You don't get a bitter person when Hill takes the stage. There, her attitude is self-deprecating. She cracks jokes about her bulbous nose and flat chest -- despite her succulent curves and her radiant, yellow-toned, full-cheekboned, she-must-have-Native American-in-her-family good looks. And then she opens up her mouth and lets out those from-the-gut vocals.
You certainly don't get a bitter person when you hear her perform on her self-distributed album, Suga Hill. On this short yet impressive collection of engaging, mid-tempo R&B (including the original, funkier version of the euphoric public-radio favorite "Summertime in Aspen"), Hill pours that honeyed voice of hers on songs good enough for black radio to play over and over again.
But you may sense a hint of resentment when you ask about her least favorite subject: performing with hip-hop trio the Black Eyed Peas. "I basically wrote a song ['The Real Hip-hop'] to really, really address that, because I'm really trying to not put so much emphasis on that," she says, before launching into a retelling of the story she says she's sick of telling.
You see, back in 1995, Hill joined forces with the multiculti L.A. alt- rappers as their resident female vocalist, way before they got a deal with Interscope. "Joints and Jam," the first single off their 1998 debut album, Behind the Front, featured Hill's come-hither voice restructuring (of all things) the theme from Grease.
To hear Hill tell it, after that album the Peas started losing sight of their artistic integrity -- even if a lot of other people didn't pick up on it. (Including this writer -- see his glowing review, "No Pimps Allowed," November 16, 2000.) The music, and their karmic and antimaterialist messages, were being taken out of the group's hands, Hill says. "And at that point," she continues, "I had to truly ask myself if I could be a part of that project knowing that we were compromising ourselves, and I felt like we were taking part in a minstrel show. Like, you know, all these Jewish and white folk were taking control of our music, our soul, our hip-hop, and telling us how we could market it and sell it. And at that point, it got to the point of selling out, and that's when I had to go."
For Hill, the last straw came when a pale-skinned vocalist was called in to perform on "Weekends," the first single off the Peas' 2000 album, Bridging the Gap.
"While I was still an active part of the band, they felt that a white girl would get them more crossover exposure," she says. "So then, I got politicked out of my own band to have a white girl on the song. You know you're in a state of emergency when a black hip-hop band allows Jewish management to tell them they should go for a white girl to be more marketable."
Keep in mind that Hill's apparent anti-Semitism is her own opinion, and also that those Jewish and white managers were no fools. After all, that white girl Hill is referring to was no mere eye candy. No, it was Esthero, the Canadian trip-hop singer whose 1998 debut, Breath from Another, is now a cult favorite among progressive soul listeners. Hill says it's not Esthero she's pissed at. "I think Breath from Another is one of the most underrated albums that came out at that time," she says. "She is a great artist, and I have absolutely no beef with her, because she was a singer who was trying to get some exposure to a different demographic. It wasn't about Esthero having loyalty to me, because we weren't family. The Black Eyed Peas were my family. They should've had loyalty to me."
As for the "The Real Hip-hop," it's the most blissfully spiteful R&B tune since Eric Benet's "When You Think of Me." With just an acoustic guitar backing her up, Hill none-too-subtly lays out the shabby treatment given to her by her former kinfolk ("Then I look to you / For a high five / Unbeknownst to me / You're a shuck and jive") and assures everyone who's listening that she indeed has had the last laugh.
Hill has no regrets about leaving the Black Eyed Peas six months after Bridging the Gap dropped. How can she? It's not like she gave up a seat on the express train to fame and stardom. Apart from Peas front man Will.I.Am releasing the album Lost Change (from British label BBE's acclaimed Beat Generation series) last year, not much has been said about the Peas lately.
She's chalked up the split to experience and moved on. "In a nutshell, it's very typical with bands," she says. "You set out with a different goal in mind, and somewhere in the middle of that, record labels, accountants, attorneys, managers -- they all get involved, they all smell money. And then the creative side is the first thing that suffers."
Unlike most soul songbirds, who feel they have to be associated with a rapper or his/her crew in order to get recognition, Hill wants to make a name for herself by herself. "You're pretty much guaranteed platinum success when you go the Ashanti route," she says. "When you're speaking about something slightly political, then you go more the Jill Scott route. But you're not guaranteed that success. And I don't have a problem with either one. I just choose the alternate route, where I'm not writing about 'he loves me, he loves me not,' 'he left me,' 'he slept with my best friend so I gotta look for her and beat her down.' That's just not music to me. That's a conversation that you should have in your own house."
Since its release in February, Suga Hill has been selling well at shows and slowly but steadily finding its way into U.S. record stores. (People who need it immediately can always get the album at www. kimmykim.com.) But Hill says she's looking to work more in Europe, where she believes performers are judged more on their artistry and less on the telegenic features that she swears in the face of objective reality she doesn't have.
And she'll no doubt stay independent, so she won't have to worry about putting a lid on her integrity. "I didn't have to make any compromises," she says. "I didn't have to ask anybody what they thought of track number eight. I didn't have to ask anybody of what they thought of the artwork. The people that decided this album were the people that mattered most, and that's the people I've played for three or four times a month. And I learned from doing my shows which songs they like, which songs they were inspired by. And that's what you should be doing music for: yourself first, but also the consumer. And the consumer is always thought of fifth-hand when the label is involved. That's why most of the stuff that's out is mediocre."