Anyone having taken a United States History course in high school will be able to tell you a bit about former President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and how he turned the country around when it was in its most dire straits. Similarly, the average Hip Hop head can rattle off what Ruthless Records, Death Row and the artists that they produced meant to Hip Hop. And just as the effects of Roosevelt’s New Deal resonate in the States to this day, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and N.W.A. have change the face of Hip Hop forever.
But historians and heads tire of these stories for one simple reason: they’ve been told a thousand times. That’s why historians often turn their interest to FDR’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt. Some contend that, when FDR was in poor health, she effectively led the country. How true these assertions are remain uncertain, but if you subscribe to theory that most rumors are grounded in some kernel of truth, you know that there’s something there worth examining.
That same mystique extends itself to Michel’le, the first lady of Ruthless Records, and the same for Death Row. Mary J. Blige before there was a Mary J. Blige, Michel’le was a textbook example of “the woman behind the man.” But just like Eleanor, she played a pivotal role in shaping her surroundings. Whether it was helping legitimize N.W.A. as a commercially viable act, helping record (as well as witnessing the creation of) some of the most influential music of the past 30 years, developing the blueprint for the modern-day Hip Hop/R&B chick, or being the figurehead of a music label, a portion of the untold stories in Hip Hop lies with Michel’le. Though we’ll likely never know the whole picture, the following is one more piece of the puzzle.
HipHopDX: Let’s take it back to the start with World Class Wreckin’ Cru. How did you come to be on “Turn off the Lights,” and how did that parlay itself to a deal with Ruthless Records?
Michel’le: To make a long story short, Mona Lisa was the singer who did most of the hooks for the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, and this particular night she didn’t make it to the studio. They needed to put the song out because they had a deadline, and Alonzo [Williams] didn’t want to lose any money…so he called me and asked me if I could come down and sing on the song. I went down, did two takes, I think. Nothing else was said about it. They just said, “Okay, great. Thank you.” About two weeks later, I hear the song on the radio! We had done no talking about …I didn’t even know it was going to radio. I just thought they’re putting together an album or something. How I got to Ruthless [Records], of course, I started dating [Dr.] Dre.
DX: Once on Ruthless Records, your 1989 self-titled debut album was produced entirely by Dr. Dre – something very few artists have ever had. Were you in the studio during the production process?
Michel’le: Yeah. I was always there.
DX: Can you describe the recording process? Specifically, how did it differ from recording sessions with other producers?
Michel’le: Dre’s a perfectionist. He’s not someone that wants to punch vocals over and over. He’s like, “Look, when you come in here, you should know what you want to do.” He doesn’t mind being creative in the process of doing it, but he wants to hear something by the end of the day. He wants to see that he’s making progress. So if you’re coming in there, and you’re like “I don’t know,” and your energy is [not there], that’s not how he works. He’ll put your track to the side and start working on something else.
For me, I was his girlfriend, so it was a little more brutal. It was kind of rough being the girlfriend and the artist. Sometimes. But I think our chemistry always worked, because he always let me be me.
DX: Dre was notorious for having all the artists he worked with hang out in the studio, no matter whom he was working with. Were N.W.A. and Eazy-E around a lot during this process?
Michel’le: Yeah. We hung out. We cared about each other; we knew each other. We didn’t have that kind of company where someone was in the studio and you didn’t want to go because it was their day. We went just because we wanted to hang out and hear [what was being recorded]. If somebody came in and said, “I like this, don’t change it!” Dre would actually think about it. It was just creative love, and to be there, he had that feedback. Everybody just boppin’ their head, or making a face, or arguing. Him and [DJ] Yella would go at it, and we’d get to pick sides. Eazy in the booth was probably the most fun. Eazy wasn’t a rapper, as everybody knows, so he had to literally become one overnight. What he accomplished in such a short time was incredible.
DX: Was there any artist whose feedback Dre particularly sought?
Michel’le: [The] D.O.C. was a huge influence because D.O.C. is probably one of the greatest writers in Hip Hop. The D.O.C. is just incredible lyrically; I’m sorry. I just think he’s great. When D.O.C. said something, I would notice that Dre would really tune in more. If Eazy said [something], he would [listen intently]. But he would listen to all of us. That’s what made him a good producer. His ego wasn’t big enough to say, “No, this is how we’re gonna do it.” He actually allowed us to have an input.
DX: I think one thing people fail to credit you with is giving Ruthless Records a legitimate “bankable mainstream artist.” N.W.A. received virtually no airplay, whereas your debut charted not only in the R&B/Hip Hop charts, but also on the Billboard 200 – not to mention the fact that it sold several million worldwide. Did you ever consider the fact that you legitimized Ruthless, one of the most historically important rap labels ever?
Michel’le: I always say [that] nobody in this world does anything by themselves. You never go, “I’m a self-made man.” No, it takes people to get you where you are. Everybody helps each other. Some people don’t look at it that way. I think with Ruthless, since they were already N.W.A., when I came along, I was lucky enough to get on their record, and go to their shows. It was just a great collabo thing. I did get to bring them to talk shows that they wouldn’t have gotten. Like Dre, when he rapped on my stuff, CNN. I mean, he started getting interviews that were just unheard of. It opened up another door, but that’s what we were doing. That’s what the whole thing was about. We piggy-backed each other on everything we did. That was just the love of Ruthless. We never looked at it like, “You get this credit and that credit.” But it’s true, I did open up [doors for them], putting the Hip Hop on R&B tracks. It was great.
DX: You look at labels like Cash Money, Roc-A-Fella, No Limit – why do you think they could never break an R&B act? Why was Ruthless able to?
Michel’le: [Laughing] One reason we were able to is because we created it, in a sense. We didn’t know what we were creating at the time, but no one was really doing it like we did it. Dre didn’t’ know how to do R&B, and I didn’t know how to rap, so we kinda fused it. I think because I was not too feminine, not too girly – although they called me sweet all the time – I think I held my own with that group of guys. Whereas now, you have to be half-naked…but then, I didn’t have to do that. Nowadays, women have to go to more extremes to be who they are. We had to just needed to hang with the guys talent-wise a little bit, or look the part. I wore the leather jackets…I kinda infused being with N.W.A., being “Ms. L.A.” with the hair, you know? And I didn’t go overboard with the hair and makeup. I loved rap. I wanted to fit it.
Don’t get me wrong. The managers tried to doll me up. They said, “We need to get her out of the turtlenecks, and do this, and put all this makeup on her,” and me and Dre were like, “No you don’t!” It would’ve ruined it, don’t you think? If they would’ve made me more feminine to that degree of a sex kitten or bombshell, then it wouldn’t have worked! You didn’t see me in too-small gowns. Nowadays, it’s a different ballgame. We don’t know what the rules are.
DX: This now puts us at Death Row Records. Two of the label’s seminal albums, The Chronic and Doggystyle featured prominent vocals from Jewell and Nate Dogg. Did you resent that?
Michel’le: No, I [didn’t]. Of course not, because at the time, me and Dre were fallin’ out. I was going in to do a song, but I didn’t get it done in time, and Dre was like, “Well I gotta turn in the album, and I’m workin’ on your stuff anyway.” So why would I resent it?
DX: Your first album was recorded with Dre. The second, Hung Jury, with Suge Knight. How did the recording process differ?
Michel’le: Well, that was a more…it was a different type of recording because it was a different type of situation. It was more like…six of the songs, I was working on – the album was called Single Black Female at the time – I had to start over. So the depression of Hung Jury was just that. I was completely depressed. I didn’t realize it until six months later when I listened to it. I was like, “Wow, this is like a movie score or something, because it sounds like I’m telling y’all these problems and those problems.” There was no light in the album, though two of those songs I love. I’ll probably remake my own song “Can I Get a Witness.” It was such a dark time for me that, creative-wise, I was just gone. It was rough. Single Black Female was trashed. Death Row [Records] was like, “No, you can’t do that.”
DX: What would [Single Black Female] have sounded like?
Michel’le: Wow. Single Black Female was just anthems for my girls. Single Black Female would’ve meant, [whether it were a] single white female, single Asian female…I just wanted to let them know what I had gone through, that I was single and free, which I hadn’t been [after being] with Dre for so long. And I had a kid at the peak of my career, so I had a song about that. It was a lot of dos and don’ts, but mostly they were up-tempo songs. I wasn’t depressed. But once they started hearing the lyrics, Death Row was like, “No, this won’t work.”
DX: It’s been insinuated that your marriage to Suge was used solely so you could run the company when he was banned from it. What’s your response to that?
Michel’le: Wow. That’s a wonderful way to put it. I don’t think it’s ever been put to me that way, but you’re not far from the truth. Actually, it’s a very funny story. I’m writing a book [about it]. The story is so funny, it’s unbelievable. The story is so funny, you wouldn’t believe how I got in that position. We all know it wasn’t love, but how I got that position, and how it was manufactured, I had to stop and really go, “Wow.” I couldn’t see anything…but that’s almost true.
DX: That’s almost true?
Michel’le: That’s almost true. I didn’t actual run the company. You reading in between the lines? It’s gonna be in my book.
DX: Well then, during that time when you were said to run the company, were you given any additional responsibilities, or was that all…taken care of?
Michel’le: Kind of; no and yes. I had responsibilities, but like you said, they were already…it was like the President; they give it to you, and “This is what you are to say,” and that’s pretty much what it was. But on the flip [side] of that, there were [certain things] I was privy to and not privy to.
DX: When things went south between Suge and Dre, did you ever feel stuck in the middle of things? Was the beef in private the same as it was perceived in public?
Michel’le: Yeah, it was private, because it was private to me as well. I did not know that Mr. Knight didn’t like Dre until October of…’96? That’s when I kinda learned that he didn’t like him. Then the February of the following year…that’s when I learned of his distaste for Dre. He had never talked bad to me about Dre. Never. I was like, “Whoa!” I didn’t know there was that kind of tension. I stayed on Death Row, because Dre said, “[Will] you go with me [to Aftermath Entertainment?]” and I said no, because Death Row had been good to me, and I didn’t know there was any beef. And so, when [Suge] started lashing out, I was shocked. And when I tried to pull out, that’s where the fear kicked in, and I was there…in so many words. I didn’t talk to Dre anymore, I didn’t try to talk Dre anymore, I didn’t contact him anymore, because I started knowing this was real.
DX: Were you worried about contacting Dre?
Michel’le: No, I didn’t know that it was a problem if I did or didn’t, because we had a child…but when [Suge] started talking that way, I just [decided] to leave [Dre] alone, out of my life. People think I knew all the little details, and I didn’t.
DX: On the 2001 Death Row compilation, Too Gangsta For Radio, has a skit that imitates Suge’s son bullying Dre’s son. Did things like that ever strike a chord with you?
Michel’le: I didn’t hear or do too much on the Too Gangsta projects. I was saying, “Why are you still doing these kind of records?”
DX: So you weren’t worried about voicing your opinion, despite Suge’s reputation for his strong-arm tactics?
Michel’le: Usually, when Suge…when I would hear about [that stuff], it was usually a justifiable way he would present that stuff. Not just to me – to all of us. We were brainwashed [to believe] that we were Death Row, and everyone was against us. So when you’re in that state of mind, whatever you heard…I used to be like, “I didn’t see that, who was that?” And he would smooth it over, like…he would even imply that they would do something to us, to Death Row, that you kinda felt like it was justifiable. People would come to parties, and he would be like, “Oh, they were trying to tear it up.” However it was, it was always justified.
DX: That probably goes all the way back to Ruthless, how you were able to be released from there.
Michel’le: Oh yeah, yeah. [Suge Knight] was right [about] our [Ruthless Records contracts], that was very true. We weren’t making very much money. Now, how we got out of it? I don’t know detail for detail, like everybody thinks I do, but I know that he got us out of our contract.
DX: Years later, when the stories come up, like Vanilla Ice [being hung out of a window], are you shocked to hear them?
Michel’le: Now? No. Then? Yeah. Because in my mind, I thought that, “C’mon, one person can’t be doin’ all this!” Especially a person who always justified it. And I saw him do so much good for people, I really did. Everybody did. He was just like Santa Claus to people. I was like, “People are makin’ that up. “ And when you’re brainwashed, you think, “That just can’t be.” But then, Vanilla Ice actually had a friend who wrote the song. And Vanilla Ice didn’t give him his credit. So when his friend started saying – this was years later – when he started telling the whole story, I started believing it, loosening up about trying to hear stuff. I was like, “Wow, maybe he [did do that].” And then Vanilla Ice gets in an interview and then he says it, and then he retracted it. So it kinda makes you wonder.
DX: I’d like to get your thoughts about not getting as much credit for pioneering the Hip Hop/R&B fusion style of music that others like Mary J. Blige and Beyonce have gotten. You were doing it long before either of those two.
Michel’le: I know! [laughing] But you know what? I can’t be mad. They took it, they ran with it, and they made it something we ended up listening to 20 more years. I can’t imagine why, maybe it’s just the politics of it…but the light’ll come [laughs]. Mary J. said, back in the day, that I did it first, a long time ago. They told me they did an interview [and gave me credit], so I thought, “That’s cool.”
DX: You’ve just released a new single called “Freedom to Love.” What’s the goal? Are you doing a new album?
Michel’le: I’m not doing an album, I’m just doing a single. Just whatever. I felt like doing it. “Freedom to Love” is just that. I’m free, love is all there is, there is nothing else. Money, no money, love. Love is all that you need. So I thought, let me do this song, just to get that out. Of course I have those songs where I could tell you where I’ve been – those songs that I could just lay it out for you, but I wanted to come out on a note where I’m okay. I’m not bitter, I don’t live in regret; life is beautiful because every day you get to start over. I just wanted to be on a good note.