Long live New jack swing. Teddy Riley’s old stomping grounds have been invaded by SassyBlack, the alter-ego of San Francisco-born, Washington-bred, Catherine Harris-White. You probably recognize Sassy as one half of currently defunct Seattle rap duo THEESatisfaction, but the songwriter has stepped out from the Sub Pop shadow and has re-emerged as a wonderfully interesting solo artist.
New Black Swing is Sassy’s second solo release, following No More Weak Dates in 2016. To hear Sassy tell it, New Black Swing is more personal, more direct, more swinging. Sassy’s upped her game on this record, an assured ode to New jack swing without getting bogged down by the sub-genre’s monstrous history. We catch up with her over the phone to discuss nervousness before performing, following in the footsteps of MJ and Prince, and baby making music. —Will Schube
This is your second solo record. Is there anything you learned while making the first that you either wanted to reinforce or do away with this time around?
SassyBlack:Yeah, it’s still kind of shocking any time I put out a record. You know, once I finish it, once the tracks are done. With the second album, I wanted to focus in on telling different types of stories, where every song tells a different sort of story. I guess it’s not as metaphorical as my last record. It doesn’t deal with the same space-y, unknown things. It’s communicating more familiar sounds.
Is there a particular reason why you wanted to be more direct with this record?
SassyBlack:I wanted to see if I could make something that has a New jack swing, ‘90s, R&B feel. I just wanted to get into the chord progressions, the language, the way the topic of the languages speak. I just wanted to experiment to see if I could do it because I’ve done so much new music over the years, it all sounds kind of different. I wanted to see if I could make the album I’ve been trying to make for a really long time.
You said you’re always surprised when you’re done with a record. Is it a struggle or a long process for you to finish projects?
SassyBlack:I wouldn’t say it’s a long process because it’s more of a quality thing. I make a lot of songs all the time so I have a lot of options. I have a hard time figuring what should go where because all my songs, if you combine them different ways, could make different projects. My struggle is trying to figure out, if I’m making an album about a topic or idea—which I did with this album—the issue comes in putting it together.
Did basing it on this New jack swing idea help you streamline the process?
What about New jack swing was so appealing for you to play around with for your album?
SassyBlack:I’ve been listening to New jack swing for all of my life. It’s pretty familiar to me, so I wanted to see if I could create a thing that sounds similar while at the same time sounding like me. I didn’t want it to be like, ‘Oh, she did a New jack swing album and it sounds like a bunch of covers.’ It took me a while to think about it to make sure I did it justice.
Did you ever find yourself being derivative while paying homage?
SassyBlack:At first I was just nervous. I wanted to emulate certain records and put the pieces in certain places. It’s like any language. Music is its own language. And each section has its own language. Then in the subsection you have to figure out how to communicate it. It took a second. I had to practice making music every day. I was making beats everyday trying to get that sound. I probably made 20 beats and only nine made it. It took a little bit of time to find what my sound was within that.
But I already knew that if you know the basics, you just have to apply yourself to it. If you know the outline, you’re good. It’s like having a conversation. If I know the language, then all I have to do is handcraft this conversation. It took a while to know the language of New jack swing with drums, drum sounds, key sounds, and key patterns. Then, I added my little flair—or, my big flair—to it.
Were you writing before you figured out that this was the direction you wanted to head?
SassyBlack:I went in knowing I wanted the New jack swing. I’ve been trying to do it for a couple of years. I listened to Bobby Brown, New Edition, stuff like that. I was probably listening to one of their records at the time. I was like, ‘I wanna try this.’ I tried but I wasn’t as confident as a producer. This time around I was like, ‘Okay, you’ve tried this before. Why did you stop? Let’s try this again.’ There were a lot of good feelings around the record that went into it, so I decided to focus on those. Then I started producing songs that I felt would be good for the record.
You’ve done a lot of work with Ish Butler from Digable Planets and Shabazz Palaces. What is it like to be encouraged by him, and eventually to work with him?
SassyBlack:It’s an honor. It’s really cool. I never imagined—like ever [laughs]. I didn’t know he’s from here [Seattle], either. It’s some bizarre, bizarre stuff. It helped me a lot. I love the music that I’ve made with Ish and Shabazz. It’s super special and I’ve had the opportunity to perform with them, going on tour, which was great. It’s just super surreal, is what it comes down to. There are a number of times artists are like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, what’s going on here?’ Sometimes I gotta remind myself I’m good and I’m fine, and he’s one of the things on my list to help me remind myself I’m good at what I do.
A lot of the new record is extremely vulnerable. Was it difficult to get to a place where you felt comfortable putting some of these thoughts out into the world?
SassyBlack:Yeah. It was super difficult at first. I was like, ‘Okay. Writing lyrics. Writing lyrics. What’s coming to my mind first? Oh those are the words you’re going with…Okay…That’s, interesting. Are you sure? We can write anything.’ I’m my own coach and hype woman inside my head. I’m always like, ‘You sure you wanna go there? You’re gonna have to say that onstage in front of people.’ I was just like, ‘Why not?’
I was thinking about the musicians who inspire me and different musicians that took risks. I was thinking about certain things, topics with coded terminology. I decided to just do it and try and see how it goes. It’s been an evolution, a growing process to do this. I guess every project is kind of like a growing process.
Do you get nervous about how people will receive your music?
SassyBlack:Yeah I get nervous all the time. I think this is the record I’m the least nervous about. I don’t know why, but I can kind of feel with my intuition how a project is gonna go. When I think about Quincy Jones or Michael Jackson or Prince, they could feel when that music was right for them to release. That’s why when they passed—well Quincy’s alive, and he must have so much music. Michael Jackson and Prince have locked away vaults because they have so much music that’s like, ‘No, that’s not the stuff that you should hear.’ The stuff that they released was the feeling they were going for, and the stuff they knew would hit. They also watched the trends.
For myself, I learned from them to watch the trends but stay true to myself, just like they did. I can hear when something’s complete, and when people are gonna feel it, because of how I’m doing my research.
I feel like Pharrell has it, Teddy Riley has it. Some people have that ear and they’re like, this is when a project is done. They know at what rate people are gonna digest it at, and they know which songs are gonna really change things. This album for me, because I worked so hard to have a certain kind of sound that people could feel, I knew that it would bring up a sincere feeling of familiarity and nostalgia. It’s also kind of new, though. This is my least nerve-racking record because of energy like this and conversations like this where I’m able to express the things I’ve been thinking about for a long time.
There’s a really fine line between keeping an eye on the trends and staying true to yourself.
SassyBlack:I’m pretty mindful of that. That’s why I make so much music and do so many releases. I want to write songs for people and I want to produce for folks so I know that I have to build myself up as an artist. That’s the best tactic. I don’t have a cool management team or a publishing team that’s gonna put me on to some artist. I have to work hard enough so maybe I’ll find those people.
I’m trying to be intentional in the sense that each project I release is a challenge. I’m just challenging myself to become a better producer, a better songwriter, in whatever capacity that means to me. For my next record that might just sound like movie trailers or sci-fi soundscapes or a disco album [laughs]. It’s because I’m trying to push myself to see what I can do with the focus I have and the energy I have. Sometimes what’s more challenging is making something that’s palatable to a larger audience. And that’s its own journey without it being selling out. Being able to research the science of trends in music and how things change over time—that’s its own magical thing. That’s what I’m into.
Do you think you’re at a point where audiences perceive you as your own artist as opposed to one half of THEESatisfaction?
SassyBlack:On stage it’s a lot easier for me. I think people are starting to embrace it. Walking down the street, it’s kind of hard to miss me. I have a red flattop [laughs]. They’re like, ‘Sassy!,’ and I’m like, ‘Cool it.’ Things like that. I think it’s happening and it’s really exciting.
You talk about this record being all about vibes. What vibes are you going for?
SassyBlack:I’m looking for sensual vibes, chill energy, romantic, satirical—I love to goof around. I just want people to be able to feel when they listen to this record, no matter what that feeling may be. I want people to dance and groove. I was trying to make baby making music, too. I don’t often try to do that but I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s see if we could do a song that could make some babies.’ We’ll see…If I’m lucky.