Joi's badass revenge
Can Atlanta's funk matriarch turn a career of big breaks and bad timing into her Hot Heavy & Bad comeuppance?
Even without makeup and her signature funky heels, people can't help but stare at Joi. Dressed in nameless jeans and a simple, form-fitting top, her long braids swept up high on her head and accented by a gardenia, she baby-sits a glass of riesling at the Grape in Atlantic Station. While the sparse crowd likely has no idea that an underground legend is in their midst, that doesn't stop Joi from being the main attraction.
The waiter seems captivated, too, as he needlessly strides over for what seems like the umpteenth time to make sure she's OK. She's fine, she tells him, with a reassuring smile that's part Lady Day, part Eartha Kitt.
Joi's the type of woman who's hard to miss. She's got the shape of a gazelle, the face of a cherub, and, perhaps unknown to patrons of the Grape, a voice that kills. Despite these God-given gifts, she's also an iconic musician who, despite having influenced Atlanta's current crop of stars in everything from sound to fashion to showmanship, was never properly appreciated by the music business.
Since the start of her career in 1994, Joi has always been on the verge of stardom. Championed by the likes of producers Dallas Austin and Raphael Saadiq, crowned first lady of the Dungeon Family, and considered Madonna's one-time arbiter of cool, the recurring twists of fate that have kept her from enjoying widespread industry success almost seem more conspiratorial than coincidental. After 15 years, not even Joi can begin to explain the one thing her fans still can't figure out: Why the hell hasn't she blown up yet?
"I don't think there's any one reason in particular," she answers, a soft sigh escaping her. "That's the only thing that I know for certain. I really try to judge my music by its worth and the beauty of the creation. I have to, because if I had to judge it by hard numbers, then I would feel like a failure. And I don't feel like that."
Of course, the more pressing question - with the debut of her first album in four years only four months away - is whether or not this time will be any different. After being considered ahead of her time for the bulk of her career, could it be, as Joi approaches 40 and prepares for her newest incarnation, that she's too late?
She shrugs, but her shoulders are heavy. It's a quandary that she's clearly given a lot of thought to throughout her tumultuous career. She's arguably the most pivotal - if not the first - artist to arrive on the alternative soul scene, directly influencing acts ranging from Erykah Badu to OutKast to Janelle Monáe. With a sound and style that was all her own and a stage show that dripped with sexuality, she was instantly ripe for the picking.
"A lot of her style was duplicated," says local promoter J. Carter, a friend for nearly 10 years, who co-owned Sugarhill in Underground Atlanta, where she hosted a weekly Tuesday Jam before the venue closed last year. "She was a matriarch for a period of time with regards to music."
Despite her cult following and the praise that she receives among the industry's elite, she still has yet to achieve the requisite measure of success or mainstream attention.
For the past four years in particular, she's worn the unofficial crown as Atlanta's underground queen, due to her Sugarhill stint and an ongoing weekly Saturday set, "Futuristic Throwbacks," at historic Pal's Lounge on Auburn Avenue. As the name suggests, the Saturday night gig breathes new life into standards, as Joi commonly moves from cooing the Delfonic's soulful "Hey Love" to pushing out a rocker's scream for the Eagle's "Hotel California."
But Joi's focused on the future right now, namely the material she's been cooking up with Hot Heavy & Bad, the newly christened band she helms with her boyfriend Devon Lee.
"I think people who like what I do will love this project," she says. "It's me evolving in my art. In such a huge landscape of mediocre saturation, I think it's a nice bright light. It's pure, it's honest, it's raw - it's what I do."
After spending a lot of energy throwing up the middle finger at a narrow-minded music industry that just didn't get it, she hopes to bury the grudge once and for all with Hot Heavy & Bad. "I'm kind of at a crossroads yet again on trying to figure out the best way to get the music out there and get it heard," she says.
Just a year ago she was contemplating kicking rocks and heading to L.A., where she says the work is steady, unlike Atlanta, which she believes is struggling to hold on to its cultural soul. (She even considered pursuing a degree in psychology, she laughs, because people view her as "almost a sensei or an oracle.")
But that was before she was re-introduced in 2009 to Devon Lee, the eccentric musician and owner of Pal's Lounge who would eventually become her partner in music, business and love. They'd been dating for a while, with no real intentions of making music together, when Devon - who remembers meeting Joi for the first time when he was just 13 through a mutual family friend - played a beat for her that would eventually turn into the raw, avant-garde single "One." That song led to another, and another. A month later, they had recorded a full album.
"We realized that we can completely trust one another in the art," says Lee, former guitarist for the rock band Blackbeard. "I don't think that's something she's had in a long time."
Joi created her 1994 debut, Pendulum Vibe (EMI Records), at 22 with producer Dallas Austin. A native of Nashville, Tenn., Joi Gilliam met Austin through a mutual friend while he was recording in her hometown.
"He and I ended up clicking musically and it was some crazy, creative times," says Joi, who moved to Atlanta in 1993 to continue pursuing music.
Though she failed to break the 100,000 mark in sales, critics agreed Pendulum Vibe was brilliant. Interview magazine even featured her as one of its breakthrough artists of the year.
Then Madonna came calling.
"She wanted to know, 'Who is this? Who produced it? How did this happen?'" says Joi, who ended up hanging out with her for a while during the time, and became the first black model in a major Calvin Klein print ad campaign (alongside Kate Moss and Stella), thanks to Madonna putting in a word for her.
But Joi wasn't interested in pursuing modeling: "'I'm a singer, damnit, not a mannequin! I have to be heard, not just seen!' - this was my strong belief at the time," she says. "It's one of the most immature career mistakes I ever made."
Meanwhile, Austin would go on to produce several tracks on Madonna's 1994 Grammy-nominated album, Bedtime Stories. But when it came time to drop Joi's impressive funk-rock follow-up, Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome, in '97, the album was shelved because the label folded. When Austin acquired the rights to release it on his own FreeWorld Records, his label also went under before the album could see the light of day. Still, that didn't stop it from becoming an underground classic when it leaked later that year. While the LP became a touchstone for progressive soul, it also was the first in a series of letdowns that plagued Joi's entire career. As the years rolled by, Joi continued to make exceptional music without proper label support or distribution.
It's fitting that Hot Heavy & Bad's 11-track album was recorded in Devon's loft apartment above Pal's instead of an expensive studio. The juke joint of a bar, which has been in his family for generations, is situated comfortably on the corner of Auburn Avenue and Bell Street. It has a storied history, like Joi, whose imprint is felt all over the small space. It creates the perfect backdrop for their artistry.
"He helped me get back in touch with the fearless part of my creativity," says Joi, relishing the fact that Devon's musicianship has remained unscathed by the industry.
Listening to their creation, her excitement makes sense. Guttural, sexy and elegant, the music is sweet tea spiked with moonshine. The bare sensuality of "Enough" and the exotic instrumentation on "Spaniard" are a canvas for Joi's slinky vocals, which remain stronger than ever. Even the imagery is progressive. In the soon-to-be-released video for "One," she plays the role of a dirty debutante, and effectively quells any doubts about whether her signature bold sexuality is still relevant.
"I think everything I've done, at whatever time I've done it was appropriate for that time," she says. "When I was younger, would I be topless and have on pasties on stage? Absolutely. Was that appropriate then? Yes! I was in my 20s; I was wild, figuring it out. Would I pull my boobs out now on stage? Probably not. But will I still do something that makes me feel good and allows me to be able to express and exude the kind of energy I want to exude? Hell yes."
That unrestricted energy has translated into music that's been liberated from commercial pressure. "It reminds me of when I first heard her," says longtime friend and fellow musician Anthony David, who's also previewed her new stuff. "Ain't nothing else like it out there - again."
Joi's new work automatically draws comparisons to her early years, when record labels simply didn't know how to market her out-of-the-box sound. After touring and contributing to TLC and every OutKast album, it seemed as though she would finally break through when her friend Raphael Saadiq asked her to replace Dawn Robinson as front woman of his group Lucy Pearl, which included A Tribe Called Quest's Ali Shaheed Muhammad.
Gaining a new crop of R&B fans from the stint, Joi signed to Universal Records and released Star Kitty's Revenge in 2002, a sassy, funk-laced album with mainstream inclinations. Although the album received rave reviews (earning a spot on Vibe's Top 150 Essential Albums) and the single "Lick" appeared in the film XXX, it too failed to register commercially.
"It's a painful and lonely road, particularly if you're really hard-core about the purity of what you're doing," she admits. "You can feel forgotten."
After being dropped from Universal, she signed with Saadiq's label, Pookie Entertainment, figuring the independent route was the way to go. But once again, she hit a wall when Saadiq called with the news that his label needed restructuring and he could no longer put her album out.
"Shit is bound to happen and it will," she says. "You just dust yourself off and get a plan."
Her plan included forming her own Joilicious record label and releasing her most personal album to date, 2006's soul-tinged Tennessee Slim is the Bomb. At the time, she was going through a gut-wrenching divorce from Goodie Mob's Big Gipp, and coming to terms with her reality as a businesswoman and new single mother to their daughter Keypsiia, who turned 14 in June.
"It was one of the hardest things, if not the hardest that I had to ever go through," she remembers. "Mentally, I didn't know how I was going to fare with it."
Despite the stressed circumstances surrounding the release, she says it did well enough for her to sustain herself financially. She went on a tour, garnering a solid fan base on the West Coast, and developed some viral marketing skills. But it wasn't enough.
Her inability to morph her talent into significant sales remains an enigma that music critics have endlessly tried to solve over the years. History suggests that it could be a habitual case of bad timing, or that she should've skipped town long ago to make a go of it in Europe's progressive music market. J. Carter, who booked Joi at Sugarhill, blames her failure to find commercial success on her self-confessed lack of business savvy. Jamal Ahmad of 91.9 (WCLK-FM) argues that her music is just too ahead of its time.
"You're looking at an anomaly in the industry," says Ahmad, comparing her to '70s funk/rock singer (and former model) Betty Davis. "She's someone who is going to be remembered as this really unique individual. She doesn't just sing rock, soul or jazz, she sings the entire spectrum of the African-American culture."
Like Betty Davis, whose long overdue accolades have only started to pour in over the past decade, Joi will probably get more props 20 years from now, Ahmad says. But Joi doesn't want to be a cult artist or a musical martyr. She wants to sell records.
"Your name can be on people's lips and their eyes can light up when your name is mentioned, but if you're not making money, who the fuck cares?" she says. "Hell yes, I want to sell records. Now the beauty of it is this: Am I concerned about selling a million records? No. But am I concerned about reaching out there to those 200,000 that I know will buy my music? Yes."
Suffice it to say, there's a lot riding on Hot Heavy & Bad. With digital distribution a more viable option than it's ever been, and the recent success of boundary-pushing female artists including Janelle Monae and even Lady Gaga, the lane appears to be wide open for Joi to finally win her following.
With that reality weighing heavily on her mind, it's do or die time and she knows it. She's fiercely committed to furthering her art, as evidenced by her latest creation. But she doesn't have the luxury of pretending to be content to wallow in the shadows, or to play the role of the influencer who never gets an opportunity to shine. She needs to sustain herself financially, and even more, she's seeking validation for her role as one of the most important artists to touch soul music in the past two decades.
"I've discovered as you get older, your resiliency is different," she admits. "It's tougher to bounce back sometimes from getting knocked down. I just have to keep believing in the things that I know - that I know that I know - are my gifts."
The rest of the world will recognize them, too, in due time.