By Noah Hubbell
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By Tom Murphy
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By Darryl Smyers
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As one of nine children raised in a family in urban Philadelphia, Musiq didn't hear much art rock; his father, a saxophone player who gigged around town, loved '70s rhythm and blues and played it constantly. But because Musiq came of age during the decade that followed, he was immersed in the culture of rap. "That's the basis of my style: hip-hop and soul music," he says. "I'm part of the hip-hop generation, but I was raised on the music of my parents' generation, which is raw, straight-up, tell-it-like-it-is soul music. And those two major sounds have a lot to do with what my music is all about."
He was exposed to diverse faiths, as well. "My parents were raised Christian, but during a time when a lot of people were searching for knowledge, my mom converted to Islam, because she thought it was deep and really prophetic. So I was raised in that environment -- with the Bible on the one hand and the Koran on the other."
Rather than pick one dogma over the other, Musiq chose a third option. "I would tell people that I believe in God, but music is my religion, because that was the only thing I was really motivated to be a part of -- and I'd get upset about people saying something bad about music in the same way people would get angry over people saying bad things about their church. When they would bad-talk hip-hop, I'd get so mad, because they didn't understand what it was all about. I know there weren't a lot of good hip-hop representatives and it was slightly rebellious. But what it was really about was a bunch of frustrated kids trying to get a thought out, and them trying to understand what life is all about. It wasn't to step on anybody's toes or shit on anybody -- that wasn't the point. They were just trying to find themselves and express themselves, and that's the only way they could do it at the time."
For Musiq, the need to make personal statements in art and life became all-encompassing. "I'd been singing all my life, but when I was about nine, I realized I was good enough to get attention. Then, when puberty started to hit, I got really self-conscious about it. But when I turned sixteen, I realized that I was a creative person in more than just music. Like, I always could draw, and I was emotionally affected by clothes -- I would dress the way I would feel. And I could never do something to just do it. I had to put my 'ness to it, you know. I had to put some of me into it."
The more hours he spent singing and beatboxing with his pals, the harder it became to concentrate on education. In the end, he became a ninth-grade dropout -- a decision he grapples with to this day. "I'm an artist, and I was an artist before I even realized that's what I am," he says. "I have very sensitive moods, and I go through my shit. So when it came time to deal with school and discipline and authority, I had a real problem with that. The contradiction is, I'm a very methodical individual. I need structure, I need order; I can't stand chaos. But I'm also a fast learner, and if I learn something today, I don't see why you need to go back the next day and recap it. I can go to the library and do that myself. So I didn't see the bigger picture like I do now.
"I try not to regret anything I do in life, because it is what it is: If I really wanted to change something, I should have done it then. But I really wish I would have taken advantage of my resources. My knowledge of things might have been different."
Leaving school led to tensions at home, and Musiq moved out when he was seventeen. A tough stretch followed, but things began looking up in the late '90s, when he met Carvin Haggins, who would become his songwriting partner. A demo the two made in conjunction with producer Ivan "Orthodox" Barius caught the ear of Def Jam/Def Soul head man Kevin Liles, who inked Musiq in early 2000. That June, Liles used his muscle to get "Just Friends (Sunny)" onto the soundtrack of the Eddie Murphy sequel Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, and it promptly became a hit, paving the way for Aijuswannaseing's release a few months later. By the spring of 2001, the album had reached platinum sales status, and Juslissen seems to be on the same track: It entered the Billboard album chart at number one and is already certified gold -- over 500,000 copies sold. As a bonus, Musiq's been romantically linked with diva/Denver native India.Arie. Nice work if you can get it.
Still, challenges remain, not the least of which is convincing the critical establishment that he's got his own musical voice -- not just great taste. Musiq thinks this is a worthy goal, too, but that doesn't mean he sees any reason to change his songwriting approach. For instance, he and Haggins rely heavily on what he refers to as "formulas," a term he doesn't view as negative.