Tomi Jenkins continued
by Scarlet Waters
MUSIC. And then when you have 3, or maybe now it’s even probably 2 major companies who own all the radio stations in the country, and almost around the world, that killed it.
WWF: And for our reader audience, we are referring to something called ‘Payola’ correct?
Tomi: Oh yes, and believe me, don’t get it twisted, Payola is still around. Back then it used to be cocaine stuffed in the album covers. Now it’s money, and you know program directors rely on these radio people who go out and work for record labels and ok, how much is it gonna cost to play this record?
I mean it’s ridiculous. Back then you had a variety of music played and put on stations. Now unless it was principally R&B, and like I remember WBLS in NY had a very wide range of music that they played, but even though it was principally black, you know R&B black, you'd still hear David Bowie or Average White Band. For the most part, even pop stations, they played all kinds of music. You could hear Cameo, then Sly, then Santana and Grand Funk Railroad. Now things are so specified and narrow.
WWF: You know a very specific part of that story is the division of Funk and Rock and Roll. That seems to have been like a death. Why do you think that happened?
Tomi: Well, I think it’s always a situation where if you can’t identify something, or you don’t know what it is, or if you can’t put it in a box, then you don’t know what to make of it. I mean, Funk has always been associated with Rock and Roll, so it’s so funny you mention that because I was looking at a comment, I think it was yesterday, on Facebook, that asked that same question; is Funk Rock and Roll, or something to that effect, and I thought that was a very interesting question. To me, it’s inter-changeable, but the thing is, a Rock artist has a harder time getting funky than a Funk artist has getting Rock.
WWF: Ok sir, you said that so well and so nicely. It’s a whole different game now. So what do you think about doing your own marketing and PR?
Tomi: Well I’ve done that! I’ve released three solo albums, the last was an EP in 2018. It was distributed by Orchard Sony. I had some people help me out with it, but other than that I did it myself, I did the marketing. In 2008 I released an album, had it on CD baby, and iTunes and all that stuff, and I mean, you have more control over what you do, even though major labels, as far as distribution, that’s pretty much all we need from them now. And that’s really all they want. The days of developing, and A&R, those are gone. I remember, we had an idea, and you took it to a label, and they go oh, that’s good, but now you gotta have a fully formed product. It’s got to be mixed, mastered and ready to go.
WWF: What is it like now in this atmosphere of artists who don’t really play instruments? How has that changed the whole production/arrangement and writing method, even on a personal level for you in terms of doing music?
Tomi: That’s interesting because I don’t really play an instrument, but I’m a songwriter, I just noodle around on the keyboards, and I get my ideas. When I’m doing my demo, I use a computer and a digital work station such as Pro- tools or Logic. That’s what I used for my first project, and luckily for my EP for last year. I had some producers send songs to me, and I just wrote to the tracks that they sent, which was easy. I work with a great producer in Atlanta, Lee Hurst, he’s a multi-instrumentalist and contributed some funky Rock stuff on the last album.
WWF: Well let me ask you, so for your hits, She’s Strange, Word Up, Candy, Single Life, Back and Forth, was the writing process different then than what you’re saying it is now? How did you all bang those songs out? Did you take your chords and lyrics to other instrumentalists? How did they get written?
Tomi: It’s funny because back then, you recorded everything at the same time. Often we’d be on the road and guys would be jamming on the bus and they would come up with a riff and or lyrics, and most times we'd come off the road and walk straight off the bus into the studio to record while the vibe was hot.
We would write together, someone would come and take a tape of the music back home, a skeleton of the thing, and go home, and somebody had a line here, or a piece there, or someone just came up with a whole idea and we’re like, that’s great! We ain’t gotta change a thing, and that’s how it goes you know. Our creative process was very communal. I came up with the bass ideas for Flirt, Single Life, Candy and Word Up by singing into a little tape
player, took it to the fellas and we made hits!
When the 90’s and Hip-Hop started really influencing radio is when I found that younger artists can create without being able to play an instrument, just a turntable and a mic. That pretty much signaled the death of bands, which was horrible. Labels found it easier to sign or support one or two or three guys than a self-contained band. Being a musician I used to admittedly have a bias. I’m like man, he’s creating his music with a turntable? What’s up? Is this like easy money? But then I find out that there’s some very talented cats, and what really turned me around was Tribe Called Quest.
WWF: Yaaaaaaasss! But to be fair, and Q-Tip will admit this himself, he will very clearly say that a big reason the songs are so dope is because his father had such great taste in music, so all of the samples that they are using are like The Blackbyrds, Ramsey Lewis, Rotary Connection, Grover Washington Jr., you know?
Tomi: Oh yeah! You know that’s what got me, because it wasn’t the normal stuff, and I guess coming from his father, I guess his father has got to be at least as old as me, so he’s listening to the same music I did! So you know that’s beautiful, but it’s the way it was crafted. And the way he put it together is what made it so special too—
WWF: Oh that’s so beautiful to hear! I’m so happy to hear you say that, cause it makes me sad sometimes how there’s this division between the old school artist and the new stuff and I think a lot of times what the old school artist don’t realize is that there is a reason Black folk stopped playing instruments; they took the arts out of our schools!
Tomi: Right! You’re exactly right that’s very very true. Tribe, they had a big influence. I’m like, it’s not that bad. These kids are creating music, and they have a love for it, and that to me is the most important thing. Have love for what you do, no matter what. I can’t be the old crotchety dude in the corner, come on man.
WWF: So, tell us about your latest project.
Tomi: Now, I’ve got 11 songs demo’d that I’m ready to record in the studio for my new album. I’ve got a great producer up here in the Bay Area in Oakland that contributed nine of them. He’s ridiculous. He plays with The Whispers now; his name is Gino. He plays keys, bass guitar, drums, and he programs. His tracks are just amazing. My man Lee in Atlanta blessed me with a couple of outstanding tracks.
On one I talk about gun violence and politicians doing nothing about it. I’ve always been socially conscious, you know, that sensibility of noticing the world around me, even when I was younger. Now with everything that’s going on, I’ve got a couple of songs on there that are very socially political and also introspective on a personal level. I also talk about romance. I have some new flavor R&B as well as the classic stuff people love, and you KNOW I'm bringing the Funk!
On another note, I'm also a novelist, taking my love for writing into crime fiction. My first book was 2014, Crime, Love, and Honor and I just put out my second one, Hope Park, A Phillip Hardaway Mystery, last year. That's on Amazon in e-book or paperback.
I'm currently working on the manuscript for the third one. I love where my imagination goes when I'm putting my characters in certain situations, not knowing where it's going to end. Well, this one I do!
WWF: Oh man you’ve given us so much good information! I just have one more question I wanna ask you. Was that actually Miles Davis in the Back and Forth video?
Tomi: That was actually Miles Davis!
WWF: How did you all get him to do that? Cause you know he was notoriously, what do you call it, known for being a little anti-social.
Tomi: Well Miles recorded one of our songs on that album, he played on a song called In The Night. You can look that up on YouTube, see back then, that was New York. We’d be at parties and Prince would be there, and Miles would be there. Luther would be there, you know all the New York people would be there, so that’s how we became friends with Miles, and able to humbly ask him to grace us with his prodigious talent and play on a song and he was like, cool. You know Miles, he was always up for something cool, something funky, so it was fabulous. Of all the memories! Come on now.
WWF: I was like I don’t know if you all realized, though you probably do now, that it is really going to be a classic piece of video, from now on, that you all had Miles Davis up in the mix, and one day people would go back and be like, oh my God! That’s Miles Davis!
Tomi: That’s right! So when you look back on 40+ years now of being in this business which is in itself a miracle—
Tomi: And I pinch myself and I’m blessed every day, to be able to know that I did this, and that I listened to my parents who said ‘follow your dreams, we know you’ve got a passion, so do it.’
WWF: So awesome.
Tomi: And now to look at where I am, having made a career out of it.
WWF: It’s amazing, just amazing.
Tomi: It really is amazing, yeah, it is.
WWF: Well we congratulate you on all your success, your longevity, and we hope that it just keeps going and we're just thankful that you are still here. It’s so great to talk to the greats because you all have just contributed so much to our lives and when we looked at all these hits, we just realized, we were like, man Cameo is part of the background to Black people’s lives. These are the family reunion songs, you know?
Tomi: Wow. Just fantastic. It’s been glorious talking to you!
WWF: Same to you! Thank you Tomi!
Tomi: Thank you! Really appreciate it.