Idle time is perfect for introspection. While plane-hopping and taking trips to work as a producer for some of music’s biggest stars last year, Benny Cassette had plenty of that in his hotel room. It was there and in similarly isolating situations throughout his journeys that his thoughts roamed back to impactful conversations he had with family members, times that went sour with old flings and words that generally went unsaid.
It’s those moments that led to creating his forthcoming album, Broken Hearts & Dollar Signs—an effort that essentially functions as a series of letters which are extensions of convos Benny had (or wish he had) with exes and buddies alike. It also chronicles his come-up story.
In short, Cassette was relatively unknown until a few years back, when a publicist friend blasted a batch of his music to blogs and a Universal Records A&R discovered them. Weeks later the A&R passed the tunes to Kanye West, who called Cassette, then flew him to Paris to assist on West’s 2013 album, Yeezus. He’d later sign to Kanye’s Very GOOD Beats production team.
Cassette recently invited me to his home studio in Los Angeles for this shoot. After playing drafts of songs he’s baking alt-R&B singer SZA and country-turned-pop group The Band Perry, we settled in to rap, then hung out in his front yard for photos. As you’ll learn on Deeper, Benny had to go through some dirt before he found flowers.
Appreciation is all I have for someone that has the balls to ditch their suit and secure 9-5 for a life they’re passionate about. DJ Moma’s that guy. This time last year, after more than a decade of moonlighting as and becoming one of NYC’s most acclaimed soul and dance mixers, Mohamed “Moma” Hamad dropped his Manhattan engineering job for the nightlife and music.
Now that Moma’s freed himself from the necktie, he’s spending his days creating, whether it’s new mixes for sets, his Soundcloud page or original compositions as a producer.
I caught up with Moma at his apartment in the Flatiron District, where he talked about his journey from a DJ that once “bombed” in the early days to then being a chief party rocker. Days later I checked out his set at the Everyday People Brunch, a regular function in the city’s Lower East Side that he not only spins at, but also runs with socialite culinarian Chef Roblé Ali and brand consultant Saada Ahmed.
In addition to his Everyday People set at The DL, you can catch Moma at his Dance Dance Dance party on Wednesdays at Le Bain in the Meatpacking District, at Ginny’s Supper Club in Harlem on Fridays, and monthly at Casablanca in Brooklyn.
When your homie’s going through a tough time and there’s not a damn thing you can do to help, you do basically the only thing you can: listen. Jenna Andrews has been my buddy for years now. As a friend I rooted for her as she geared up for what should have been her debut album on Def Jam Records. She had “Tumbling Down,” her single that she wrote alongside Jeremih in 2010. Label head L.A. Reid was a fan, though left in 2011. Her 2012 Kiss and Run EP—good, but haphazardly released by Def Jam —followed and fell on deaf ears.
And then things got quiet at the office. Without her own strong fanbase and essentially no advocates at Def Jam, our dinners became bummer sessions full of wine and readily expressed worries. Jenna would wonder aloud about when her album would come out (it never did), how the hell she’d get out of her deal, and what her next move would be once she backstroked out of an ocean’s worth of release papers to freedom.
Thankfully, as she sings on her song “Desperado” in my latest profile piece above, she’s a fighter. In 2013 she officially parted ways with Island Def Jam and began her career, in earnest, as a bonafide songwriter. Jenna’s been winning with it so far, thanks to collaborations with R&B vets like Tamia and Marsha Ambrosius, pop stars like Jessie J and newbies like Tori Kelly and Toronto duo Majid Jordan (all links to songs she’s written).
Spending time with Jenna at her TriBeCa home in New York City, it’s clear she’s in better spirits. Positive energy and success do that. Watch the video to find out how she’s come this far and see why country group The Band Perry might make her a go-to songwriter by year’s end. From the looks of how she’s dancing in this here Instagram post, the music’s jammin’.
If there’s one thing being in the music business as a journalist or simply roaming New York City streets for nearly eight years now as a resident has taught me, it’s that there are so many talented people in this world. Waiting for the L train at the Metropolitan Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn always means catching a song or two from a guitarist, plucking and wailing for lunch money—if not selling a CD. They’re almost always good, certainly worth pulling out my iPod earbuds to steal a listen before I’m off to the next stop. The transit gems are endless. And then there are umpteen other acts publicists and record labels pitch to me over emails or at events daily, with double the skill. But the odds are against them.
About four years ago a publicist from Roc Nation—Jay Z’s then management company (and now also a full-fledged record label)—asked that I come to see a fledgling star: Bridget Kelly. A bunch of editors, bloggers and industry types were invited to their Sony Records hub to listen to her Every Girl EP. It was promising, featuring songs like the Frank Ocean-penned “Thinkin Bout You” (he’d eventually keep it as his own) and others that showcased her vocal prowess. The combo of skill and that good ol’ “…and Jay Z likes her!” endorsement seemed like an easy sell. She’d even been the lone lady on Jay’s Blueprint 3 tour, the nightly highlight being that she could blow like Alicia Keys during “Empire State of Mind.” Thousands saw her sing every evening they saw arguably (it’s a dumb argument, by the way) the greatest rapper of our time rhyme on arena stages. You’d assume she blew up, right? Nah. She has not. Yet.
Last week (April 24), I met up with Bridget at Smash Studios in New York City, rehearsing for a concert. Kelly’s no longer on Roc Nation, but she’s trucking along nonetheless. NYC’s littered with dreamers who will never achieve theirs. It’s a chilling truth. Bridget’s hanging on to hers tight, though. After things with the Roc crumbled, she regrouped as a confident independent artist and now she’s working on her debut album, All or Nothing. It’s a project helmed by her small, efficient team and production duo Da Internz, who have crafted hits for Rihanna, Big Sean and more. The ones she belted out during rehearsal, then the following day at Manhattan College for a packed gym of newly converted believers are both hearty and emotional, exploring all facets of love—whether she’s happily in it or singing about breaking someone else’s spirits (”Really Meant to Love You”).
I picked Bridget as a subject, because I’m a fan. Here’s hoping that even more people get to hear what she has to offer and that her dreams are fully realized. When I see people with her kind of talent and drive, I hope they never park.
The courage to leave comfort and pursue a dream is not an attribute most are gifted with. Fortunately, Naima Ramos-Chapman’s got a good bit. After feeling drained by the conventional workplace environment at a Washington, D.C. think tank, she decided to jet back home to New York City in 2013 to pursue a career as an actress.
“I always stuck out pretty badly,” says Naima of her time as an employee at the Center for American Progress. It’s easy to imagine, considering she’s a slim Black and Puerto Rican mix with long curls sprouting from her 5′ 11” frame. She’s far from a stiff.
Ramos-Chapman attended the Ailey School for dance theater during her teenage years and, as she exhibits in the latest He Tells Stories profile, hasn’t at all lost her ability to become one with music.
“Lovin’ me is complicated.” It’s a Kendrick Lamar line from “Alright,” a song from his sophomore album To Pimp a Butterfly that dropped a few weeks back. The cut’s been on loop here for more than an hour at Ambika “Ambi 67” Lewis’ Brooklyn home studio where the craftsman makes her art, tactful images of broken hearts. They’re shattered pieces of the love muscle that are agonizingly just close enough to be pieced together. So why aren’t they?
Well, as the song goes, Lewis too is complicated. The New York native is the child of a paranoid schizophrenic mother, which made for a bit of a twisted upbringing—one that still challenges her self-worth, how she receives love, but also has spun her into a search for greater meaning in spirituality thanks to extensive reading of books from Carl Sagan and the like.
Lately Ambi’s been working with razor blades, adding an even deeper meaning to her jigsaw-like “Hearts in Pieces” series. Like most, she’s still figuring it all out—herself and the art that lines her studio walls. But it’s all serving as inspiration for her thoughtful pieces. Sometimes the cure for a busy mind is a creative outlet. Ambika’s found her’s, which is good sign that she’ll be alright.