Fiendish Conversation

SassyBlack Is More Than a Throwback

In her new record, "New Black Swing," the prolific Seattle musician steps away from the mysticism of Sun Ra and into the pop songwriting of New Edition and TLC.

By Darren Davis June 21, 2017

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Image: Amanda Lopez

Catherine Harris­-White—AKA SassyBlack—cut her teeth as a vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and producer with THEESatisfaction and Shabazz Palaces. Her debut as a solo artist, last year's No More Weak Dates, utilized much of what made her memorable in these acts: soulfully vocal tracks, cosmic lyrics, and electronic experimentation. With New Black Swing, out Friday, June 23, SassyBlack sought to write a record plucked straight from the new jack swing era of the '80s and '90s, made famous by the likes of New Edition, Johnny Gill, and Janet Jackson. What she ended up with was something definitively her own.

Your previous record, No More Weak Dates, and New Black Swing both put what they are about right there in the title. Is it important for you to build an album around a certain premise or aesthetic?

I've always kinda gathered songs and put them in collections. Every project I do, I like to challenge myself to create something that has a structure—especially being a creative where a lot of times there is no structure—and then see how closely I hit the target.

How close did you get to this target?

I wanted to present it like I was an artist from that time. But I don't have the money to spend on a Roland Juno or like some of the drum machines or the keyboards they had back then. So I did a lot of research to find my version of the sound. In "Games" there are these synths in the very beginning. They're soft but also hesitant. And they remind me of waves crashing on sand. It was very intentional, because there was a lot of that sound and imagery coming out at the time, like [Janet Jackson's] "Love Will Never Do (Without You)." Soft and kinda aggressive sound. The percussion is obviously a big part of it; the drum kits and drum machines that give it more of a hip-hop influence.

So if you had the means you'd recreate the sound using only what they had at the time?

Absolutely. I would have been all-in. The Roland Juno in particular. That's what Teddy Riley most often quotes as the instrumentation he used when working with Michael Jackson and a bunch of the other stuff that lead the way to new jack swing.

Did you grow up listening to a lot of new jack swing?

I grew up listening to an array of music: Digable [Planets], and [A] Tribe [Called Quest], but also Prince, Morris Day and the Time, Janet Jackson. Then New Edition, Johnny Gill, Bobby Brown, Toni Braxton. I listened to a lot of that stuff while it was happening. It wasn't like I'm going back now and am like, "Oh this is cool." I was listening to TLC when TLC was on television. There's going to be some records that sound more like Tears for Fears. There's gonna be some stuff that feels like Soundgarden. Like Pat Metheny or Bobby McFerrin. I'm just trying to tap into myself and see what I can do, see if I can actually make music that could have been plucked from that time and put it out now.

When it came to writing lyrics indicative of the time, did it feel like you were being too straight forward?

It was more of me unlocking a closet full of these R&B lyrics. I'm a jazz singer at heart so a lot of that stuff can be kind of vague. Then being inspired by Sun Ra I was trying to do more cosmic lyricism. That's where a lot of my lyrics for THEESatisfaction and Shabazz Palaces came from. But now that I've pushed myself to do that, I feel comfortable saying "Well you know how to do something super mystical. Now it's okay to write pop music."

Love! Heartbreak!

Exactly. It’s universal in another way. And I want to respect that aspect of myself.

How'd you feel about rapping?

I love rapping! I'm just mostly embarrassed about it. I don't want people to call me out. But I've been practicing a bunch. Practicing my freestyling in public, which is very scary. Maybe three bars then I'm like, "Ha! I did that!" For this record though I was thinking about a lot of artists from that time. Queen Latifah, Yo-Yo, Left Eye. People aren't rapping like these artists right now. There's some women who do, my friend Latasha Alcindor, and Gifted Gab in Seattle. They kinda have that old-school feel. I think I'm a cross between them and the Sugarhill Gang.

With each record have you learned something new about being a solo artist?

Yeah. Like, "Oh wow, I am one." That was the biggest one between now and No More Weak Dates. But I do move fairly quickly. So by the time I'm interviewed about a project I've already produced 30 more beats and several new projects. So even between now and New Black Swing I'm already preparing for the next several phases of my career.

We can't keep up.


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