Scott, Jill c. 1972–
Jill Scott c. 1972–
Among a host of African-American female singer-songwriters who surfaced near the turn of the century and revived older styles of black music with fresh lyrical voices, Jill Scott stood out. A tremendously creative writer, Scott addressed romantic themes in a way miles removed from the formulaic triangle of sex, love, and money so often encountered in the mainstream of urban music. “I think what the music industry needs is options,” Scott told the Washington Post. “It’s not all gangsters and pimps and bitches and ’hos out here. There are some really fine women with heart and mind and soul and body, who want a man with the same qualities.” With the strong reception of her first album, Who Is Jill Scott?, she was ready to offer listeners a whole new set of options.
Born around 1972, Scott was an only child who grew up in Philadelphia with her mother and grandmother. Her mother was a woman of many interests, she told the Washington Post, “a Renaissance woman: dental technician, acupuncturist, tiler, drywaller, and antique refurbisher.” Scott’s childhood was marred by physical abuse from her stepfather. “I think that’s when I really started to learn the lessons of life,” she told the Washington Post. “There’s gonna be pain. There’s gonna be hurt. There’s gonna be sadness. There’s gonna be grief. But life is still a gift,” she continued.
Unlike those of many other prominent musicians, Scott’s childhood was not an especially musical one. “I didn’t grow up overly influenced by music, and I didn’t have a singing grandma,” she told Billboard. “But in writing my poetry, I realized that words have definite sounds.” It was Scott’s eighth-grade English teacher, Fran Danish, who introduced her to poetry. Scott chose the poetry of Nikki Giovanni for a class assignment, thinking that Giovanni was Italian rather than African American. “When I saw that it was poetry about little black girls, I was so excited,” Scott told Rolling Stone.
Soon Scott was writing poetry about the everyday materials of her life, making little songs out of things like her locker combination. That focus on detail would remain a distinctive feature of her songwriting when she ascended to stardom 15 years later. Scott also fell in love with the music of Stevie Wonder, Prince, and the all-black musical The Wiz. Hoping to become a teacher but beginning to nurture a desire to perform,
At a Glance…
Born c. 1972, in Philadelphia, PA; engaged to Lyzel Williams, a graphic designer and DJ. Education: Temple University, attended.
Career: Recording artist and songwriter. Active in Philadelphia poetry scene, early 1990s; co-wrote song “You Got Me” for Philadelphia hip-hop group, the Roots; joined Canadian cast of musical, Rent, 1998; toured with the Roots, 1999; signed to Hidden Beach label; released debut album, Who Is Jill Scotti, 2000; album picked up by Epic label for distribution; toured with Sting, 2001.
Awards: Named One of 50 Most Beautiful People in the World, People magazine, 2001.
Addresses: Record Label —Hidden Beach Records, 3030 Nebraska Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404.
Scott enrolled at Philadelphia’s Temple University and majored in English. She continued to write poetry and was a fixture of Philadelphia’s coffeehouses.
She approached her studies energetically, but the grim realities of American education began to wear her down. “The buildings were gray,” she told the Washington Post. “Gray walls. Gray lockers. Gray floors. That’s no way to teach a child. Children need stimulation. So because I would say things like that, teachers would pat me on the back and call me and idealistic.’” Finally she had had enough. As she recalled in an interview with USA Today, “I quit school and my part-time job all in the same day. I decided there had to be another way to incite creativity and curiosity. My methods were not what the school district was checking for.”
Scott kept writing and began to make friends in Philadelphia’s music scene. Together with a Jewish Philadelphia rapper named Scott Starch she wrote a song for the Roots, a local hip-hop act that had gained a national reputation for its sophisticated lyrics that addressed a wide variety of topics. That song, “You Got Me,” ended up on one of The Roots’ albums with the part Scott had created sung by Erykah Badu, an artist to whom Scott has often been compared; the group’s label, MCA, felt that the presence of a better-known name would increase the album’s drawing power. The song went on to win a Grammy award for Best Rap Performance in 1999, and Scott, who had hoped to record it herself, felt a tinge of regret. “I was upset at first,” she told Newsweek, “but then I was like, ’Sister girl, wait a minute. The first song you write wins a Grammy and has a Grammy-winning singer. Stop tripping.’” Besides, by that time Scott had other irons in the fire. She had joined the Canadian cast of the hit musical Rent and was at work on an album of her own, having joined forces with producer Jeff Townes, otherwise known as DJ Jazzy Jeff. It was Jazzy Jeff, more than anyone else, who set Scott on the path to a musical breakthrough.
“People were saying, Aw, you gotta check out this girl Jill Scott,” Jazzy Jeff told Rolling Stone. “She wasn’t even a singer then. She was a poet. I gave her a song. She said, ‘I wanna write to it.’” The deconstruction of existing songs into poetic creations of her own had been a trademark of Scott’s coffeehouse performances. “A couple of days later,” Jazzy Jeff went on, “we drove down to the waterfront, and she sang it to me. It was ‘A Long Walk.’ I immediately drove her to the studio, and we cut it. And then I started calling people, like, ’Yo, I think you need to hear this.’”
That song described in loving detail the meeting of Scott and her fiance-to-be Lyzel Williams, a Philadelphia designer. Scott put it together with a group of other songs that mostly cast a discerning woman’s eye on love and romance but also addressed such other topics as black unity. The result was her debut album, Who Is Jill Scott?: Words and Sounds Vol. 1, released in the year 2000 by the California-based Hidden Beach label founded by former Motown executive Steve McKeever. The 52 songs Scott had on hand had been pared down to 18. The album did well immediately and was picked up by the major label Epic, a subsidiary of the giant Sony concern. Who Is Jill Scott? mixed classic soul, funk, and rap sounds, but its most distinctive feature was its use of spoken-word passages that reflected Scott’s days as a poet.
The album reached the top ten on Billboard magazine’s R&B charts, and by October of 2000 had been certified gold for sales of 500,000 copies; it reached the platinum one million mark several months later. Scott became something of a sensation, provoking instant comparisons with Badu and other “neo-soul” performers such as Macy Gray, India Arie, and Eric Benet. The sudden ascent in her career caused Scott considerable stress; she suffered a freak loss of hearing in her right ear after weeks of grueling performances, but recovered. Who Is Jill Scott? received three Grammy nominations.
Well-grounded despite the stress, Scott was named one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world in 2001 by People magazine in its annual feature. A model for women not shaped like matchstick fashion models, she told People, “I eat what I want. I’m comfortable with myself. And I have a man who loves me whether I’m a size 8 or 18.” With a compelling style that radiated strength, Scott prepared in the spring of 2001 to go on tour with rock star Sting, and perhaps to work on a second volume of “words and sounds.” The music world had indeed become fascinated with the question, “Who is Jill Scott?”
Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds, Vol. 1, Hidden Beach/Epic, 2000.
Billboard, May 20, 2000, p. 51.
Jet, March 26, 2001, p. 56.
Newsweek, April 9, 2001, p. 56.
People Weekly, May 14, 2001, p. 148.
Rolling Stone, October 12, 2000, p. 46.
USA Today, February 19, 2001, p. D6.
Village Voice, January 2, 2001, p. 97.
Washington Post, October 23, 2000, p. C5; December 24, 2000, p. Gl.
—James M. Manheim
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