Cruna: Life On The Outside

With a stage name like Cruna, Ke.Anthony Dillard better know how to sing. His single “Take Me Higher” is a calypso-tinged ditty about love and happiness. But times weren’t always so cheerful for one of the newest R&B crooners with a throwback style.

Cruna was raised in a family full of Gospel singers. Despite the message in the music, he turned to selling drugs, ending up in prison on robbery charges for almost eight years. Immerging with fellow inmate and childhood friend Jasper “Jazz” Howard, founder of independent label Crosstrax Entertainment, Cruna became the flagship artist on the label. Though other labels like Def Jam, Arista, and Derrty Entertainment courted Cruna, Warner Bros. finally offered he and Howard the distribution deal they couldn’t refuse.

His full-length album A Hustla’s Love Story, is slated for an early 2006 release, and is full of songs about the joys and pains of everyday relationships. Not to be confused with the typical R&B bad boy, 29-year-old Cruna has a respect for the old school and responsibility for the baby-making music he makes. Cruna’s song “It’s Okay”, written by Mike City, was chosen as the YWCA national anthem for their “Single Parent Initiative”.

Things are looking good for Cruna as industry heads swoon over the possibilities of his music career, instead of his family worrying about his survival on the streets. Cruna explains to Alternatives the passion of Gospel, the hell of prison and why he never says ‘I love you’. Alternatives: What influenced you most about coming up singing in church?

Cruna: The first thing I can say inspired me, I was 10 or 11 years old, and my parents had a gospel group called the Gospel True Notes. They let me sing one time, and there was this old lady in church, I was singing and she had her head down. When she rose up I saw tears in her eyes and she got up and started shouting. I felt so good, like I had something. There was more competition in my house than anywhere else, so that inspired me to keep in going.

AHHA: What was it about church that made you want to turn to secular music?

Cruna: I wouldn’t say church bored me. It just wasn’t enough. I felt like there was something else out there for me. I didn’t know exactly what it was. Because I was young, I kind of thought it was the streets. Selling drugs and robbin’ ni**as led me to the penitentiary. I did seven years and two months; I went in at 17 and got out at 24. The last two years of that prison term, my business partner Jasper “Jazz” Howard he’s the CEO of our label Crosstrax Entertainment, he said ‘look man everybody knows you can blow, don’t go out here and get in any more trouble’. He had his shit together, so I put my trust in him. It’s like we were in hell, people don’t have Godly things in hell. I look at what he said to me as Godly…look at where we are now, seven years later.

AHHA: What was your family’s reaction to you turning to the streets and ending up in prison?

Cruna: My mom was my mom. My dad was more like ‘you screwed up’. My dad is my hero. My dad went from a drug dealer to a stand-up citizen. He told me I was growing up, trying to find my own path as a man. He told me he didn’t think it was the right path for me. He said he sold drugs to make sure the family was cool, but I was doing it for all the wrong reasons. I think selling drugs period is dumb now. My pops is my hero.

I got a group of people around me that our genuine. I got people around me that I need around me, not people that I want. I got people that I need around me, and that’s what inspires me the most.

AHHA: Did you write a lot of music while you where in prison?

Cruna: I did an independent project that was called A Hustla’s Love Story when I got out of prison. Half the album was written in prison. A couple of those songs are on the upcoming album. “Call Me” and “Summer Breeze” were independent songs that I put out that made it to the album.

AHHA: How was everyday life in prison?

Cruna: Being in prison is hell. I’m on a compound with 2,000 men that have no hope for the future. So it was tough. I’m a little ni**a. I’m 6’2, 191 pounds [laughing].

AHHA: Tell me about the album? What kind of feel were you going for?

Cruna: What I’m trying to do on this record is trying to keep the legend of soul going, through the pioneers. The Bobby Womacks, the David Ruffins; because that is how I classify my voice. Its kind of light but it’s raspy, you know. I just want to keep that legend going in the writing and the word play. Smokey Robinson is my favorite writer, him and Lionel Richie. They wrote songs that the whole world sings. That’s what I’m trying to keep going. I don’t want to say on this album ‘I love you.’ I want to give you the reasons why. On this whole record, I never said ‘I love you’. I actually gave you the reasons. I sat down and I did my homework. I spoke to a lot of women. Before I write a song, I like women in the studio to get their point of view. So I am able to write a song males and females can sing and feel. I want people to be able to listen to the songs, listen to the album and see that it’s everyday life of a person in a relationship.

AHHA: What sets you apart from artists like Lyfe Jennings or Akon who have also talked about being in prison?

Cruna: I think the passion that I put behind my music is what sets me aside. I do R&B, rhythm and blues. Rhythm and blues came from Gospel music. If it comes from Gospel, I have to have that same passion that a Gospel singer has. So I feel like that is what sets me aside from the rest. Hell, my name is Cruna, you know [laughs].

AHHA: How did you get that name?

Cruna: It all came about like this: I studied. I’m not saying I’m the smartest cat in the world, I got a GED. But I studied the art. I really, really studied the art. I read the songs that the pioneers wrote. I was reading his thing about Marvin Gaye, and it called him a crooner. And I was like, ‘Wow, that is hot’. So I ran it by my dad, and took it through a five walks of life; I talked to White people, Chinese people, Latino people, Black people. And everybody was like, yeah that’s what I was. And it kind of stuck.

AHHA: What is it about the process of making music that you like the most?

Cruna: Wow, I love everything about it. I love to sing, I love creating. But what I love the most is the reaction on people’s faces. I get a lot of people saying I look like a rapper. But I don’t know what an R&B artist looks like. What I tell everybody is: they call me Cruna, crooning is something I do. But I’m Ke.Anthony everyday all day. And you can quote me on that.

AHHA: You also have a song on your album that was chosen as an anthem for YWCA.

Cruna: It’s a movement that they got called the Single Parents Initiative, and it’s a movement to uplift single mothers. It is called “It’s Okay” written by Mike City.

AHHA: I listen to the single ‘Take Me Higher’ for like a half hour, that song is hot.

Cruna: People have been saying I’m a young cat with an old soul.

AHHA: It kind of has a traditional African music vibe. The sound isn’t really like anything else.

Cruna: I actually got a guy named Rock Steady, he’s a Go-Go king in D.C., and he’s playing the congas. I got some guys called Wayne Kounty, they’re out of Detroit, they did the track.

If you want to know who inspired that song, it was Regina Womack, Bobby Womack’s wife. I was living in a loft in Brooklyn, New York. The makeup lady was over my house, this is before I had my deal. We were taking pictures, sending them to different companies. And she came in, and we were messing around on the guitars and the pianos, and it was like bam! This is Bobby Womack’s wife. He’s my favorite out of all singers. Everybody loves Marvin Gaye, but Bobby Womack stands out more than anybody to me. Nobody had a voice like that. Well, she came in and let me talk to Bobby and it took off from there. I really didn’t write those words down, it was like a two-take thing. I went in, stood in front of the mic and I just started singing. Those words just flowed out of my like a volcano. On the copywriting, I sent the CD in instead of the words [laughs].

AHHA: So what is the biggest difference between you now and you when you were in the streets?

Cruna: I know what I’m here to do, and I feel like I’m doing what I’m here to do. God gave me the gift for me to be able to look at life, write it down and present it in song form. The difference between now and then is that I know that now, I didn’t then. And then, I can say this now, I’m cute [laughs]. It’s funny. When I perform now, the girls say, ‘He’s so cute’. But before the deal I would see some of these same girls and wasn’t on me.