OK, who is Jill Scott?
A talk with the up-n-coming R&B singer-songwriter from Philadelphia
When Jill Scott finished her debut CD, Who Is Jill Scott?, she didn’t go around bragging about its potential to rack up huge sales.
“I didn’t expect anything,” the Philadelphia-based singer said. “I just wanted to offer it, not sell it, not force it down people’s throats, and see what would happen. And I’m definitely pleased with what has happened.”
As that last comment suggests, Scott has instead made quite an impression with her first CD. Since its release last summer, the CD has passed one million in sales and earned Scott three Grammy nominations, including one for best new artist. She didn’t come away with any awards, but just being nominated raised her profile considerably.
There are good reasons Who Is Jill Scott, which remains in the top 60 on Billboard’s album chart, has been making waves. It’s one of the more auspicious debuts to come along on the R&B scene since the arrival of Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill—singers to whom Scott is frequently compared.
Like those artists, Scott is bridging the gap between today’s street level rap and the more melodic approach that characterized an earlier generation of urban music.
Scott’s music draws on the Memphis-style soul of the 1960s (think Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding) as well as Philadelphia soul of the 1970s (the O’Jays being a prime example) and updates her sound with hip-hop rhythms and the occasional rap. Occasionally a touch of jazz seeps into Scott’s singing as well.
The soul influence makes perfect sense, given Scott’s Philadelphia heritage, as well as the music she heard growing up.
But when Scott talks of the soul element in her music, she isn’t just talking about a music genre, but about the importance of creating music that’s honest and comes from the heart.
“That’s how I feel. That’s what we do, when you’re speaking to yourself, whether you’re in pain or happy in love, whether you’re absolutely out of your mind, it gives you that,” Scott said, explaining how she wants her music to express her real emotions. “That’s why we still appreciate Picasso and Salvador Dalí. They definitely had their point of view, and they [expressed it] on canvas or in sculpture. That’s an artist.”
Indeed, Scott often sounds like she is telling personal stories from her own life as she weaves her way through a song cycle that deals with romance ("He Loves Me [Lyzel in E Flat]") and “A Long Walk"—two songs about Scott’s fiancé), physical passion ("Exclusively") and the importance of self-confidence and self-respect ("Brotha").
The quality of Scott’s music—she co-wrote most of the songs on her CD—might seem a bit surprising, considering that for a long time she didn’t consider music to be a career option.
She went to Temple University, where she studied English, planning to pursue teaching. Along the way, though, she discovered an interest in acting, learning about behind-the-scenes specialties such as lighting and sound, as well as trying her hand at acting.
The interest in acting went far enough that Scott, 28, toured in the Canadian production of the award-winning play Rent.
But back in Philadelphia, where Scott still makes her home, she was making a name for herself on the poetry scene. Eventually, she took her craft on the road and extended her poetry following to New York and New Jersey.
Scott considers her poetry readings to have provided invaluable experience for her, not only as a writer, but also in her ability to perform in front of an audience.
“Being a poet in Philadelphia and New York put me standing in front of an audience [with only] words,” she said. “So it made me realize how very important words are. You want to say something. You don’t want it to go in one ear and out the other without making an impression. Being able to stand there on stage with just words and no more, it made me a better artist. It made me a better performer because I’m not afraid.”
Scott’s poetry also played a direct role in her entry into the music business. A friend of Scott’s had introduced her to members of the critically acclaimed Philadelphia hip-hop band the Roots. Eventually, her performances caught the attention of Roots drummer Amir “Questlove” Thompson.
“My girlfriend did ‘Lazy Afternoon’ on the [Roots'] Do You Want More?!!!??! album,” Scott said. “I met the Roots through her. We’d be saying, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ really no more than that. I would just see them around, and they’d see me around, and I had the opportunity to perform in front of Questlove, somewhere where I was so he could see what I did.”
Thompson was so impressed that he told the band’s producer, Scott Storch, about Scott. The band invited Scott to join them in the studio one evening, and she ended up writing the lyrics to the song “You Got Me” that night. The song was chosen as the first single from the Roots most recent studio CD, Everything Falls Apart, and went on to become a breakthrough hit for the band. Scott, though, did not get the chance to sing on the studio track.
Instead, the Roots’ record label wanted a known performer for the song and enlisted Badu to sing on the track. The song later won a 1999 Grammy for best rap performance by a duo or group.
Scott admits she was unhappy about being passed over to sing on the studio version of the song (although she does sing on the concert version included on the Roots’ 1999 live CD, The Roots Come Alive).
“It was a disappointment,” Scott said. “[I thought] I had gotten my first big break. In reality I did. You know, I got a lot of attention as a writer.”
In fact, the recognition she received for co-writing “You Got Me” helped pave the way for Scott to land a contract with the Sony-distributed Hidden Beach Records—the new label co-owned by basketball’s Michael Jordan.
With the success of her CD, of course, Scott is now getting her share of attention for her singing as well as her songwriting. Ironically, Scott said she didn’t consider the Grammy recognition that big of a deal.
“It doesn’t hurt. I’m not mad,” she said of the nominations. “I’m happy about it, like ‘Yeah!’ That’s icing.
“I’m proud of myself, of course. I’m glad that folks listened to it enough to pay attention to me," she said.