By Brian Turk
By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
"People have gotten to the point where when they see a brother with a guitar, it's strange, it's absolutely strange," ChesnuTT says. "You have black people talking about, 'Man, you playing white folks' music.' This is how lopsided it has made the whole experience. It's a lack of exposure."
It's easy to understand how modern black listeners might lose sight of rock's origins. Whitewashed historical revisionism in rock and roll is nothing new, from the days when Pat Boone released sanitized versions of Little Richard songs to the time the Rolling Stones recorded a Robert Johnson song ("Love in Vain") without giving proper credit. To quote Mos Def's song "Rock 'N' Roll": "You may dig on the Rolling Stones, but they didn't come up with that shit on their own." But artists like ChesnuTT want to make sure that people know and appreciate the source of a musical style that, aside from artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Bad Brains and Living Colour, has few recognizable black practitioners.
"White people always know about our culture better than us," ChesnuTT says. "To me the parallel is to the blues. It's always known about by whites before it's known by blacks. It's a sad thing to see a white guy respect me playing guitar and understand it before a black person would. What you're dealing with is a long history of the black and white, African and European experience, which we've all become products of.
"As much as I respect [whites'] contribution to music," he adds, "it makes no sense for me to know more about the Rolling Stones than Little Richard or Bo Diddley."
ChesnuTT seems uniquely qualified to shed light on the cross-pollination of musical styles. His ambitious 36-track solo debut, The Headphone Masterpiece, owes as much to founding fathers of soul like Sam Cooke as it does to the Beatles. The record is a hybrid that imagines a frequency in which new wave, British invasion, funk, folk, rock and soul co-exist harmoniously. Using a four-track recorder in his bedroom studio, the Sonic Promiseland, ChesnuTT recorded almost all of the album's instrumentation himself. His methodology for the recording was influenced by his living situation and by a desire to create an organic sound devoid of studio chicanery.
"It was just me in the bedroom with a Tascam console and just the bare necessities: a microphone, a cheap compressor, reverb and this junk of a stereo mixer that I found in a garage," he says. "I have four or five roommates. I'd be up in the morning at like four, five, six o'clock, and I'd have to work in my headphones, so the sound became real true to me. It put me off into a place. You know how headphones are: They take you off to a whole different realm."
The Headphone Masterpiece has a similar effect on listeners. Stereophonic and soulful, the album suggests a past when listeners could hear radio DJs play records by Otis Redding, the Animals, Sly and the Family Stone and Miles Davis in succession. And although it has a retro feel, The Headphone Masterpiece is a forward-looking, lo-fi, family affair produced by someone who grew up in the hip-hop era. The Sly-sounding "Serve This Royalty" finds ChesnuTT referencing iconic images of the golden days of rap ("Platinum chains and rings is all the brother knows now") while providing a storyline that rings true to the urban experience.
"I've had brothers tell me [the song] is their whole life story. It's their whole family's life story. It's my life story," he explains. ChesnuTT says he finds comfort and insight in the song's lyrics: "People think that I'm lazy/People think that I'm a fool/Because I give a fuck about the government/And I didn't graduate from high school."
"You have the whole plight of the culture and years and years of generations of people not graduating from high school," he says. "My uncles and their friends, it's like a given: 'Okay, you're young, sixteen, eighteen, whatever. You're going to jail.' This is our reality; this is what the song is representing. You have the lyric 'People think that I'm lazy' because I'm going through this whole maze trying to figure out how I belong and what my purpose is. So if I don't move on the 9 to 5 or when the bell goes off, I'm considered lazy and uninterested in productivity. Or they think I'm a fool because I don't open myself up to really what's going on with this political system that truly has no desire to educate me. That's why the song is so deep, because it's in the gutter. But it also has the celestial, heavenly glory of God on it."
"Lazy" would be the last word to creep up in a discussion of ChesnuTT's debut. Among other things, The Headphone Masterpiece should give hope to all those aspiring musicians who are putting work into their home studios. The record appeared in many lists of the best recordings of 2002, including those published by Rolling Stone, Spin and Vibe. The response hasn't surprised ChesnuTT.
"Everyone is tired of the monster that is the industry and the fabricated music that seems as if it's coming off an assembly line," he says. "It's a breath of fresh air, and people have been wanting air for the longest time."
ChesnuTT's music is influenced by his childhood on Chesnut Street in Atlanta. Born Antonious Thomas, he grew up in a household that "played everything from Helen Reddy to Parliament" and remembers listening to his uncles blast the Rolling Stones' "Miss You" in the neighborhood. A PBS special on the Beatles got the youngster hooked on rock and roll. But before he realized his musical ambitions were in rock, ChesnuTT was a smooth R&B singer in the mold of R. Kelly and Jodeci. In 1991, he released a single, "Young Dr. Feelgood," on a small indie label. The song made a little noise but ultimately did not satisfy his muse.
"I was feeling kind of restrained," he says. "I felt like I was suffocating myself. Eventually I got to the point where I evolved out of the phase of typical cookie-cutter R&B and started to realize that the musicality that I was into needed to be expressed as well. That's when I came across the guitar."
Along with his cousin and current manager, Donray Von (who now helps oversee the Ready Set Go! Label ChesnuTT runs out of his house), ChesnuTT moved to Los Angeles in 1992 and formed a British Invasion-flavored band called the Crosswalk. That group inked a deal with Hollywood Records, though the label sat on its debut recording, which never saw an official release. The Crosswalk soon dissolved.
"I was a little heartbroken and disappointed, but I knew culture had to come back around to real music, so I just knew it was a matter of time, and I was willing to be patient," he says.
Perseverance paid off. Recorded during a six-month period in 1999 and mastered in October 2000, Masterpiece sat around for a while before generating any buzz. The disc found its way into the hands of the Roots' ?uestlove and former Digable Planet member Ishmael Butler, whose band Cherrywine traverses a musical terrain similar to ChesnuTT's. Things took off from there. Last summer, the Roots asked ChesnuTT to join them on the Smokin' Grooves Tour; they also included a new version of ChesnuTT's double-entendre-laden song "The Seed" on their new album Phrenology. Despite this exposure, ChesnuTT still has a difficult time getting his genre-bending music played on radio and his videos shown on TV.
"A lot of people are still trying to deal with the formulaic way of getting the record to the people," he says. "But my feeling is that it is going to get to the people the way it is supposed to. I don't worry about it."
Still, ChesnuTT concedes that if he had a spin for every time a DJ, VJ or A&R person had told him, "I love your music, but...," he would be big-pimpin' multi-platinum.
"DJs and radio personalities that I meet say, 'Oh, man, I love it' and I don't really think they hear themselves," he says. "How can you be a disc jockey and say you love music and not give it to the people? This is the question that I give to the whole industry. Don't tell me you love this music or any new music and then tell me 'but' with a capital B. If you love it, just give it to the people. It's all about breaking away from that fear and taking risks."
Fortunately, some bean counters in the industry have been willing to roll the dice. MTV2 recently put ChesnuTT's video for "Look Good in Leather" into heavy rotation; the network also flew him to New York to appear in a new program, Diversity. It was an appropriate move: ChesnuTT is diversity incarnate, and that's a positive for the industry. He might also send some scrambling to learn about black rock that came before.
"If you get an allegiance of fans supporting rock-and-roll artists who happen to be black, that's going to open up the whole floodgates of history," he says. "There's going to be research, just like white cats always research black history. They go straight to the source: gospel and blues. Everybody else is going to go beyond that and say, 'Okay, what's the origin of these people, the origin of the spirits?'"