The Revisit: Musiq Soulchild’s “Juslisen”

Growing up in Philadelphia is a gift for any music nerd. It’s the city that Gamble & Huff built. The home of The Philadelphia Sound. If you’re an artist that can get love from Philly, you can get love anywhere. The neo-soul era started bubbling while I was in high school, for example. Artists like Jill Scott, Floetry, and India Arie would pour into a club in downtown Philly for a weekly jam session called Black Lily. With no fake ID plug, I only had to imagine what those magical nights felt like. Since Musiq’s ‘Juslisen’ turned 15 this year, it was no better person to discuss that musical renaissance happening in our city and the process of building that iconic album than longtime Musiq collaborator and songwriter/producer Carvin Haggins.

Stephanye: Philly was really bubbling musically around the early 2000s. What was the scene like for you at that time?

Carvin: The Black Lily was something that was started by The Roots and Jazzyfatnastees, who had a residency [at The Five Spot]. The Roots were popular from being on South Street and performing for free. So when they got this venue, it was almost like going to your friend’s house and seeing everybody you know. Each and every one of us that was apart of that clique changing the music industry with the soul sound, we were all broke together. And you know Philly is a rough town. Coming into that place, it was magical because you got the opportunity to share your talent and watch all of the talented musicians and artists get onstage and nobody was taking about getting money. It was like ‘I feel good and we’re just gonna make each other feel good by making this music.’ The moral support you got from your peers was like coming back home every time.

Stephanye: Juslisen is Musiq’s second project. People are always nervous about the sophomore jinx, so what was your mindset walking into this album?

Carvin: We never thought about that. When it came to us creating music, it was never pressure. It was all about going in and doing what you feel. We definitely heard around the middle of the album about the sophomore jinx, but we were so removed from the philosophy of making music for the people. We made music for ourselves. It was a collective of six people at A Touch of Jazz and we made music to impress each other. We wanted our peers to come in the room and say ‘this is crazy!’ and then go make something crazier. We wanted to make music that made us excited. The goal was to make our predecessors proud. People like Kenny Gamble or Leon Huff, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, or Berry Gordy to say ‘these youngbols picking up where we left off!’.

Stephanye: When you’re in the studio, do you know off top that you have a hit song?

Carvin: I can’t say yes. There’s something about the record that feels so familiar and so good that it’s special to you. And you’re just hoping that it’s special to everyone else. You never know who is going to love it, but we just want to make sure it hits that special place. Michael Jackson’s “Off The Wall” feels special to me. Does this song feel as special as that?

Stephanye: The big singles on Juslisen were “halfcrazy”, “ifiwouldaknew”, and “dontchange”. When ya’ll finished those records, what did you walk away thinking?

Carvin: “halfcrazy” we actually created for Jazz from Dru Hill. He came down and recorded the record and when they took it back to Def Jam, they rejected the record. We rewrote the record and once we rewrote it, it was incredible.

dontchange” was created because at the time, I was in a relationship. Me and my girlfriend were laughing and talking and she said that she was getting fat. I said to her, “Girl, I’ll love you if you gain weight. If your hair turns grey.” Then I thought, that’s a song! Whenever you do a new record, people always ask “When are you gonna do another ‘love’?” I called my manager Mike McArthur and told him that I had a concept for a new record. Funny thing is Dre & Vidal were supposed to create the track for the song, but they got delayed working on another project, so Ivan (Haggins’ writing partner) and I went in and did the record. There was no question about that record.

Stephanye: I’m all about deep cuts, so let’s dive into some of my favorites from Juslien. First up, “caughtup”. The knock just hits you as soon as you press play.

Carvin: That was all Ivan Barrias. Ivan is hip-hop til he dies. We were all in a rap group together. Drums is what he lives for. What we did on all of Musiq’s records was one song that had a running theme. So “caughtup” was the continuation of “seventeen”. Because “seventeen” was an orchestrated piano sample I put together, we had to do something that felt like hip-hop. Ivan chopped the sample up, put it together, and that’s how we did that record.

Stephanye: No one ever talks about “onenight”. It’s one of my favorite Musiq songs of all time. Let’s please talk about that song!

Carvin: “onenight” is a song we did with Dre & Vidal. Everything that record embodied was Marvin Gaye. We wanted to make sure we paid tribute to Marvin Gaye through the record. So if you notice, in the bridge, Musiq is singing and talking, which is a direct bite from Marvin Gaye.

Stephanye: It’s so crazy that listened to that song hundreds of times and never put together that the transition into the bridge is a full on Marvin Gaye run! Circling back to our hometown and Philly artists working together, tell me about “bestfriend” with the legendary Carol Riddick.

Carvin: First off, Carol Riddick is a staple in Philadelphia. In her prime, everyone looked at her like the second coming of Anita Baker. Even to this day, she’s a ridiculous artist. Musiq and I were putting the record together and we wanted to do it with Carol. But we couldn’t make it like they were in a relationship because Carol was clearly an oldhead. He was 19! She was a woman. So we sat down thinking about how we wanted the song to go and decided to tell the story from the perspective of a man talking to his best friend about the woman he loves.

Stephanye: Why was George Harrison’s “Something” picked as the song for Musiq to cover on this album?

Carvin: Every time we created a project for Musiq, Kevin Liles would come up with these obscure ideas. That was a Kevin Liles idea. We wanted to do our way though, not redo his record. If it was a live jam session in Philly, we would do it this way. We called in a bunch of Philly artists in for that one.

Stephanye: Enough about my favorites, what are some of yours?

Carvin: This is really a stumper. That’s like saying pick the kid you love the most. I’ll say “newness” and “time”.

“newness is one of my favorites because of the creativity of the record. It’s like we’re having a conversation and the answers are happening at the same time. It’s a man on the phone talking to this woman about the newness of their relationship. The whole song is a phone conversation. Nobody paid attention to this record, but “time”.

Stephanye: I hate to cut you off, but I have this conspiracy theory that songs with the same name carry the same frequency and energy. I was just talking to someone about Musiq’s “time” and Mary J. Blige’s “Time” and how people never bring them up when we talk about revolution or resistance music.

Carvin: The reason why I love it is because people think we’re talking to a woman, but the conversation is to time itself. He’s saying I want to apologize for not taking advantage of all the time that I had. When he sings “in all the years you passed me by”, it’s like I was chillin, letting time go by like it’s nothing.

Those songs are my favorite because people miss it. My goal as a writer is to try to slip things past the listener and they don’t even know that’s what they’re listening to. Certain similies or metaphors that people don’t figure out until later. There is a listener that’s so deep that they’ll catch it immediately. There’s another listener that is so surface that they’ll never catch it. I like to play in between the surface and the depth.

Stephanye: You said earlier that you wanted to make Gamble & Huff proud. How does it feel now, looking back on your career, that you are the direct lineage of them and people now look at you and Ivan in the same way?

Carvin: It’s the greatest experience. It’s exciting to know that we were able honor the legacy of those that came before us. The one thing you don’t want to do is embarrass your parents. What we never wanted to do was embarrass Gamble & Huff. It wasn’t like they were over us, but we just wanted to make sure that we would never taint the legacy that they created and do everything we can to add to it.

Carvin, Ivan, Musiq along with the other artists and musicians during the neo-soul era were the soundtrack to my high school years and transition into college. I was never really homesick while away in college, because I could always just press play on one of their records and feel I was back in Philly. That will always mean so much to me, fifteen years later.

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