Every Tuesday night at Philadelphia’s The Five Spot, the most earnest expressions of poetry and song are popping off. On any given night you can catch an up and coming act like Jazmine Sullivan, or a veteran of the business like Erykah Badu might grace the stage right after a nervous high school student puts it down. It’s intimate, it’s tangible, it’s accessible to new talent – and it’s all thanks to two young ladies that call themselves the Jazzyfatnastees.
Tracey Moore and Mercedes Martinez are only two albums deep in the game – the third on its way – but they have twelve years of experience in this topsy turvey music industry. They have seen deals come and go, group member leave, come back and leave again, albums completed and never released… all the usual events that many successful artists can attest to. Regardless, through it all the two young ladies remained focused, blessing us with two distinctly different, yet individually solid albums – Once and Future in 1999 and The Tortoise and The Hare in 2002.
Their trials with the music game have generated cohesiveness between the ladies that is rarely seen. Students of life and music, Tracey and Mercedes saw experience and genuine stage presence as their way to establish their position in the fickle music climate. Driven and committed, the ladies didn’t wait for venues to come to them, they created their own venue, one in which they could constently perform at until their stage set was impeccably dope. The Jazzies called their creation the ‘Black Lily Women in Music Series’. They did not horde their creation, but instead fostered its growth by inviting any and all to grace its stage, as long as performers with sincerity and dopeness.
Thus, the Black Lily was born. The list of artists who have rolled through the Black Lily music series is thick: Alicia Keys, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Macy Gray, Bilal, Musiq, Aaries, Floetry, Nona Hendryx, Toshi Reagon, Jaguar Wright, Kindred, Jazmine Sullivan, Glenn Lewis, Julie Dexter, Common, Mos Def and, of course, The Roots…just to name a few.
Boasting talent and experience that precedes the term neo-soul, these ladies produce music that is challenging and intriguing. They promise to continue that tradition on their forthcoming, as yet untitled third album. The Jazzies took a minute from finishing up their third studio album to chat with Allhiphop.com Alternatives about the new record and the importance of the Black Lily music series.
AHHA: What’s up ladies, what’s been going on?
Mercedes: We’re putting the finishing touches on the new album and getting ready to start working on our new show.
AHHA: When you say ‘finishing touches’ how many tracks do you have left or all the songs done?
Mercedes: We might do one or two more tracks.
AHHA: I understand that you girls are from Cali. What motivated the move to Philly?
Mercedes: We had gotten out of our deal with Tommy Boy and we had pretty much worked with all the producers we could in L.A. that were willing to do anything for free, and we didn’t have a manager either so we were kinda doing it on our own.
Tracy: We were struggling in L.A., ‘cause we had exhausted every resource that we had. We dealt with different management, different musicians, we were in between a couple of camps and it just wasn’t going anywhere. I was really hard because there was no musical community in L.A.
AHHA: What role did the Roots play in your moving?
Mercedes: When we met the Roots, we were blown away. And actually Ahmir had heard of us too through Pos from De La Soul, so he was kinda excited to meet us and wanted us to do some stuff on their album, Illadelph HalfLife. They said in exchange for us doing some stuff with them, they would do some stuff for us, so we came out to do that and they just embraced us and were willing to do what a lot of companies and people aren’t willing to do, and that’s develop new talent.
Tracy: We were supposed to only be in Philly for two weeks but it ended up being forever [laughs]. And it turned into like seven years.
Mercedes: We found a support system in Philly.
AHHA: You guys dropped your first album, Once and Future, about a year after Badu’s Baduizm and you guys kinda preceded the whole neo-soul marketing of the music…what do you think of it now, now that the industry has stamped it with a name and it’s kinda…
Mercedes: Cheesy [laughs]…Well, there’s a double edge sword to that, it’s cool when people start labeling something a movement cause it means that they’re paying more attention. What’s not cool about it is that you all getting lumped into this one thing. Like now everybody’s gonna be ‘neo-soul’, which means everybody’s stuff is rooted in the 70’s, which is cool, but then there are all these other influences that just aren’t represented by the term neo-soul. So we’re kinda happy that it seems to be on the down slope and everybody can be looked at as individuals. The danger with lumping everybody into the neo-soul thing, is the minute somebody categorizes something it starts to seem corny and they might not give you a chance, ‘cause they’re like ‘oh here’s another neo-soul group’.
Tracy: I think people have been scared to take chances in Black music, we don’t trust ourselves enough to believe in something, we can’t ever take a stand, we always have to find something that emulates something else.
AHHA: Don’t you think the drive for money and riches in Black music creates a lot of that follow the leader mentality?
Tracey: I don’t think the alternative Black sound isn’t one that couldn’t make money, if money was put behind it, it’s just that no one knows it exist…these kids don’t know anything about that, their being sold sex right now, fancy cars and bling.
AHHA: Talk about starting the Black Lily and the importance of the Black Lily in your career?
Mercedes: We started the Black Lily cause at the time we were signed to MCA, and when we turned in our first album, Once and Future, we could tell that we weren’t gona put the kind of representation and support we were gona need behind it, ‘cause they were like ‘this is nice’. And like you said there was no neo-soul movement at the time. So MCA was like what kind of record is this, it’s not exactly regular, where are we gonna categorize it, etcetera. We could tell they weren’t gonna do anything with it, so we knew that if we were gonna have a career in this business and go forward with our goals, we were gonna have to know how to perform and really have experience at doing that and were also gonna have to find some way to get ourselves some promotion, since they weren’t gonna do it for us.
Tracy: Instead of putting money into promotion we decided to use the money to build Black Lily up. It gave us a chance to work on our stage show on a consistent basis cause we did it every week. It also gave us an opportunity to do what the Roots had done for us, which is the help other musicians find their thing.
Mercedes: We called it Women in Music and we did it at the Wetlands in New York. And we actually did it there for like a year and a half before we even found a place in Philly to do it. And you know the whole spirit of the thing was come to Black Lily and expect the unexpected and we did it for a year for free. We didn’t want people saying, I paid my ten dollars I wanna see X and Y – we wanted to people just to come open ready to hear different music and give artist that are a little bit left of center, or who are not so called commercial an opportunity to do their thing and develop as artist. When we found a place in Philly, the Five Spot, it made sense to move it to our home base…and now we’re going on our fourth maybe fifth year…every Tuesday night.
Tracey: It also created a place for women because we would go to these jam sessions and be pushed to the side all the time and we weren’t taken seriously. It’s so hard to get men to take women seriously, especially in the music industry and particularly in Hip Hop. We would walk into rooms and not even be introduced or spoken to, it’s like ‘hello, you can speak’. So Black Lily was a way for us to get back at that whole thing.
AHHA: If you had to try and define Black Lily and what it means to your music career, what would you say?
Mercedes: Black Lily is the lifeblood of our music career. Any group that’s doing something that’s not your standard radio fare, like I said, you better know how to perform. The best way to learn is not doing a show every two or three months when on comes along, especially when your first starting out, ,cause nobody wants to book you for shows cause nobody knows you, so how do you get that experience so by the time you do a show you don’t look crazy?
You’ll see some artist with a hit record, but when you see them perform on an award show your like ‘dang’. And it’s not that these people can’t sing, it’s just they don’t have the performing experience. So here comes the Black Lily where artists that are maybe just starting out, I mean that’s who it’s really for. There are a lot of artist that have come through like Erykah, Macy Gray, Alicia Keys, D’Angelo and that’s been cool, but the key is getting artist who don’t have that experience the ability to hone their skills.
Kindred started on the Black Lilly stage and actually got a deal from the experience they gained performing. The same with Jaguar [Wright], she had been trying to get a deal for a while, but when she connected with audiences at the Black Lily, labels took notice and she got a deal. Jazmine Sullivan, who signed to Jive – I don’t know if you’ve heard of her yet, but she’s an amazing, amazing singer – she contacted me through the web and asked if she could come and do something, she started doing the Lily, and a few months later she has a deal. So that’s what it’s really for, to give artist a chance to develop themselves and get comfortable with the whole being on stage process cause that’s where you make your money as an artist.
AHHA: What can we expect on this upcoming album?
Mercedes: You can expect more pushing of the envelope. Because of how the market is right now, you better be really really pop or you better be unique, you’re gonna get lost if you’re sort of in between. So we just decided that were gonna continue following our own beat and path, and if anything, emphasis are uniqueness even more. With the first album we didn’t compromise, but we did think about what radio might like. Now were just concentrating on growing as artist and writers and just doing songs that really speak to us. We like this album more than the last and we just can’t wait to see what other people think.
AHHA: The title track off The Tortoise and The Hare album was so creative and stretching, I mean it basically had no true verses or lyrics, is there anything as creative and innovative on this upcoming album?
Mercedes: Yes, if you liked that, you should be pleased with this new album.
Tracey: Yeah, we’re still working on a vocal/instrumental type of piece.