There’s no shortage of rhythm and blues in D.C. Thanks to R&B’s hybridization with hiphop, the District’s radio stations find it easy to play the half-singing, half-thumping tunes of groups such as Destiny’s Child and Ginuwine alongside the relatively grittier music of DMX or Jay-Z. Same goes for the city’s dance floors: From D.C. Live to 2:K:9 to Platinum, DJs pound the sounds of Donell and Montell.
Yet the rhythm in mainstream R&B is typically upbeat, and the blues are mostly limited to the gold-diggin’-woman and/or the triflin’-ass-man variety. And, although area radio champs WPGC and WKYS spin R&B tunes like mad, none of the featured artists—except Dru Hill, Mya, and maybe a few others—are natives. You could be forgiven for believing that the R&B scene in D.C. is both completely youth-oriented and wholly imported.
The crowd at Republic Gardens a few weeks back seemed rather surprised to discover evidence to the contrary. The upscale African-American nightclub’s regular Wednesday night comedy showcase was inverted—a live band had replaced the joker-atop-a-stool. The four-piece ensemble, led by James Litman—better known as Jimmy—played in support of Litman’s independently produced CD, Aggressive Behavior, a collaboration he and various local artists released under the banner of his 911 Entertainment company.
Litman is a writer-producer who has been working with “unknowns” in New York, Philadelphia, and the D.C. area for five years. He admits that none of the artists he has worked with have ever “really gotten off the ground,” even though some have signed to major labels. The new CD has a varied but commercial bent, with tracks ranging from straight R&B balladry to hiphop-tinged instrumentals.
After a few false starts by a nervous vocalist and some problems with feedback, Jimmy & Co. managed to warm up the crowd and get a reasonably favorable response—at least for a group of unknowns. As his debut’s title and his willingness to play out to any crowd suggest, Litman is taking a rather forthright approach toward marketing his work.
Washington City Paper: How did the Aggressive Behavior project start?
James Litman: I originally put the Aggressive Behavior project together just to be shopped through the industry so I could get more work producing and writing. I put so much time into trying to make all the tracks as diverse as possible to show my range that after I mixed it down, we decided to go ahead, master it, and release it to consumers.
CP: Is there enough of a venue infrastructure in D.C. for acts like yours to make a living performing?
JL: I guess it just depends on what your standards are for making a living. I’m starving right now, but I’m making a living. You have good months and bad months. There are groups that are working consistently five nights a week. Spur of the Moment is working; Suttle Thoughts is working; Maiesha and the HipHuggers…I would assume—I don’t know what negotiations they have with the establishments—but I hope they’re making a substantial amount of money.
CP: What about support from local radio?
JL: I’ve been getting no love from the radio. I’ve tried the who-you-know thing. I’ve sent press packages everywhere. I’ve been cold-calling. That is a rough area.
There’s all kinds of rumors about the program directors. There’s a joke—I don’t know if you’ve heard this joke before—[that] they’re usually not in on Mondays because they’re still on vacation from the money that people paid them to get their projects played.
I’m on my way back in the studio to remix two songs from the CD to put on vinyl. I’m going to remix them, speed them up, and make them more club, so at least I can get club exposure, because that, a lot of times, will get people out to see what the project is like. If they’re feeling it in the clubs, they’ll say, “Who is that?”
CP: Having worked with other unsigned artists in the area, what do you think of the local scene?
JL: Over the past year, I’ve probably done 10 demo packages in this area. I wouldn’t say that’s a lot. And a lot of the people that I’ve done demo packages for didn’t, in my opinion, have good skills. However, how do you tell somebody, “I don’t think you’re ready to be out yet,” when they’re coming to you to hire you?
I don’t think there are a lot of artists that are out and performing. More of the venues cater to jazz [audiences]. I don’t think there are enough venues that cater strictly to R&B.
CP: Do you think you’ll have a better chance on the road?
JL: Even in the response that we’ve gotten from the Southern cities like Richmond and places like that, just in calling, it seems like you get a little bit more love. As opposed to calling here, where people are just like, “Yeah. Uh-huh. Yeah. Yeah. Put it in the mail. All right, bye.”
KDS Records, an independent start-up comprising producers Darren “Scooter” Short and Sarkis N along with singer Kara, is also testing the lukewarm waters of D.C.’s R&B scene. Their first release is a full-length CD, Seasons, featuring vocals by Kara, a 24-year-old classically trained cellist and pianist whose influences run more toward Cassandra Wilson and Ella Fitzgerald than Janet Jackson and TLC. Short is a 32-year-old DJ and producer who has only recently taken up songwriting. Their approach to marketing Seasons, much like the jazz-influenced ballads it contains, is significantly more relaxed—and certainly more idealistic—than James Litman’s “aggressive behavior.”
CP: What did you intend to do with this album?
Kara: We were really trying to come up with an alternative to what’s on the radio right now as far as black music goes. We were looking for something different for ourselves.
Darren Short: We kept asking ourselves, What kind of music have you bought lately, you know? Sade’s not around anymore. Anita Baker’s not around anymore. There’s nothing out there for us to go out and buy.
CP: What is it about the radio that you find disagreeable?
K: Within the past few years, I think, there’s been a noticeable change in the kind of black music that’s available in the mainstream. We wanted to get back to the basics and focus on actual songwriting and song production—just a real creative endeavor.
DS: [The radio stations] just stick to one thing. I guess it’s cool, but sometimes you can add something that’s new and fresh.
CP: You’re not working now. Have you decided to go with singing as a career?
K: I’m not about to abandon pursuing my whole life just because I produced a CD. I got into this primarily to challenge myself as a writer and as a vocalist. Whatever financial rewards that do or don’t come out of this, I’m not even thinking about. I got out of it what I wanted.
CP: What about performing? Will you do shows?
K: We’ll see what happens—if there is an audience for it. That’s something we’re talking about. But right now we’re just concentrating on local sales and selling [the album] on the Internet.
CP: What made you focus on the Internet?
K: Just looking at how hard the record industry lobbied to ban MP3 technology said things to us. You’re really seeing a formidable force of change where musicians and consumers are poised to turn the tables on who dominates the industry, because [on the Internet] you can directly distribute and market to your consumers without having to go through whatever the standard protocol might be with signing on to a major label. It’s a really good avenue for alternative musicians to pursue—bearing in mind that they might not get immediate financial success.
DS: We have an online listening station. [Consumers] can preview the actual album right there. They can listen to all 12 songs before they even buy it. You can’t do that with any other artist’s material on a major label.
CP: Will you even approach the local radio stations with Seasons?
K: I’m not sure that the songs on the CD are what would be on the radio. I don’t know; I don’t really listen to the radio. Just because it’s [not] on the radio or on BET does not mean that there isn’t good music out there and that there aren’t black musicians doing things worthy of giving a listen to or worthy of being given a contract.
DS: I have talked to [WHUR], but they were really hectic.
CP: What are the political aspects of dealing with commercial radio?
DS: If the artist is having a show—let’s say they’re performing at Constitution Hall or whatever—there’s going to be some type of promotional dollars that will go into that to keep the record being spun every hour on the hour so that they can sell out that show. We don’t have the capital to do that.
CP: If a major label approached KDS Records and wanted to pick up either you as an artist or your entire label, would you be interested?
K: I’m not sure as far as the label. But as an artist, I’m not interested in pursuing that option.
DS: It’s a possibility. We like to be able to be in control of what we created. Once you put it in someone else’s hands, they don’t have the same vision. If I give you a masterpiece and you take it and make a video with all these girls in it with no clothes on—that’s not what we’re shooting for. You wouldn’t take Sade and have a bunch of naked guys on her.—Neil Drumming