CORNELIUS SLICK BARNES
Georgia street lights slide over the windscreen of his whip. Inside the darkness, behind the wheel is ATL soul warrior and former Sleepy’s Theme singer/songwriter Cornelius Slick Barnes; head-nod lost in N*gga Gone, a playback of a new track he’d just cut fresh with bass virtuoso Preston Crump.
“Recording N*gga Gone was crazy,” remembers Slick. “We use to call Preston’s studio “The Spaceship”, because with all the jacks, lights and rigging it was set up like a spaceship, man. So we’d take our time you know, time to turn each light on. Preston would say ‘Okay, got your gravity boots on?’” Slick laughs. “That particular night, Preston had called me earlier and was like, ‘Yo, I got something and you’re gonna love it!’ All day I couldn’t wait, then finally I made it round there after 10pm and soon as I get there we got our bong hits going on and he was like ‘OK strapped in? Ready for blast off? Hit the track!’ And I remember when I first heard that bassline … oh my god!”
With N*gga Gone in the can, Cornelius Barnes had officially begun his first ever solo project, 2007’s Coupe DeVille Theory. Up to that point, round Ben Hill, Slick’s local neighbourhood in Atlanta, he was mainly known as the go-to soul brutha to get a little Grammy heat on your track, after scoring three songwriting nominations; two for India Arie songs (A Better Way and the stunning Stevie homage Wonderful) and another on his mate Anthony David (Words). But it was as an artist, with the release of Coupe DeVille Theory - low riding its way under the mainstream waveband – that he’d be responsible for slipping out one of the finest Atlanta soul albums since, well, the last record his voice could be heard on: The Vinyl Room by Sleepy’s Theme, a modern soul classic. A project instigated by Barnes’ Ben Hill bestie Patrick ‘Sleepy’ Brown (one third of platinum production group Organized Noize – who hit with Waterfalls TLC, Player’s Ball Outkast & Soul Food Goodie Mob to namedrop a few million sellers). Both men anointed in southern soul music from an early age.
“I grew up on the southwest side of town, where that whole Organized Noize sound came from. I was singin’ at church with my grandmother, who liked both gospel & country. My ma was into soul, funk; you know Parliament/Funkadelic, Stax, Muscle Shoals. Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave; those cats and that whole era were my first musical obsession. In church I would be jiving to all those type of voices. Sure, I’d try and sing that New Edition stuff, but I never really felt like it was me.”
Long before Sleepy’s reflection resembled Black Moses and Lil ’Slick was wearing matching beanie hats and sweatbands, the duo were gathering musical influences for life’s Walkman.
“I met Sleepy in third grade, and we were into break-dancing at first, you know … poppin’ and lockin’. Then we’d go to each other’s basements and listen to old soul records.” Sometimes Sleepy’s pops Jimmy Young - who was the lead vocalist and saxophonist in successful Atlanta disco funk combo Brick – would be jamming in the basement.
“We would go to his Dad’s rehearsals man, get down and watch. It was like school. Back then Sleepy probably already knew he was going into music. People didn’t know I could sing though. I had a love for it, but I was really shy when I was younger. But then wow, when Organized Noize started getting popular and Sleepy was getting paid for what we did for fun all the time, just being around him and seeing how he was doing it, I thought to myself ‘Okay, I can do that.’”
In the music industry, there’s an unwritten rule that “people help those who help themselves” – particularly when you’re tight with someone who’s already made it. Because talent alone is what’ll get you noticed, creatively. Such was the case when Slick got his first real break.
“I was working for Hertz Rent-A-Car in Hartsfield Airport and Sleepy lived about twenty minutes away. So he would come pick me up. This was right after the Society Of Soul album and we would ride around in his 500 Benz, with the top down, and he put on this great new track he was working on called Choked Out Saturday Night (The Vinyl Room) and I told him: ‘oh … my … god! This stuff is great!’ At that time, when work began on what would become Sleepy’s Theme, he had no idea I was recording. He thought – I thought – I was going into fashion, to become a buyer in a big store one day. But then he heard my demo I’d recorded with Eddie ‘Gypsy’ Stokes and looked at me like ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were writing like that?’ I never leaned on our friendship because, you know how it eeyis, when friends get a little notoriety, people start coming out of the woodwork thinking they’re automatically entitled, saying ‘Put me on! Put me on!’ And Sleepy see, I’ve known him since the 3rd grade, he was my friend before anythang. But he was like ‘Man, you shoulda played me this stuff.’”
Sleepy wanted to get to work with Slick right away, “There are two songs I’m stuck with.” He said. The first, he played him right there in his Benz - the stone cold, opening theme Can’t Let Go. Slick suggested some lyrics and voila, Sleepy loved it. Next he wanted help with a blissed out lust suite named Private Party, the album’s finale.
“It was New Year’s Eve and we we’re in the studio and upstairs people we’re celebrating. So Sleepy says ‘You know what? I’m going to go upstairs and we’ll work on it tomorrow.’ So I’m sitting alone, in studio. By now the people upstairs had called it a night. So he came down the next morning and I said: ‘I got the verses for that song.’
‘Yeah, check it out.’
‘Slick, this is perfect … so, you might as well come on and be in the band!’ And that was how I came to join Sleepy’s Theme!”
Slick was in good company; the line up of Sleepy's Theme was like a who’s who of Atlanta’s baddest musicians and singers. Many of whom stepped up to the mic when Slick needed some crack session playing expertise for Coupe DeVille Theory.
“We are like a little family man; it’s like there’s no studio in the Atlanta that I can’t sit in and watch them work. Everybody has a different thing.”
Bassist LaMarquis Jefferson gets busy, co-producing the do-it-fluid acoustic funk of Lil’ Red. Other former Theme’rs featured include (Starship Cap’n) Preston Crump and his ex-partner, ATL Soul Royalty and Superstar-in-Succession Keisha Jackson, both providing some of their best recordings.
How does it work? Being that Preston & Keisha are no longer together n’ all?
“They’re really good friends of mine, so we know how to stay out of each other’s bizness. We all have such a deep love for the music that we do, there’s never been no problems with anybody working together. When we get in the studio all the personal stuff stays outside the door, you know what I’m saying? We’re not kids playing together, man, as I said it’s a family. We can get past it.”
The song with Keisha, a killer, is a sweet Rhodes laced duet called Crazy Things You Do, candid in its brutal honesty, bitching bout’ men rolling in pissed from the booty club - cracking their toes, whilst women block the box with the news on, leaving the dinner, uncooked, in the fridge, still in its packaging.
“Marq Jefferson, my mentor, he plays bass in the live shows, came to me and said, ‘I got this idea for Keisha and you. I want y’all to do a duet.’ So I was vibing with the track he’d recorded and it brought to mind a friend that was going through that situation. He had this girl he was dealing with, and they were a strange couple, man. They would fight like cats and dawgs, but they would love hard too! My friend said to me one time ‘the crazy stuff that attracted me to her, is the very shit that I can’t stand about her!’ So I called Marq and said I had it. He was like ‘ah man it’s great!’ So we sat down, wrote the song and called Keisha and when she came over, first thing she said was ‘Oh yeah, I know what this is!! Yeah, he does this all the time! But I lurrrve his dirty drawers!’ He laughs. Slick insists it was his ‘friend’ who was the subject matter of Crazy Things, though admits he mostly writes from his own experiences in life.
“I’m married man, a father of two. My wife and I… its crazy we’re talking about writing, because I just wrote a song called Fly Away. For three weeks, every day when I would come home this girl would be in my house in my living room complaining to my wife. She slept on my couch a couple of times; it was like, ‘I don’t want to go home,’ blah blah blah! All the time it was leaking in, then I heard this track and the melody locked and the words just came right out. I was in the house singing it and the wife just started looking at me.
‘Uh, what are you doing?’ she said.
‘Did you hear what you were saying?’
‘Whatchu talking about?’
‘Listen to the lyrics of what you just wrote!’
Then when I sang it back: “it’s been four days and he hasn’t even checked on the keeyidds.” The penny dropped, ‘ah wow that’s about Kyra huh?’
‘Yes it is.’ I actually got Keisha - and ah man, that’s my sister - to come and sing that song. I heard what she was writing for her album and she is just one of the coldest writers in the game, especially when it comes to soul music. She’s the boss lady. Preston produced her new album. Wait to you hear her version of Al Green’s Simply Beautiful. Oh my god, I mean, he’s one of those artists you just don’t touch, but she took his song and made it hers!”
The contemporary soundscape of Coupe De Ville Theory is dripped in classic soul. Indeed, that’s what the title was meant to suggest. “Everybody had Cadillac’s in the seventies & eighties and Cadillac music, was pure funky soul like Curtis Mayfield, so that’s the theory. And the Coupe De Ville was one of the best Cadillac’s.”
Each track on the album has a funky soul lineage. The stark urban escapism of N*gga Gone, is what Norman Whitfield’s Cloud Nine might have sounded like if the Motown Producer weren’t leaving Hitsville each night carrying million dollar checks in his purse. Miss Rose is filthy and so sloppy she hurts. Caroline is sweet and lovely, yet Georgia Brown with its cool stankonian bass riff struts like a pimp with a rasher of bacon in his pocket. ’82 Malibu, another killer, with its sax blow and anthemic chorus is concrete nostalgia.
If success was measured in the quality of art created, as opposed to sales notched up, Coupe De Ville Theory would have made Slick a rich man. Thankfully, through his songcraft, Slick has enjoyed success of the green kind as well.
“India Arie actually demoed the first song (Trials & Tribulations) I ever had placed on an artist, Grenique on Motown Records in ’98. India didn’t have a deal but the label called back and asked ‘WHO was singing on that song ya’ll sent?’ and even after we recorded that demo, India said to me ‘I like the way you write. If I ever get a deal, I want you to write with me on my album.’ So I was like, ‘Okay, cool.’” India stayed true to her word, introducing Slick to a couple of collaborators for life.
“I met Anthony David at India’s showcase at the Red Light Café – soon as I saw him I was like ‘wow, he sounds just like Bill Withers.’ That’s how we became friends.
Then when he was on the road with India in support of her Acoustic Soul album, he called me from Quebec and said ‘I got this idea for song called Georgia Peach … I’ve got a hook, but I don’t have verses.’ I heard it and told him:
‘If you put me on this song with you, man, it’s going to be a classic!’ That song ended up being on Anthony’s 3 Chords & The Truth. Later we wrote Words together, from Acey Ducey, which would earn us a Grammy nomination.”
Slick, who’s got songs placed on forthcoming projects by Truth Hurts & Anthony, also recently wrote with Nashville soul maverick Shannon Sanders.
“Shannon is my brother and we’re like kindred souls. India introduced us, but I already knew exactly who he was. People don’t appreciate how good Shannon is, he wrote Video & Brown Skin for India and Heather Headley remade his In My Mind - though I prefer his version. Marq Jefferson, as far back as Sleepy’s Theme was like ‘you’ve gotta hear this dude.’ And I was blown away. The album Outta Nowhere is a classic.”
It’s been five years now since Coupe De Ville Theory … which was an eight piece band with three backing singers. “That album was for and about my city, Southwest Atlanta.” Explains Slick, “That’s eleven different schedules to keep on the wheels. And it came out of my pocket, me and a bunch of friends doing it for the love. This time I wanted to do something raw.”
Inspiration hit when Slick happened to catch a free blues concert recently showing on Public TV channel PBS.
“The White House Blues All Stars (feat. Mick Jagger & Buddy Guy) were doing a benefit concert for President Obama and there was this guy in the band, called Gary Clark Jr. And he did this song Bright Lights. I swear, it was like one o’clock in the morning, and I’m in my living room in my underwear screaming at the TV: ‘That’s what I’m talking about! That’s what I’m talking about!’ My wife was going, ‘What the hell are you doing!’” Slick Laughs.
Recently Slick signed his new band project Hoochie Seed to Theodis Ealey’s Ifgam Record label (Theodis, an indie bluesman, recently had a surprise R&B hit, with the classic sounding pure filth of Stand Up In It)
“Hoochie Seed is a 3 piece band, just guitar, bass and drums. And it’s going to be swampy, raw, southern soul blues. We’re going to knock the paint of the walls. If you’re going to come and hear this, wear a T-shirt and some jeans. We’re trying to make you sweat!”
Titled The Brown Liquor Sessions, Slick hopes Hoochie Seed will leave a funky soul legacy. .
“Everybody I deal with: Shannon, Anthony, Keisha, India and all those, we aren’t interested to do nothing else. We want to do live music, man. This is real. I want to be able to leave something behind. It is really, truly, honestly not about the money. Everybody wants to be able to pay their bills, but I just want to make music. I want to be known as the guy that made great music and wrote great songs that had a heart full of love, who has love for other musicians, whether they be male or female - Whatever their race. We’re soul brothers and soul sisters, you know we don’t like it watered down; we like it raw. We don’t like it mixed with jazz; we don’t like it too jazzy. We keep it all the way funky slop. Know what I’m saying?”