Dionne Farris (formerly of Arrested Development) - "I Know"

Settle down class! Welcome to Hip-Hop 101 for White People.

Now, we're preparing to do one of these hackneyed blog posts where I pretend to be a teacher in a classroom and you are my students. This is an easy (read: lazy) way to try to teach readers about something potentially boring without boring them to death.

Today's topic of discussion is one Dionne Farris.

Student: Sir, is that the athlete?

Funny you should ask, Dudley. I'm afraid not. That's Deion Sanders aka Neon Deion aka Prime Time. Although he did have a brief career in hip-hop, so I suppose the confusion isn't completely insane, just mildly so.

Student: Oh. My name's Doug, by the way.

Did you just correct me? Do you have brain damage? Get out. Take your books. Don't come back. Insolence will not be tolerated.

Now that that matter is settled. Let us go back to the days when hip-hop was still a means of educating the youth. The days when hip-hop was seen as a way to speak to all races about social issues. Let us go back to the early 1990s.

Around 1992, hip-hop was still finding its place fitting into the mainstream. Gangsta rap was coming in from the coasts in the form of Dr. Dre, Tupac, etc., but it hadn't yet reached the masses on the levels it soon would. We were out of the age of Run DMC and Grandmaster Flash had pop-rappers like MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice and co.--guys who had no street cred whatsoever and were basically trading in on a cartoon version of hip-hop. We had party rappers like Naughty By Nature who just wanted to have a good time. But, in the end, white people still weren't quite sure what to make of these tight rhythms and well-spun rhymes. The future of hip-hop was up for grabs, and for a minute there, it could have gone several ways, one of the ways being a slightly groovier, less violent and more socially conscious (albeit less cartoonishly entertaining) type of hip-hop.

Enter Arrested Development.

Student: Arrested Development? I love that show!
No, you fool. Not that Arrested Development (look forward to the movie coming 2035!).

This Arrested Development.

The hip-hop group that was socially and racially conscious while still being catchy and entertaining, they were the musical equivalent to an early Spike Lee or John Singleton "message" movie that were popular around the same time. White people could listen to this group and actually enjoy the music and only feel guilty when the lyrics told them to. Perfect.

The Atlanta, GA based group came along in 1992--a time when socially conscious hip-hop stars dressed in traditional African clothing--instead of baseball caps and hoodies--could still be featured prominently on MTV. They were part of a loose genre dubbed "alternative hip-hop." This was back when anything that contained socially redeeming qualities and didn't appeal to the lowest common denomniator was dubbed "alternative." Alternative hip-hop was a fresh take on the already tired use of heavy drum and bass typically used in hardcore and gangsta rap. The music combined influences from folk, funk, jazz, reggae, and even post-punk. The production was often influenced by DJs, sampling decidedly uncool artists like Hall & Oates, Steely Dan, and Johnny Cash among others, utilizing them more for fills than samples or hooks. Critics have likened the struggle between alternative hip-hop and gangsta rap as vaguely congruous to the rock world's tug-of-war between alternative rock and glam metal--except in this case, the alt. hip-hop community never birthed a Kurt Cobain to save the day from the likes of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. Some of these artists experienced momentary success--individuals like De La Soul and Del Tha Funkee Homosapien and groups like Digital Underground. However, it should be noted that the success of those groups was (unfortunately) mostly in a novelty capacity with nonsense party songs like "Mistadobalina" and "The Humpty Dance."

Arrested Development, on the other hand, did something Behind the Music would refer to as "sweeping the nation," first with "Tennessee" and then with their follow-up, "Mr. Wendal," a song that had the capacity to at once make you hum along and bob your head while simultaneously making you feel like shit for ignoring that crazy homeless guy yelling at you every time you pass him on the way to work. They were serious artists and tackled serious issues. Spike Lee was so impressed with the group that he asked them to write a song for his 1992 biopic Malcolm X.

"Tennessee," "Mr. Wendal" and a third single, "People Everyday," all hit the top ten and helped their debut 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life Of... sell 4 million copies. Everyone just had to have that cassette, man. Sam Goody sold out of that shit with the quickness. In 1993, AD won multiple Grammys, and were held in high regard as the future of hip-hop--a hip-hop that wasn't appealing to the lowest common denominator and was informing youth, instead of just scaring the shit out of them. Then they made a second album, 1994's Zingalamaduni, but their style of music was already mostly out of fashion, and despite going gold, failed to reach expectations. In 1996, the group broke up.

But not all of them. Dionne Farris--the group's female vocalist--who had made quite a splash with her contributions to AD's album--particularly "Tennessee," left the group before their second album. And despite the mellow vibes present in AD's music, it's interesting to note that she actually left the vibes between Farris and the rest of the group weren't quite so groovy (could I be whiter?).

After working as a young singer in New Jersey and Manhattan (and enjoyed a brief stint with the female vocal group Onyx), Farris moved to Atlanta to live with her father in 1990 and started dating Arrested Development's drummer. The group was looking for a female voice for their songs and Farris obliged them. While Farris' role in Arrested Development was a bit of a gray area (she wasn't considered an official member) the attention she got from the press and fans created strife between she and AD front man Speech. Farris, seeing the writing on the wall and an opportunity, left the group and set to work on a solo career.

Though offered a deal with Arrested Development's record label, Farris rejected it in favor of one that might offer her more creative freedom. Wrangling a team of musicians and songwriting partners from the Atlanta-based band Follow For Now, Farris recorded a demo tape. The tape made its way to the desk of Sony executives who then signed her to a deal.

The album, Wild Seed -- Wild Flower was a delightful and serious take on everything that influenced Farris--r&b, soul, folk, blues, rock, and hip-hop. The album was critically acclaimed for its diversity and blending of styles--not to mention Farris's vocal prowess.

The single, "I Know," was a good representative of the album's sound--rootsy but modern, looking back to old styles while looking ahead to new ones, melding rock, folk and blues with soul and hip-hop. The song juxtaposes a dirty blues slide guitar riff with a hip-hop sensibility--at once taking what she learned in Arrested Development and expounding on it.

The song was a massive hit, playing on nearly every station format everywhere in 1995, peaking at #4 on the Hot 100 and #1 on the Top 40. It was even a world wide hit, charting high in Australia, New Zealand and France and hitting #41 in the UK. The song was ranked #11 on Billboard's year end Hot 100 list.

Farris appeared on Saturday Night Live and the song was used on that show New York Undercover which was an inexplicable hit for about five minutes. Later, Harris released two more singles from the album, "Don't Ever Touch Me Again" and "Passion," neither of which charted.

"Don't Ever Touch Me Again" is a pretty standard and good choice for a second single, as its one of the poppier tracks on a CD that is heavy on R&B and soul. It's different enough from "I Know" to show that the hit wasn't a fluke, but catchy enough to connect with the same audience. A mid-tempo, moody track, "Touch Me Again" moves along at a clip with wah-wah guitar, percussive strings and a catchy chorus. Granted, it's not as good as "I Know"--the set of verses aren't quite on par with the killer pre-chorus or chorus. It's slightly surprising the track didn't at least chart, as it's a fine slice of mid-'90s R&B pop. But few songs can possess the energy and catchiness of "I Know" without being supremely annoying.

"Passion" (co-written by Harris, unlike "I Know") oscillates between a neo-soul song on the verses and a hard-rocking--Living Colour-style metal, really--song on the chorus. It's an interesting, schizo dynamic, and a unique song, but ultimately lacks the pop hooks to be a mainstream hit like "I Know" or even "Don't Ever Touch Me Again." Ultimately it's a weak second stab at a follow-up.

Unsurprisingly, the album didn't sell as well as the single, and only got up to #57 on the album charts. It's always a revealing statistic when people don't really buy the album--it's like they somehow know that while they really dig the song, the album probably won't tickle their pickle.

Student: Um, sir?

Yes, Sharon?

Student: Did you just say "tickle their pickle"? I think that's sexual harassment.

Why, yes it is, Sharon. Yes it is. Moving on.

Her second and final hit came from a song called "Follow," a track that appeared on the highly popular Love Jones soundtrack in 1997 (Larenz Tate 4ever!).

The track did well on the charts, although there is no concrete information on the information superhighway as to what number it actually reached (her website describes it as "chart-topping"). Sorry. :-(

Student: Is that an emoticon, sir?

And what of it? I would suggest you ignore my stranger proclivities if you know what's good for you, Oliver.

Student: It's Andy.


Let's continue. As the album was quite good and filled with engaging tracks, one naturally wants to look for the fatal flaw that only allowed the singer one hit--albeit one monster hit.

So what was it? Too much political commentary? Not really--the album was more introspective than political. Was Farris not good looking enough? Not showing enough skin? Well, by today's standards, probably not, but this was 1994 when people who didn't get buck naked and bend over for the camera could still be successful. The album had great songs, great production, everything.

The problem? Randy Jackson.

Student: You mean the American Idol judge? He's so nice. I love when he calls people "dawg!"

WRONG. He's evil.

I'm evil, dawg

Jackson served as "Executive Producer" on Wild Seed--Wild Flower. How could he have brought it down, you ask? The answer is, don't ask. You just know. You look at Jackson with his Jackson brand bass painted like a craps table and his casino themes pleather jacket that would look tacky on a Nascar track and that gravity defying two-foot flattop upon his head..you just look at all that and you know nothing but pure evil is pumping through his veins. By aligning herself with such evil, Ms. Farris never had a chance to go beyond wherever Jackson would allow her. If you look closely at the video for "Follow," you can see him sitting there with his bass, laughing like he can't wait to pawn this poor woman's soul.

Maybe some of that is true, maybe none of that is true (editor's note: none of it is true), but let's just agree that Dionne Farris could have done a duty for one Ruben Studdard and warned him about the true evil that lurked behind those glasses.

Following a twelve year hiatus, during which Farris gave birth and took time off to raise a child, she released a new album in 2007, For Truth If Not Love, which unfortunately seems to have stayed under the radar.

Dionne, if you're reading. You know who's responsible.

Yo. Class dismissed, dawgs.

Student: Did you call us "dawgs"?

Yes. And not one of you vomited. You all fail. Get out of my sight, cretins.

The First Single: Dionne Farris - I Know
The Second (er...Fourth?) Single: Dionne Farris - Hopeless