DJ Captain Charles
For someone who never thought he’d be involved with music, Charles Leach is the captain of his ship.
Leach, known to his New Orleans followers as DJ Captain Charles, has been in the DJ-ing game for close to 20 years now, purely by a series of events that happened by chance.
“I wanted to either be a cop, a teacher, a cowboy; not a DJ,” he says. “That’s not one of the things I ever dreamed of being.”
A native of the Magnolia and Uptown area, Leach got his self-taught DJ career started when he used to spin during intermission at all the talent shows at Booker T. Washington. He started off trying to sing in an R&B group, Unique, and he would emcee between the acts of the show. As he stood behind the booth full of old cassettes and vinyl records, a tall skinny young man proudly sporting a captain’s hat, his look earned him the name Captain Charles.
From there, he traveled to LSU to play fraternity and sorority events and homecoming with one turntable and borrowed albums. Straight out of high school, Captain Charles was asked to play at his first club, Two Brothers, which used to be on Magazine. There was only one setback with his fist gig.
“The woman from the club was Cuban,” he says with a smile. “She wanted me to play a mix Latin and American music. I already learned the old stuff from my mom, but [Latin] was a new experience for me.”
Trudging along the DJ scene in 1990s, he started being asked to play at clubs all across the city from A Touch of Class to Excalibur to Discovery, each time in front of bigger and bigger crowds. Claiming that he’s “never nervous because it comes natural,” DJ Captain Charles started DJ-ing alongside some big names thanks to Discovery, including the Ghetto Boyz, Al B. Sure and Slick Rick.
Like a retiree in a casino continuously playing the slots, Captain Charles kept winning major gigs, and one of the biggest stages he’s ever rocked was the House of Blues. He was once again playing with some big names including the Ohio Players and Brian McKnight, and he played the NFL Super Bowl Party. As a result of his popularity at the House of Blues, DJ Captain Charles was given the chance to do a radio show for the now-defunct Old School 102.9 FM and his first show landed around the time of 9/11.
“It was one of my visions to do radio, but I wanted to do radio my way,” he says.
From there, promoters of his House of Blues dance parties thought it would be a good idea to move the show to Bally’s Casino hoping to open the crowds up for a wider audience, which is exactly what they did. Pretty soon, Captain Charles was entertaining close to 2,000 people on a Saturday night.
“People would walk two or three blocks to dance how they want to and have a good time,” he says. “I put my personality in what I do, and people appreciate that.”
DJ Soul Sister recognizes that as an essential part of his success. “Captain Charles is a master of doing what a good DJ is supposed to do,” she says. “Make people happy. Not just play records or take requests because anyone can do that. The joy in his personality and his true love for music comes out in his song selections, his stage presence, all of that. His sets tell stories, take you on his musical journey, teach and make you feel good all at once.”
Fellow disc jockey DJ Bird discovered unexpectedly the depth of DJ Captain Charles’ connection to his audience. “Me and Captain Charles look alike,” he says. “I constantly get his fans coming up to me, asking for hugs, and wanting to talk, realizing later on that I’m not him. “But that lets me know what type of person he is, that people want to hug and kiss him because they feel like they know him.”
From Bally’s, he went to club Ambrosia and then to Harrah’s for their dance party. And by simple word of mouth advertisements, close to 1,500 people showed up to groove to the mix of Captain Charles’ old school beats that he constantly works hard to keep evolving. Needless to say, the Captain has updated his equipment from one turntable to top of the line JBL speakers with a power built-in amplifier and a MacBook to house all his playlists, making song changes as easy as pushing “shift + left” or “shift + right.” Captain Charles also tries to create a drama and fight-free atmosphere, fully aware that 90 percent of his audience is female, and wants to make them feel safe—a regimen that also includes no smoking or drinking in the booth.
“His style gives me the important reminder that when people come to see you, they want to enjoy themselves and that the DJ is in control of the situation,” DJ Soul Sister says. “When you have control and use it wisely, you have the gift to make your room positive, happy and enjoyable.”
For DJ Captain Charles, his concern for the vibe of the room extends to song choices—even when it means leaving out some guaranteed party starters. “I don’t play the explicit stuff because I want to create a certain atmosphere where people can have fun and not worry about if a shooting may happen.”
Captain Charles has developed a reputation for giving back when he can, selling CDs of his mixes with all the proceeds going to Samuel J. Green Elementary for clothes and toys for the children. He also supports other DJs in town, even giving a local DJ his old equipment to help him get back in business.
“He has been supportive to so many of the younger DJs,” DJ Soul Sister says. “He gave me the most awesome, inspiring pep talk last year before I played the Essence main stage for the first time. Prior to Essence, the largest room I’d DJ’ed for was, say, 500 people. Then I go to the Superdome which is, like, 90,000! I was so nervous. Captain Charles just told me to be myself and that he was rooting for me.”
DJ Captain Charles has packed the superlounges at Essence Festival for the past eight years, and will hopefully do the same this month. He still plays Wednesday nights at Harrah’s, and his show now airs on Old School 106.7 FM on Sunday nights live from The Perfect Fit. He has played gigs all around the country from Las Vegas and Florida to Jamaica and back to play a special party during the Inauguration week for President Barack Obama. But even though he plays nationwide, Captain Charles’ base is still here.”
“No gig is too small,” he says. “You gotta keep playing these smaller gigs to keep it real with the people.”
Lots of current R&B artists look back to the ’70s as a halcyon time, but few have cut albums as rich in the era’s feel as Ne-Yo’s. In the case of his first album, 2006’s, In My Own Words, the reasons are up front and obvious: a track like “Get Down Like That” opens with wah-wah guitar and orchestration straight out of the Curtis Mayfield-Superfly fakebook, while the title track of 2007’s Because of You is as canny a recap of Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall as anyone’s come up with. (Of course—Ne-Yo wrote it with Jackson in mind.)
But the really ’70s thing about Ne-Yo is that he is, at heart, a singer-songwriter. His 2008 album, Year of the Gentleman, openly invites those comparisons, particularly on acoustic guitar-flavored songs like “Part of the List” and “So You Can Cry”—the latter even sounds like a cousin of Joni Mitchell around the time of Court and Spark. And like the iconic Carole King, Ne-Yo also writes hits for others—most obviously Mario’s “Let Me Love You” and Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable”—itself driven by acoustic guitar—each of which spent several thousand weeks at No. 1.
Of course, Ne-Yo embraces glitz as much as he does hook-filled confessionals—dude grew up in Vegas, after all—and the fantastic debut and the fully realized Gentleman especially benefit from the interplay. (Because of You, alas, is much the lesser of the three.) He can be a little gauche lyrically, but that usually just makes him more winning, and he clearly loves inventing scenarios to inhabit: on Gentlemen, “Part of the List” ticks off what he misses about a departed lover, “Lie to Me” pleas for ignorance so acutely you know he’s already figured everything out, and “Fade into the Background” is a precisely shaded trip to the wedding of the one who got away, where slinking away and getting quietly hammered is the only logical solution.
The glitz, though, keeps on giving. The debut’s hits, “So Sick,” “When You’re Mad,” and “Sexy Love,” all presented Ne-Yo as cute in a few different ways, and while his recent bid for maturity is a successful one, The Year of the Gentleman still resonates in large part thanks to floor-fillers like “Closer” and “Nobody.” And he’s a thorough pro onstage, too: he’s got an exciting catalog, and knows how to get a crowd going.
Up and coming hip-hop starlet Janelle Monáe has spent the afternoon on a tightrope—literally. She has one in her Atlanta studio, Wondaland Records, and she goes to it to relax.
Fresh from a whirlwind of summer gigs including Bonnaroo and several shows with Erykah Badu, who Monáe calls her Wonder Twin, Monáe is now preparing for the upcoming release of her next album. She rocketed to Internet fame with her first solo album, the start of a four-part concept project set in Metropolis, a futuristic dystopia where androids and humans coexist. The EP Suite I: The Chase follows the adventures of Cindi Mayweather, described as, “a phenomenal, brilliant android on the run for her freedom because she has fallen in love with a human, robo-billionaire, Anthony Greenwood.” It all sounds like comic book exposition, but it works. The sound is a mix of hip-hop, soul, funk and pop, reminiscent of Gnarls Barkley or Outkast (she worked with Big Boi on Idlewild). The album balances on “Violet Stars Happy Hunting!!!” and “Many Moons,” two magnetic tracks that showcase Monáe’s soulful, brassy vocals in an up-tempo, stylized funk.
With the next installments, Monáe says fans can look forward to new developments in the saga, with the introduction of a new character, the mythical arc-android, who may lead the enslaved androids of Metropolis to freedom. She adds, “People will get the chance to understand the world better, this give it more color.”
The singer was born in Kansas City but now lives in Atlanta, where she collaborates with likeminded musicians at her independent studio, Wondaland Records. It’s not just about the music for Monáe who, along with her producers, Chuck Lightning and Nate Wonder, create on a cinematic scope that branches into other including graphic novels, short films and fashion.
Creativity, though, requires a kind of musical isolation. “When I’m working on my songs or my art, I’m very careful about my intake with music,” she says. “I don’t listen to certain things or go to certain performances because when I want to make a recording, the ideas will come to me from what I’ve already learned.” She does, however, allow the influence of art and literature, lately finding inspiration in the work of surrealist painter Salvador Dali. “I find that by looking at the colors and the dimension and depth in the art of Salvador Dali, I can create music. I hear sound in the colors.” When asked about her motivation, she sweetly defers, “Just tryin’ to expand my little mind.”
This will be Monáe’s first trip to New Orleans and Essence Fest, and she is looking forward to exploring the city and catching Anita Baker at the festival. “I’m ready for my first New Orleans experience” says the singer excitedly. For now, though, she has to get back to the tightrope.
The best thing anybody has written of Maxwell’s April-issued single, “Pretty Wings,” comes from a comments box. On an Okayplayer posting about the track, Maxwell’s first new song in eight years, a commenter named aliciaisbrown wrote, “I think I just got pregnant.” That sums it up nicely—both the deeply sexy appeal of “Pretty Wings,” and the overall sense of anticipation he’s riding right now.
Maxwell exploded out of the gate with 1996’s Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, one of the decade’s defining R&B albums. It was an incredibly smooth piece of work, especially for a 23-year-old first-timer. It was clearly the work of someone with a serious Marvin Gaye fixation: working with Gaye collaborators Leon Ware and Wah Wah Watson, as well as Sade cohort Stuart Matthewman, Maxwell became an instant icon, as well as placing in the front ranks of what would soon be termed “neo-soul.” 1998’s Embrya, with its sci-fi-meets-academic-conference titles (try “Gestation: Mythos/Everwanting: To Want You To Want,” or “Each Hour Each Second Each Minute Each Day: Of My Life”) and adventurous instrumentation, put off some listeners, but in 1999 Maxwell’s recording of the R. Kelly-penned slow jam “Fortunate” was (deservedly) the biggest R&B hit of the year. 2001’s Now was the New Yorker’s most professional yet, and it seemed that Maxwell was settling into a comfortable groove. Then zip for nearly a decade.
He’s making up for lost time. July 7 sees the issue of BLACKsummer’snight, the first of a mooted trilogy to be completed in 2010 by BlackSUMMER’Snight and 2011 by Blacksummer’sNIGHT. And the two singles that have preceded the new album are enough to get even a casual fan excited. “Pretty Wings” is the showstopper, a rich, sumptuous, surprising (the fuzzy gamelan that kicks the track off is an eccentric but completely apt instrumental touch), and compelling piece of work, maybe Maxwell’s greatest record yet, communicating longing and resignation so sweetly you’d swear he wants the woman he’s singing to back this second. “Bad Habits” feels more like the kind of sprawling, Latin-touched, lyrically-oriented material Earth, Wind & Fire was opening heads with in the mid-’70s. The secret weapon in each are horns that sneak in midway through and then work their way up front, where they belong along with the singer. Live, it ought to be something else.
“The life of Raphael Saadiq has been one of quiet struggle,” a female voice announces during “Doing What I Can” on 2002’s Instant Vintage. “Raphael is an ancient and future brother, unconventional, doing things his way and doing it well.” The voice enters almost a minute into Saadiq’s approximation of the Love Unlimited Orchestra and strikes the central notes in Raphael Saadiq’s post-Tony! Toni! Toné! career as he invokes great moments in soul history while raising the question, “Who is Raphael Saadiq?” He’s sure not a Tony, and he’s not even Raphael Saadiq. He was born Charlie Ray Wiggins. Can we trust the woman who also introduces him as the architect of “gospel-delic,” a genre that scarcely exists, even on the album?
In 2004, the backing singers try to straighten us out. “His name is Ray Ray,” they tell us at the start of the album by the same name. Ray Ray is presented as if it were the soundtrack to a blaxploitation film that didn’t exist—one starring Saadiq. On it, he’s introduced as “an Oakland rider / making money in L.A.,” and he invites listeners to consider what—if anything—is real. He is from Oakland, after all. Is his use of female backing vocalists a reference to Isaac Hayes and blaxploitation soundtracks? What about the invocation of psychedelia (“I Know Shuggie Otis”)? The language of violence (“Rifle Love”)? Social concern (“Grown Folks”)? And where in the network of possible references is Saadiq?
Even as Ray Ray plays hide and seek with its roots, Saadiq seems to be exploring his place in soul history by restaging it, whether as an artist or producer, creating a contemporary version of late ’60s soul on Introducing Joss Stone in 2007.
He immerses himself most completely in a previous era’s sound on last year’s The Way I See It, his close approximation of Motown and Philly soul. He doesn’t wink at his roots on it; he commits to them and successfully writes in the mode of Smokey Robinson, Holland-Dozier-Holland and Curtis Mayfield (the latter on the Impressions-lite “Love That Girl”). This time around, Saadiq the drummer and Saadiq the bass player sync up in classic Motown style, and you have to listen to the fringes of the music for a non-period keyboard or a guitar part that Saadiq the guitarist plays that’s anachronistic. You have to have a keen eye to recognize his suit as retro fashion (or you have to check out his Web site, where he celebrates cool clothes including new shoes made with classic styles in mind. It’s telling that he links to the site for Retrosuperfuture, a hip sunglasses company.).
In Saadiq’s orbit, everybody gets into the identity game. The Rebirth Brass Band are indistinguishable from a ’60s soul horn section on “Big Easy,” Saadiq’s post-Katrina song which starts by half-quoting Marvin Gaye when he sings with barely controlled anxiety, “Somebody tell me / what’s going wrong.” Rather than try to address the scope of Katrina’s devastation, he scales it down to what matters most: “I ain’t seen my baby / in far too long.” He brings to mind Motown’s socially conscious period, and like “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” he makes the storm a drama not about issues but people struggling to hang on to each other.
On “Big Easy,” Saadiq mutes the identity question. Whether he’s a pastiche artist, a committed post-modernist, or the slyest trickster going, his systematic testing of history’s wardrobe pays off because it’s the first occasion when he upstages his forerunners. He doesn’t go po-faced or slow the tempo to hint at the sad truth coming; “Big Easy” is one of the best dance tracks on the album, along with “100 Yard Dash,” driven by handclaps and tambourines. He also aspires to do more than hold up the mirror of hard truth for his people; he’s revealing a national tragedy with a gravity Motown never reached, maybe never had the nerve to go for.
Not even Gaye could have imagined looking for your love with bodies floating in the streets.