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Special Feature: Devante's Swing Mob - Smokey Pt 1

I'm ready to interview Smoke E. Digglera, formerly of R&B trio Playa. Playa was famously discovered and signed by DeVante Swing of Jodeci to DeVante’s own label, Swing Mob records. Composed of Smoke E Digglera, best known as Smoke or Smokey, Static Major & Digital Black, the trio started singing in churches (a lot like Jodeci) and talent shows before finally getting their break with DeVante. Smoke was only 17 years old.

Through affiliation with Swing Mob, Smoke was one of the key members of Da Bassment; the one and only collective DeVante put together at the age of 22, and the very same outfit that was responsible for launching many talented artists and producers, some of whom are still heavy hitters in the industry today.

Just before I call, I can’t help but think back to 1998, when Playa’s critically acclaimed album Cheers to You was released- an album mostly produced by Smokey & Timbaland and with tracks co-written by Smokey. I was one of many who went along to my local music store and bought the album, anticipating great things. Like many Jodeci fans had thought at the time, it had been a long time coming. Various members of Da Bassment had been credited on Jodeci’s albums for a while and Playa specifically had been credited for providing backing vocals on Jodeci’s last album 'The Show, The Afterparty, The Hotel.'

They had also featured in Timbaland & Magoo’s album 'Welcome to our World' & Timbaland’s solo effort, aptly titled 'Life from Da Bassment,' as well as various movie soundtracks. Aside from the numerous albums, Playa made a cameo appearance in Jodeci’s "Love U 4 Life" video and were frequently seen in music videos associated with various ex-Da Bassment members; Ginuwine, Timbaland & Magoo and Missy Elliott. Furthermore, Playa not only duetted with Aaliyah on their album (the track titled "One Man Woman" produced and co-written by Smokey), but featured in a few of her videos also.

For fans at the time, taking into consideration Jodeci’s somewhat indefinite hiatus in 1995, and Playa well documented as being one of DeVante’s favourites from his camp, it was a welcome moment to see that his protégés finally were making their mark. After all, the trio were renowned for their smooth vocal abilities, influenced by the legendary DeVante Swing, and with long-term collaborators Timbaland & Missy in the mix, the result could only be positive. I was not disappointed. The album was a brilliant effort and spawned the top 10 hit "Cheers to you." Whatever it was that was ignited in Da Bassment was in full effect. The melodies & production on the album were signature to what was created when the collective were still together and at the forefront of creativity; the vocals reminiscent of an era we had long been missing. Yet despite all the promise the album showed, it was Playa’s first and last officially released album.

The three members eventually parted ways, mainly due to their other commitments individually, and struggles with Def Jam; their record label at the time. Since then, Digital Black is said to be recording his own solo material & Static Major paved his way in hip hop until his untimely death last year.

Smokey has since released three solo albums on his own independent record label Bittersweet LLC. 'Personal, Pain & Pleasure' was released in April 2006, and his second album entitled 'Sittin’ on a Goldmine' was released in November the same year. Smokey’s latest album 'The Truth in the Booth' was released in April 2009; his voice still enriched with the southern gospel vocal harmonies reflected by Playa in the late 90’s and introduced by Jodeci in the early '90s. With all this in mind, one cannot forget how it all began....

Rashmi Vasanthakumar

May 2009

NJS4E: Take me back to the beginning. How did it all start with Playa & finally your admission into DeVante’s Swing Mob?

Playa started as a vocal group in Louisville, Kentucky. There were many different formations of the group but by 1991, when we first met Jodeci, it consisted of Digital Black (whom I met at high school), myself and four other guys. Static wasn’t a part of it back then even though I knew him from singing gospel in church. By the time DeVante called in 1994, he wanted to sign me & put me in either Intro or H-Town ( two groups whom he was working with at the time). I told him I wanted him to check out my group, now with a completely new formation to what he’d originally seen- Static, Black and I. And that’s officially how Playa started.

NJS4E: The band’s name ‘Playa’ Did you already have that name prior to your signing to Swing Mob?

That was DeVante-he always called us lil playas and such. So Playa just stuck.

NJS4E: And how did you end up actually getting to meet DeVante Swing in the first place?

In 1991, we went to the Jodeci concert not only to see them perform coz we were fans ourselves, but somehow get the opportunity to audition for them. We couldn’t get backstage at all of course, but there was a security guard near the tour-buses where the artists were boarding and unboarding, and because this particular security guard remembered seeing us perform in Louisville at local churches and various talent-shows. When we talked to him asking whether we could get access so we could sing to Jodeci, he let us! We ended up singing a few songs acappella including Jodeci’s "Stay" and DeVante thought we were dope! By late 1993/early 1994 when DeVante finally called, I convinced him to check out my group. Jodeci had the Soul Train Awards to attend at that time and he had already planned to go to Cleveland to check out Sugah (another Swing Mob artist), so straight after that, he came down to Louisville to check us out. He heard us and wanted to sign us.

NJS4E: So between the first time he saw you in 1991 and then again in 1994, did DeVante keep in contact with you?

He gave us his number in 1991, but of course he was never at home because he was always on tour. But then out of the blue in late ’93/early 94, he called me after remembering my number off by heart! After he heard us, he said he wanted to sign us, that he was off tour and ready with the Swing Mob thing. That was my last year at high school. Obviously I had to finish high school first before I could do anything with him, but 45 minutes after I walked down the aisle with my high school diploma in my hand, I was on a plane to move to Teaneck, New Jersey; DeVante’s house.

NJS4E: Wow! That must have been a massive move for you?

Oh yeah it was BIG for me-not only a big move at that time and a big move at that age coz I was 17, but it was also big because they were probably my biggest idols at the time.

NJS4E: And to get signed by the man behind one of the biggest R&B groups of that time?

Oh yeah it was definitely like ‘WOW!’ when I met him. I loved Jodeci, but for me there was always something about DeVante. He just had this image and this aura about him, and just the fact that he did the writing, did the music, the vocal arrangement and everything, made him even more the star for me to be star-struck when I did finally meet him.

NJS4E: So talk to me about what it was like working with DeVante, in terms of producing your records?

DeVante Swing of JodeciWell, working with him on our own records was something that we rarely got a chance to do, because during that time was when The Show, The Afterparty, The Hotel was being created, so DeVante was real busy with that, amongst other stuff he was doing. So really, that’s the point in time where I got the opportunity to knuckle down and work on my craft and improve my craft. We had this huge studio there and two production rooms, so that gave me the opportunity to figure out how to work the equipment and things of that nature and y’know I saw how he worked. It was a learning experience-watchin’ over his shoulders and the things that he did as well as how he did them. And as our craft improved, it gave Playa the opportunity to get in there and try to cut our own records. I’d do some producing but in terms of other producers, mostly we’d work with Timbaland. Around that era, was when Ginuwine’s "Pony" got created. And you’ve got to keep in mind Steve J, the hitman. He was around then too, producing records. He was within Da Bassment, but he was Dalvin’s artist on Clownin’ Records. We had him too and of course Darryl Pearson. Sometimes we’d also work with other producers from Rochester, but for the most part it was cutting records with Timbaland, coz DeVante was always busy.

NJS4E: That’s a lot of talented producers you’ve mentioned. Were all of them there when you arrived in Teaneck?

Sugah, Sista, Timbaland, Magoo & Ginuwine were already there. Stevie J was around all the time too. Renee Anderson & Tweet only arrived later and I believe that was around September 1994, when we all moved to Rochester, New York. That’s where and when Da Bassment really was formed. We were all livin’ together in the apartment DeVante had got us. There were a lot of other members too under Da Bassment- a lot of talent down with us at the time, and they tended to be around there too, even if they weren’t stayin’ with us per sey.

NJS4E: Can you describe what it was like being a part of that during that time? What do you think about the whole experience, looking back at it now?

Well initially, there was a lot of musical infatuation and excitement- with DeVante and whole Jodeci thing. But after that, it was hard work- some real grown man s**t. We were all young, trying to adapt to the new environment and set our minds to what it is we gotta do but we were struggling- trying to get a job so we could support ourselves and get something to eat, whilst preparing ourselves and working hard to get our musical career off the ground. It’s a prime example about what this business is about- sacrifice. It wasn’t easy at all- but what helped us all to adapt was the fact there was a lot of us and we were all in the same boat. So we had each other for company yes, but more importantly and what made it better was that all of us had people around us who could relate to what it is we were trying to do; we were all in it together. And we all learnt from each other. So that’s what we did- we just worked hard and sacrificed in the hope that at the very least, we would all have something to show for it at the end of the day. Looking back on it now, even though things didn’t work out the way we had all hoped in the end, I can still look back and say to this day that I was blessed to be a part of that period and a part of Da Bassment. I don’t regret it at all.

NJS4E: DeVante, Da Bassment and Swing Mob as a collective developed an incredibly unique and special sound –not just melodically or beats-wise or even in terms of the style of singing; it was a combined result of all three and one that’s unique to each and all of you and has helped launch a number of careers which are still going strong to this day. Do you think that sound which we have seen with Timbaland, Missy etc. was born from the days with Swing Mob & DeVante?

Yeah. And it’s deeper than just a sound. It’s a…VIBE. It’s EVEN deeper than just a sound and a vibe. It’s like this- learning something in a certain way and then you may part from it. However, it’s not gone. If anything, you might take what you learnt and reconstruct it to best suit you, but it’s still gonna come from the same vein. For example, a lot of people say in terms of my sound, that they can tell I come from that particular era of music; or specifically Da Bassment as a sector of music. But I’m not really trying to emulate any of that sound from back in the day. I’m just doing what I do. But what I do came from my experiences from WITHIN Da Bassment; the vocal arrangement & harmonies especially. I’m not trying to sound like Jodeci but how they did it is what I was around, and it’s what I loved listening to.

NJS4E: So what do you think DeVante liked about all of you seeing as he hand-picked you out to be part of his own collective?

Everyone was pretty much self-sufficient. We were learning but we were self-sufficient- Jodeci was like that. We didn’t need guidance talent-wise. Everyone had a lot of talent and knew how to use it as well. And we were into music. Our minds were consumed with it. I think that’s what it was about us. He had a vision that was Da Bassment and he acknowledged the raw talent each of us had. I mean collectively he had a heap of talent and then there’s him, so all of us together you got yourself a major movement- he had Motown all over again!!

NJS4E: Can you recall some of the times you worked for DeVante?

I worked for DeVante on a lot of their last album where I did the backing vocals, when K-Ci & Jo-Jo weren’t available. He’d hit me up on my phone at 4 o’clock in the morning and ask me to come over and lay vocals on tracks.

NJS4E: And you just had to get up and go?

Oh yeah!! It was just a ‘Get yo ass up! Let’s roll!’ But it’s not something you aint gonna do-NO way! If he called you asking you to work, number 1) you’re ready to work anyway, that’s what you’re there for, number 2) I haven’t had a chance to work with DeVante and now he’s calling me personally asking me to do something and then 3) he actually is wanting ME to come over and sing on the Jodeci album! That’s not some sh*t you say no to!! It was like WOW! I’m sitting here and he’s giving me some amazing stuff to do. I was like 18 or 19. It’s just DeVante & I. I mean it was incredible.

Move On To Part 2!

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