Vocalist, bassist, songwriter
With the big acoustic bass guitar she held in publicity photos, Debra Killings stood out in the world of gospel music after the release of her debut solo album, Surrender, on the Verity label in 2003. Killings was a multifaceted talent: she sang, wrote songs, and played many of the instruments heard on the album. Brandon A. Perry of the Indianapolis Recorder compared Killings with a musician famed for lyrical content that was far from gospel: "Like the secular music maestro Prince," he wrote, "Killings can play several instruments, especially bass guitar, rhythm guitar, keyboards, and drums." Before the release of Surrender, Killings's various talents had brought her a busy career as a session musician in Atlanta's vital urban music scene.
Born in the late 1960s, Killings was inspired in her unusual choice of instrument by an artist who held strong romantic attraction for girls of her generation. "It all started the first time I saw the Jackson 5," she told the Miami Times. "When I saw Jermaine [Jackson] playing the bass, I was hooked. Besides, I had a crush on him back then, too. I thought that, if I could play the bass, maybe I could meet Jermaine." That fantasy didn't pan out, but it did lead to a live appearance in front of a big crowd: Killings's older brother James was in a band that was scheduled to play at her high school prom, and Killings filled in when the band's bassist had to miss the gig due to an emergency.
Hooked, Killings began to work harder on her bass playing, and her brother James gave her some tips on technique. She became a member of the band, which took the name Modest Fok (pronounced "folk") and gained a following around the Atlanta area. The group's sound was influenced by that of the chart-topping Earth, Wind and Fire. Over 11 years, they rose to the top of the Atlanta club scene and opened for national touring acts such as Zapp, the O'Jays, and the Bar-Kays. Part of the attraction was the tall, elegant Killings on bass—the only other prominent female bassist in the R&B genre at the time was Joyce "Fenderella" Irby of the all-woman group Klymaxx.
Killings learned other instruments and began writing songs. She contributed nine songs to Modest Fok's debut album, Love or the Single Life, which was released on Eastwest, an imprint of the major Atco label, in 1992. It was Joyce Irby who recommended the group to Atco executive Sylvia Rhone. Killings had already begun to stretch out her talents with session work by then; she received background vocal, production, and instrumental credits on the dance-pop album The House That Glass Built, by the group Glasswurk, in 1988. The title track of Love or the Single Life cracked Billboard magazine's hip-hop/R&B top 40.
As Atlanta evolved into a more and more important music center, Killings found herself in demand as a session musician. Performing both on bass and as a background vocalist, she notched between five and ten album credits almost every year between 1992 and 2005. On occasion, Killings also played guitar, drums, and keyboards, and did production and arranging work. Her slowest year was 1994, but one of her two credits that year was for backup vocals on an early Atlanta hip-hop classic—OutKast's Southernplayalis-ticadillacmuzik. Killings continued to appear on Out-Kast albums up to the 2003 double-CD smash Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, and she was heard on some of the top-selling hip-hop and R&B releases of the late 1990s: discs like Monica's The Boy Is Mine and TLC's FanMail and 3D. She played bass on both of the TLC discs. Killings was a favorite of producers and rappers for her adaptable bass style. On one OutKast album, she told Greg Olwell of Bass Player magazine, "I rolled up a paper towel and threaded it through the strings for a muted, heavy sound."
A committed Christian, Killings experienced no difficulty working in the secular hip-hop environment. "It's just living an everyday life to me," she explained to a GospelFlava interviewer. "Some people wake up and go to Wal-Mart. There's a lot of people who aren't born again in those situations also. So it was basically a job for me. I try to walk right, talk right, and carry myself right so that I could be a light to them." A bigger problem for Killings was discrimination against women in the music industry. "It affects you because as a woman, you seem to not get as much respect," she said in a Kay3Music interview. "You are pooled into a basket of mediocre and not adequate. But I'm not the show-off type that needs to go in and bust doors down."
As Killings looked for the opportunity to launch a solo career, gospel seemed to be the right direction for her next move. She had made music in churches since her childhood, and as she began playing in an Atlanta church band her songwriting went in a gospel direction. Killings made two demo recordings that passed through the hands of music executive Ian Burke and ended up with new Verity Records president Max Siegel in 2002. Even though Verity was a major force in the gospel field and Killings had no track record in gospel, Siegel made Killings the first artist he signed to a contract at Verity.
His judgment proved accurate. Killings contributed several songs of her own to her debut album Surrender, and she turned to hip-hop producer Dallas Austin and former Xscape member Kandi Burress for "Message in the Music," an appealing song about the importance of music in drawing young people to religious services. "We were down in Miami, and Dallas just said, 'Debra, we have to come up with a song that talks about just growing up in the church,'" Killings recalled to GospelFlava. "When the preacher starts, I start yawning; I was tired and ready to go. I couldn't wait to leave," Killings sang. But then "The choir sang. They were off the chain. I started feeling differently." Most of the other songs on the album featured Killings prominently on the bass. Surrender brought Killings a nomination for best new artist at the gospel industry's Stellar Awards, held in Houston in January of 2004.
The album also raised Killings's profile as a session musician still higher. She played bass on rock legend Santana's All That I Am album in 2005 (with OutKast member Big Boi), and her schedule in 2005 and 2006 was packed with church appearances and a guest appearance on the album Breathe Again by the single-named New York-to-Atlanta transplant Jones and his new vocal group, the RITW Worshippers. Anticipation for the next manifestation of Debra Killings and her distinctive talents ran high.
(With Modest Fok) Love or the Single Life, 1992.
Surrender, Verity, 2003.
At a Glance …
Born late 1960s; grew up in Atlanta, GA; children: two.
Career: Began playing bass in emulation of Jermaine Jackson; performed on bass with Atlanta group Modest Fok, early 1980s-early 1990s; session musician, primarily on bass and as vocalist, 1988–.
Awards: Stellar Award nomination, for Surrender, 2004.
Addresses: Label—Verity Records, Zomba Recording Corporation, 137 W. 25th St., New York, NY 10001. Web—www.debrakillings.com.
Selected album credits (background vocals, unless otherwise noted)
Glasswurk, House That Glass Built, 1988 (background vocals, producer, instrumentation).
Bobby Brown, Bobby, 1992.
Toni Braxton, Toni Braxton, 2003.
OutKast, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, 1993.
Deion Sanders, Prime Time, 1995.
OutKast, ATLiens, 1996.
OutKast, Aquemini, 1998.
Monica, The Boy Is Mine, 1998.
TLC, FanMail, 1999 (bass, vocals).
TLC, 3D, 2002 (bass, background vocals).
OutKast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, 2003 (bass, vocals).
Nelly, Suit, 2004 (bass).
Nelly, Sweatsuit, 2005 (bass).
Santana, All That I Am, 2005 (bass).
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 10, 2004, p. B2.
Bass Player, October 1, 2003, p. 24.
Billboard, November 5, 2005, p. 57.
Chicago Defender, August 14, 2003, p. 13.
Miami Times, June 25, 1992, p. D2.
Recorder (Indianapolis, IN), July 4, 1992, p. B1; February 27, 2004, p. B1.
State (Columbia, SC), August 15, 2003, p. E10.
"Bio," Debra Killings, www.debrakillings.com (March 29, 2006).
"Debra Killings," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (March 29, 2006).
"Debra Killings, Surrender," Christianity Today, www.christianitytoday.com/music/reviews/2003/surrender.html (March 29, 2006).
"Debra Killings, Surrender," GospelFlava, www.gospelflava.com.reviews/debrakillings.html (March 29, 2006).
"An Interview with Debra Killings," Kay3Music, www.kay3music.com/intervue/interviews.asp?id=33 (March 29, 2006).
"Interview with Debra Killings: There is a Message in Her Music," GospelFlava, www.gospelflava.com/articles/debrakillings2.html (March 29, 2006).
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