We recently caught up with Digital Black of Playa and Dru Hill for an interview on Instagram Live. During our conversation, we discussed his time with Dru Hill so far, memories of his time with Playa, writing for Aaliyah, memories of being in DeVante Swing’s Da Bassment, and much more.
Digital Black: It’s been a pleasure and honor rocking with Dru Hill for the past two years. We’ve been around the world. The new single, you need to go listen to it. Just trying to bring quality R&B in a major way. Who can say that they are able to write for one of the most legendary lead singers Sisqo. To be able to pen some records with him, and watch his genius as a vocalist and entertainer. I’m a sponge, I’m always trying to learn. When you stop learning, you’re dying. For me I’m trying to evolve into the next stage of my life.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You and Smokey from Playa fit so well with Dru Hill. You all sound great together live.
Digital Black: It’s crazy. Shout out to the Dru Hill fans for allowing us into the family. The ones that haven’t yet, it’s all love. Dru Hill is a legendary brand and group. To be able to help continue that is an honor. I felt like it was what we should do. Whoever thought that Dru Hill and Playa would come together? It’s worked out great. I love singing with those dudes. We’ve been family for years. I’d do anything for those guys. They called and we came.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Where is the new Dru Hill album? We’ve been waiting on that.
Digital Black: I’ll say it like this. We worked on Aaliyah’s last album for over two years. With Dru Hill being such a big brand, and with bringing in new faces, we’re just trying to dot every I, and cross every T. We definitely wanted to give a sample of what’s to come, so that’s why we dropped the new single. The 25th anniversary is coming up, so we’ve been trying to get something special for that. As soon as we are able to get back on the road and be in the same place. The social distancing is needed. It hasn’t stopped the process of music, I’m in the studio right now. But the best thing about it is to feel the energy of the people, we miss that part.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Let’s touch on some history. You started out with DeVante Swing along with Ginuwine, Timbaland, Missy and the others. When you got to Da Bassment, who was the first person talent wise who really blew you away?
Digital Black: Honestly, Missy. Timbaland was really shy. You’d just get beats from him. He was really into the music. The first time you saw a female that could write, and sing, and rap. It definitely lit a fire up under Playa. She definitely set the bar. She was doing a lot of work. Shout out to big sis.
YouKnowIGotSoul: When you guys got to Da Bassment, you guys were young. How polished were you at the time? I’ve read how Static wasn’t even a writer yet when he got there, but he developed into one.
Digital Black: It was more so we were most polished entertaining wise. Throughout the whole Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana area, we did a lot of shows before we got with DeVante. When it came to the stage and singing live, that was our forte. At the time, DeVante was working on the last Jodeci album, so when we moved to Rochester, that was the focus. He basically gave us a room with instruments. It was either learn how to do something, or you don’t know when you’ll be able to get your turn to work with him. That’s really where it came from. A lot of stuff comes out of necessity. We just started honing our craft. That’s when Smokey learned how to play the piano. We just continued to hone our craft. How could you not when you’ve got a studio that you’ve got access to 24 hours a day. You got DeVante in a room, you’ve got Mr. Dalvin and Steve J. in a room, you’ve got Timbaland in a room. You’ve also got Suga and Sista floating around, along with Ginuwine and Magoo. In Da Bassment, everyone was floating around going room to room. We always said it was college. I didn’t go to college. I was blessed to go to the college of music. I always appreciate DeVante Swing for that. I actually spoke to him about a month ago for the first time in a long time. It was good to hear my big brother’s voice. He’s doing well. He’s just being him, he likes to be to himself.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Take us through your time in Rochester when you were in Da Bassment. You guys were away from home and in the middle of nowhere.
Digital Black: First of all, it’s cold as hell in Rochester! It felt like Antarctica! 20 inches of snow and winter advisories. So it wasn’t anything to do but music. DeVante was very smart to take us there. At first we were in Teaneck, NJ, so DeVante was smart to take us away from being very close to the city. We could really develop.
YouKnowIGotSoul: The cool thing about Da Bassment, on the “Gin & Juice” remix, you were rapping! Now we know you as a singer, but you were doing it all.
Digital Black: What’s funny is I grew up in a part of Louisville, Kentucky called Victory Park. Real hood. We used to sing and rap on the corner in the streets. Freestyling out of necessity. It’s how to you fit in. I think Static was one of the dopest unheard rappers ever. You didn’t get to hear the privilege of what he could do as a rapper. I remember Capitol didn’t know we could sing, they wanted to sign us off of the song “B-Party”, it was us rapping. Then we played another record and they were surprised it was the same guys. You’re watching Missy who could rap and sing. You had to be able to do more than just sing. That was the push.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You guys got a chance to work on the third Jodeci album. The thing that stands out about that album was the harmonies on there. How did you develop that?
Digital Black: It’s no cheat code. It is DeVante being a genius. He could just hear stuff. It would be simple stuff. It would be putting harmonies on words and not even a whole mind. Just the way his mind clicked. I learned a lot from watching him work and produce that album. I would have to say it’s one of the reasons why the whole camp has been so successful. I just don’t think it was one of us that had the sauce, we all had it. Some of us more than others, but we all had that DNA to create something special and unique vocally.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Let’s talk about the Playa album “Cheers 2 U”. Smokey, Static and Black. You guys are all lead singers. Talk about that makeup of the group.
Digital Black: That was definitely intentional. At the time, you had your front man and the rest of the group. But again, what could we bring to the table. We had a real chip on our shoulder. You had to, being in the company you were with. So we were aggressive about everything. Shout out to Smokey. On this new Dru Hill album, I got to write for two of the dopest vocalist in my mind. I could be wrong, it’s a matter of opinion. I’m blessed. It don’t get no better.
YouKnowIGotSoul: “Cheers 2 U” came out and the sound on there was so classic. Timbaland and Playa both produced it. What are you most proud of about the album?
Digital Black: The fact that we did what we set out to do, put out an album. It took some time, don’t be scared to be patient. We were able to create something special, it was a sound nobody had ever heard, a Louisville sound. It came from us. We put our heart and soul because it came from our heart and soul. It was definitely a classic album and we were one of the most underrated groups to do it. I’m cool with that. I’ve got enough plaques to satisfy the other side of my ego. I’m cool with what we added to the tapestry of R&B.
YouKnowIGotSoul: After the “Cheers 2 U” album, you guys were writing for other artists. Talk about some of the writing behind the scenes.
Digital Black: Just being blessed. At the time, we were kinda beefing with Def Jam. They were new to R&B so they made some mistakes they didn’t make later on. It frustrated us and came to a point where we could get writing money or go and do shows that really comparable. We actually were on a radio tour and we left and went to L.A. to work on “Same Ol G”, “Your Dress” and “Are You That Somebody” for the Nutty Professor soundtrack. Once we first got with Def Jam, they tried to put us with some producers, and we told them we wrote. At the time, Static had “Pony” on the charts. We know we had the sound to win, but the label was new to R&B. Imagine this. You’ve got the #8 record on Billboard, “Cheers 2 U”, and no knock, but we were performing with all rappers. So we did a DMX show, and the people that were going to see him, weren’t necessarily trying to hear some singing. We could take half the show to really win the crowd over. It got frustrating to have to every night do that. They eventually got it right. As they got it right, our writing careers were taking off. It’s a business. I’m always going to sing. If I could go get writing money, that will sustain me. I call it mailbox money! In the last few years, Drake sampled us twice, Chris Brown too, and I just cleared a sample for Justin Bieber for his new record. Blessed.
YouKnowIGotSoul: How did the sound of Playa develop after the “Cheers 2 U” album? Some of us have heard the music from the second album.
Digital Black: We were dealing with Def Jam and their motto for R&B music is what was already working. It was the clean cut. But we were raised in the west end of Louisville, and anybody who knows Louisville knows that’s the hood. So as we started getting credibility as writers, we know on the second album we’d take full control. We were going to do what we wanted to do. That record wasn’t just love song, it was life songs. If I have any regrets, I regret that album not coming out. I actually think if “Cheers 2 U” was a classic, “Throwback Legends” was definitely going to be even bigger. “Incense Burning”, “Ride 4 Me”, Don’t Be a Stranger”, “Meet Me Halfway”. The album was going to be crazy. I’m sad that the world didn’t get to get that piece of Playa. Still here, still rocking for my big bro Static Major, R.I.P.
YouKnowIGotSoul: We are still waiting to hear Ludacris’ verse on “Gravy Train”!
Digital Black: *Laughs* Wow! Based on the last album we had such a big chip on our shoulder. You know Kevin or Lior, the first person they said to put on “Gravy Train” was Jay-Z, and was said nah! We thought we could do it by ourselves. We didn’t need a feature. In hindsight we should have took one of those features. The record would have come out, and we wouldn’t have left Def Jam and went to Blackground. I wouldn’t have as many plaques as I had got though. It all works out in the end. I’m just glad to be able to share my music.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Let’s talk about your work on the “Aaliyah” album. You guys went to Australia to work on that.
Digital Black: I love Australia! Good people. It was an awesome time. When you’re dealing with Aaliyah, she has always allowed us to push the envelope. She just let us write what we wanted to write. The dope thing about Static was he could tap into a female emotion and write it as if it was a female writing it. He was genius with that. My genius was the vocal production. It was a great partnership and I definitely miss him. As long as I’m living he will still live. Playa never dies. We will continue to rock with Dru, shout out to Sisqo and Nokio. But working with Aaliayh, for her to be as big as she was, she would let us write whatever. I could literally tell her to go in there and whisper and she would do it. For her to have that trust and for us to have that type of relationship, it’s hard to duplicate that. That’s a lot of why R&B is in the shape it’s in. Nobody is taking the real time to create. It’s like who can put out the most records the fastest.
YouKnowIGotSoul: The work you guys did on the Aaliyah album was so timeless. The production at the time was so unorthodox. Like the song “U Got Nerve”, how did you even write to that?
Digital Black: We would pick the tracks. We picked the odd ones just because we wanted to test ourselves. Wouldn’t it be dope if we were able to put an R&B song to different stuff? That’s what we did. Aaliyah is an artist that her ear for music was different. She allowed us to be us, and we allowed her to be her, it just worked.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk abut some of the solo albums you’ve put out over the years.
Digital Black: I kinda got forced into that. I’m a team player, I never wanted to be a solo artist, let me say that. It’s never been a goal of mine. Smokey and Static were putting out records, so they told me I had to do one. They forced my hand with the solo stuff. I wasn’t really tripping on that stuff. I love singing with my brothers. “The Autobiography of Benjamin Bush” is one of my favorite albums. I got to work with Darryl Pearson and the Featherstones. We just created music.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Reflect on the memory of Static Major.
Digital Black: I’ve been knowing him since little league football. We didn’t sing together since our senior year of high school. That was my brother. From 1992-93 until 1997, I was with him every day. When he died, I lost a piece of me for a while. It took me a long time to want to do music. I just wasn’t in a place mentally where I wanted to do anything. It takes time but I knew that’s what he’d want me to do so I got back to it. His passing put perspective on my life. I dove into my family and my community. I started coaching football, I just simplified my life a bit so I could survive. Losing a brother, sometimes that can affect you in crazy ways. We got back to the music and I’m here.