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A Baduist goes to Tilburg

Erykah Badu on stage at 013 Poppodium in Tilburg
Rich takes a trip beyond his comfortable Amsterdam bubble, and finds the love of his musical life hanging out in the south. We’ve handed over the Kompas HQ pen so he can tell you in his own words.

I grew up in the 1980s and 90s which would typically suggest an adolescence listening to grunge and indie music – the two adjacent movements of those decades. While the heroin-chic and bad-boy demeanour of Nirvana and then Oasis were ruling the airwaves, my sensitive little soul was busy enjoying a gentler, more feminine side to music. There were no flannel shirts or Dr. Martens for me. I preferred Nippy in her white denim, perched on a motorcycle, reminding us that her name was not Susan.

In essence, I was a soul boy. I didn’t grow up in a very musical household but I was into the grooves, bass lines and especially those big, big voices. At a very young age I remember listening – just occasionally – to my dad’s Aretha Franklin, The Supremes and Wilson Pickett vinyl. My dad played other stuff, but Motown records struck a chord and stuck.

By the time I was a teen, my parents had turned to Mike and the Mechanics. My big brother was cranking out acid house and my big sister was swooning over Wet, Wet, Wet. We all enjoyed 4 Non Blondes, because we weren’t neanderthals, but outside of some crossover pop hits featuring guitars, I was only listening to acts who could hit whistle-tone or belt out four-point harmonies. Dance routines? Yeah, I’m in.

“The kick-drum intro, the live bass, the songbird drawl.”

Yet by the end of the 90s I was bored. I loved my music (and still do – friends will tell you how obsessed I am with 90s R&B), but I was tired of the perfection and over-engineering. Even though soul music was abundant there was still a lack of the grit and ‘true soul’ so present in those Franklin and Pickett albums. I finally wanted my alternative sound – familiar, but twisted into something new. I wanted some pain with it. The grunge kids had had their turn, now it was mine.

Then one evening in 1997 while late-night channel-hopping, I paused on VH1’s Pop Up Video and saw the music video for Erykah Badu’s first track, On & On. The kick-drum intro, the live bass, the songbird drawl – everything I loved was right there, but it was startlingly different too.

Minimal and undeniably bluesy, On & On came wrapped in its own curious mythology. I couldn’t understand it but I wanted more of it, so a few days later I went to the record store before my A-level sociology class and bought Erykah Badu’s debut album, Baduizm.

Let us take a moment to remember that this is the late 90s. Being able to listen again – to anything – was solely dependent on your radio station or TV channel playing it, or through ownership of a hardcopy. If I liked it, the stakes were higher if I wanted to hear it again.

I didn’t like it.

I couldn’t latch onto the songs. In hindsight my discomfort with it makes sense – I was 17 years old and I’d been consuming exciting but unchallenging pop and R&B all my life. Baduizm was an exercise in lo-fi Roots restraint. Although I’d unpacked that CD with high hopes I wasn’t quite ready for it. But I was still intrigued, so I persevered and On & On‘s mythology, percussion, double bass and bluesy vocals had already pulled me in. And so bit-by-bit I let the rest of the songs do the same. Then I was hooked. Forever.

That same year, Janet’s Velvet Rope was reshaping R&B and 12-months later the newly-solo Lauryn Hill shook the planet with her The Miseducation Of… album. Both of them had a huge impact on me, yet Baduizm was the very first toe I’d dipped into Nu-Soul waters. It opened a lot of doors for me beyond the UK Top 40, which was a place that Badu had never really spent time.

Badu’s chorus on “You Got Me” (written by Jill Scott, sung by Badu) led me to Things Fall Apart by The Roots and to Jill Scott’s Who Is Jill Scott? Words & Sounds Vol 1. A couple of years later, my infatuation with Badu was reason enough to find Like Water for Chocolate by Common and Black On Both Sides by Mos Def.

Badu doesn’t have a credit on the latter album, it was one of many LPs by artists that fit my new world. In this case, it was a reference to the old world with the Aretha Franklin sample of “One Step Ahead” on “Ms. Fat Booty”. Badu dropped her second album, Mama’s Gun, in 2000.

The rest is history.

“Badu’s six LPs have seen blues give way to funk, and funk give way to R&B, hip-hop and electronica.”

More than two decades have passed since Badu released Baduizm and I’ve been on the hook this whole time. Often surprised by her musical pivots, Badu’s six LPs have seen blues give way to funk, funk give way to R&B and hip-hop, and with an ever-growing influence from electronic music along the way. A lot of ingredients have changed in the kitchen, but the chef is unmistakably Ms. Badu.

I’ve followed her career by snacking on her occasional collaborations while waiting for the albums to provide the full meal. I’ve gotten to eat well over these 20-plus years, and yet I couldn’t get see Badu perform live. I’d never been at the banquet. For one reason or another I’ve found myself unavailable when her tour dates were scheduled or I was just too late to the table. Perhaps I never really believed I could have seen her play in the same room that I listened?

All of that changed this spring when an announcement came about a concert date in the summer. To my delight and disbelief there it was – an available ticket to a singular Netherlands performance in 2019. A performance I could finally attend, albeit 115 km south of Amsterdam in the city of Tilburg. So out came the Amex and down went the CCV digits.

I’m lucky to live in Amsterdam – it’s a big city with the footprint of a village, so I get see a lot of live music with fantastic venues like Paradiso and Melkweg bringing great artists to their intimate stages. Everywhere is reachable on a push bike so there are no transport-related curfews or hour-long schleps from work to the venue and then back home. None of the things that discolour the moment, in the moment. So I made a pact some years ago to make the most of it and go see the acts I like.

“22-years-worth of life, memories and music bookended between hearing On & On for the very first time and seeing it played live in front of me.”

As many concerts as I attend, I’m never Badu-excited. So a couple of months after buying that ticket, I finally, ecstatically got to see my icon play live at 013 Poppodium. In the process 22-years-worth of life, memories and music were bookended between hearing On & On for the very first time and seeing it played live in front of me by the Queen of Neo-Soul herself.

At long last I’d made it to the Badu banquet. And a week later I’m still savouring the moment. As full and as satisfied as I am, I know I’m always ready for another meal, a new album and the musical plot-twist it’ll bring. And I wonder if I’ll ever get back to the big table.

I do hope so.

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