JOI & THE HOT HEAVY & BAD SESSIONS
“It's the 'Why don’t you just ...'” sighs Joi, recalling the question she has been asked ad nauseum, by a selection of A&R executives, all singin’ the same tired ol' song since ‘93.
“Joi, you sing so wonderfully and could do any kind of music you want? So why don’t you just … blah, blah, blah.”
Every suggestion fitting neatly into the R&B/Hip Hop section at the back of the local HMV, where it’s assumed all the young, gifted and black artists are expected to ply their trade. “My answer to them is simple, that’s not all I do,” Explains Joi, breaking it down patiently.
“You may catch something that appeals to a sensibility that you have but you’re not going to hear me do something that is all one way, R&B, Hip Hop or whatever. Because that’s not who I am musically; as an artist I’m going to express myself and that’s going to be in a swirl of several different styles. If I do something, that you think is dead ahead R&B, how I would present it and because of how it would come out of my mouth it would not be dead ahead R&B when it’s finished. The proof is in my songs Missing You or I’m So Famous, records that came out that should have been radio hits but were not,” Joi laughs, “because even in their interpretation my songs just don’t come out like that. It’s going to be something else, it always is. I don’t know what that is? It just Eeyiiss.” The last word pronounced in her strong Tennessee accent, employing melisma, even when just stating a fact.
Though it’s the road less travelled, Joi knows that limiting her art to a singular musical palette would take away what her fans love about her music in the first place, shackling the same Freedom that inspired the title to one of her most requested encores.
Her devoted Starcats n' Kittens (the name for her listeners: pro’s and fan’s alike) who purr at the nightly makeovers and jam to her ground-breaking soul, sound and vision, wouldn’t have it any other way, happy to be in on the secret, digging the music regardless of mainstream commercial success, their very own private Joi.
Not that any true fan would begrudge modern funk's matriarch her share of widespread appreciation. Recently anointed to the public at large by D'angelo & The Vanguard, touring the world in the spot vacated by Kendra Foster, Joi's next, eagerly anticipated solo project, Rebekkah Holylove's Salvation Symphony, has been in the works for ten of the #22yearsofJoi. A void of new material almost D'angelo-esque in its patience. Unless or course, you follow @yepthatjoi via Twitter, and happened to cop the slopadelic brilliance of Hot, Heavy & Bad (a duo with Devon Lee - now part of Atlanta combo Royal), Joi's last hurrah in Atlanta before heading out west SoCal. In the space of a year Hot Heavy & Bad made three releases available, lead promo One with a video produced by Roni Nichole, and two covers EP's, available digitally: the electric Undercover (feat. the philly classic If & When & fine cover of Curtis Mayfield's Little Child Runnin' Wild) & Psychodelacoustic (Joi turning out Dolly Parton's Jolene). Not long after Joi made the move to Los Angeles she started a new phase in her career, joining the Vanguard and working with D'Angelo, also DJ Quik, The Hawthorne Headhunters, Fantastic Negrito, Rob Fonksta Bacon, Outkast, Dám Funk and putting together the Bang Bang backing vocal group, all the time curating her 5th solo album. Whilst we wait, for the true starcatsnkittens, here's how the the Hot Heavy & Band sessions went down ...
ATLANTA GEORGIA, 2010
The flyer read > “Elegant Hustler: A Celebration of Femme Power hosted by the Dirty Debutante Joi and Sweetboxx Jones aka DJ Princess Cut.” Taking place in the historic 4th Ward, the once famed “Sweet” Auburn district of Downtown Atlanta, “Elegant Hustlers” went down at a joint called Pal’s Lounge, owned by a fresh faced proprietor with dreads named Devon Lee. On any given night you could hear a variety of different sounds drifting out of the front door onto the streets of Sweet Auburn, bands performing the blues, roots, soul, jazz, country and hip hop; and Lee’s own band, Blackbeard, regularly serving up afropunk to the punters. Joi & Devon it seems had much in common; “I was well aware that Devon was a dope musician,” says Joi, adding “he plays everything - bass, guitar, drums, keys … I’m pretty sure he could play whatever he put his hands on.” A match made in electric purgatory.
“Working with Joi is great,” says Devon, returns the compliment. “But recording music together was not the intention to begin with, we we’re just talking about my place, Pals Lounge.” He recalls. Joi concurs, “I wanted to help Devon make Pals what it needed to be; which is one of the premier live venues here in the city whatever the sounds… so long as it’s pure, and its good music.”
Across from Pals Lounge is a Wok N’ Roll Chinese restaurant, just down the road is the famed Royal Peacock Club - which in its heyday used to host Sam Cooke, Little Richard & Ray Charles – now the Dub Bashment of choice. “You got everyone from drug dealers, to attorneys, to educators, to the homeless; from prostitutes to clergy,” Joi laughs, adding “people come in requesting all kinds of music - it’s pretty diverse – there’s a really cool melting pot of folk coming through.” Auburn Ave, transformed from Blackamerica’s pride to a cosmopolitan, integrated cross section of social culture – situated beneath the overpass of the Downtown Connector, Pals neon sign still, after all these years, shining.
GET READY FOR SOMETHING ...
A new music video appeared on Youtube towards the end of summer. A Geiger (Alien/The Tourist) inspired wet-nightmare called One – the fruits of the first collaboration between Gilliam & Lee, with Joi’s vocal toying with the flawless beats, dark industrial funk production. Like the cat holding onto the tail of mouse. R&B fucked into submission. Joi & Blackbeard’s partnership exposed for all to see & hear, under their new moniker which was swiped from a funk classic.
“We we’re listening to some old live James Brown records and the announcer, before one of his live shows said: ‘Get ready for something … HOT … HEAVY …. and BADDD!” And yes, we grabbed it” laughs Joi. One began by Devon playing Joi a beat and before they knew it, they had two albums worth of material. “It’s special when you realize you can collaborate with another person, and Joi and I could,” says Devon, “as artists, we know music, we have similar influences of rock n’ roll & funk and we’re from the south. We have spent long, long hours in the studio, going there everyday and we get. songs. done!”
“Devon is a really awesome producer. It’s been an honour working with him and finally being able to have people find out, what I’ve had the pleasure of knowing for 3 years.”
Rather than just uploading their new albums straight to Reverbnation or bandcamp - a self titled debut set (which includes One & a Latin killer called Spaniard) and the completed, Harem Of God - first Hot Heavy & Bad decided to put out a mixtape, a collection of cover songs they regularly perform at Pals.
“We didn’t want to go out there without having created a vehicle that’s proper, and we knew that we wanted the mixtape to be covers, which would be an opportune way to be able to do something for free,” explains Joi, “ so we wanted it to be a pretty serious blend of genres, doing older songs. It’s not about mimicking something or trying to one up the original or any of those things its just about paying homage to the artist who did it first and putting your best foot forward on the interpretation.”
The result, Hot Heavy & Bad’s Undercover, even tossed off as a mixtape, is the best Slop album since Van Hunt’s Popular. Joi’s voice has never sounded as deeply soulful and confident. Commanding any musical situation she’s faced with. Devon’s co-production and playing, and the dude played everything (SJ: Joi, who played the brilliant James Jamerson style bass run on The Flesh Begins? Joi: "Devon". SJ: And the funk fatback drums on Little Child? Joi: "Devon!" SJ: And the synths all over If & When? Joi: "DEVON DAMMIT!" She laughs "All instruments by Devon!") - is nothing short of a revelation. His own vocal interpretation of Curtis Mayfield’s Little Child Runnin’ Wild, one of Undercover’s standouts, comes off sounding like Jimi mixed with The Christians. The Johnny Cash song Folsom Prison proves Hot, Heavy & Bad can do whatever the hell they like and make it work (someone really should send a copy to the song placement guys on the production of The Walking Dead or True Blood), along with the Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall finally getting the slop treatment it deserves. Like all the great recordings, albums that are eventually re-released, with reams of anecdotes behind each glorious note, Undercover must have, one would assume, its fair share of notable memories during its creation …
“Ummm, honestly? Memorable … while I’m recording? No.” Joi laughs “First of all (her voice rises) there’s no-one in there! Nobody, no traffic, no audience, no spectating - nobody’s in the studio but me and Devon. So in terms of things being eventful? Err … not so much!!” Still laughing, “Not so much with the eventfulness – shit, maybe the best day was when we got it done! And when we realized that we would be able to be self contained. We figured out a couple of things, I call it self-persevering genius, because neither one of us are experienced engineers – I have the ear of an engineer and Devon has the technical savvy, so by getting together we made one helluva engineer! But with Hot Heavy & Bad and our production company Flawless Beat Creations there is no outside anything.” Google Joi, and rightly or wrongly shit loads of descriptive words are used as meta-tags for her music: Eclectic, Experimental, Funky, Electronic, Rock, R&B, Fearless, Slop (probably with a link to this site), Hip Hop, Afro Punk etc. But rarely do bloggers and reporters type Soul. Yet soul is a pre-requisite for the art of Joi Gilliam. Undercover’s highlight, is undoubtedly the most soulful interpretation on the set: If & When is a synth based cover of the classic, surprisingly overlooked, Bruce Hawes & Joseph Jefferson composition first recorded by the Three Degrees in ‘73 for Philly International (though I prefer this rawer version, If & When is also given the full band treatment on the box set only indie artist obscurity SoulFinger, released in 2014).
“If & When is just one of my all time favourite soul ballads, ever. I love the Three Degrees … I love them. They’re beautiful and immaculate vocalists and they understand all of what it means to be a performance artist. If you look at the live footage of them it is some of the most mesmerizing stuff you will ever see … from anybody. And it was a fan who sent me a message on Myspace, saying “I saw this and I thought of you, I don’t know if you’ve already seen this or not?” And whilst I was clearly familiar with the song and with the ladies, I had never seen any live footage of them and what they sent me was a live performance on Top Of The Pops and Oh my god! I was so taken and blown away by the orchestration of the music and how they chose to deliver the track vocally it just really inspired me. So I decided that I wanted to give it a stab myself. And also, I thought I’d use it as an opportunity to let more people know about the Three Degrees because stateside people don’t really know them, all they know is When Will I See You Again. They didn’t get the love over here it was all about the Supremes and whoever else and the Three Degrees just got lost in the sea of girl groups. But the lyrics were just wow! I mean WOW! It was the ultimate song about “I’m gonna love you forever and I might still even be here when you come back.” It was strong AND it was vulnerable – I just love every minute of If & When.”
The Three Degrees number is regularly performed by Hot Heavy & Bad at their regular Pals Psychodelacoustic shows. Musically stripped down, just a guitar and a mic, the duo has another mixtape in the offing using this approach – Psychodelacoustic, so called because the vocals have a psychedelic edge to ‘em. “It sounds spacey – its sounds trippy.” But Joi, who once wrote a song with Raphael Saadiq titled Twist Me A J, no longer needs to get all under the influence for work.
“Maybe when I was younger, earlier on I was a little more open to that. But I’ve been there – done that. So really this is just another level of experimentation – how wild, or how beyond can the music sound when I’m dead ass sober. It’s like another frontier to explore – so I think I’m exploring that right now. Besides when I’m performing, I’m pretty lucid and I like to know what the hell is goin’ on. I’m not somebody who gets loaded before they go on stage. There’s too much shit to think about – if I’m stoned, on stage, I’m gonna fuck up (laughs) so nah – I’m sober on stage. You know maybe I’ll have a cocktail or two, on occasion in the studio – you know maybe I’ll smoke a joint in the studio – but quite frankly if its just me, I’m creating and getting shit done.”
Harem Of God and the original material of Hot Heavy & Bad remains unreleased.
Thanks to Joi & Devon Lee - Hot Heavy & Bad