the studio making it happen. It’s just her. She wrote all the album’s lyrics, arranged all its vocals, and produced some of the tracks. She used very little of the vocal compressor, an effect that most contemporary singers rely on, creating distance between authenticity and the voices you think you love.
Here I was, 25 years after seeing her on a screen swinging on a meat hook, sitting in Joi’s L.A. studio — a live/work space she calls “The Funky Jewelry Box.” Inspirational posters and Dolly Parton, Led Zeppelin, Natalie Cole, and Minnie Riperton album covers draped the walls. It was an incubator for critical artistic thought up in there.
As I settled and began to think about questions that would unlock the door to the mysteries of this project, Joi unwrapped detox products from Dr. Sebi that Erykah Badu had sent her. “It’s a perfect time to fast,” she said, while removing the bubble wrap from a dark brown bottle of bodily goodness. She sat at her recording station in an electric blue velvet cushioned vintage chair, “a rare find from a spot in L.A.,” she bragged, “undiscovered by hipsters and still affordable in its dealings.” The chair, shaped like a throne, was perfect for the matriarchal-themed nature of this album. Above her was a classic studio microphone that looked committed to its job and familiar with the racy nature of Joi’s spirit. There’s an intimacy between the two. We agreed to listen to the album. She pressed play and guided me through the sonic journey — joint in hand, ears on guard.
Joi’s racy songs stand out on the new album, and they have a long history. On “Narcissia Cutie Pie” from Pendulum Vibe, the artist explores sexual fluidity and bright dark fantasies about the spectrum of desire, while songs like “Lick” from Star Kitty’s Revenge and “Dirty Mind” from Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome help us remember sex as a powerful creative tool. S.I.R. Rebekah HolyLove builds on Joi’s collection of sex-positive cantatas with “The Edge,” produced and arranged by Joi with additional editing by Brook D’ Leux. A bass-heavy funk monster that promises listeners a key to cities where “we can fuck until the dawn, making love til’ cherries gone.” Another Paisley Park parallel. I mean, yeah, you’re married boo, but this is a complicated situation, the song implies. Cheating could become an option if good dick [or fill in the blank] is involved, and not many of us are willing to share that kind of ethical vulnerability on wax. And I don’t mean no disrespect to your official union, she asserts, but you fuck me right and you’re mine tonight. We never once forget that Joi is a human being dealing with the most undesirable and the most pleasurably outrageous scenarios that life asks us to consider: infidelity, heartbreak, orgasmic accomplishments. The appeal is that she’s aware of the costs. I’m standing on the edge with you / so if I jump will I fall or fly
S.I.R. Rebekkah Holylove is a tribute to an album culture long forgotten. With the push for iTunes singles and music streaming culture, the intimate relating of album between artist and audience has been compromised. The album holds its own against a culture that produces music at a rate almost impossible to enjoy, I’ll be listening to S.I.R. Rebekkah Holylove for years to come, and The Pendulum Vibe brought me here years ago. Joi said she drew from various experiences to produce this album. She continued to work on other major projects (both in television and music), without compromising the integrity of her solo work. In her words: “I have one of the most peaceful lives [of] anyone I know, but I recognize that solitude and peace is something I earned and it was necessary for this particular juncture.”
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Writing this piece felt like that time when Patti LaBelle and a fully established writer and producer, Luther Vandross, shared a stage one glorious night in 1985. It’s that moment when student, fan, and gatekeeper of the musical masters graduate into a league of their own, with a platform to articulate the many ways they’ve been shaped; a tribe of fellow artists marked by the legends. And because Joi’s work has been canonized by a global community, my work to unpack her work is really a citational practice. S.I.R. Rebekkah Holylove, is on a Black Atlantic continuum — a fantastic voyage will be had. Catch up on your future.
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DJ Lynnée Denise was shaped as a DJ by her parents’ record collection. She’s an artist, scholar, and writer whose work reflects on underground cultural movements, the 1980s and electronic music of the African Diaspora. Lynnée Denise coined the phrase ‘DJ Scholarship’ to reposition the role of the DJ from party purveyor to an archivist, cultural custodian, and information specialist.
Editor: Danielle A. Jackson
Copy editor: Jacob Z. Gross