Marsha Ambrosius Talks B-Girl Roots & Asking DJ Premier To Sample "Come Clean"
Exclusive: Marsha Ambrosius details how her love of Hip Hop and honest approach to songwriting led to collaborations with Dr. Dre, Common, Nas and others.
No stranger to the world of Hip Hop, Marsha Ambrosius is as famous for writing Hip Hop hooks as she is for penning chart-topping love songs. The Liverpool-born, London-bred singer/producer has collaborated with a long list of Rap’s finest, including Dr. Dre, Kanye West, Nas and Common. Since splitting from the duo Floetry in 2005, Ambrosius, who penned the 2001 hit “Butterflies” for the late Michael Jackson, has also worked with Alicia Keys, Jamie Foxx and Angie Stone.
In 2011, Ambrosius released the project that made her a household name. Her debut solo album, Late Nights & Early Mornings, with its lead hit single “Far Away,” entered Billboard at #2 and hit #1 on the Top R&B/Hip Hop Albums chart. Late Nights & Early Mornings not only launched Ambrosius’s career as a critically-acclaimed soloist but “Far Away” earned her a 2011 BET Award. Six Grammy-nominations and a BMI “Songwriter of the Year” honor later, Marsha Ambrosius remains a sought-after songwriter and vocalist whose talent is honored by both Hip Hop and R&B artists.
These days, between writing Billboard hits and touring with John Legend, Marsha Ambrosius somehow still manages to make time for love. On her sophomore solo album, Friends & Lovers, Ambrosius reveals personal tales of lust, heartbreak and a few ‘basic” moments in her past that she’d rather forget, coupled with the sensational vocals and sensual lyrics that fans have long adored her for. Produced and written by Marsha with features from Dr. Dre, Charlie Wilson, Skye and Lindsey Sterling, Friends & Lovers reminds you of the passion, pain and unpredictability of love.
How Marsha Ambrosius Challenges Fans to Examine Love, Sex & Life
HipHopDX: Friends & Lovers is a super-sexy, raw album that you've described in interviews as autobiographical. Describe how your personal life may have inspired this album.
Marsha Ambrosius: [Laughs] I have never known how to hold my tongue. I’ve always been honest, period. I don’t know when not to say something [laughs]. Back in the day, my mother would always tell me, “You don’t have to tell everyone everything.” I feel like that’s always been my approach to music too. I just tell it, and whatever the consequences are, at least I got it off of my chest and out of my system. My music is kind of like my therapy. I think that’s why when people hear my music they’re like, “Wow, I’ve been there. I’ve said that. I’ve wanted to say that.” So I decided to keep that approach and have done so from the very beginning.
For me, I’ve always made albums. I’ve never been concerned with what trend is happening at the time and trying to jump in there with a formatted, controlled single that could possibly be pushed for whatever. I don’t care what else is happening in the world, I have to speak on what I’ve been going through in my life and real music lives forever because of that. Like you can play it 10 years from now and just have it be relevant because it’s a human moment. It’s not a trend, it’s not a fad, and it’s not something that I won’t be able to perform when I’m 80. I will be able to say everything I was able to say then because it’s who I was. So autobiographical, absolutely because I had to live it, and I had to go through these experiences. I had to have my heart broken, I had to fall in love again, fall out of love again only to discover that that person wasn’t for me and re-discover who I was, all at the same time. So the album begins, and really it’s that journey.
It’s self-discovery each and every time. Listen, I was a woman who’d wake up one day and be like, “Hmm, I’m over it.” The next day you had way too much Hennessy and you’re texting him. It happens, and I’m not exempt from having a “basic” moment. I feel like in the music I shouldn’t hold back that part either. It’s not like I’m holier than thou and, “Aww I love him so much” and I have all these wishy-washy just regular basic... Well, yeah… I’m not gonna call it a bitch but basic bitch moment… There’s only so many times I can go to that place. I just have to be honest with me. So when you press play on the music, you can tell when someone has never lived it. And when you press play on my music you can live that.
DX: “Shoes” is about being the other woman and “Honey Pot” is totally opposite from what its title would have me assume. How do you feel about sometimes challenging the listeners and making them think?
Marsha Ambrosius: For me, it’s really what you take from it. I guess with the title it can be misleading but it’s still very straightforward. It forces you to listen because you don’t want to miss anything. It’s like what’s in a movie, you say, “Hold up rewind that, I gotta see what happened.” Sometimes you have to take it there with music. Music, I can’t have it be so wishy-washy and monotonous to a fault where I’m just repeating something over again. I want you to see this song, I want you to feel it, and I want you to breathe it. Music back in the day, you can remember where you were when you were listening to a Stevie Wonder song. Physically that picture was painted; you were that “Ribbon in the Sky;” you were that “Superwoman.” You didn’t know whether or not she wanted to live or die in that song. And music doesn’t make you feel like that nowadays. So if I have to be one of the very few that still create those moments, then that’s what I wanted to do. And when you can lose yourself in the music, let me be your excuse. Whether that is, “I don’t want to tell someone how much I’m feeling them.” Well press play on “So Good” and let them know. Let the music do the talking for you.
DX: Some music critics tend to focus on the sexual side of the album and songs like “69,” but you also explore the gray areas of romance like heartbreak, lust and being fed up with a lover. What do you hope the fans feel from this new album?
Marsha Ambrosius: I guess that I can’t help the fact that there are at least two or three very sexually based songs…And there really is “69” and “So Good,” but the rest of them are still very suggestive. The rest of the album is falling in and out of love, whether that was “Stronger” whether that was the possibility of the love of my life marrying someone else and me knowing it was too late for me and him on “You and I.” Whether that was “Cupid Shot Me Straight Through My Heart,” and me admitting I’m in love with him. “One Love,” and “Streets of London” are me wanting to be home. I’m away from home most of the time, and so it’s like, you know what; home is where the heart is, so I have to find my way as I have done since I’ve gotten to America. It’s been 14 years for me now, just being away and just grinding. If I have to be away from my family there has to be a valid reason for me to do so. So the music became my salvation, the music became my drive. The music became my, “How are we gettin’ these kids to Disneyland every year?”
Get back in the studio, make a beat, just sit with it and you know… People gravitate towards what they want to. I only really had one sex song on there but it was sexy, that’s the difference. It’s been the music; it’s how it makes you feel. So I just set the mood that you can press play from beginning to end and that’s your feel, then cool, that’s what you take from it. I give that part away. So I know completely through and through I was honest about every aspect of love on this album.
Marsha Cites Hip Hop Influence and Pays Homage To Musical Icon Sade
DX: You worked with Dre on the new album's “Stronger,” a remake of the Sade song “Stronger Than Pride” that samples Jeru the Damaja's “Come Clean.” I hear DJ Premier and the icon Sade both gave you the green light. What was the process like to create that song?
Marsha Ambrosius: Yeah, I mean I wasn’t ever gonna touch anything that I didn’t feel [that] I could. So when I chose to redo Sade’s “Stronger Than Pride” it was because it reminded me of home. My whole thing going into this was I know Premier had issues at one time clearing the song that he sampled to create Jeru’s (Da Damaja) “Come Clean.” So I was like let me call him and find out if this is even a possibility. I forewarned my people, I told my publicist that there is no other way I want to create this song, and it has to be like this. I don’t want it where we compensate something for something else or we play this for that, no. I said, “Call Sade. Call DJ Premier and see what we can do,” and then it all worked out. Thank God [laughs].
DX: The song is dope and it fits you. It’s smooth but it still has an edge to it.
Marsha Ambrosius: Yeah, it’s just the version for my generation. For everyone who was ever in love with Hip Hop as much as I was and still wanted to sing. [Laughs] Like, I always wanted to rap, but I could just sing better than I could rap. But I still write as if I was a rapper, and I always have. I think that’s why my lyrics are as wordy as they are.
DX: Growing up in London, what are your fondest memories of music, specifically Hip Hop?
Marsha Ambrosius: I remember seeing the Rock Steady Crew, and I’m watching Crazy Legs, I’m watching them pop-lock and I’m like, “This is what I want to do with my life.” I was obsessed with anything American after witnessing that. I was like, “I need a Kangol, I need a pair of Adidas, and I need a gold rope chain…”
My nickname was Miss Brooklyn since the age of nine. Thanks, Mom! [Laughs] But from the age of nine, that’s all I wanted to do. I wanted to be from New York, and I wanted to walk, talk and breathe Hip Hop. I felt punished because my cousin sent me N.W.A’s tape, which was the first time I was grounded for real, for real. I was dumb enough to put the tape in my father’s car waiting for him after basketball practice [laughs]. Even though I was too young to understand the power of what was being said, I knew they were bad words, and I wasn’t supposed to say them as a kid. But I loved the intense power behind it.
That’s what Hip Hop has done for me; it was just a freedom. It was freedom of speech for real. And that’s the inspiration behind it all. I’m just happy to be one of the advocates that doesn’t lose sight of that part.
DX: Would you say those memories are what inspire you to work with Hip Hop artists and producers in general?
Marsha Ambrosius: Absolutely! I mean more than anything I’m featured on so many more Hip Hop songs. I’ve lost count on how many hooks I’ve written or hooks I’m featured on, rather than songs I’ve written. I don’t know how many people realize that even with writing my own songs and other songs and even writing for Floetry, outside of that, a lot of what I’ve done is Hip Hop features. I may have written Michael Jackson “Butterflies” or Justin Timberlake “Cry Me a River,” but it’s been everything from Busta Rhymes, Nas, OutKast, Styles P, Common, Game, right, it’s so many… The list of artists is crazy. If I was ever on “Rock the Bells” and performed every Hip Hop feature I’ve ever done, that‘s a concert for real.
DX: And that’s marquee names right there.
Marsha Ambrosius: That’s an actual concert right there [laughs]! And that’s all I ever wanted to do. So all of these things I’ve gotten to do, under the radar, I will continue to do.
Marsha Ambrosius On Building Her Musical Legacy & Future Projects
DX: You're noted for your songwriting skills, especially for “Butterflies,” the song you wrote for Michael Jackson. What is your writing process, if any?
Marsha Ambrosius: When it comes to me, I can hear a melody or I’ll have one line, and I have to paint the whole picture around it. When I was writing “Shoes” I didn’t have the hook yet. I didn’t know where the song was gonna go. [Starts to recite lyrics] I started thinking and I just said, “I just woke up, still got on your shirt, my hair’s all out of place. ‘Cause last night we made love and I don’t know the last time I came over here.”
Then I’m like, “Oh, let me take a picture. OK, I remember, we were drinking, laughing about the weekend and we keep doing this but why?” By the time I did the hook, I was like, “What’s the punch line? Where are my shoes? I don’t even know where I’m at; I was way too drunk to remember. Then I realize this is my house, I see a few of my things. Now I need to leave. Now I know this isn’t for me and I keep doing it to myself…Because of the ‘D’ [laughs].”
But it just is what it is. And all of these stories would happen just like that. I mean, when I’m writing for someone else, I tune into where they are in their lives. To write a successful song for someone else you have to become them. It won’t be believable otherwise. I don’t want to give away songs that they aren’t able to sell or able to become. It’s not worth giving the stuff away for that. So I definitely build a rapport with every artist I work with.
DX: Where do you fit in the legacy of great Hip Hop and R&B artists from the U.K?
Marsha Ambrosius: However it fits, really. You can’t tell other people that you are part of it, you just have to create all of your moments and be that. So I guess me coming from Liverpool, raised in London, and moved to Philly by way of a free flight from Atlanta, it was just destined for me. So if I wanted to figure out and make my mark to a point where no one in this country cares about if I’m from somewhere else, they care about the music that I make. That’s the legacy. I don’t ever have to throw in anyone else’s face that I’m from Liverpool or I’m from London. Not that they don’t care about that part, but that’s not the part that makes me. What makes it for me is that other people from London or Liverpool can see that I’m them, that I’m exactly them.
DX: Your songs and videos often have a message—sometimes cautionary, often uplifting, at times both. How important is using your voice to uplift and inspire your audience to you?
Marsha Ambrosius: Well, I just take it as there are way too many other artists that don’t do it, so why wouldn’t I? Like I didn’t want a video that I could just insert [my] face here and I’m just a chick in the middle of the rain crying…
DX: Made up beautiful but just crying and singing.
Marsha Ambrosius: Right. And that’s cute, but so many have done it before. And I’m not taking away anything from anyone else, but what I’m saying is it’s been done over and over. And if I have the platform to say something else, then I need to use that. That’s what music can do. We change minds and can change things, and I don’t think anyone understands the power of that part anymore. It’s used very irresponsibly on every level, whether that’s the people making it or the people getting it heard on a larger scale. Some things that should be left on the block, some things not everyone else has to hear because then it becomes the new trend and it becomes the way our kids think. And then whose fault is it? So if I have to be one of the few that makes them think something else, then I’m going to do that.
DX: You appeared in the Best Man Holiday movie, performed at the 2014 Essence Fest this past July and are now on tour with John Legend. What's next for you?
Marsha Ambrosius: I just go with the flow as I always have. I’m just gonna work; that’s it. I can’t tell you what’s going to be next. I didn’t know that a bunch of the things that I’ve done in my career were going to be next.
I just go with it. I just put in the work and see where that takes me. I know most definitely I will be putting out part two of the Friends & Lovers album because I always initially wanted it to be a double album because I write so much music. I didn’t want to sit on it and have my fans waiting. So just releasing more music and we’ll see where that goes.
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