The first time I met Usher Raymond was back in 1993 at the Jack the Rapper convention. The 14-year-old R&B prodigy had recently been signed to a recording contract by LaFace Records co-founder L.A. Reid and was there to promote his debut single “Think Of You;” I was an entry-level marketing rep for BMG Distribution and was there to serve as the go-between between the artists and their adoring fans. Though there was no clear indication at the time of the multi-platinum mega-star he would eventually become, the barely pubescent singer was as slick and polished as a four-star general’s shoes, greeting other artists and autograph seekers alike with a suave sense of charm that belied his tender age.
Fourteen years later Usher is one of the world’s biggest pop stars, with a string of chart-topping albums, two Grammys, several films (including The Faculty and Light It Up) and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame under his belt. And now, at the ripe old age of 28, the man who proclaims his desire to inherit James Brown’s title of “Hardest Working Man in Show Business” is being inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.
We recently spoke to the singer about growing up in fame’s spotlight, taking care of business and how his next album will compare to the multi-platinum Confessions.
HipHopDX: Who were some of your earliest musical influences?
Usher: Anything I could get my hands on! When I was a kid, we really couldn’t afford CDs, so I would listen to the radio or go to my grandmother’s house. She had all these old records, from old Jazz and B.B. King to James Brown, the Isley Brothers and Heatwave. As far as the artists who influenced me the most, it was people like Michael Jackson and Bobby Brown, who were great entertainers as well as being great vocalists. I also love The Winans, because I listened to a lot of gospel since my mother was the director of my youth choir at St. Elmo Missionary Baptist Church in Chattanooga. When I began to take my career more seriously, I studied people like Guy, New Edition and Jackson 5. In order to be great, I knew I had to study the people who had influenced them, so that’s when I was introduced to Marvin Gaye, Jackie Wilson, Ray Charles and other mega-star artists of that era. My career became like my version of college, and I realized I had to become a student of this game in order to understand where true inspiration comes from. In dance, I studied Bob Fosse, Ben Vereen, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and all those guys. Growing up in Tennessee, there wasn’t a lot to do, so music was our favorite pastime.
DX:What are your favorite memories of your time singing in your mom’s church choir?
U: [Laughs] I think I was more of a problem child than I was a good singer. I used to cause my mother the most problems. Here she is, the director of the youth choir, and I’m acting a behind every Saturday at rehearsals. I can’t remember how many times she kicked me out of rehearsals because I wouldn’t act right.
DX: Tell me the story of how you got discovered at such an early age.
U: There was a guy named A.J. Alexander who introduced me to L.A. Reid’s brother when I performed in the Atlanta Talent Search at Center Stage Theatre. Back then, there was such a wealth of up and coming talent coming out of Atlanta, and I can remember performing everywhere from the parking lots of clubs to Turner Field. So anyway, A.J. Alexander took me to this talent search, I auditioned and got accepted, then won three times in a row. By the third time, I’d had offers to perform on Star Search and Showtime at the Apollo, though I never did the Apollo because I got a record deal first. I met with L.A. Reid, and he brought all the females from the LaFace Records office in to hear me sing “End of the Road,” which was their number-one single at the time. The ladies were going crazy, clapping and screaming because I was really catering to ’em, going down on one knee and kissing them and stuff, and he stopped the song halfway through. From there, I started my career and the rest is history.
DX: Was it overwhelming to be snatched from obscurity at the age of 13 and thrust into fame’s spotlight?
U: To an extent it was, but I always had my mother to help gauge the balance and make sure I got my schooling. It was every kid’s dream, but my mother and grandmother did a really good job of helping me stay grounded. I had a goal in my mind to be the best and make my name mean something. I want to be remembered for being a great performer and entertainer.
DX: You were still in high school when you were working with producers such as Babyface, Jermaine Dupri and Puffy. Was there one particular thing you learned from working with those guys that has helped you in your career?
U: You grind until you get it. Watching those guys maneuver and handle their business at a very young age gave me a relentless view of how to approach this business. What you put into it, you get out of it, and I always strive for perfection.
DX: You appeared in major films like The Faculty and Light It Up, but haven’t had a major film role in years. Is acting something you aspire to do more of in the future?
U: Acting is definitely a very relevant part of my future. I took a break from it after the success of Confessions because I wanted to make sure that I found the right project, but I’m looking and hoping that it’s gonna come very soon. In building a career, you have to be very strategic. You can’t just keep shooting in the dark. You have to know exactly what types of roles you want to go after and surround yourself with the type of people who know how to build careers as an entertaining brand. When I look at what Gene Kelly, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Fred Astaire did with their careers� acting, singing and dancing�� that’s what I’ve always wanted to be. I want to be a triple threat.
DX: What was the most difficult aspect of making the transition from being a teenage pop star to becoming a respected adult R&B artist?
U: I think it was a little easier for me because I didn’t have a teenybopper approach when I first started. I had Puffy executive produce my first album, and it was music that I think catered to a more adult audience. But in general, getting recognized as a man in this industry has been a struggle because people see me in one way and in one format. As years went by, I became more of a man through my music, my life experiences and what I have to offer. When you look at what I do, from business to philanthropy, you can’t continue to look at the young Usher that used to dance and do backflips onstage, even though I’m still gonna do that stuff. I want to take that title of “Hardest Working Man in Show Business!” But you can’t hold me in one box because I do so much, while at the same time being strategic about how I do it all.
DX: It seemed like Confessions was the album that put you over the top, while at the same time opening you up to negative attention from the tabloids. How do you deal with the more unsavory aspects of fame?
U: Well, anonymity is something that goes out the window when you become a pop star. If you want to be popular, you have to be subject to people’s opinions. One thing I’ve always done is stayed away from making my personal life my business. It wasn’t until Confessions that I began to become a little more vulnerable and introduce people to a real view of Usher. As you get older, you begin to have more fortifying, life-changing experiences that make you a deeper individual and show you your direction in life. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, although I do hate it at times when people get things wrong. But at the end of the day it’s just people’s opinions, and you just have to hope that something positive comes out of it.
DX: What is the biggest source of validation in your career?
U: Knowing I’ve put my creative stamp [on something]. I live through my music, and it represents where I was at the time.� If you listen back to music, whether it’s from the ’50s or the ’80s, you hear in the music where we were as people at the time. So with each album I try to tune into my life and offer the best I can offer in telling the stories of what life is like at that time, whether it’s about how people dance, where they hang out or life-changing experiences. I try to be as honest, vulnerable, forthcoming and soul bearing as I can, because if you listen to classic R&B, that’s what made it what it was. That’s not so much what it is now, because that ideal is slowly but surely being torn down. I feel like R&B music has lied dormant for years because people are afraid of feeling, so it seems like it’s becoming more like Hip Hop. But I’m taking it on my shoulders to try to show the diversity of what R&B can be. Men used to bear their souls and talk on social issues, talking about issues like segregation as a way to help people through it and comfort you. That intimate relationship with music is what I ultimately care about more than any award.
DX: So do you feel like the urban music scene in general is lacking in substance?
U: Hell, yeah! Definitely. There are still people out there who choose to [make music with a message], but most hit records these days are too much of a novelty and lacking in substance. I’m not discrediting Hip Hop, but R&B has never been this closed-minded before. Versatility is what made us understand the depth of what music could be.
DX: You’ve made a lot of moves in the business world lately, from becoming a partial owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers and The Grape restaurant chain to opening your own fragrance line. Why is it important for you to branch out beyond the music world?
U: Once you grow up you have to continue to strive for more challenges. Music is my home base, but it’s allowed me an opportunity to do a lot of other things. Once you get the money, you have to figure out what to invest it in. There are so many people who have a great run for years and years, but never do anything with their money and find themselves bankrupt. When I met James Brown, he was the first person who told me, “Make sure your money is right.” If it don’t make dollars, then it don’t make sense.
DX: You do a lot of philanthropic work with your charity organizations. What’s your personal mission for the New Look Foundation and Project Restart?
U: I pledged to do something philanthropic years ago, and it really started with donating my time to working with other foundations. I traveled all around the world with the Make A Wish Foundation, then I started thinking about all of the issues that we, as minorities, have in America. We don’t have an educational system as it relates to business, so I wanted to come up with a foundation that would teach kids about the sports and entertainment industry. There are so many kids who look up to entertainers and athletes, but they don’t know that there are alternate routes to get to your dream. When they come to Camp New Look in the summer, we teach them about job options ranging from journalism and music video production to recording engineering. People don’t understand that a lot of times the people around the artists make more money than the artists themselves, and that starting off on that level can lead to something more in the future. Just look at Puffy: He started off in the mailroom, and now he’s a multi-millionaire! It’s important for us to encourage our kids, and especially the minorities who tend to get overlooked.
DX: What does the ceremony inducting you into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame mean to you?
U: It means everything to me, given the fact that I started my career here. It’s by far one of my greatest accomplishments of my career, right alongside the Grammy and the star on Hollywood Boulevard, especially at my age.
DX: I know you have a new album coming out soon. How will it be different from Confessions?
U: Well, it’s definitely a new concept with a classic feel. It’s well rounded and showcases my versatility and growth. I don’t discredit hip-hop or any other form of music: You should think about everyone from young men in the hood to families in the Hamptons. From a musical standpoint, I wanted to have a classic feel, so I went back to inspirations like Stevie Wonder and Luther Vandross, getting into the more sensual/sexual side of R&B. You’ll get a little bit of the “Godson of Soul” title James Brown gave me. It’ll definitely be a wild ride, to say the least: The formal reintroduction of Usher Raymond IV.