Date of Interview: 07/14/2010
In the world of R&B, Tank is the ultimate triple-threat. As one of the genre’s leading male vocalists, he has also developed a tremendous reputation for his songwriting and production talents. To date, his discography includes credits on four film soundtracks (Dreamgirls, The Fast and the Furious, More Than a Game, and The Brothers), as well as a smorgasbord of male and female artists, who cover a wide spectrum ranging from veteran acts, like Dave Hollister, Monica and Joe, to up-and-coming singers, like Jennifer Hudson, Chris Brown, and Keri Hilson. Outside of the music arena, he has also tried his hand at acting – serving as the co-star of his most-recent film – Preacher’s Kid (2010) – alongside LeToya Luckett.
Even though Tank has left his “musical fingerprints” on countless projects this past decade, relatively little information about his personal life and musical background has ever been shared with the public. Keeping this in mind, Atlantic Records made certain that Tank squeezed some time out of his busy schedule, in order to settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting upon his music scholarship to Howard University, Ginuwine’s career-defining mentorship, and the inspiration behind his fourth album, Now or Never.
Clayton Perry: Over the past decade, you have written and produced songs for virtually every major R&B singer. Even so, relatively little information is known about Durrell Babbs – the artist known and loved as “Tank.” So before diving into your forthcoming project, I would like to start this interview at the beginning of your career and work my way forward. I have heard conflicting stories about how you decided to turn your life over to music, but I do know that sports – at one time – was your heart and soul. When did you decide that music was going to become the focus of your life?
Tank: It was kind of a decision that made itself. The scholarship packages for college, of course, weren’t the same for music and for sports. I had a full scholarship for music and only a partial for sports. So when I took the full music scholarship, it left me no room to do anything but that. So my focus on sports just kind of faded on its own. I thought I was going to use the music scholarship to play football. But I had so many music classes and things that were required of me based upon my scholarship that I couldn’t even get around to it. At that point I was just like: “Well, this is pointless, because where I’d really rather be is in the studio,” instead of taking remedial piano classes. So in about a month and a half, I said: “Look, I gotta go, man. I just can’t.” So I just camped out in the studio and my mama’s basement for the next few years until I got it right.
Clayton Perry: In addition to your mother’s support, what other early influences helped to shape your career? And at what particular point were you introduced to the piano?
Tank: I started playing the piano when I was five, and I was really inspired by my older cousin. His name was Alphonzo Jiles. He went to Berklee College of Music, and he used to teach the choir. So when he would come back home, he’d teach my mom and all of my cousins songs. I would just sit there and watch him. I was mesmerized. He was like the greatest thing since a peanut butter sandwich to me. So growing up, as far as a musical influence, that was the guy who I was trying to be like. He played drums. He could sing. He played piano. All of that. So that was my first inspiration and that’s the thing that I tried to emulate.
Clayton Perry: Between the age of five and the time you received your music scholarship, how did you nurture and develop your skills?
Tank: Church. I played the organ and the piano. I also taught the choir and wrote songs. Anything you could do in the church house musically, I was doing it. And I was doing that all the way up to my tour in ’97 with Ginuwine and Aaliyah.
Clayton Perry: As a former background singer for Ginuwine, I am curious to know how that opportunity came about. How did you officially link up with him?
Tank: In ’97, the company that I was working with got a call from Blackground – saying that they needed to put the backline together, including the musicians and all of that. Once we got out there, I tried to make sure that I had all my stuff together. I knew all the songs. I knew all the songs he wasn’t going to sing. I knew the songs he was going to sing, and I knew how to play them all. I wasn’t even called out there to be a musician. I was called to be a background singer,. But I just wanted to be ready for anything. And so when I finally met him and he got wind of my talent, we just kind of developed a relationship, and he wanted to see the stuff I could do.
Clayton Perry: When you were on the road with Ginuwine, I am sure that you learned a great deal about the business. What professional lesson from those early years do you still carry with you today?
Tank: Well, man, it was totally different than everything I had been used to, because everything I had done had just been in church. And unfortunately, the professionalism in the church isn’t as heavy as it is in the R&B world. So it was a whole other level of commitment, as far as where you have to be and things you have to do, and the timeliness of it. It was almost like the military. You had to be where you’re supposed to be, at the time you’re supposed to be there, doing what you’re supposed to be doing. So it just made me raise my awareness level and just made me more conscious of the “whens” and the “wheres” and the “hows.” Everything runs on a clock or it’s going to cost you a whole lot of money – and possibly a whole lot of fans. Small things counted. Making sure you’re up in time to get to the plane, and making sure you have your ID, and making sure you’re ready for sound check. It’s all on a schedule. And then you try to fit some fun in, while making sure you’re able to be back at it the next morning. So, overall, it’s all about professionalism – again, again and again. So I just learned the constant grind. Ginuwine is a very hard worker. Being with him and trying to follow behind him, I had to keep up. You couldn’t fall behind or you were just going to be left.
Clayton Perry: Since you were thrown into the mix so quickly, what words of advice did he share with you, as an up-and-coming artist. Do you have a memorable “teachable moment” where you learned something impactful?
Tank: I’ll tell you right now. We were in Germany, and we were standing at the top of what I think was an opera house. We were singing on a big balcony. So we were standing at the top of the balcony, and there were some fans that arrived early to say “hi” and take pictures. And he was like: “Let’s go down there.” I said: “You want to go all the way down there?” And he said: “Yeah. Let’s go down there.” And while we were walking, he said: “See, this is the stuff you gotta do. The stuff that you have to make time to do. You have to take time to stop, if you can, and talk to everybody. Always take time out for your fans, no matter what, even if it’s an inconvenience to you, because they know the difference, when you want to stop or you just feel like you just have to stop. You feel like you’re doing them a service, but in all actuality, they’re doing you a favor. So you gotta do this.” And so, I walked with him through the malls. We’d stop and give everybody hugs, autographs, and listen to their stories. He was really adamant about stopping and making time for those people that helped make his career.
Clayton Perry: As you transitioned into your solo career, I doubt anyone could ever forget “Maybe I Deserve.” That song was so powerful – and filled with so much emotion – that it really captures a specific moment in time for R&B. Taking your musical catalog into consideration, the bulk of your work revolves around love and relationships. In what ways do your personal and professional life dove-tail, and what do you consider to be the key to making a relationship work?
Tank: Well, 99 percent of my songs are true from a relationship standpoint, and it has really been a learning process. When you’re dealing with different people, you’re always learning, because you’re always having different experiences. It’s never the same exact thing because everybody’s different. With the first album, there was a specific relationship that I was discussing. And then the second album, there was a different relationship. It just kind of varied as far as the things that I was going through and the things that I was learning at the particular time. Now, I’m on my fourth album. On Now or Never, you’ll hear some of the things that I’ve learned throughout my past relationships up until what I’m going through now, and now I’m trying to apply those things. So it’s a learning curve that I never think you never really stop going around. For me, the songs that really stand-out: “Maybe I Deserve,” from the first album; “One Man,” from the second album, where I was just trying to be the best I can in my relationship, to provide and do all the right things; “Please Don’t Go,” on the third album, where I had messed up again; and on this new album, “You Mean That Much to Me,” where I’m finding the value in keeping somebody worth keeping. So it’s definitely a continuous learning process.
Clayton Perry: Tell me about the songwriting process behind “You Mean That Much to Me.”
Tank: “You Mean That Much to Me” is a very groundbreaking record. I think that it speaks for anyone who’s ever fought for something, whatever it is. Of course, in this instance, it’s dealing directly with a relationship. But it could be anything that means something to you that you’re willing to fight and cry for. I mean the verses pretty much break down that I will go to the ends of the earth, and that there’s no valley too high, no valley too low; meaning that much to me that I’m willing to put it all on the line. And it’s going to be a major event when this record comes out and people hear this, because the lyrics are very universal. No matter your background, I think that people all over the world will relate this song to something that means a lot to them and that they’re willing to fight for.
Clayton Perry: As soon as you said the word “fight,” my mind immediately jumped to my favorite Jennifer Hudson song, “We Gon’ Fight,” which was written by you. So I would like to take this time and walk through some of my favorite tracks that you have written – starting with this track. Do you have any special memories attached to the song?
Tank: Going into her album, I thought she needed a powerful record. I knew that it was going to be a situation where the record company was going to try to give her the kind of records that they wanted her to do, but I really wanted her to have a record that showcased what she was really about. She’s a very passionate singer. That’s why I fell in love with her voice, and I wanted her to have a song that represented that; and of course a song that she could probably relate to, like “it is what it is.” Basically, the lovers were going to fight for love, even if they had to fight each other for it! [laughing] And it wasn’t a difficult task for her because the record connected with her and it made sense. She was in and out with that record. Any other record we did, where we were trying to be a little trendy and a little current or whatever, we kind of toyed with it for a couple of days to get through. But this record right here, it was instant magic!
Clayton Perry: I remember the first time I played her debut album. I immediately put this song on repeat. Man, I don’t even remember how many times I played it. But yeah, I wore it out! It is one of my all-time favorites. Another one of my favorite songs is “Forever,” which Dave Hollister recorded for The Brothers soundtrack.
Tank: Wow! We’re going back! [laughing]
Clayton Perry: Yeah, I love that song! [laughing]
Tank: Well, all right, my man.
Clayton Perry: What insight can you share on that particular track?
Tank: Well, you know, me and Dave, we were really groovin’ at the time, man. We actually did that record down in Atlanta, and we were trying to do the next wedding song. And what better word than “forever,” right? I think we took a good shot at it. I don’t think the soundtrack got to really see the light of day that I probably wanted it to get, or what I thought it deserved. It wasn’t even featured in the movie.
Clayton Perry: No, unfortunately. I discovered it after listening to the soundtrack.
Tank: Yeah, something happened, like we didn’t get it in time, or something to that effect. So it was kind of a bust. It was one of those things where we had this great song, and we never really had an outlet for it, but it had to be on the soundtrack. So we took it as such. We were very happy we just made a good song and we hoped that at least people would get a chance to hear it. I actually went on YouTube a little while ago, just to look it up and see what was going on with it, and I saw people singing it at their wedding. So that makes me happy. We actually accomplished what we set out to accomplish.
Clayton Perry: Well, it’s a phenomenal track, and the perfect wedding song. Last, but not least, I want to talk to you about “Wish U Were Here,” which was recorded by Jamie Foxx.
Tank: Jamie’s grandma had just passed, and he was just talking to me about what was on his mind, and how he was feeling. And I can tell you right now, that record flowed immediately. He was like: “I’ve got this idea and I’m feeling like this and I think it should kind of go like this.” So I told him: “Okay. Turn the mic on. Let’s get in the booth.” And I just went right in the booth and I started singing it. It was just that combination of the words and the feeling that he had already told me. It was very easy. So I just started singing. And between him and Breyon [Prescott], we started throwing words together, and there was nothing really made-up about that song. Everything about that song comes from pure emotion and true feeling, and how he felt at the time. So it all just made sense.
Clayton Perry: Thank you for giving me inside perspective on those tracks. I really appreciate it. You have also contributed several tracks to LeToya Luckett’s latest album, Lady Love, in addition to co-starring with her in the film Preacher’s Kid. What kind of special bond do the two of you share behind-the-scenes, because the chemistry on Lady Love was incredible? Besides, “Regret” and “Good to Me,” which were singles, I fell madly in love with “Over”.
Tank: You know what’s crazy? It all started with “Over,” while we were on the set of Preacher’s Kid. She and I had run into each other a few times, but nothing really sparked off, as far as us getting anything done. And so, one day I said: We’ve gotta work together.” And she said: “Okay, well, let’s work together, because we really can’t avoid each other!” [laughing] So she wanted to hear something, and I started playing records for her, including that record. When she heard it, she told me to play it again. And we played the record like three or four times in a row, and she’s said: “That’s it! That’s it!” I mean, she was just going crazy about the “Over” record. And then there was another record, too, that she was going crazy about that we didn’t actually get around to. That started the process and – from there – she just started listening to more records. I was listening to the stuff she had, and she would come to the house or whatever, and we’d just hang out – all of us. There was a nice bunch of us that would just hang out. And then once it came time to come back to L.A. and get the record done, it was almost towards the end of the record. They were looking at it, and trying to figure it out over the holidays, and I was like, “Hell, no, let’s work.” And we ended up creating like three super, super great records that came at the end of the album, at the end of the budget, and all of that stuff. But we just figured out a way to work it out and we ended up with some of the biggest records on the album.
Clayton Perry: I am surprised to hear that it all started on the set for Preacher’s Kid. But that’s the way fate works sometimes. As one of R&B’s leading men, you have written a great deal for yourself, in addition to the genre’s leading ladies as well. Since you are capable of writing from both the male perspective and the female perspective so well, do you tackle the songwriting process differently with each approach?
Tank: I just pay attention to the artist. When I work with a certain artist, I get into that artist’s mode, because I’m not really a fan of making people sound like me, or just handing them a bunch of my records that are sitting around waiting to be sold. I would rather me do what I do, and they do what they do. But when it comes to other artists, I want to give them their own individual thing. So I think that’s why it’s easy for me to write for a male and female, because I’m not stuck in a particular pattern or a particular way to do it. With female artists, in particular, I ask myself: “How does she sing, and what does her voice sound like? What is her range, and what have her songs sounded like in the past? What can she pull off? What can’t she pull off?” You have to get into the science of it all, before you actually just start making a record. So I think that’s what makes the process unique and that’s what also gives me the versatility to be able to go back and forth like that.
Clayton Perry: Your forthcoming album is entitled Now or Never. What do those three small words mean to you, when you look at the “big picture” of your career?
Tank: I think it’s a combination of a few things. Where music is right now, there is a lack of talent that everybody’s trying to push and a lack of real songs that everybody’s trying to put on the radio. There is a tremendous lack of real R&B that is being invested in. It feels like now is the time that we take this stand to put these things back in place, and to regain our control of our music. The music business should be based on music. With them taking it out of the schools and just really killing the vibe on inspiring young kids to be musicians and singers and writers and all of these things, we’re losing the inspiration. Like I remember growing up and hearing New Edition and hearing Babyface and hearing all these people. Hearing real songs made from real magic that you can’t get from only fifteen minutes of work. That kind of magic comes from being in the studio, getting a vibe and creating a synergy between you and whoever you’re working with in the studio. We’re losing that art. So Now or Never is saying if we don’t take this stand now, then we’re going to lose the thing that started it all. And if we lose that, then there’s no telling what we’re going to be singing to. Like they might just cut the piano altogether and stop making them. We have to take this stand now. That’s first for me. But then this for me is like, with this new situation that I’m a part of now, that I’ve been blessed to be a part of, it’s like the beginning of my career all over again. It’s like I’m getting a fresh start. And with these tools that I have in place, if I can’t do it now then I’m never going to be able to do it. And that’s not saying that this is my last, but it’s the pressure that I’m willing to put on myself to be great within everything I’ve been blessed with.
Clayton Perry: Outside of the studio, you have also had a great deal of success in Hollywood, including your work with Dreamgirls, which won several Academy Awards. What official role did you play in this production?
Tank: I was working with The Underdogs at the time, and they were brought on to do the entire soundtrack. I was a musician as well as a singer for the movie. And actually, I almost got the part of C.C. in the movie.
Clayton Perry: Really?
Tank: Yeah, it was between me and Keith. We were like the last two people standing and they ended up giving it to him, which is cool. I didn’t mind losing to a guy like that. He’s a great actor. But I got a little shot in the movie. If you look at the scene where there’s a little choir behind Eddie Murphy, I’m in there. So I did made it in the movie! [laughing] But yeah, I got to be a musician on it, and sing and all of that stuff. It took a while for us to get that whole soundtrack done, but once we finally started moving, it was well worth it.
Clayton Perry: Every single year, since the film’s release in 2006, a song featuring your songwriting or production has been attached to a GRAMMY-nominated or GRAMMY-winning project.
Tank: Yeah, isn’t that crazy?
Clayton Perry: Oh, yeah! [laughing] To what do you attribute this hot streak?
Tank: You know, I have my thing that I do. Thank God it’s in demand and that nobody else really does it. I think that’s one part of it. But then two, I think everybody has talent. Everybody has something to bring to the table. But it really all boils down to who’s willing to work the hardest. I think that I’ve been willing to work in positions and under conditions that most artists, writers and producers wouldn’t be able to work. But out of those situations and out of those conditions, we found some records and we found some things that worked and made sense, ended up making some albums that ended up becoming singles. We’re successful as a result of it. I’ve been able to put our pride aside regardless of how much money we assume we made or how much notoriety we think we had. But just being able to put our pride aside in order to get in there and make some good music, that’s the thing that keeps you moving forward.
For more information on Tank, visit his official website: http://www.therealtank.com/