Kelly Price: The Price Of Life

Long before Kelly Price became a fixture on R&B radio, she slowly developed a reputation behind-the-scenes as the “Queen of Hip-Hop Hooks.” Although her professional resume includes backing vocals for R&B staples, like Faith Evans (Keep the Faith), Whitney Houston (My Love is Your Love) and Mariah Carey (Dreamlover, Music Box, Merry Christmas, Daydream, Butterfly […]

Long before Kelly Price became a fixture on R&B radio, she slowly developed a reputation behind-the-scenes as the “Queen of Hip-Hop Hooks.” Although her professional resume includes backing vocals for R&B staples, like Faith Evans (Keep the Faith), Whitney Houston (My Love is Your Love) and Mariah Carey (Dreamlover, Music Box, Merry Christmas, Daydream, Butterfly and Charmbracelet), she could also be found on tracks from Puff Daddy (No Way Out and Forever), Jay-Z (In My Lifetime) and the Notorious B.I.G. (Life After Death). In the wake of Christopher Wallace’s phenomenal posthumous success, with the blockbuster “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems,” Kelly found herself poised to move from the background into the spotlight – once and for all.

Since the release of her 1998 debut, Soul of a Woman, Kelly Price has maintained a sizable – and faithful – fan base within the secular and Gospel arenas. After a four-year break, Price is finally ready to unveil her sixth solo project, Kelly, which is set for release on My Block Records.

During a promotional campaign for “Tired,” her emotional truth-telling lead single, Kelly Price managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on shifts in the contemporary music landscape, her two bouts of homelessness, and important lessons she has learned on the publishing side of the music business.  Prior to your emergence on the music scene with your landmark debut, Soul of a Woman, you spent several years working as a background singer. Since a great deal of your early history has never been documented, please take a few moments to detail a few of the life events that prepared you for life as a solo artist.

Kelly Price:  Sure. Before starting, though, I just have to say that I don’t really believe that things happen by chance. I personally believe that things are divinely orchestrated and they have a lot to do with us being where we’re supposed to be in order for them to happen.  I started singing background professionally in 1992. My first professional background engagement was a gig with George Michael at Madison Square Garden. I spent six-and-a-half, close to seven years singing with Mariah Carey. I’ve gone between live shows and in-studio work for Aretha Franklin, Mary J. Blige and Faith Evans, And of course, Brian McKnight, R. Kelly, and Ronald Isley. And on the hip-hop side, I’ve done work with pretty much every Bad Boy artist that came through the ‘90s. Rakim. Good Lord, I worked with some people that some people might not even remember. Literally, I have run the gamut. Yo-Yo and MC Lyte. For a while, I had the nickname “the hip-hop hook queen.” I was literally singing with everybody. Jay-Z. Cam’Ron. You name it. I know I’m missing a gang of people. But chances are, whoever you name, nine times out ten, I’ve burned something with them. And I enjoyed it. It was different for me because I was the church girl. I grew up singing in the church. And coming into the world of R&B and pop music, it was a brand new world.  As you entered this brand new world, what memories really shine bright?

Kelly Price:  Well, the biggest record that I ever did on the hip-hop side, of course, was “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems.” But there was a lot of stuff, too. I recorded a song with Jay-Z called “You Must Love Me” for his first movie, The Streets is Watching. So my background has been very diverse. I had a good time, and I got a chance to see the world before I was an artist. On top of all that, I was able to do it on somebody else’s dime! [laughing] When you are a solo artist, you have so much more responsibility. When I was out there with Puffy, when I was out there with Mariah, I got a chance to go sightseeing when we were in Europe. They were up doing radio at five in the morning. While she was talking to some reporter, I got a chance to go see the Changing of the Guard in England. I would say for anybody that has that opportunity, seize it, enjoy it, but respect it like a real job, because it is a real job. You’re getting paid – even on the lowest end of the spectrum – way more than you would if you were pushing a pencil at somebody’s desk. So if you’re doing what you love, embrace it and work your way up the ranks.  Taking all of that into consideration, why do you think that you have managed to maintain such longevity in this fickle music industry?

Kelly Price:  I think what worked for me is that the path that I’ve taken has enabled me and afforded me the opportunity to learn just about every job in-between. Having started at the bottom of the totem pole, I’ve worked literally every job in-between. I’ve been a background singer. I’ve been an arranger. I’ve been a producer. I’ve done the road thing. I’ve done the studio thing. I’ve written music for people. I’ve done vocal coaching for people. So no matter what, there’s not a lot in this business on the creative side that I can’t do. I’ve pretty much done it all. And I had a good time with it. And it’s helped me because in the times when the business takes a shift, and it’s not necessarily doing what I prefer to do, I still can live and live very well because I have alternatives. So that would be my advice to anybody that’s coming up in it, and if you’re serious about it, then be serious enough about it to educate yourself. I think that sometimes we – as artists – believe that because we’re talented, and our talent allows us the privilege to forego the traditional education process, there is nothing else to learn. But it’s still an education process. There’s a lot that I learned, and if I didn’t take the time to learn it, and read, and learn about the business, and learn what the unions were there for, and how they benefitted me and why I needed to be a part of them, I would have faded out in this business a long time ago. I didn’t go to college, because right out of high school, things started popping for me, even though I never expected them to. But I still have to get an “education,” because everything has a process. Everything! [laughing] And the difference between those that make it and those that don’t are the ones that actually take the time to learn something about what it is they’re doing.  On the professional side, what is the biggest lesson that you have learned along the way?

Kelly Price:  Two things. My writing. Knowing the ins and outs of publishing. Understanding the importance of copyright law. Knowing how, that even when I’m gone, when I’m dead and gone, that my songs will live on. So I take that into consideration with every deal that I cut, whether it’s a co-publishing deal or an administration deal. I started off being co-published by a major music publishing company in the business and it was good for me then. I was new. I had a lot of money to do it back then. But today you couldn’t pay me—I don’t care how much money you have—you couldn’t pay me to do a co-publishing situation, because I really, really understand the importance of owning all of my own copyrights. And then, of course, I’ve seen the check without the publishing company, too. And that’s very important. That’s very important. So what I tell people is, if you can as a writer do it, and not do a co-pub situation.  

Back then, I was trying to get out of where I was. I was trying to get out of the neighborhood that I was in. It wasn’t even about getting a Rolex or this or that. I wanted to get out of the neighborhood that I was in, so I took the deal. But I worked the deal. I got out of the deal. And when the deal was done, I was done with co-publishing situations, and I won’t do that anymore. The other thing that I would say, and a lot of people won’t admit it or don’t like to talk about it is, I’m telling everybody that asks me now, get somebody to handle your money, but then get somebody to watch the person who you have handling your money, and then get somebody to watch the person that you’ve got watching the person who’s handling your money. Because at the end of the day, everybody’s got to hustle everybody that has a gain. And sometimes we get so busy with being creative, and riding the charts, and being on the road, that we don’t pay close attention to our personal affairs.

I’m one where I like to be in the middle of everything, and you’ve got to mail me reports at the end of the month. I want to read this, and I want to read that, but I’m not going to be as thorough as I need to be if I’m doing five, six nights a week and I’m on the stage and I’m not getting out of the venue until twelve, one o’clock in the morning. Then I’m greeting the fans and I’m literally not laying my head down until three or four in the morning and I’m getting up to do radio at six. I’m not going to be on point like I need to be to maybe catch a mistake, or to be able to see what it is that I need to see. And so, I’ve learned that lesson, and I’ve learned it somewhat the hard way. And a lot of us have, even though a lot of us won’t talk about it. But I would advise anybody you need somebody to handle your stuff, but you need somebody to watch the handler and you need a watcher for the watcher of the handler and somebody that’s watching the one that’s watching the one that’s watching handle it. And that’s just real. And what I’m basically saying is, our government runs by checks and balances. You’ve got to run your career with checks and balances.  That is really great advice – no matter what profession you may be in.  Since the bulk of your musical catalog revolves around the good, bad and ugly sides of love, do you have any relationship advice? [laughing]

Kelly Price:  Oh, yes! [laughing] What I believe about love is that we all want it, even the ones of us that say I don’t need anybody. I mean really: do we really want to be all by ourselves? [laughing] I believe that we sincerely all want it. It is inhuman to deny that you need the reciprocation of affection. You’ve got to be able to give it and you need to have it returned. I believe that it hurts the most when you’re giving it away, that you’re not having it returned to you. I believe we’re still all really trying to figure it out, even the ones that are in good relationships, no relationship is perfect. So as long as we’re alive, we’re still trying to figure it out. There’s some area of it where we don’t have it quite right. Sometimes it’s in our romantic relationships. Sometimes it’s in our parent/child relationships. Sometimes it’s in our relationships with other family members. As long as we’re here, we’re still trying to perfect them. I think I’m still trying to perfect every single relationship in my life. And that is the reason why I still have so much material to write about, because I don’t get it right. I try hard to get it right. I try not to make the mistakes that I’ve seen family members and the generations before me make.

And those are probably the hardest ones not to make, even though you’ve seen them happen, it’s almost as if you’re not extra careful, you’re almost destined to do the exact same thing, if you don’t go overboard to make sure that you don’t do that thing that you’ve seen that you detest. For me, it’s been a job, somewhat of a chore, even, to work at trying to have a good marriage because in my families, I haven’t really seen the best marriages. It’s been my joy, but it’s still been an effort to have a really good relationship with my children and loving them and really loving them not to be an overbearing parent. Not to want them to have such a good life that I deny them the opportunity to understand the responsibility of life, because I give my children a lot. But then they frustrate me when they don’t have certain understandings. Like I was a street-smart kid. I grew up in New York. My kids are very intelligent, but I would not drop them off in the middle of the hood. I would worry about their survival. I could do it. They couldn’t. I work at trying to make my relationships better with my siblings, my other family members. And then there are some relationships where I tell myself it’s just not even worth it to try anymore. And it all reflects in my material.  What can listeners expect on your sixth album, which has been eponymously titled Kelly?

Kelly Price:  This particular album is more in your face than any of my previous work. Over these past twelve years, there’s just been a growth process there, and it all hasn’t been happy. I appreciate the fact that I can write music and get it out that way. There are some people who, when they don’t have a creative outlet, they resort to doing self-destructive things or violent acts towards other people. For me, my way to get it out is through my music, and so even though it’s quite revealing and it does leave me somewhat vulnerable, I’d rather do that than take a needle in the arm, which I’ve had family members who have done that and died from it. I’d rather do that than resort to alcoholism, which that runs very heavily in my family as well. Or some kind of other self-destructive act, whether it’s just crazy, unprotected sex or whatever. So, we all have an outlet. This is mine.  At what point did you realize that you had a gift for songwriting?

Kelly Price:  I wrote my first song on purpose at seven years old. So I consider my songwriting to have begun at seven years old. As a kid, I always would just write things down, because I grew up in the age of children were to be seen and not heard. So a lot of times, there were things that I wanted to say about things that were going on in my environment. I’ve been homeless twice. And the first time I was homeless was at four years old. I was very expressive as a kid. A lot of times I just couldn’t say anything. It was very traditional. Again, back then—these were the ’70s—kids didn’t get in adults’ faces. You didn’t stand around when adults were talking. You didn’t participate in their conversations. But to be three and four years old and to see violence in my home, to be homeless, to sleep in a car, to sleep outside, to bounce from house to house. I’d done all of that at four years old.

And so, there was a lot that I was taking in, a lot that I saw. And I was already very creatively expressive by that age. So when I was able to write, I would just write little things on pieces of paper and then I would crumble them up, I would hide them, because I was afraid for people to see what I was writing. The first time I made an effort to write a song was at seven years old. And I used the opportunity that I had for a school project to write about a slave girl, to express really some of what I was feeling, but the slave girl being the subject of what it is I wanted to talk about. That was when I realized that I could really do it. I had been doing it before seven, but when I, on purpose, decided to write a song, and put something together that made sense and had rhythm and had a pattern, that was at seven. That’s when I knew I could write.  Well, you definitely have a talent for expressing yourself with words. In fact, “Tired” – [the lead single for Kelly] – may wind up becoming the universal anthem for men and women who are experiencing hardship during these tumultuous times. What was this inspiration behind this particular song?

Kelly Price:  “Tired” was kind of planted in me. They’re all experiences that I’ve lived and stuff that I’ve probably run over and over again in my head. I’ve probably said every single one of those sentences at some point in my life. I’m tired. I’m sick and tired of going to church. Church people make me sick. I’m tired of this. Just everything in that song I’m sure I’ve said it out of my mouth. I was on a trip to Chicago a couple of years ago, and I had an engagement. It was a fundraiser for a children’s organization there. And when I was done with the show, I went to go hang out at R. Kelly’s house. We started talking and he asked me: “What are you doing? What are you going to do with your next project? What’s going on with you? What are you doing?” He just kept saying, “What are you doing? What are you doing? You need to be working. You need to be recording music.” And so, he said, “I have an idea for a song for you.” He said, “You need to write a song called ‘I’m Tired'”. And I looked at him, and he said: “It’s time for another anthem! There has not been an anthem like ‘Friend of Mine’ since ‘Friend of Mine,’ and you need to write another anthem.” So, I asked him: ” What should I do?” He said, “Well, think about it. What are you tired of?” And we know each other really well, so he just starts naming all of this stuff. “You know you tired of these phony church people. You know you tired of this. You know you tired of baby mama drama. You know you tired of this, that and the other. God forgive you, but you know you tired of your kids. You know you want to put them out of the house sometimes. You know you tired! [laughing]” So he just goes down this list, and I’m looking at him going, “That’s kind of brilliant. You’re right. Because I am tired of all of that stuff, and everybody has those moments.” So he says: “That’s right. Everybody does have those moments. So if you write it and you sing about it, they’ll sing along with you because everybody’s tired of the same thing.” I said: “Okay, that’s cool. Let’s get to work on it. You write it.” And he said to me: “I can’t write this song, Kelly. You have to write it, because it’s your story.” I agreed. Then, he said: “The only way it will work is if you tell the truth. So if you’re going to do it, you have to promise me that you won’t hold back. Don’t BS.  If you’re going to tell it, tell it!” And that’s what I did [laughing].  One of things that I really, really love about the song is how raw it is – lyrically and vocally. I can actually feel the pain and stress in your voice. Lord, I could tell that you were tired! [laughing] 

Kelly Price:  Yeah. I meant every word I said! [laughing]

For more information on Kelly Price, visit her official website.

For more on Clayton Perry go to his digital archive or Twitter @crperry84.