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"Lazy" would be the last word to creep up in a discussion of ChesnuTT's debut. Among other things, The Headphone Masterpiece should give hope to all those aspiring musicians who are putting work into their home studios. The record appeared in many lists of the best recordings of 2002, including those published by Rolling Stone, Spin and Vibe. The response hasn't surprised ChesnuTT.
"Everyone is tired of the monster that is the industry and the fabricated music that seems as if it's coming off an assembly line," he says. "It's a breath of fresh air, and people have been wanting air for the longest time."
ChesnuTT's music is influenced by his childhood on Chesnut Street in Atlanta. Born Antonious Thomas, he grew up in a household that "played everything from Helen Reddy to Parliament" and remembers listening to his uncles blast the Rolling Stones' "Miss You" in the neighborhood. A PBS special on the Beatles got the youngster hooked on rock and roll. But before he realized his musical ambitions were in rock, ChesnuTT was a smooth R&B singer in the mold of R. Kelly and Jodeci. In 1991 he released a single, "Young Dr. Feelgood," on a small indie label. The song made a little noise but ultimately failed to satisfy his muse.
"I was feeling kind of restrained," he says. "I felt like I was suffocating myself. Eventually I got to the point where I evolved out of the phase of typical cookie-cutter R&B and started to realize that the musicality that I was into needed to be expressed as well. That's when I came across the guitar."
Along with his cousin and manager, Donray Von (who now helps oversee the Ready Set Go! label ChesnuTT runs out of his house), ChesnuTT moved to Los Angeles in 1992 and formed a British Invasion-flavored band called the Crosswalk. That group inked a deal with Hollywood Records, but the label sat on the band's debut recording, which never saw an official release. The Crosswalk soon dissolved.
"I was a little heartbroken and disappointed, but I knew culture had to come back around to real music, so I just knew it was a matter of time, and I was willing to be patient," ChesnuTT says.
His perseverance paid off. Recorded during a six-month period in 1999 and mastered in October 2000, Masterpiece sat around for a while before generating any buzz. The disc found its way into the hands of the Roots' ?uestlove and former Digable Planet member Ishmael Butler, whose band Cherrywine traverses a musical terrain similar to ChesnuTT's. Things took off from there. Last summer, the Roots asked ChesnuTT to join them on the Smokin' Grooves Tour; they also included a new version of ChesnuTT's double-entendre-laden song "The Seed" on their new album, Phrenology. Despite this exposure, ChesnuTT still has a difficult time getting his genre-bending music played on radio and his videos shown on TV.
"A lot of people are still trying to deal with the formulaic way of getting the record to the people," he says. "But my feeling is that it's going to get to the people the way it's supposed to. I don't worry about it."
Still, ChesnuTT concedes that if he had a spin for every time a DJ, VJ or A&R person had told him, "I love your music, but ," he would be big-pimpin' multiplatinum.
"DJs and radio personalities that I meet say, 'Oh, man, I love it,' and I don't really think they hear themselves," he says. "How can you be a disc jockey and say you love music and not give it to the people? This is the question that I give to the whole industry. Don't tell me you love this music or any new music and then tell me 'but' with a capital B. If you love it, just give it to the people. It's all about breaking away from that fear and taking risks."
Fortunately, some bean counters in the industry have been willing to roll the dice. MTV2 recently put ChesnuTT's video for "Look Good in Leather" into heavy rotation; the network also flew him to New York to appear in a new program, Diversity. It was an appropriate move: ChesnuTT is diversity incarnate, and that's a positive for the industry. He might also send some scrambling to learn about the black rock that came before.
"If you get an allegiance of fans supporting rock and roll artists who happen to be black, that's going to open up the whole floodgates of history," he says. "There's going to be research, just like white cats always research black history. They go straight to the source: gospel and blues. Everybody else is going to go beyond that and say, 'Okay, what's the origin of these people, the origin of the spirits?' "
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