There is a moment towards the end the track “Baby Mama Drama”, the lead single from Dave Hollister’s debut solo recording Ghetto Hymns in which the singer pauses and reflects out loud “somebody out there knows what I’m talking about”, which is then punctured with a soulful cry “can I get a witness?” No longer than 15 or 20 seconds, Hollister’s closing riff served to encapsulate the ambitions of the project. With Ghetto Hymns Hollister made a blatant attempt to covey the “gospel” of the ghetto — a streetwise ghettocentric spirituality if you will.
Hollister took seriously his connection to the worlds of the storefront churches that have historically been so important to the development of the music we simply call “Soul”, and of the black working poor of Chicago that Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, documents in his new ethnography American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto. Rest assured, as Bone, Thugs and Harmony so brilliantly portrayed in their song “Crossroads” and fellow Chi-town native R. Kelly consistently reminds us, even “Thug Niggas” need to get on their knees and pray once and awhile to the creator. Hollister who began his career in the recording industry singing back-up for the likes of gospel diva Vanessa Bell Armstrong and Mary J. Blige and achieved some visibility as the distinctive lead of the first incarnation of Teddy Riley’s Blackstreet (see “Before I Let You Go”). Ghetto Hymns attempted to parlay Hollister’s street credibility by collaborating with Def Squad icons Erick Sermon (EPMD) and the “blunted on the regla” Redman; Sermon served as one of the project’s executive producers.
But the closing couplets of “Baby Mama Drama”, was not simply a gesture to the black gospel traditions but a very subtle acknowledgement of the influence of Donny Hathaway on Hollister’s artistry. Often during his performances Hathaway would pull back and state “ya’ll don’t know what I’m talking about”. Hathaway’s performance on “Thank You Master for My Soul” from Everything Is Everything is the best example as he sings “Thank you master that the walls of my room, were not the walls of my grave. My bed was not my cooling board. Ya’ll don’t know what I’m talking about!” Hollister’s “somebody our there knows what I’m talking about” was a brilliant revision of that theme, employing the African-American practice of “testifyin'” to reflect on what he feels was a commonly shared experience with “Baby Mama Drama”. Hollister, whose minister father was a friend of the late soul singer, acknowledges his homage to Hathaway in the linear notes. But it is in a photo inside the CD booklet where Hollister is pictured strolling down the middle of Harlem’s 125th Street — the historic mecca of African-American cultural and political life — wearing a replica of Hathaway’s signature apple jack cap that the late Soul singer’s influence on the young artist is most visibly conveyed. The cap, a Soul era staple of pre-Ghetto-fab style, was not unlike the ones that Hathaway adorned in the cover photo for Everything Is Everything or in the facial sketch that appears on the brilliant Extension of a Man. Needless to say it was an acknowledgment that was lost on most of the audiences that banged the damn near misogynistic “Baby Mama Drama”, “My Favorite Girl”, and Hollister’s stirring remake of Michael MacDonald’s “I Keep Forgetting”, from their urban surface vehicles.
I mention the Hathaway connection as a way to highlight Hollister’s sense of his own artistry. Where the sheer popularity of Soul era musical icons have led wannabe male R&B singers to desire to be the next Al Green, Teddy Pendergrass, Charlie Wilson and most profoundly Marvin Gaye, Hollister found his muse in an idiosyncratic and eccentric artist whose brilliant musical eclecticism has been largely obscured by his chart topping duets with Roberta Flack (“Where Is the Love?” and “The Closer I Get to You”) and his inspirational, though fairly conventional — by Hathaway’s standards — second tier standard “Someday We’ll All Be Free”. In other words Hollister does not seem solely driven by moving units, but presenting an artistry that “keeps it real” while getting at the humanity of contemporary urban experiences. Hollister continues this theme on his follow-up recording Chicago ’85…the Movie.
Chicago ’85 was initially conceived as an opportunity for Hollister to share his experiences coming up in Chicago. The recording’s lead single “One Woman Man” talks about his chance meeting with a former lover — one in which he shared carnal passions — but it also is a song in which Hollister affirms his current devotion to “wifey”. According to Hollister, as the project progressed it became less about nostalgia and small remembrances and instead became an opportunity for him to openly acknowledge the joy and stability that has come with a renewed commitment to his wife and family. For Hollister this means an excavation of the emotions that come with domestic struggles and the tensions that fame and fortune bring to relationships that are, quite frankly, already destabilized given the tensions of urban life. Tracks such as the simply mesmerizing ballad “We’ve Come Too Far” and “Take Care of Home” speak to those tensions in lucid and compelling ways.
With “Doin’ Wrong”, a song that he co-wrote with Bad Boy/Hitmen refugee Chucky Thompson, Hollister acknowledges his own complicity in his troubles. The song, with its brooding sanctified energy, serves as a pulpit confessional, where Hollister’s own failings were prophesized by his mother (“Momma always told me I would be just like my father. Sleep just like him, creep just like him, cheat just like him, be just like him”). Perhaps attempting to provide some semblance of penance for “Baby Mama Drama”, “Yo Baby’s Daddy” finds Hollister reversing the tables and singing about the attempt by the “baby daddy”, to bring drama to the “baby mama” and her new boyfriend. The project is bookended by the interlude and full length version of the gorgeous “I’m Not Complete”. The song is one of two tracks — the other is the stuttering “On the Side” — that was written by newcomer Tank.
In interviews Hollister has acknowledged the critical debates that have taken place regarding his influences. Some critics have claimed that his style was most noticeably indebted to that of Gerald Levert. Hollister’s claim that Levert’s “Taking Everything” is a riff off of “Baby Mama Drama” is ultimately hollow since Levert’s Love and Consequences (1998) was released a full year before Ghetto Hymns. But a quick survey of new artists such as Jaheim and the aforementioned Tank, whose respective debut recordings GhettoLove and Force of Nature will be released in March, and The Transitions (another Michael Bivens project) confirms the influence that Hollister and his Ghetto Hymns have had on the field of male R&B vocalists. In this regard, as Ghetto Hymns was an attempt by Hollister to break free of his past in Blackstreet (“Back on Blackstreet sh*t was sweet, but now I’m ‘so-lo’…), Chicago ’85…the Movie is an attempt, a successful one I might add, by Hollister to distance himself from the legion of wannabes R&B crooners that he inspired with “Baby Mama Drama”.