Interview: Blu Cantrell – Real Knowledge, Real Emotion, Real Talent Straight To Your Ear & Heart
Without question, “Hit ‘em Up Style” is regarded as one of the biggest R&B songs of this millennium. The Dallas Austin produced track spent weeks topping the charts and is still popular to this day as evidenced by the covers that we’ve heard on American Idol. The impact of this song is still there today, but I’m sure there are listeners out there who are wondering where Blu Cantrell is now. After a successful sophomore album internationally, it seemed like the singer had randomly disappeared from the industry, but label politics along with the opportunity to tour the world played a huge part in her hiatus. Blu Cantrell however is now ready to return to the music scene with her her powerful vocals and raw emotion. YouKnowIGotSoul had a chance to speak with Blu about her past struggles, her experiences in the music industry and her highly anticipated upcoming album.
YouKnowIGotSoul: I read you were originally discovered by Tricky Stewart. How did that whole situation come about?
Blu Cantrell: It’s kind of odd because I met two people who introduced me to him. One was Usher and the other one was a dancer, I can’t remember his name. It was very weird how I met him, he just came up to me and then he introduced himself and gave me his number. They originally wanted me for a girl group called 321, but after he was like “Well, let’s go make a track,” I was actually, before I had met him, I was in a girl group called 8th Avenue which was Teddy Riley and Blackstreet’s group. Blackstreet broke up so they took all of the girls that they brought into the group and took them with them, so it all fell apart. I was actually in Atlanta because my sister was in a coma from a very bad car wreck and I basically bumped into Usher like randomly and they didn’t actually know that I could sing. Both of the two people knew the same person and recognized the same person, so I was like “You know what? I might as well go there and meet them.” Then on the Sunday, my sister had come out of the coma, but I was still under a lot of stress. Tricky said “I can’t really tell from the songs you did with the group how your voice is so why don’t we just try to make a song?” He played like three or four notes on this keyboard in the studio and it was the weirdest thing I had ever experienced because as soon as he did, I knew the entire song. The entire song came to me, so I was like “Wait a minute, stop right there!” I went on the mic and into the booth and I came from the heart, I didn’t write the words or sit and think about it. By the time I was done singing, I turned over to look out the glass and there were ten people standing there and three of them were crying. I was like “What’s going on?” So he was like “We don’t want you to leave when your family leaves” because my sister was going to leave for rehabilitation for her injuries and my family was looking to go back home. He was like “We want you to stay here and we’re going to record with you and I’m going to get you a record deal.” I was like “Okay we’ll see.” It’s not that I didn’t believe it, but I really didn’t even know Tricky or his work. I just liked him as a person and his family when they were all involved in the business. I didn’t come from a family oriented life. I was kind of on my own when I was young, so I wanted to be part of their family. So that’s why I said “Okay, I will absolutely stay and work with you.” The next few days, he was like “You’re going to stay with me and my girlfriend in my house in Atlanta.” He said “I’m going to call LA Reid” and I was like “No you’re not!” He said “Whenever I call LA Reid and every time I called him, I don’t tell him who it is or what they’re about or what we have, he doesn’t ask questions, he just comes.” LA Reid had just become president of Arista Records, so Tricky got him on the phone in front of me and said “I’ve got something for you. You may want to come down here and listen before everybody else finds out.” LA showed up the next day and Tricky played the song for him, but there were several people in the room like some of the girls who were there that happened to be other artists. He didn’t know so he walked right by me. I was a teeny little girl, I looked like I was 12. For some reason, I just look a lot younger than what I am. At that time I was like 23. He listened to the song and he didn’t get through the first verse and he was like “Wait a minute, stop the song. Play that again from the beginning. I cannot believe this.” Tricky played it again from the beginning and LA got up and turned around. He was totally into the music and he had staff members behind him with their peers doing all of these things for him. They were all wearing suits and running behind them, I was like “Is this really happening?” So he goes “Who sings this?” and Tricky says “She’s right over there!” I was sitting at the back of the couch and there were two other girls with me who were singers too, but he started pointing at who he thought it was. He was like “Is it you?” and then he pointed at every girl in the room but me. He said “There’s only one girl left” and he was like “Her?! That voice came out of her?” and Tricky was like “Yes it did.” He was like “I don’t believe it, she’s going to have to get up and sing it live.” Tricky explained to him like “Listen, she just almost lost her sister and she’s got the flu and she’s under a lot of stress. She can barely talk.” LA was like “Okay well just try your best” and I really couldn’t talk. They played the instrumental and basically I went over to a small room where a lot of people were packed into and I’m a very shy girl. At that point I was, throughout my career I became more open, but at that point I was very quiet and shy. I had never really sang a lot in front of people, so I stood there and he put on the track and was like “Just try your best.” I couldn’t explain it, but I literally sang it better than I actually recorded it and louder. I stood there and LA Reid stood there with his mouth opened. I even did things that I don’t even think I did, like I pointed at him and lifted my leg off the ground. It was just surreal. They told me what I did, I didn’t remember what I did. So after that, they all clapped and LA Reid was like “Please we want you to sign with us. We don’t want you to go to anybody else.” I was like “I would love to sign to Arista, that’s my dream label because Whitney is on there and Aretha Franklin.” Obviously I was young and I didn’t know the business, so I was like “Yeah sure!” and Tricky was like “Wait a minute, slow down! We have to talk about it first.” That’s when it got wind of everybody else and I think ten labels bid for 11 hours. It was all the lawyers and after 11 hours, LA Reid refused to let anyone win so he was the highest bidder. He also threw in a 360 Modena Ferrari so that was the icing on the cake.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What was the decision process like for that label bidding situation and looking back at it now, would you have done anything different?
Blu Cantrell: I think what happens to a lot of artists and what I would have done differently is that I think when an artist gets a record deal, I think they should have an actual class educating artists about contracts and what they deserve and what not to let people do. When you come in and you don’t know the business, people take advantage. You would never think people like this would take advantage, but I can tell you that 98% of artists have been robbed. A lot of artists that I even knew who were friends of mine who were probably some of the biggest artists in the US were taken advantage of and robbed. They didn’t get the money they were supposed to get. So I would say the things I would have done different is being more educated in the business and when they told me to take this lawyer, I would have got my lawyer because that lawyer ended up representing them, which was a conflict of interest so they were all working together to basically take what was mine. Nobody really knows the whole truth but me and them, but I was really taken advantage of. I did most of the writing and they took all of my publishing. The checks were coming in and I never saw any checks. I never got one dime from Arista. The first song “Hit ‘em Up Style” sold Gold, it sold 500,000 copies shipped automatically because the source bought it. I would go into every retailer and speak to them personally and they all bought records based upon the fact that I went in and shook hands. It then went platinum in a week and a half. I just think if I would have done anything different, I would have wished what I know now, but unfortunately we have to learn from our mistakes.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You went to work on your debut album “So Blue”. Take me back to that album and the creative process behind that album.
Blu Cantrell: It was really just conscious, just feeling it out. I don’t think there was any structure or anything, it was just very easy going. It was just natural and it was a fun process. I don’t really write, what I really do and Mark Pitts who was the VP of the Urban department of Arista, he calls me the female Biggie Smalls because I would go in the booth and knock it out the same time. It usually takes hours to make songs and I would do it in 15 minutes. The process which was basically me picking out an instrumental and we would go through 30-40 songs and I would be like “No that doesn’t really get me” and I can just hear a few seconds of it and go “No that’s not it.” If I hear one that I like, I’ll go “Yes!” and the emotion that I feel for that song, it’s like “We don’t wait for later, I want you to play it right now.” I go into the booth and I sing it whatever it is that I feel that the song makes me feel and comes out of me. The melody is there and then I usually throw the words in and whatever words are missing, I just fill them in because I was never professionally trained, I just taught myself. That was the first time I had ever written, so my process is my process. Everybody has a different process, but I really don’t write. I’m not the type of writer that has pads and pads of lyrics. Whatever mood that song puts me in, that’s what I bring out. That’s how it’s done.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Of course everyone knows you for your single “Hit ‘em Up Style” but my favorite off that album was “I’ll Find A Way”. Take me back to that song.
Blu Cantrell: I was in Indianapolis to work with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and I remember it being freezing cold. I went to their studio and I knew they had done Janet Jackson and everybody. I just remembered seeing so many plaques. They had so many plaques on their walls when I walked in and I was like “How is it humanly possible that you have enough time to have that many platinum plaques from going back 20 years?” I was overwhelmed because their studio was like a basketball court, it was unbelievable. When we did go in, what was funny is that they didn’t even know the process me and Tricky did, but they exactly did what Tricky did. I think that’s what’s most important. They sat down and talked to me and we would bond and they ask me “What would you like to talk about?” We were having a conversation about it and it was basically Terry who was mainly there. Jimmy does another side, but Terry is more hands on. There was the pianist who was absolutely amazing. They had the pianist there on a grand piano and Terry was there and he said “I’m going to play something and you tell me if you like it.” He played something and I was like “Nah” and the second time he played something, they put a mic in front of me and we sat in this huge studio stage with the piano and him sitting there, I would basically get the melody and the melody came out of me for “I’ll Find A Way”. I actually said “I’ll Find A Way” because it kind of meant to me because my sister was waiting for her to die, so basically this album was therapy for me to get out all of the feelings. It was therapy for me, but I wanted it to be therapy for other people. Like “I’ll Find A Way”, it was trying to get over the pain. It wasn’t just about a relationship because I was going through a bad relationship too as well as almost the loss of my sister because we never thought she would come out of the coma and she did. I think that album was a mixture of what I was going through in my life and I think a lot of people can relate to that. That was basically it and I went into the booth. Whatever words I didn’t put in, me and Terry Lewis filled in. It was an amazing experience and it just happened quickly. I feel like that was one of the best songs on the album as well.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You went to work on your second album “Bittersweet”. Talk about that album and the mindset you had going into this project.
Blu Cantrell: Well it was pretty much just Tricky, me and LA Reid. LA and I were the final decision for every song. I had a very major important part in the overall decisions in picking the songs for my album which a lot of artists don’t, so if I didn’t want it there, it didn’t go on the album. Not a lot of artists can do that, so I learned a lot from Tricky as he is a brilliant producer regardless of the things that have happened in the past. I will never take away the fact that he’s one of the best producers that I’ve ever been in contact with or experienced anything with. LA Reid is the number one most brilliant man I have ever met in the music business, he has a gift. He can hear five seconds of a song and say “That is a hit!” So “Bittersweet” was like “You know what? The first album was me coming out of being so hurt, but this one was the second chapter to the story.” I was moving forward from being just blue into being sweet, but a little bitter. I was still holding onto some of the things that hurt me, but I was progressing into a better place. The process was pretty fast, it was much faster than the first album. It really went smooth and fast, it didn’t even take us two months. My albums didn’t take long because we would go in the studio and I wouldn’t even go home in my house in Atlanta which was five minutes away. We would get our food delivered and we wouldn’t leave. There was a bed in there and we would just sleep on the couch and watch TV. We’d sleep two hours and then at 4 or 5 in the morning, we would be up drinking Starbucks just to stay awake and we would wake people up and say “Listen to this!” The process was very fast and I think me and Tricky were like Frick and Frack or Fire and Ice. It’s like you can’t have one without the other. When we got together, it was powerful. The creative process was so powerful and the chemistry was awesome.
YouKnowIGotSoul: The second album unfortunately didn’t sell as well as your debut. What do you contributed to that?
Blu Cantrell: Well this is the thing, people are unaware but the second album sold past ten million copies. It went gold in the US and it was still Grammy nominated for the best R&B album of the year. It did accomplish a lot, it did go gold. No it didn’t do as good as the first album in the US, but worldwide it broke records because it was number one in so many countries that I can’t even tell you how many countries it is because I had been all over the world and I spent five years touring just to see the fans that bought those albums. I was touring for five years just off of “Breathe” and there were several other songs that people are unaware of that were top five songs over the world. I broke Madonna’s record for most played on the radio in London and I can’t name everywhere else, but I went everywhere from South Africa to Australia. The only places I wasn’t able to go were China and Japan. Everywhere else though, I was and I was number one everywhere at the same time.
YouKnowIGotSoul: “Breathe” did a lot better internationally than in the US, did that surprise you at all?
Blu Cantrell: Yeah, I can tell you that at that time, I wasn’t aware of it, but LA Reid was my mentor and pretty much taught everything I know about the business and I have the highest respect for him. I don’t think I’ve ever met a person more important to me than him, but they basically took him out. He basically was obsolete as President of BMG/Arista and that’s when all of the chaos happened. There was a shuffle and they weren’t doing their work and that’s why there was really no promotion in the US for “Breathe”. That might be why it didn’t do as well there, but everywhere else in the world, it did. The only place that didn’t go number one was the U.S., though it was like 14 weeks in other countries, is because they took the man that made me who I am out of the power position.
YouKnowIGotSoul: After that album, you went touring worldwide. During that, were you in the process of working on a third album?
Blu Cantrell: While I was touring? No because at that time, what happened was that when they took out LA out of his position, I even remember telling him “That’s the biggest mistake they’ve ever made because somebody will snatch you up and you’re going to run something else.” Sure enough, see where he is now. Basically, there were no talks of the third album because of the mistake they made and we were aware of it and I no longer wanted to be there because LA wasn’t there and my loyalty was to him. While I was overseas, it was nothing I could really do about it, but I did talk to him and I was aware that at the same time they let him go, they had to renew my contract. They didn’t due to the process of trying to take all of these artists and put them somewhere else and take them to this label like Usher, Pink, Avril Lavigne and Dido. All of a sudden this was happening and in the midst of all of that, they forgot to renew my contract so I was a free agent because they didn’t touch it in time. It was actually a good thing. There were no talks about the third album because we knew what was going on and I basically wanted to be where LA was. Regardless, I just decided at this point that I’m going to take control of my third album because LA Reid taught me everything I know and Tricky as well. I know more than most VPs and Presidents of some of the biggest labels, I was taught by the best. I just decided to make music on my own and do it right. I can honestly say that this is probably the best album I’ve ever made and that Justin Graham is one of the best producers I’ve worked with and I paid producers $250,000 that didn’t even make it to radio. So trust me, I know what I want to hear and he taught me that it’s a gift and fortunately, I feel like I have that gift. I just needed someone else to acknowledge it and tell me that I did, so I thank LA Reid for that.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You were touring, but you took a hiatus with the music. How do you know now is the right time for you to continue with your music?
Blu Cantrell: It’s not about me knowing about the right, it’s the time that I’m ready and I’m ready now. I needed to take time off. I spent a lot of time overseas and I was living in London and I needed a break just to take time for myself because being an artist is a 24/7 thing. It’s no sleep, no eating and it’s a lot of hard work. People just look at the video and think it’s a fantasy like “Look how beautiful you are, it’s so easy!” It’s not, it never stops. They’ll wake me up at 5 AM and tell me that I have to go on the plane to Dubai right now. On this album, I’m going off of how I feel and where I’m mentally at and my gut is telling me now is the time. It has to be something that I’m ready for and I feel in my heart that this is the time and I’m so much more excited and anticipating what is going to happen this time around. This is so much stronger than the last two albums and every song I emotionally put myself into. I want to be on my own and say “This is me, just me” and now it’s like “Let’s go. I’m ready!”
YouKnowIGotSoul: Since R&B has changed so much since you came out, what’s the sound of your music now?
Blu Cantrell: You better know it’s me because I have a distinctive sound which is that Jazz/Neo Soul. I couldn’t categorize “Hit ‘em Up Style” and I don’t think anybody could. That’s why it was being played on so many different radio stations. I don’t really like to categorize myself because most labels have a demographic for what type of people they’re trying to direct your record to or who is going to buy it. Everything they said, none of it happened. It ended up loved by 70 year olds to 5 year olds all over the world. I feel like this album, I can’t put a sound on it. It’s so new, it’s going to be groundbreaking. I think we are going to set a new trend and style, but I can’t put a name on it. I mean, I can work on it for you and get back to you or make something up, but I can’t really tell you the style. All I know is that it’s new, you could say Dance, you could it is Hip Hop, you could say it’s Dubstep and Rock. It’s a mixture of all those things, so I can’t give you one category. Honestly though, I’ve never been categorized. If you check out any of my interviews from the past, I’ll say the same thing.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What kind of plans do you have leading up to your album?
Blu Cantrell: We got photo shoots, doing shows, promotion and everything that takes this out there and let people know that this is the third album and we want you to love it just as much as we do. The process is a hard process, but it’s one that takes a lot of work and determination and we’re going to do it. I guarantee you that this album is going right to the top.
YouKnowIGotSoul: I ask because it’s been a while since you’ve come out with music and for a lot of music listeners, they only follow an artist when they’re on the radio. I’m just curious to see how you plan on bringing yourself back to the audience.
Blu Cantrell: You may not aware, but my real fans are loyal and they’ve been waiting. They express that on the internet and in so many ways. They haven’t forgotten and I believe I’ll pick up where I was before, but what I have right now is a step above what everybody else is doing and for a lot of artists, it’s not really about your voice anymore. It’s about the whole package and how weird you can be or what you’re going to wear. There’s no problem with that and I don’t knock it and when I come out I’m going to be weird too, but it’s going to be my weird. I just think that you can’t deny a good record and when you hear it, you’re going to have no choice but to like it. That’s the only thing I can really say about that. I’m not trying to do whatever everybody else is doing, I will never do that. I do what I want to do and what I think is hot. So far, it has gotten me there, but people do miss me and there is that mystery of where I’ve been. There’s a lot of anticipation and there will be a lot of attention and there will be buzz. People will be like “Wow” when they hear the music and be blown away. I look exactly the same, there’s no changes in my face, but my style has evolved and it’s me, it’s different. Everything about me is different, but it’s good. Everything happens for a reason and if I were to come out three years, I don’t think I would have personally been ready and it might not have been the right time. I believe everything happens for a reason and timing is everything and now is the time.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Do you have a tentative date yet for your album?
Blu Cantrell: No we don’t have a date yet. That’s up to my management, but we are almost finished. I would assume that it’s somewhere in the beginning of the year, maybe before that. We’re almost finished, but we have a lot of work to decide when we are actually going to release it. I can’t answer that with a 100% answer.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Anything you’d like to add?
Blu Cantrell: Everything is going to be new and different, but the one that has not changed is that I’m a people’s person and you’re not going to be disappointed with this album because my album is about therapy and it’s a therapy for me and others. That will be there because that’s what I deal with. It’s not really my voice or the music, it’s just me trying to help people move on and become strong from situations during the hard times. Look forward to being uplifted and I think this album will take you to a place and make you feel good and give you strength. I’m really proud of this album and I’m 100% sure that it is the best album I’ve made.
Follow Blu Cantrell On Twitter @realblucantrell