The Origin Story of D’Angelo

Chris Williams

Chris Williams is a Virginia-based writer whose work has appeared…

On July 3, 1995, D’Angelo released his game-changing debut album Brown Sugar. We spoke with some of the figures who shaped the beginnings of D’Angelo’s earth-shattering career.

Born the son of a Pentecostal minister, Michael D’Angelo Archer was destined to pursue a career in music. At the age of three, he began playing the piano by ear inside the Archer household. By five, he was playing the same instrument alongside his father, Luther Archer Sr., at his church. A few years later, he moved in with his mother and began playing piano for his grandfather Elder Linberg Cox’s Pentecostal church, Refuge Assembly Church.

During his preteen and teenage years, he began expanding his palette as a pianist and being further inspired by Prince. While continuing his development as a musician and artist, he formed a trio with his two cousins called Three of a Kind. They began winning local talent shows around Richmond, Virginia. Once he turned sixteen, he formed another band with the guidance of his eldest brother, Luther, called Michael Archer and Precise. After attracting the attention of a talent scout, he was invited to compete on Amateur Night at the Apollo. Despite not winning, he returned to the same stage a short time later and won in 1991. The monetary reward he received led to him purchasing the infamous keyboard and four-track recorder that assisted him with creating the sounds for a future album. Around the same time, he dropped out of Huguenot High School to pursue his musical passions for good. As he continued to be more influenced by hip-hop, he joined another short-lived ensemble, Intelligent, Deadly but Unique (I.D.U.), as well as working diligently on laying the musical foundation of what would become his debut album, Brown Sugar

By 1992, members from I.D.U., were in New York City at EMI Records looking for a record deal. Upon hearing the tracks of the group’s songs, record executive Jocelyn Cooper asked the group who was responsible for the music they were rapping over. Their response led to D’Angelo traveling to New York City to meet Cooper. Shortly thereafter, Cooper informed another record executive Gary Harris about the demos from I.D.U. Within the same day, Harris and Cooper became enamored with the producing and singing talents of D’Angelo after an impromptu three-hour live performance in their record offices. As a result, they signed him to a recording contract with EMI Records in 1993. A year later, one of the songs on his demo, “U Will Know,” became an instant hit. It was placed on the Jason’s Lyric movie soundtrack and performed by Black Men United, a smorgasbord of gifted R&B artists and groups. Now, the stage was set for D’Angelo to make his mark on the music industry. With contributions from Gary Harris, his brother Luther Archer, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Raphael Saadiq, and engineer Bob Power, the following year D’Angelo would strike platinum with his debut offering. On July 3, 1995, Brown Sugar was released. The record would spawn four singles: the title track, “Cruisin’,” “Lady,” and “Me and Those Dreamin’ Eyes of Mine.” 

A few months after the release of D’Angelo’s third studio effort, Black Messiah, I wanted to delve deeper into the beginnings of one of Virginia’s greatest musicians. While listening to Black Messiah, my curiosity piqued about his approach to crafting a song, as well as the artists and genres that influenced him during his formative years. Ten years ago, I was able to speak with his oldest brother, Luther Archer, regarding the creative process behind the creation of D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar. Fortunately, I reconnected with him in 2015, to learn more about he and his brother’s musical foundation and his brother’s journey of becoming an artist. Within the same year, I contacted Jocelyn Cooper and the late Gary Harris, the two pivotal figures in signing D’Angelo to a recording and publishing deal. This article features these three figures discussing their roles in shaping the beginnings of D’Angelo’s earth-shattering career and the making of his debut album.

These interviews were conducted separately in 2011 and 2015. 

When D’Angelo was three years old, you walked in on him, and he was playing the piano. It wasn’t the typical banging sounds that emanate from the hands of a normal three-year-old, but it was an actual song. Can you take me down memory lane to what it was like seeing your little brother playing songs at such a young age?

Luther Archer: I came home from school one day, and he was actually playing a song off of Prince’s self-titled album. I had never seen him get on the piano or anything like that before. I’m sure he played at some point, but when I came home and went upstairs, he was on the piano playing Prince’s song. This was well over 40 years ago. It was the first time I ever saw him play the piano. It was a full song that he played. It was specified and as good as anything else that I could’ve heard and seen back then. It was just one of those amazing type of things. I think it was a part of Michael’s language and it was something that was put in him by the Lord. 

A short time later, he began playing for your father’s church. When did that start?

He started playing for his choir from the age of five until he was about 12. He was the main musician for the church but not the musical director. Even when he was playing as a teenager with my grandfather’s church, there were people who were more apt at music selection and directing the choir. When he became a teenager, he started forming his own groups. At the time, I couldn’t understand why, my father and mother wouldn’t allow him to go on TV or anything like that. My dad was extremely adamant about his development. My father explained to me years later why he didn’t put him out there. He said, “It wasn’t the time to put him out there in any type of limelight. It was a time for him to develop and hone his skills.” 


In Virginia, D’Angelo had a Prince room that featured posters and EPS 16 keyboard. Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

So, he played in your father’s church and then began playing at your grandfather’s church when he was a teenager?

Yes, that is correct. I think another thing that was really important for how he grew up musically is that he wasn’t restricted to the church. My parents didn’t prohibit him from playing other music. There was a certain point when our parents divorced. Mike went to go live with my mom, even though he continued to play for the church; he was able to explore other genres. As you know, in the Black community, every church has access to a piano player who plays really well. So – you have to think about when did he start to differentiate himself from others, and if I had to guess, it would be that he was able to explore other genres as he was growing up still playing in the church. 

Can you talk about the influence gospel music had on his overall sound?

The biggest influence that I see is that the way his songs end with a run. You know how in church where you’ll get to the shouting part, after having played the song for five minutes it’ll go on for another 10 minutes, so people can get into the spirit. I saw and heard that right off the bat with his music. 

Since you were into learning how to play the piano before him, do you believe he was following in your footsteps? 

It was like any family where you have a number of kids and there is some modeling going on there with the oldest to the other kids that fell in succession. Naturally, the younger kids are looking up to the older siblings on how to formulate things, so I think that had some influence, but my dad played piano as well. I think the gift was already in there. It wasn’t just me exposing him to it, but there were a whole lot of people exposing him to it, especially in the church. Because I was taking piano lessons, the piano was already in the house. I can’t imagine him discovering things that early as a three-year-old if there wasn’t access to a piano on a day-to-day basis. 

Let’s transition to the time when he was playing for your grandfather’s church, and he was beginning to form a couple of different groups. Were you around at the time he was forming these groups?

I was just getting out of the Marine Corps when the whole thing with Michael Archer and Precise started to happen. He asked me to help him organize that. He started in high school getting out into the city and playing here and there. Michael Archer and Precise was a band he put together to compete in this annual talent show in Virginia that was put on by a guy named Bill McGee. He was the director of a musical program at one of the high schools in the city of Richmond. I was helping him organize his rehearsals. There were about eight or nine people in his band. They were all young teenagers. I came in and helped them to stay focused and disciplined, put together a practice schedule for them, and helped with all the logistics. I sort of brought the drill instructor mentality to it [laughs] . I was fresh out of the Marine Corps, so I still had all of that in me. I’ll never forget the time when everyone was fucking around and going back and forth with each other, and I’m a quiet guy, then I snapped into drill instructor mode. 

From there, he found a click of guys who had similar interests, but they were on the hip-hop scene. This was back in the early ’90s. It was the golden age of hip-hop — before it became really, really commercial. They were trying to do their thing and do some recording. I watched how the I.D.U. thing formed. At sixteen and seventeen, he was starting to form his own world. When he started working with I.D.U., he began writing the material for his Brown Sugar album. This is when I was invited in to help him with lyrical content on certain songs. He wrote most of that album before he went to New York. There were several songs that were added or completed after he got the recording contract. He really emerged at 16 and 17 with the I.D.U. and Michael Archer and Precise groups as well as going to and winning the Apollo. This was when he really started showing his writing skills, and he became amazing. I could tell he had something really different.

What kind of influence did the music you played have on him while you were growing up during his early years?

It exposed him to a variety of music. It didn’t pigeonhole him. In my opinion, because the radio was segregated when I was growing up, you would see black kids not appreciating other genres outside of R&B. I’m 48-years-old. In 1981 or 1982, there were no black FM radio stations in Richmond. Young Black kids only had AM stations to listen to in the Richmond area. For all intents and purposes, if you were Black, it was almost like you were supposed to listen to these particular stations, and if you were White, you would listen to Q94 and XL 102, and if you were Black, you would listen to our stations. I think seeing me play classical music was the beginning of him not being pigeonholed to accepting only one type of music. In the area I grew up in, the people in my generation grew up with that. But I didn’t because I grew up in the suburbs. It was the beginning of integration over there, so I was exposed to other kinds of music. The first group that comes to mind is AC/DC. Their whole Back in Black album was something that I heard all of the time. Their songs were as funky to me as anything else I heard back then. Growing up and being exposed to classical music, as well as some of the music he was hearing me play on the radio, in addition to traditional R&B, I think it had a great influence on him. From the beginning, he understood that music was music; it didn’t get put into a box. The more experiences a child is exposed to — they have a greater variety of things available to them. It’s a part of human development. The fact that he was and still is highly intelligent gave him an edge. If he wasn’t intelligent or curious, he wouldn’t have delved as deep into the music as he did. 

Prince was a big influence on him and his approach to making music. When we started the interview, you mentioned that the song he was playing at three years old was a Prince song. Can you talk about that influence on him? Did you play him those Prince records?

When Prince first came out, I was taken aback by his music. Like millions of other kids out there, the sound, what he was doing on stage, and the fact he was creating all the music himself, took me by surprise. I became a huge Prince fan. I used to be the guy who was the first one in the store to buy his album.  My fandom started with his self-titled album. The main influence was me just being so fascinated with it. With our religious background, it was one of the things I was allowed to have around that was secular. I was a huge Prince junkie. Anything he did, I was into it. I knew every song and lyric. The only concerts I attended were Prince concerts. I didn’t have to sit him down and say, “Listen to this” or “I want you to play this.” It wasn’t like that at all. I played the albums all of the time. As we grew older, and this continued through the time I was in college, we would talk about different facets of Prince’s music. We would converse in a lot more detail about his music. 

Between the ages of 16 and 17, he was starting to hit his stride as a young musician. What was his go-to instrument since he was working with two different groups?

His go-to instrument was always the piano. I didn’t see him pick up any other instruments until after the Brown Sugar album. He had the ability to learn different instruments back then, though. I saw it during the making of his “Me and Those Dreamin’ Eyes of Mine” video. He was really playing those instruments in the video. 

I almost forgot — between sixteen and seventeen, he could play the drums, too, but his main instrument was the piano. Also, by this time, he discovered the Ensoniq, which was a synthesizer that you could sample real live instruments with. He would go to this one store and get these sounds on a disk and come back and load them on this Ensoniq, and he was able to have the real instrument sound on the synthesizer and play it as a piano. For instance, he would go get a sample of a bass guitar, and he was able to load it onto the synthesizer, and whenever he would play the keys, it would be a real live bass that was playing. When he played for my grandfather’s church, you could see him transitioning to guitar. He would have his synthesizer on the left-hand side, and on the right-hand side would be the piano. He would play the treble on the real piano and then he would play the bass on the Ensoniq with his left hand. So, he was playing two pianos at the same time and getting the sound out of it.

After winning the Apollo show, he continued making music in Richmond. When some of the group members from I.D.U. went to New York, Jocelyn Cooper asked them who was producing their tracks. As a result, she wanted to meet him. Tell me how it all happened from your vantage point.

I remember this story very well. I was in Charlottesville at the time working at the University of Virginia. I don’t remember when the other guys went up there to New York to meet her, but I remember when he went up there. It could’ve been subsequent trips, but I remember him calling me and telling me about meeting Jocelyn Cooper and playing for her and Gary Harris. Gary Harris was involved with the process, too. I remember Mike calling me really excited, and how he had been in front of this person playing songs. This all happened really quickly. Once the ball started rolling, it didn’t stop. That one meeting with Jocelyn Cooper changed everything

When and where did you first meet D’Angelo?

Jocelyn Cooper: I met him in New York when he was 17. He was in a hip-hop group called I.D.U. He was their producer. His friends came into my office first, and I asked them, “Who is the guy that made your beats?” They said it was their friend who was back in Virginia. I asked them to bring him in to me. This was in 1992.

Gary Harris: I met him in May or June of 1992. I just started working with EMI Records. Jocelyn Cooper brought me his demo and said to me, “I think I’ve heard something that I liked today.” She came to my office and played it for me as well as a video. I agreed that I liked it, too. I told her I couldn’t wait to meet this kid. He said, “Well, he’s in my office right now.” We went over to her office. She was still with Warner/Chappelle Music at the time. We had known each other for a while. I met her through her older sister. D’Angelo was in her office with a group of his friends from Virginia. They were hoping to be a rap group. He was the producer and vocalist in the group. I met with them, and I asked them, “Who is the kid singing on the demos?” D’Angelo said it was him. We were in a conference room. I made him sit down at a piano and play some Al Green and Marvin Gaye songs. I thought he was dope! When I heard D’Angelo’s demo, I thought it was a synthesis of what Jodeci and A Tribe Called Quest [was doing.]

When he finally arrived in New York, can you describe your initial meeting with him?

Jocelyn Cooper: It was spectacular. He played what was the precursor to Brown Sugar. He played some songs he had been working on and some songs that I thought would be good for him to shop around. He talked about what type of artist and writer he wanted to be. I told him that I wanted to sign him. The deal happened very quickly. I thought he was the most extraordinarily talented young person I had ever met. He had such a unique way of writing music and looking at music. He sat and played the piano for me for what seemed like two hours, which was the best D’Angelo performance I had ever experienced. He played covers and his music. He was just exceptional and brilliant. I got that when I first met him. I knew he was going to be a star. He was like nothing I had ever heard before. It was like hearing Teddy [Riley’s] music for the first time. The music that was coming out of that whole corridor of Virginia was so unique. It was a new sound that D’Angelo was creating.

When you first saw and heard D’Angelo sing, what was the thing that made you believe he could become one of the great artists of the time period?

Gary Harris: Well, I didn’t know if he was going to be one of the great artists back then. I just liked his demo. I thought he was working within a couple of different traditions. It was three mainly. He was working in a contemporary R&B tradition that was close to what Jodeci was doing being that they were all preachers’ kids and were singing in a contemporary fashion with the influence of hip-hop. D’Angelo was part of that secularized soul singer tradition, a church singer i.e. Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and Marvin [Gaye]. He was also part of that jazz fusion world which was best represented by Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, and the Weather Report. Sometimes, you get lucky. I just happened to be in the office that day when Jocelyn came by.

During that process of shopping his songs and getting him a recording contract, was it hard to sell record executives on the new sound D’Angelo was bringing to the marketplace?

To his credit, my direct reporter at EMI was Fred Davis, who is Clive Davis’ oldest child. I went and played the demo for Fred, and he got it instantly. During my time at the company, Charles Koppelman was the Chair and my good friend Brian, who is Charles’ son, brought me to EMI because we worked together, and we were label mates at Giant Records. He saw what I was able to do without a roster and the creative success I had with New Jack City and Color Me Badd. He sponsored me into EMI, so I had a support group that was connected to the company. It was relatively easy to get him signed to the label, but the political environment that I was working in was somewhat heightened because there were essentially two companies within the one company. D’Angelo was such a different type of artist, and EMI was certainly not a label that was steeped in the black music business. 

It took about eight months for us to sign him to a record deal. EMI kind of had a dysfunctional business affairs department. As A&R executives, we weren’t given as much freedom to interact with the business affairs department as I had with other places. From May through December, I would make cassette tapes of classic funk and soul music that he never heard before and send them to him. We would talk on the phone about records at length. Sometimes, you’ll work with people that aren’t clear about what they want to write or whatever, but that wasn’t a problem for him at the time. He knew exactly what he wanted to do. He was also working with his oldest brother, Luther, who co-wrote “U Will Know.”

What is the story behind the creation of the song “U Will Know?”

Luther Archer: I was just getting out of the Marine Corps, and I was staying at my mother’s house. That’s where Michael was living, and I came home from the base in Quantico, VA. It was where I was stationed at the time. He let me hear this track he was working on. There was a yellow legal paper pad lying on the ground, and I picked it up. I began writing the lyrics to the song, and I ended up finishing them in about five minutes. I remember giving the lyrics to him, and then I headed out to go somewhere. By the time I came back, he had completed the whole song. I was taken aback that he finished it so quickly. I was going through some things at the time and the music made it real easy for me to come up with the lyrics for the song. I remember after he finished the song, I went back out around midnight that same night to play the song for a couple of local record label people because they had to hear how good it was. Nobody here in Richmond caught on, but it led to him getting his recording contract.

Before his placement on the Jason’s Lyric soundtrack, did you travel to Richmond, Virginia to meet with him?

Jocelyn Cooper: Yes. I went into his music room. It was a tiny room with Prince posters on the walls. I went to go see the equipment he was using to create his music and his creative process; the way he wrote and produced himself and his friends. I also went to get his family’s permission because he was still a kid. I wanted to let them know that he would be in good hands and that I wanted to work with him and them, so I could help him make his dreams come true. He was very focused and clear about who he was as a music artist and the type of music he wanted to make. I went down there to make sure everyone was on the same page, and we were. It was clear that he had a spectacular family. 

You made reference to his music room that had Prince posters on the walls. Can you describe that room?

He had an EPS 16 keyboard that he rigged up and changed. He was creating music on this thing, and it was something no one else was using. It was all about his spirit and acumen. His ability came through in the music. He didn’t use a lot of fluff. He sampled a little bit, so he wanted to learn how to do that well. I hooked him up with Ali Shaheed Muhammad and they wrote “Brown Sugar” together. He really idolized Prince at the time. He didn’t really want to co-write with anyone else other than songs he wrote with his brother. He had a very clear vision.

After you signed him to his record deal, did he go back to Richmond to work on music for his debut album, Brown Sugar?

Gary Harris: Yeah. He wrote the album when he was in Virginia.

I didn’t get him into the studio until the spring of 1993. About a week later, I was let go from the project. It took about six months from the time I signed him to when he first stepped into the studio to start recording his songs. 

As he was working through the material for Brown Sugar, would he send you tracks to New York for the label to listen to?

Yes. He sent me demos of what he was working on. He was 18 when he started working on this album. “U Will Know” and “Smooth” were on his original demo. “Smooth” was the only demo song that ended up on Brown Sugar. Everything he wrote during this time ended up on the album, except for “Cruisin’,” which was a Smokey Robinson song. He didn’t want to put “U Will Know” on his album. Jocelyn Cooper had more to do with him being able to get the song on the Jason’s Lyric movie soundtrack. That was more of a publishing thing, because by that time, Jocelyn had moved on. She opened up her publishing company as a joint venture within the Polygram Records system. Her partner was Ed Eckstine who I worked with at Wing Records before he became the first African American president of a major label. We were within each other’s creative circles. Ed was the president of Mercury/Wing Records when the Jason’s Lyric soundtrack was done. 

All of the songs with the exception of “Lady” were written and produced in Richmond.  Can you describe the quality of the pre-production recordings of the songs that made Brown Sugar?

Luther Archer: I would say the concepts for all of the songs on the album were constructed at my mother’s house in Richmond. What they ended up doing was using a lot of the pre-recorded production material Mike did in Richmond, and when he went up to New York with Bob Power to Battery Music Studios, there were a couple of things that Mike changed. And when he would come home, he would let me hear the songs. A lot of people including myself thought that the pre-production material sounded better than the actual CD recordings people heard off of the album.

I know we’re talking about Brown Sugar, but the transition from Brown Sugar to Voodoo, he was able to capture more of the pre-production feel than he had on the Brown Sugar CD. Brown Sugar came out sounding cleaner to me, and one of the charms of the music for me was how dirty soul it was, and he captured some of it on Brown Sugar, but some of the people who heard the pre-production stuff wouldn’t contradict my statements. There was some gold on those tracks.

All the pre-production material was done on a Ensoniq keyboard with a 4-track recorder. What he learned to do by layering his vocals was reminiscent of Marvin Gaye, and he drew comparisons to him with that technique. There was such a rawness to what was done in the pre-production phases and that’s not to anyone’s demise or anything like that, but I just think that if the engineer at the time was able to catch the true essence of the music, it would have been funkier. It had that back in the day type of feel to it. If that version of the album ever came out, it would be something I would love to have or a person would love to have in their collection.

While your brother was creating the music for his debut album, how would you describe his mindset?

I think the original sound that came from Brown Sugar was due to rebelling against the norm and not wanting to sound like what was out there in the mainstream back then. Michael was the creative force behind the tracks and the construction of the album itself. He used to bounce ideas off of me during the making of the album. I remember, specifically, that he told me he was going to do a song called “Shit, Damn, Motherfucker.” He let me hear the song entitled, “Alright,” and it ended up being my favorite record off of the album. He would tell me that he wanted the album to be a house that had rooms with different curtains hanging in each room. I partly helped in shaping his musical foundation. When he first started writing, he would ask me to help him with the lyrics, and I think that was based more on his age being that he was so young at the time. He asked me to contribute to some tracks that ended up never making the album, but Brown Sugar was his baby all the way around.

What was your collaboration process like between you and your brother?

The way we worked together initially is he would give me a music track, and he would allow me to come up with a melody and the lyrics, or he had a melody in mind and he would say “this how I want it to sound,” and I’d write the lyrics. The songs I co-wrote on the album were songs he told me about. They were ideas he shared with me. The first song I co-wrote was “Higher,” and it was more of gospel type of record. He gave me the reigns to take that song where I wanted to. The other record I co-wrote was “Smooth,” and I knew about that one for a while because he wrote it when he was 17. There were a handful of records that ended up not being on the album. One song called, “Magical” and another called, “Get on The Floor” were co-written by me. One of the last songs he wrote for the album was a song called “Jonz in My Bonz.” To me, this song showed a transition in his music and it eventually led to the album, Voodoo.


On July 3, 1995, Brown Sugar was released. The record would spawn four singles: the title track, “Cruisin’,” “Lady,” and “Me and Those Dreamin’ Eyes of Mine.”  Photo Credit: Artist

Tell me about his maturation process from the time you first met him to the point of him working on his first professional recording.

Jocelyn Cooper: It wasn’t that much difference. He already came to me with many skills. He had the foundation, and what I helped him to do was to find a producer and engineer. It was pivotal piece for him. It was all that he needed. I was working with Raphael Saadiq at the time, and I wanted him to meet other producers that he would enjoy working with. I introduced him to Raphael, and you would have to ask him what he learned from him in the studio. But he had the goods from the beginning. It was unlike anyone other than Teddy Riley or Rodney Jerkins that I had ever met at that level. He was more interested in being an artist than a producer. He is a genius level guy. At the time, he didn’t have the desire to produce other people and give his sound away. He enjoyed performing. He was way more advanced than the other writers I had signed because he had been playing music and performing in church since he was three years old.  He was a pro. The second record he professionally produced was covered on the Jason’s Lyric movie soundtrack. It had Boyz II Men, Aaron Hall, Silk, Brian McKnight, Usher, and all of those major R&B groups on it. You have to remember that was only his second professional gig [laughs].

As you look back, how do you feel about the impact your brother and his music have made on popular culture?

Luther Archer: I still pinch myself. I really do. When Brown Sugar came out, and I saw the following out of Europe and seeing these white kids covering his music, it just really hit me on another level. The impact that he’s had on music period. I can’t speak for the rest of our family, but in the beginning, we were all taken aback by the stardom and the fame. For me, it’s different now. I realize this whole thing will one day be in someone’s history book. There’ll be a documentary on his impact in music. Sometimes, I still sit back and pinch myself because it’s real, and I’m so proud of him. 


Banner Photo: Steve Eichner/Getty Images

Chris Williams is a Virginia-based writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, Red Bull Music Academy, EBONY, and Wax Poetics. Follow the latest and greatest from him on Twitter @iamchriswms