Chucky Thompson’s Borderless Sound: NPR

The late super-producer pledged to see his artists as people first

Chucky Thompson speaks at a Recording Academy event in January 2009. The late producer created some of the most famous hits of the ’90s hip-hop soul era.

Joe Kohen / WireImage for NARAS / Getty Images

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Joe Kohen / WireImage for NARAS / Getty Images

Chucky Thompson speaks at a Recording Academy event in January 2009. The late producer created some of the most famous hits of the ’90s hip-hop soul era.

Joe Kohen / WireImage for NARAS / Getty Images

As a kid in 1980s Washington, DC, Carl Edward “Chucky” Thompson Jr. couldn’t help but meet Chuck Brown, the godfather of the city’s funky go-go music scene, cutting him off with the young people who made up his primary audience. at his shows. As the self-taught musician made his way into Brown’s band, the Soul Searchers, as a 16-year-old conga player, he noticed something else: the conductor insisted on addressing individually. to all his musicians before, during and after each performance. Thompson was a prodigy who learned keyboards, drums, guitar, bass, and trombone by ear, but Brown taught him something he couldn’t learn on his own: making great music with others begins. by being altruistic and flexible.

“It all depends on the energy you bring in and how you move,” said Thompson, with his heavy DC accent, when we spoke earlier this summer for an interview posted on “You deal with all these different personalities, and you have to approach them differently. Being with Chuck was actually my first lesson in understanding music, money and people.”

If the lessons he learned from Brown supported him as a performer, Thompson carried them with force into his next chapter – as a star producer and architect of soul hip-hop, the fusion that has dusted off the dust. the classics of the 70s and 80s, soul records of his parents’ generation and incorporated rough vocals and lyrics fueled by a “round attitude, set to a rough beat.” Paired with Sean “Diddy” Combs’ Bad Boy Entertainment’s artist roster, his contagious brand of East Coast sounds was perfectly sandwiched between the thundering synth grooves and pops of West Coast G-funk and beats. syncopated powered by 808s that were coming from below the Mason-Dixon line. Hip-hop soul was the soundtrack for young black America from the early to mid 90s, the perfect complement to our combat boots and weak Timberlands, loose Karl Kani and Tommy Hilfiger denim and Triple FAT Goose bubble coats.

And so, when news broke on August 9 that Thompson had passed away at age 53, the list of credits to cry out for his grieving fans seemed incredibly long. He started off with a bang, producing the lion’s share of Mary J. Blige’s second album in 1994, My life. And he spent Bad Boy’s heyday “making joints” – a slogan he used whenever he made music he really loved – like “Big Poppa” from The Notorious BIG, “Can ‘t You See “by Total,” Everyday It Rains “by Blige” and “You Loved Me Before” by Faith Evans. But her client list continues: TLC, Busta Rhymes, Nas, Raheem DeVaughn, Jennifer Lopez, Gina Thompson, Silk, New Edition, Tevin Campbell, SWV, Mase, Ice Cube, Kelly Price, Mya, Dave Hollister, Ann Nesby, Ne -Yo, Leela James, Ledisi. His productions were harsh but melodic, street but sweet, and they sold by the millions.

Thompson originally did not want to produce records. He came to New York in 1993 with the ambition to become an artist manager and was responsible for the DC hip-hop duo Born Jamericans which landed a contract with the label of LA Delicious Vinyl that year. Luckily, when he wondered if he might be successful as a songwriter and producer, a close friend – who had worked with an Uptown Records A&R enthusiast nicknamed “Puffy” – gave him advice: Mary J. Blige began to follow. until its debut in 1992, What is 411?, and was looking for songs.

“Be With You,” the first demo that Thompson presented to Blige, was originally a remix for a DC band, and borrowed backbeats and keyboard sounds he performed as part of the Soul Searchers. Blige told her that she couldn’t forget her melody. As they started working together, they bonded over their favorite old-school songs and albums, and Blige began sharing heartfelt details about her life – heartbreak and pain over failed relationships, drug addiction and to ongoing episodes of depression. Thompson devised a strategy to bring this vulnerability to music: Using the allowances Combs gave him, he sifted through New York record stores for the music that had allowed Blige to open up to him, and incorporated it into his records as samples. .

“When we brought in Curtis Mayfield and Barry White, it was a remedy so that she could expose herself like she did,” said Thompson. “Mary and Puff didn’t even know me like that, but I didn’t play with that confidence on their part. I’m just happy that things turned out the way they did.” His plan worked: My life was certified triple platinum, became a classic album for Blige, and won a Grammy nomination in 1995.


When Thompson began to build a reputation for My lives Success, he knew exactly where his bread was buttered. He stayed with Combs when the latter started his own brand, Bad Boy Entertainment, which acquired distribution through Arista Records from Clive Davis. As a member of Combs ‘in-house production team, The Hitmen, he joined a truly extraordinary roster of producers including Rashad “Tumblin’ Dice” Smith, Anthony Dent, Ron “Amen-Ra” Lawrence, Mario “Yellowman “Winans,” Stevie J. ” Jordan and Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie. When we spoke, Thompson said he was always in touch with everyone in The Hitmen and the pursuit of opportunities outside of Bad Boy had never been between their friendship.

“It was a brotherhood, and that’s how we fight together to this day,” he said. “I keep in touch with everyone. We talk at least almost every month. We stay connected because this is the situation that gave birth to us, so that’s all the love.”

During the heyday of Bad Boy’s brilliant costume era of the mid to late ’90s, a myriad of artists wanted some of Thompson’s Midas touch due to his prolific work ethic and personality. relaxed. He produced the second single from Usher’s debut, “Think of You”, and in that session met Faith Evans, who co-wrote the song. She emphatically told him and Combs that day that she was selecting him to work on his entire solo album. “Soon as I Get Home,” one of Evans’ iconic ballads, originated when she heard Thompson play an old piano line he had invented as a teenager in church – a person who never felt very excited about participating in the praises, but watched the musical performances closely.


“I didn’t grow up playing in church, but I grew up in church enough to pick up certain melodies,” he admitted. “I’m on the piano between sessions, and I play that part. I didn’t know she was listening to it.” He was later packed and ready to leave the studio for a flight to DC when Combs, at Evans’ insistence, asked him to hurry into another quick session to record the piano part on tape. “I go up to the studio, edgy and ready to go,” he said, “but that’s when your focus is different. You just have to be in super grind mode. And now, this song. is a classic. “

Even with his extraordinary track record, he has battled impostor syndrome. “DJ Premier and Easy Mo Bee were there,” he said. “You have Pete Rock around. I have my idols around me. I was like ‘Am I good enough?’ “To overcome his anxiety, he closely studied the techniques of his production heroes, from working with material to interacting with artists. “I started messing around with some things, but [eventually I was] actually acting like them. “

In 1997, Thompson focused on more personal aspirations. He created several of his own brands – CHUCKLIFE365, Black Diamond Records, Lifeprint Productions, and Park Side Entertainment – and built a studio in suburban Maryland so he could produce artists like Frankie and Emily King. In 2001, when Nas was in the middle of a high-profile rap jam with Jay-Z, Thompson produced “One Mic” to give the Queensbridge legend an anthem to end his shows with. A few years later, inspired by the keyboard parts on Jay-Z and Chrisette Michele’s “Lost Ones” and a personal appreciation for curvy black women, he convinced Raheem DeVaughn to write the single “Woman”, which would win. to his fellow DC native a Grammy Nomination for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. “Fat black women just had an energy and a reality in life,” Thompson said passionately. “It was the inspiration I wanted Raheem to draw from.”

Like his mentor in his hometown, Thompson has always kept his roots in mind. Before Chuck Brown passed away in 2012, Thompson kept his promise to produce his last two albums, We are about the company in 2007 and We have this in 2010, and also worked on the posthumous release Beautiful life in 2014. Last year he produced “Hit the Floor” for his favorite go-go group, Rare Essence, with a feature film by Snoop Dogg. And he was making his own documentary about his relationship with go-go, for release in 2022.


But maybe what made Thompson so special to his peers was how he paid for his success. He became a mentor to Grammy Award-winning producer Rich Harrison and sound engineer Gimel “Young Guru” Keaton. He reconnected with one of his former interns, filmmaker Kirk Fraser, to produce the original music for a History Channel documentary on the Tuskegee Airmen. And with Mario Winans, he had started to develop a mentoring program for young aspiring creatives. “I make sure the kids understand the game before they get started,” he said. “I need them to push, don’t be afraid to do it and push them. They show me things and I learn from them.”

While grateful for all he has achieved, Thompson said he viewed his career as just being in the right place at the right time with the right energy. He wanted to be remembered and celebrated as someone who took pride in sharing his gifts with others, while always exploring ways to be creative.

“I would have done it for free,” he said as we finished our conversation. “I sit with these stories all day and I don’t think they matter. The most important thing to remember is to get through it. Don’t stop. Keep going.”

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