Recently, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Grammy-winning recording-artist, Jody Watley. A few weeks later, on the heels of her new single, “Nightlife” and in anticipation of the just-released “Nightlife” Remix EP, we had a little chin-wag. In this first part, we discuss the impact of her groundbreaking single, “Friends” featuring trailblazing DJ/MC duo Eric B. and Rakim. Check it.

SHULMANSAYS: In 1989, nearly a quarter of a century ago, you released “Friends” with Eric B. and Rakim (which is still one of my favorite songs); and broke major new-ground, by featuring not just rappers – but artists with serious street cred – in an R&B/Pop song. These days, it’s not uncommon to find such crossover (i.e., Ol’ Dirty Bastard covering Britney Spears, or Nelly doing a duet with Tim McGraw), but you did it when nobody did. At the time, did you think it would become as popular a practice as it has become, today?

JODY WATLEY: Looking back, it helped to change the music industry, in some ways – because it is now a commonplace formula (in 2002, the Grammy’s added the category Best Rap/Sung Collaboration). But when I came up with the idea, in 1989, it didn’t exist. All I knew was that Chaka Khan had covered a Prince record – “I Feel for You” – and she’d had Melle Mel do the “Chaka Khan” intro. And what inspired me to do it was that, at the time – and this is so random, in a way – Patti LaBelle had a song out with Michael MacDonald, called “On My Own” – and it was major. And I thought “I want to do that, with Eric B. and Rakim; but where Michael MacDonald would be singing, I want Rakim to rap, on the verse.” And that’s how I pitched it to MCA – as a duet (because that duet was popular, at the time).

Well, they didn’t know what I was talking about; and at first they shot it down. “No.” But, being the kind of person I am, I stayed on them. “It’ll be great!” Then, once MCA came around to the concept, they wanted me to do it with the Fresh Prince, Will Smith; and I said “No,” because, to me, it wasn’t as interesting. And while he was popular, and on the Pop chart; Eric B. and Rakim just had that street sensibility, and I loved Rakim’s voice so much, and they were so important in the hip-hop movement (not that Will Smith wasn’t, in his way). So, my desire to work with Eric B. and Rakim was really organic, because I was such a fan of theirs. Eventually MCA came around, and they let us get on with it. Luckily Eric B. and Rakim were into the idea, and Rakim was awesome. He just wanted to compliment with his rap verses what I had written for the verses I sang – and we worked great, together. The rest is just history.

SS: Do you ever hear the collaborations and duets today, and think to yourself “I did that”?

JW: It’s got Jody Watley, all through it! (Laughs)

You know, we don’t get credit for it, and we don’t take credit for it; but that’s fine, because we know it, every time we hear it. That it was me, being bold enough to think about it, and to fight for it to happen – because that’s how trends begin and that’s where the pioneering comes in. You’ve just gotta do it. And sometimes people don’t realize that you did it first, before people like Mary J. Blige or Jay-Z. And it was a huge Pop hit for Eric B. and Rakim, and an R&B hit, and a Dance hit – so I’m very proud of it.

And also the video! Creating that club by blending the cultures of hip-hop, dance, and drag; we had Connie Fleming and the late Codie Ravioli from Patricia Field, and Eric B. and Rakim brought their crew. But again, it wasn’t anything more than me trying to be myself, and creating this great representation of the type of club that I love to go to, which is inclusive of everybody; where people can go and just enjoy the music.

SS: Well, it’s held-up beautifully.

JW: Thank you!

SS: No, thank YOU!

Next time, read Jody’s take on the “New Disco” movement, memories of Soul Train, and her new album. Until then..!

Jody Watley

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ACROSS THE TRACKS: A LAS VEGAS WESTSIDE STORY—produced and directed by native Las Vegan Emmett Gates—shares the unadulterated history of Las Vegas’s Historic Westside neighborhood