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In Chucky Thompson, Black Music Found A Borderless, Million-Selling Sound

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

As a kid in 1980s Washington, D.C., Carl Edward "Chucky" Thompson Jr. couldn't stop running into Chuck Brown, the godfather of the city's funky go-go music scene, chopping it up with the youth that made up his core audience at his shows. By the time the self-taught musician finessed his way into Brown's band, the Soul Searchers, as a 16-year-old conga player, he noticed something else: The bandleader made a point to individually address all of his musicians before, during and after every performance. Thompson was a prodigy who picked up keyboards, drums, guitar, bass and trombone by ear, but Brown taught him something he couldn't learn on his own — that making good music with others begins with being selfless and flexible.

"It's all about the energy you bring and how you're moving," Thompson said, in his heavy D.C. accent, when we spoke earlier this summer for an interview published on Grammy.com. "You're dealing with all of these different personalities, and you have to address them differently. Being with Chuck was actually my first lesson in understanding music, money and people."

If the lessons he'd learned from Brown sustained him as a performer, Thompson carried them with a force into his next chapter — as a star producer and architect of hip-hop soul, the fusion that dusted off the classic '70s and '80s soul records of his parents' generation and incorporated gritty vocals and lyrics fueled by a 'round-the-way attitude, set to a rugged beat. Paired with the artist roster of Sean "Diddy" Combs' Bad Boy Entertainment, his infectious brand of East Coast sounds was perfectly sandwiched between the whirring synth-and-clap grooves in West Coast G-funk and the syncopated 808-fueled rhythms that were coming from below the Mason-Dixon line. Hip-hop soul was the soundtrack for young Black America during the early-to-mid '90s, the perfect complement to our combat boots and weak Timberlands, baggy Karl Kani and Tommy Hilfiger denim, and Triple F.A.T. Goose bubble coats.

And so, when the news broke on Aug. 9 that Thompson had died at 53, the list of credits for his mourning fans to shout out felt impossibly long. He had started with a bang, producing the lion's share of Mary J. Blige's 1994 sophomore album, My Life. And he spent Bad Boy's heyday "crankin' out joints" — a catch phrase he used whenever he made music that he really enjoyed — like The Notorious B.I.G.'s "Big Poppa," Total's "Can't You See," Blige's "Everyday It Rains" and Faith Evans' "You Used to Love Me." But his client list goes on: 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 hard but melodic, street but sweet, and they sold in the millions.

Thompson didn't originally want to produce records. He came to New York in 1993 with aspirations to be an artist manager, and was responsible for D.C. hip-hop duo Born Jamericans landing a contract with the L.A. label Delicious Vinyl that year. Fortunately, while he was mulling whether he could succeed as a songwriter and producer, a close friend — who had been working with a passionate Uptown Records A&R nicknamed "Puffy" — gave him a tip: Mary J. Blige was starting on the follow-up to her 1992 debut, What's the 411?, and was hunting for songs.

"Be With You," the first demo Thompson presented to Blige, was originally a remix for a D.C. act, and borrowed some go-go backbeats and keyboard sounds he had performed as part of the Soul Searchers. Blige told him she couldn't get its melody off her mind. As they began to work together, they bonded over their favorite old-school songs and albums, and Blige began to share candid details about her life — heartbreak and pain from failed relationships, drug addiction and ongoing bouts of depression. Thompson came up with a strategy to bring that vulnerability to the music: Using the allowances that Combs gave him, he sifted through record stores around New York for the music that had made Blige open up to him, and incorporated it into her records as samples.

"When we were pulling in Curtis Mayfield and Barry White, that was medicine for her to be able to expose herself the way that she did," Thompson said. "Mary and Puff didn't even know me like that, but I didn't play around with that trust from them. 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 earned a Grammy nomination in 1995.

When Thompson started earning a reputation from My Life's success, he knew exactly where his bread was buttered. He stayed with Combs when the latter created his own imprint, Bad Boy Entertainment, which acquired distribution through Clive Davis' Arista Records. As part 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 still in touch with everyone in The Hitmen, and that pursuing opportunities outside of Bad Boy had never come between their friendship.

"It was a brotherhood, and that's how we kick it with each other to this day," he said. "I keep in contact with everybody. We talk damn near every month at least. We stay connected because it was the situation that birthed us, so it's all love."

At the height of Bad Boy's shiny suit era, during the mid-to-late '90s, a myriad of artists wanted some of Thompson's Midas touch because of his prolific work ethic and easygoing personality. He produced the second single from Usher's debut, "Think of You," and at that session met Faith Evans, who had co-written the song. She flat-out told him and Combs that day that she was handpicking him to work on her entire solo album. "Soon as I Get Home," one of Evans' signature ballads, was born when she overheard Thompson playing an old piano line he'd come up with as a teenager in church — one who never felt very enthusiastic about participating in praise, but watched the musical performances closely.

"I didn't grow up playing in the church, but I grew up in the church enough to snatch certain melodies," he admitted. "I'm on the piano between sessions, and I'm playing this one part. I didn't know she was listening to it." Later on, he was packed and ready to leave the studio for a flight to D.C. when Combs, at Evans' insistence, asked him to squeeze in another quick session to get the piano part down on tape. "I'm going upstairs to the studio, pissed and ready to leave," he said, "but that's when your focus is different. You just got to be in super grind mode. And now that song is a classic."

Even with his extraordinary track record, he battled imposter syndrome. "DJ Premier and Easy Mo Bee were around," he said. "You got Pete Rock around. I got my idols around me. I was wondering, 'Am I good enough?' " To overcome his anxiety, he studied the techniques of his production heroes up close, from working the hardware to interacting with the artists. "I started just messing around with certain things, but [eventually I was] actually acting like them."

By 1997, Thompson shifted his focus to more personal aspirations. He created several of his own imprints — 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 highly publicized rap beef with Jay-Z, Thompson produced "One Mic" to give the Queensbridge legend an anthem to close 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 earn his fellow D.C. native a Grammy nomination for best male R&B vocal performance. "Fat Black women just got an energy and a realness to life," Thompson said, passionately. "That was the inspiration I wanted Raheem to draw from."

Like his hometown mentor, Thompson always kept his roots in mind. Before Chuck Brown passed in 2012, Thompson fulfilled a promise to produce his final two albums, We're About the Business in 2007 and We Got 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 band, Rare Essence, with a feature from Snoop Dogg. And he was in the middle of making his own documentary about his relationship with go-go, with an eye to release in 2022.

But perhaps what made Thompson so special to his peers is how he paid his success forward. He became a mentor to Grammy-winning producer Rich Harrison and audio engineer Gimel "Young Guru" Keaton. He reconnected with one of his former interns, filmmaker Kirk Fraser, to produce original music for a History Channel documentary on the Tuskegee Airmen. And with Mario Winans, he'd begun developing a mentorship program for aspiring young creatives. "I'm making sure the youth understand the game before they get into it," he said. "I need them to push up, don't be afraid to do it, and push it. They're showing me stuff, and I'm learning from them."

While grateful for all that he accomplished, Thompson said he saw his career as him simply being at the right places 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've done it for free," he said as we concluded our conversation. "I sit with these stories all day, and I don't think that they're important. The most important thing to remember is to push through. Don't stop. Keep going."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Christopher A. Daniel