Date of Interview: 09/02/2009
© 2009 Clayton Perry
With hindsight as our guide, time has shown that Kandi Burruss has been the central and driving force behind the development of the contemporary canon of women’s empowerment music. As a member of Xscape, Kandi contributed her vocals to a string of gold and platinum R&B classics, like “Understanding,” “Who Can I Run To” and “The Arms of the One Who Loves You.” Although an accomplished vocalist, Burruss would make history as a songwriter. Her songwriting and production credits include the following groundbreaking singles: “Bills, Bills, Bills” (Destiny’s Child), “There You Go” (Pink), “4,5,6” (Sole), and the unforgettable, GRAMMY-winning “No Scrubs” (TLC).
In the months following her win at the 2000 GRAMMY Awards, Kandi Burruss became the first female recipient of the ASCAP [American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers] Rhythm & Soul Music Award for “Songwriter of the Year.” The accolade would go on to blaze a well-paved trail for a host of African-American women. As a matter of fact, in 2001, the subsequent year, Beyonce Knowles would follow in Burruss’ footsteps and win the “Songwriter of the Year” award at the ASCAP’s Pop Music Awards.
Upon the release of B.L.O.G., Kandi Burruss’ highly-anticipated sophomore solo release, the talented singer/songwriter managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on Queen Latifah, “Leroy Jones,” and the difficulties girl groups face.
Clayton Perry: It’s hard to believe you are almost at the close of your second decade in the music industry. What factors do you think have contributed to your longevity in the music business and the entertainment industry?
Kandi Burruss: Well, I think my ability to be able to do more than one thing. I didn’t get stuck into, “I have to be the artist. I have to be the one that’s in front of the camera.” Some people are stuck in that mode. I’m not. I’m comfortable being in front of the camera and I’m comfortable being behind the scenes. Either way, I love music, so I know that I’m going to do something constantly. My grind is I don’t put a relationship before my business. Women have the tendency to do that. I’ve never done that. I’ve always had the understanding of, “Okay, I have to make this happen. I need to do this. I need to do that.” I don’t know. I guess I just want it. You got to want it, right?
Clayton Perry: Yes. And your love definitely shines through. Several years ago, you started your very own music publishing business, Kandi Koated Entertainment. At what point in your career did you realize that the business world underpinned everything within the music world?
Kandi Burruss: Not till after the group, [Xscape]. Well, no let me say this. When I was in the group – I’ll never forget this – Queen Latifah won the Sammy Davis, Jr. Award, as Entertainer of the Year, at the Soul Train Music Awards. She won that because she was an actress. She had a management company. I think she had her label. She was an artist as well. There were all these different things that she was good at and successful at, so that’s what made her win the award. That day, when I was sitting there watching her accept the award, I said, “I’m going to get that award one day.” They don’t give out that award anymore, but that gave me a goal to accomplish. That made me say, “Hey, I can do more than just singing.” I went back home to Atlanta and called up Jagged Edge because I went to high school with Richard Wingo. I said, “Hey, are you still in that group?” He said “Yeah.” I was like “Would you have a manager?” That’s when I started a management company. I helped them get a deal with Jermaine. That started it all. That started me thinking just outside being an artist. I always wanted to write but when our group started falling apart, that’s when Tiny and I were like, “We’re going to do a duo, just the two of us.” We were going to write our own songs. “No Scrubs” was our song. That one song opened up the doorway for me to do many other things. It helped me gain respect from my peers and all the different executives in the industry. When you’re just the artist, the people behind the scenes don’t really respect you. They’re like, “Okay there he is today, gone tomorrow.” It’s no big deal. But when you’re a hit producer or a hit songwriter, they make it a point to get to know you. They’re thinking about all the different projects that they can use you for. That helped me tremendously. When I started writing for people, I was like, “Wow! This is a whole other world that I did not know about. All this time I’ve been singing and not know about this.”
Clayton Perry: Is there a particular piece of advice that someone gave you that was really helpful?
Kandi Burruss: The great piece of advice that I got from anybody was financial advice that LL Cool J gave me. When I was on tour – our group was on tour with him and R Kelly and I’ll never forget this, he’s a really cool guy – he told me one day, “Always have at least one house that you own and one car that you own. In this business, you’ll never know what it’s going to be like ten years down the road. At least, you’ll always have a place to live. Even if you don’t have the money to pay it off right now, every time you get a check, throw a little money to the principal. Before you know it, you’ll have paid the house up.” I remembered that. He was right. As long as I’ve been in the business, I’ve seen so many people go from being big-time millionaires to they can’t get a hit record, maintain their lifestyle and then they got no money. They still got these big bills from when they were making all the money. So I never wanted that to be me and I’m glad he gave me that advice. Other than that, I also had Gerald Busby who, in my first decade anniversary, said, “Okay, we’ve seen what you’ve done for your first decade in the industry. Let’s see what you can do for your next ten.” At that time I think he was on his thirtieth. He just gave me something that I really want to happen to me. I always wanted to stay relevant in the business. I always wanted to be somebody like Gerald Busby or Sylvia Rhone, even Jermaine Dupri. They’ve been successful for a long time. What you have to understand is you’re going to have your slow periods. You’re not going to be hot all the time. When you’re not hot, you can’t let it discourage you. You got to keep grinding. Something else pops and you’re back in again.
Clayton Perry: Although you were driven by your quest to attain the Sammy Davis, Jr. award, over the years, you’ve snagged several other awards along the way. I’d like to focus on one in particular: the ASCAP award for “Songwriter of the Year.” When you think about the significance of your win, in terms of women’s progress in a male-dominated industry, how do you place that particular victory into context? What other obstacles you think women still have to overcome in the business?
Kandi Burruss: Winning the “Songwriter of the Year” award and finding out that I was the first woman to get it, it didn’t hit me at first because I had gotten other ASCAP awards before. I hadn’t realized the importance of the songwriter of the year and how hard it is to get that. When I found out that I was the first woman to do it, it really made me think that there are not a lot of strong women songwriter/producers who are behind the scenes doing their thing. It made me say, “Why is that?” It’s not that women don’t have talent. Why is it that we’re not the ones making things happen behind the scenes? I can’t even answer that question because I’ve met a lot of talented young women. I don’t know if it’s because sometimes it can be a boys’ club. As far as guys, they know the camaraderie thing. Most of the A&Rs in the business are men. Guys have their mouthpiece, too. They know how to work their people. Most of the women I know are a little bit more reserved.
Clayton Perry: Has mentorship been a key thing for you? Was there a particular woman that stepped up to help you during the early years?
Kandi Burruss: To be honest with you, I didn’t really have a woman that mentored me in the industry growing up. I met different women that were doing their thing but there wasn’t a particular person that really stayed in my life and constantly advised, “You should do this. You should do that.” There were a lot male businessmen who gave advice and would tell me what I should be doing. I can’t say that I had many young women that I’ve touched. There are a lot of young male producers that I’ve tried to help, or even as far as artists, like giving Jagged Edge the deal. As far as women, there have been a couple of songwriters that I tried to help. My friend Jessica, she’s a writer now and I always try to give her advice and help her out with what she needs to be doing. Not as many artists. I tried to put together a young girl group before. It didn’t work out. I’m like, “Wow! What is the problem with female groups? I’m going to do a book about that.”
Clayton Perry: You should! [laughing] For now, I’m just hoping that Electrik Red sticks together, although their album, [How to Be A Lady, Volume 1], didn’t sell well. I really liked how they put their own twist on society’s conception of what’s “ladylike” and what’s not – their work is really tongue-in-cheek. I’m also crossing my fingers for Richgirl, since “He Ain’t With Me Now (Tho)” didn’t really generate as much buzz as I had expected.
Kandi Burruss: I actually worked with them before. They’re very talented. I love them as a group. I don’t know what’s going on with the labels and girl groups. Just labels with new artists period – they don’t want to invest the money to the development of the act anymore. If you don’t hit with the first single, maybe they’d let you go. It’s hard with new artists anyway. You really have to have the mentality of, “Even if I get a deal, I’m still going to work as if I’m an independent.” Because if you don’t, you’re just leaving your career up to them which is not a good idea.
Clayton Perry: Even when we talk about girl groups nowadays, we always pay reverence to groups like Xscape. When you left, were there any particular obstacles you had to face, when you tried to brand yourself as a solo artist?
Kandi Burruss: The thing about it is I didn’t want to go solo. That’s the crazy thing. Everybody assumed that because my album came out, “She’d like to go solo.” One of my group members was the one who wanted to go solo and that’s why the group fell apart. My thing happened because of circumstance. During the course of negotiating for the third album, Tocha wanted to do solos, so our attorney told the label either you give Tocha the opportunity to do a solo record or she’s not going to record the third album. They told her that as long as she recorded the third album, they’re going to give her the solo deal. So through the recording of the third album, we knew that Xscape was going to be done or would have a long hiatus.At first it was like me and Tiny were going to do a duo thing, and that’s how we came up with “No Scrubs.” When we took it to the label, Jermaine’s dad was still the president of black music at Columbia. He was not feeling the idea of the duo that we were trying to do. He was just like, “I don’t get this. How are you going to do it with just the two of you?” Blah-blah-blah. He was not going to give us the release to take the product somewhere else because that was basically like giving away Xscape. Tiny was the most recognizable face of the group, and he felt like my voice was the more distinctive, recognizable voice. He was like, “I’ll allow you to do a solo project if you just want to do a solo record.” I did not really want to do a solo record. I wanted to do the duo project but at the same time, I couldn’t afford to sit around. He wasn’t going to allow us to do the duo. So I had to make a choice. That’s why I was like, “Okay I’m going to go ahead and do the solo album.” That’s how that came about. I mean, it was an experience. I learned a lot from it but I don’t think I was ready at the time. I didn’t know what I wanted my image to be. I didn’t know what the sound of the album should be. I was writing so many pop records at the time so, of course, I had that pop influence on the album. But I was from an urban group, so it wasn’t really reaching the audience that knew me as an artist. As an artist, I really didn’t know what I wanted at the time. I was kind of like going with the flow.
Clayton Perry: Taking all that you have learned from your experience with your first album, Hey Kandi, as well as all of the work that you have done with other artists, how are you approaching this second album, B.L.O.G.?
Kandi Burruss: Well, with this album, luckily I don’t have to do it for financial reasons. I’m doing it for the music, and I just got a lot creatively that’s on my mind right now. Lyrically, the album is going to have a lot of personal feel to it. At least half of the songs, if not three-quarters of it, is definitely from personal experiences that you may have even seen on the show, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, with stuff that’s going on in my life or whatever that I’ve talked about. It’s going to be a lot of songs that are very relatable to a lot of people because, you know, we all go through the same things at different times. I feel strong about the songs in the album, the content, the lyrics. The concept is very strong on this album. There are club records, of course, like “Out” with me, Rick Ross and Rasheeda. The concept is something that people can relate to. It wasn’t necessarily about anything that you’ve seen going on in my life but it’s a dope concept for me, the record itself. Also, Tiny and I are on a record together. Everybody that missed Xscape in the past, you’re going to get a little taste of it now. That record meant a lot to me so I want to use it for the album. It’s something she and I wrote together awhile ago and we just updated it. Then I have a song with Gucci Mane. I love Gucci Mane. There are a lot of female anthems on the record, of course. That’s what I like to do. Vocally, I definitely try to show my range on this album. On my last solo album, I really didn’t. For one, my voice is really stronger now than back then. I didn’t even show my range. I didn’t hit the super, super high notes that I could do on that album. That note on the end of “My Little Secret,” I didn’t even do that on my first solo album. On this album, I did. I was going to do everything on this record because I don’t know if this is going to be my last one, so anything that I know that I want people to recognize. Like Nene said, “Can Kandi sing?” Well, you’re going to know after you hear this album. I do have songs that I do laid back because it’s all about the style, but I definitely have songs on there that say, “Okay, this girl can sing.”
Clayton Perry: In a recent press release, you spotlighted one particular song: “Leroy Jones.” From what I understood, it is about your stepfather. What kind of attachment do you have to him?
Kandi Burruss: People always talk about the fact that, “She writes male-bashing songs.” That’s not true – just the ones that everybody knows. I wanted to write a record that’s positive about a man. Other than my brother, Leroy, my stepdad, was one of the most positive male role models that I have. The song is from a single mother’s perspective, saying to a man, “I want a man like Leroy Jones. Can you be like him?” I say all the things he did for me as a child, how he could love a child not his own like his own. That’s how I am in my real life. I feel like me and my daughter, we’re a package deal. If you want to be with me, you got to be able to love her just like she was yours. This is what you need to know upfront. I lay out all how my stepfather was to me. Even after my mother and him separated, he still was there for me. That’s true love of a child.
Clayton Perry: In what ways has motherhood impacted or influenced your professional career?
Kandi Burruss: Right before I got pregnant with my daughter, I went to Nashville for a short period of time and wrote with some of the writers out there. The country songwriters, they don’t work the wee hours of the night like urban writers do. They start early in the morning, like a job. They’re done by 3:00. They’re at home cooking dinner for their family and able to spend quality time with their families. That opened my eyes to a lot of things. I said to myself, “When I have a kid, I’m going to reset my life to fit so that I’m not living for the industry. I’m in the industry but I don’t live for the industry. I live for my family.” As soon as I got pregnant, I started building my guest house to put the studio here in my house so I can work at home more, because I just knew that she’s going to need me to do homework. She’s going to need me to do this or do that. I just kept that in mind. I can’t just be putting her on the back burner. I had to change my life around. I used to be in the studio till the wee hours of the morning, not starting till midnight and getting out when people were going to work. Now, I feel crazy just getting started at 11 or midnight.
Clayton Perry: The musical landscape has changed so much and you’ve seen two decades worth of it. What’s the good, what’s the bad, what do you hope for the future?
Kandi Burruss: What’s the good? The good is still being here. Still being able to be relevant is such a major accomplishment. It’s hard to continue to stay in the business. Some people I knew from back in the day, they don’t even have anything to do with music anymore. I can’t even imagine not being in some kind of way still in the music. Bad? I don’t really look at anything as bad because it’s always an experience I can use for something else. Like I said, everything happens for a reason. I thought when our group was falling apart, I was devastated. Life was ending. I didn’t know what I was going to do. But if it wasn’t for Tocha’s plan for “I want to do my own thing,” “No Scrubs” would never have come about. That’s why I say everything happens for a reason. I take all the bad as it comes.
Clayton Perry: As I was looking browsing your back-catalog and songwriting credits, I was surprised when I discovered that you wrote “Make Me Want to Scream” off of Blu Cantrell’s Bittersweet (2003). I always thought that song was underrated.
Kandi Burruss: Yeah. I just write them and keep on moving. I love that song, too. I think the album didn’t get as much recognition as it deserved.
Clayton Perry: It certainly did not. I don’t know how much of that was based on timing, management, or whatever.
Kandi Burruss: Yeah, there are a lot of factors that can make or break a record. Another song that I don’t really think about and some people go, “I love that song!” is “Single for the Rest of My Life.” A lot of people don’t remember that song. But I love that song.
Clayton Perry: This past year, you reinvigorated your career with the exposure you’ve had on The Real Housewives of Atlanta. What life events led you to join the cast? What’s your take on the whole experience? Are you pleased with the image or perspective that’s been shown of you?
Kandi Burruss: I do feel good about the way they’ve shown me. I knew I didn’t want to go on the show trying to pretend to be something that I’m not and to put on airs for everybody. I’m one of those types of people that feel like – and I say it time and time again – you’re supposed to live below your means. I didn’t want to get on the show and I’m carrying on down the mall everyday. That’s not realistic. There are people who are like that but I’m not. I wanted to portray a person who had a good head on their shoulders, who was about their business, who took care of their family. I don’t think that I’m drama, anyway. I was surprised that I did have the drama that I did with Nene. I hate the fact that they had AJ looking really bad. He’s not a bad guy. Those are the only two things that I did not like about becoming a part of the show. Other than that, it did give a chance for all the people who were fans back in the day to get to know me again and to see what I’ve been doing. Obviously, it brought in a whole new group of people who may not even have heard of my music in the past. I am grateful to the show for that, definitely. When I decided to do the show, it was like, “I really should be doing this thing with Tiny and Toya.” But the producer of the show when it started just wanted to use Tiny and Toya. I was disappointed. Tiny came up with this grand idea to do a TV show and she asked me if I could be a part of it. The TV show turned into this whole reality show thing, so I kind of got excited and open-minded about it. But then, like I said, the producer who ended up doing the show decided he only wanted to use them two. Well, of course, that was her idea, so I’m not going to hate on that or whatever. I was happy for her. But the following week after I found out I wasn’t going to be a part of their show, the Real Housewives people reached out to me. I just felt like everything happened for a reason. If it hadn’t been for Tiny opening my mind to reality TV, I wouldn’t know if I had been as open to doing it. Sometimes everything happens for a reason. Maybe it was meant for me to do this show and have a way to reach the masses. I don’t know whatever else I’m agreeing to in life. Hopefully, it’s a lot of positive things.
Clayton Perry: Is there something you said or did on the show that someone brought back to you and said thank you?
Kandi Burruss: For one, I feel like my experience on the show has definitely hit home with a lot of people and a lot of families. I’ve had people stopping me on the street to say, “Girl, listen to your mother.” Or people would be like, “You got to follow your heart.” People feel very attached to what’s going on in my life and in my relationship. The whole thing I keep saying about how I hate repeating the cycle – that touched a lot of people because a lot of women out there were saying they hate repeating the cycle and it’s not something that they want to continue to do. A lot of people didn’t know that I didn’t drink or whatever. The fact that I live below my means and try to live in the same house that I bought when I was 19, so many people commented on that because they felt like, “She’s an entertainer. She’s supposed to be doing this, doing that, whatever an entertainer is supposed to do.” They don’t expect us to be levelheaded and normal. The stuff going on with my aunt and my mom, the way they were talking all about our relatives and people being able to see how close we were, it touched a lot of people’s hearts because it reminded them of their own families. There are a lot of good things.
Clayton Perry: I was relieved that Bravo did not edit out the positive scenes, in an attempt to promote a whole bunch of drama and negativity for ratings’ sake. They didn’t shy away from showing positivity.
Kandi Burruss: I appreciated that, too, because I was kind of afraid. When I first signed on to the show, I was, “Okay, I don’t think it’s going to be that bad.” But then when people started going in on the drama, I was like, “What have I gotten myself into?” When I started watching the show, well you know what? It’s not that bad at all. It really did try to show some positive things. Of course, the drama keeps the people tuned in. It’s good to see an African-American woman doing her thing that’s real, not the typical whatever you claim her to be. Nene tried to say that I’m ghetto or however she wanted to call me. Maybe some people think that I am. I don’t know. Other than that, it’s still more than negative. I think there’s a lot of good that they’re showing.
For more information on Kandi Burruss, visit her official MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/kandionline