Sticks and stone

Angie Stone hasn’t always received the recognition she deserved, but she’s less bothered about success and more about doing it for her family

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“I’m the one true artist that’s been around for ever and a day,” says Angie Stone over the phone from her home in Atlanta, Georgia, taking a break from having breakfast with her family. She’s exaggerating, of course, but there is an element of truth behind her grandiose claims.

Born Angela Brown in 1961 and raised in the ghettos of South Carolina on a diet of gospel and Al Green, the singer is best known for the string of neo-soul records she made around the turn of the millennium, but the roots of her career stretch back to the mid-1970s when she was a founding member of pioneering female hip-hop trio The Sequence.

“I have two kids and two grandkids. I have no husband. I have one parent that I take care of.”

The group rarely features in the annuals of hip-hop history, yet they played an important early role in the genre’s ascension from the underground to the pop charts. Most notably, The Sequence’s 1979 single Funk You Up, released on Sugar Hill Records, was the first ever hip-hop single by a female rap group. Dr Dre sampled the song in his 1995 hit Keep Their Heads Ringin’. More recently, Stone and the founder members of The Sequence took legal action against Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars over the similarities between their huge 2014 smash Uptown Funk and Funk You Up.

“Because they paid out so many people we got nothing,” laments the soul singer about the multi-million selling Ronson-Mars hit, which has been subject to several copyright infringement lawsuits. Complicating an already thorny rights issue is the fact that Sugar Hill’s New York studios burned down in 2002, destroying all financial records.

“Even though we appear as the writers [of Funk You Up] on the original label copy, we can’t prove anything. I think out of all the groups that got paid, our group was hit the hardest because they [Ronson and Mars] actually used the wording and the cadence. To me, it’s a straight rip-off,” she bristles.

After The Sequence broke up in 1985, Stone toiled for many years as a session musician, songwriter and vocalist with a number of groups, including Mantronix, Vertical Hold and Devox, before finally landing a solo record deal in the late 1990s.

Her debut album Black Diamond, named after her daughter Diamond Ti’ara, was released in 1999 and gave her the commercial and critical success she’d spent decades pursuing. At the time, she was in her late thirties, practically retirement age in the youth-obsessed music industry, and the mother of two young children.

“When my career took off, I’ll be honest with you, I was so tired it never really hit me that it had happened,” she recalls, her voice as coarse and gravelly as concrete. “It had been almost 20 years of hustle and trying to make it and by the time I went into my Black Diamond mode I was at the end of my rope. I had a commitment to myself that if this doesn’t happen, I’m retiring. I’m getting out of the business and I’m going to go and have a normal life.”

Her fortunes changed with the single No More Rain (In This Cloud), which reached the top of Billboard’s R&B charts in the US. “That was when the real work began and I was already exhausted. Was I ready? Absolutely not, because I didn’t expect it. All of a sudden what was initially a pleasure turned into work.”

Follow-up album Mahogany Soul arrived two years later and built on her debut’s sophisticated blend of rootsy soul, catchy pop melodies and funky rhythm and blues. 2004’s Stone Love, featuring a collaboration with Snoop Dogg, cemented her status as a R&B star.

“I try not to venture too far from who I am,” says the singer, now 57. “My kids are very musical and they say ‘No, Ma’ or ‘That’s dope, ma’ and give me a guideline. One of my things is not wanting to get pigeon-holed as an old school artist. I think that I’ve grown immensely over the years and have stayed in touch and in tune with what people want.”

Stone’s ninth album, Full Circle, was released earlier this year and marked a return to the kind of introspective soul music that first made her famous.

“I wanted to revisit who I’ve always been in terms of song writing and subject matter. I think I captured that and people were not disappointed. It was the Angie Stone that they were looking for.”

Her forthcoming concert in Manchester is one of only three UK shows she’ll play this year. “You always show me love in England. I really have the most fun over there because it’s a vast audience of people that have no boundaries when it comes to race and all of that stuff. They just love great music and that means a lot to me.”

If that sounds like the kind of false compliment international artists regularly trot out to win favour, Stone is refreshingly honest about her reasons for still working in the autumn years of her life.

“I have to. I have a family to feed. I have two kids and two grandkids. I have no husband. I have one parent that I take care of. So I can’t quit because they all depend on me. Whereas I would like to settle down and have an easy life it’s almost impossible, because so much of the weight is on me. I keep on going because of my family.”

She stresses that she still gets enjoyment out of performing live, but doesn’t sound overly convincing. “There are times when it feels like fun because I can only appreciate an audience that truly appreciates me. And then there are places that I can go where it’s hard work. It all depends on the climate of the crowd.”

She is, nevertheless, excited for the future, particularly a planned biopic about her life, stretching from her time with The Sequence to the present day. “We just did the paperwork a couple of weeks ago. It’s going to be a mini-series because my career spans so long,” enthuses Stone of the unnamed project. “I want the world to see that it’s not been easy.”

A high-profile low point was the singer’s arrest for domestic aggravated assault in 2015 following a fight with her daughter. Reality TV appearances on R&B Divas and the American version of Celebrity Fit Club are similarly unlikely to appear near the top of her career résumé.

Stone’s biggest hope is that the biopic will address what she feels is a lack of recognition for the key role she played in the early days of hip-hop and the neo-soul scene that followed.

“I’m an unsung hero,” reflects the three-time Grammy nominee and sometime actor, sounding sad rather than angry. “I’m never looking for accolades. I don’t want people to think that I’m pining for that because that is so unnecessary for me. But it bothers me that I work so hard all my life. Most things have been hits as opposed to misses, and I’ve just been humbled throughout this whole process and overlooked because of the powers that be.”

She believes that her relationship with fellow soul singer D’Angelo in the 1990s had an adverse effect on how people perceived her. Stone famously helped write D’Angelo’s first two albums and the couple had a son, Michael D’Angelo Archer II, in 1998, although split up soon after.

“A lot of shade was thrown because once D’Angelo became a sex symbol and the apple of everyone’s eye, I obviously became the needle in everyone’s eye. I think that really hurt my career,” she sombrely states.

“I’m that one artist who stood out of the way for everyone else and was never bitter about it. My legacy will be the fact that I never quit. I just kept going and not being recognised did not hinder me as an artist. It didn’t stop me from being creative. It did not send me into a downward spiral. What it did was motivate me to be better.”

Three of Angie Stone’s best cuts

Funk You Up (Long Version), 1979
Although very much a product of its time, The Sequence’s debut release retains a breezy youthful charm that makes it more than just a historical curiosity as the first female hip-hop single. Underpinned by a funky marching bassline, wah-wah guitar, crisp handclaps and some decidedly dodgy 1970s synth sounds, the three high school friends – Cheryl Cook, aka Cheryl The Pearl, Gwendolyn Chisolm, known as Blondie, and Angie B (Stone) – take turns to showcase their skills on the mic. Stone’s vocal talents are already evident. Blondie’s smooth lyrical flow (“I’m rapping in the key of R.A.P.”) will have you merrily nodding along.

No More Rain (In This Cloud), 1999
“My sunshine has come and I’m all cried out,” declares Stone on her breakthrough hit, a seductively slow-paced ballad about moving on after the end of a relationship. Written by the singer alongside Bert Williams and Gordon Chambers, the song’s pillow-soft organ chords and sweeping orchestral arrangement are lifted from Gladys Knight & The Pips’ Neither One Of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye), bridging the gap between 1970s soul and its hip-hop influenced 1990s reincarnation. Several remixes of No More Rain have appeared over the years, the most striking being a UK garage Wookie mix that features on the deluxe reissue of
Black Diamond.

Wish I Didn’t Miss You, 2002 
Built around a sample of The O’Jays 1972 song Back Stabbers, Wish I Didn’t Miss You distils universally recognisable feelings of jealousy, lust, desire and heartache into four minutes of sumptuous Noughties soul. Stone didn’t write the song (Ivan Matias and Andrea Martin did), but it’s her smouldering, life-worn vocal that gives Wish I Didn’t Miss You its lasting power. “I can’t eat. I can’t sleep anymore. Waiting for love to walk through the door,” yearns the singer during its emotional climax. The 2002 single is reported to be the last song ever played at famous Ibiza nightclub Space when it closed in 2006.

Angie Stone plays O2 Ritz Manchester on 18 October. Full Circle is out now 

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    06 Mar 2021 05:22
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