There’s a handful of vocalists that sit atop the House Music mountain who seem like they commune directly to the spirit within. One of those is undoubtedly Kathy Brown. Hailing from Brooklyn, she has worked with all the great producers in the game. From Vega to Morales. From David Shaw to the late, great Frankie Knuckles. She has been intertwined with the House Music Story since she entered the fray in the early 90s.
She is related to Gospel Music royalty and that genetic connection is displayed in every single inspirational vocal she delivers. Her voice is instantly recognisable and she is still relentlessly collaborating, releasing or writing on projects after being in the entertainment industry for over 40 years.
Splitting her time between North Carolina and London, we caught up with her just after she had finished her 14 days quarantine in the UK and about to embark on more recording sessions. She is to me, one of those voices that imbues the spirit of House Music. She wraps it in her soul and her inner light shines so brightly that you can only assume that the gift she possesses is divine in origin.
Despite her enormously busy schedule, we are eternally grateful that she chose to sit down with us as she emerged from isolation. This interview was filled with laughter and light and is a tribute to how she approaches her work and her Life’s Journey.
Interview by Jay B McCauley
So Kathy, how have you been doing in the time of COVID?
Lord have Mercy. Lockdown is exactly what it is. I’ve been locked down. But not too bad. I’ve been doing a lot of writing. I was in quarantine for two weeks when I got here and after that, I waited maybe three days before I went out to get something to eat. It just felt weird; everybody’s walking around with masks on and a lot of people walking around without. I kept on asking myself what’s going on. I just try to keep safe. That’s all we can do.
Raised in Brooklyn, New York City, what was that like?
When I first came to New York I was about nine. It was different then. I’d have to say nicer. It was really good growing up. The music was so good, I was in heaven. Celebrities walked the streets. They would talk to you. They would mingle and party with you. It was a very different era.
You were brought up in the church?
Okay let me just break it down real quick. My mother was a minister and also played guitar. She wanted to put a little group together, which was her and my two other sisters. We started singing gospel. We started opening up for different gospel groups like The Winans, The Gospel Key Notes, The Five Blind Boys; you name it. We were as kids opening up for these big acts.
So that’s how it started with gospel and I stayed there for a long time. I never got out of it. Even through school, my teachers would take me and put me into music classes and have me working with other kids and teaching them how to sing. So musically, it was fantastic growing up in New York back then. I met people like the Commodores and PM Dawn. But it was Karen Bernard who actually introduced me to different places like Studio 54 as she was a singer in The Joneses group.
My boyfriend was playing the bass, which is how I met the group and he introduced me to the group as a singer too. At that time, I wasn’t ready to actually sing on that side of music. So I stayed with gospel and just hung out with them. Learning what they were doing and so forth on the road. I met people like Nick Ashford. Trust me; these were good times growing up. It was like being in heaven musically.
You’ve got the added benefit of your auntie being Shirley Caesar who is a famous gospel singer. How did she inspire you?
I’m related to her on my father’s side. That’s all he ever drummed into our head. You got to honour her. You got to represent etc. As I got older, I started putting on my own gospel shows and started my own group. We went out to the different churches and theatres and performed. It was just fantastic with the line-up of people that we had on the shows and Shirley Caesar was on two of them.
Now I had never met her up to that point. I just heard about her all my life through my dad. So, we were on this show together and I just barged my way into her dressing room with my two sisters. We finally got to see each other and find out how we were related and what type of person she was. She was trying to help us connect the names because I didn’t know some of them but eventually, she sat down and said, ‘You know what? We got to be related. Because, you sing like angels’.
We also seemed to favour each other a lot in appearance. So, we just went on and on talking about things and at the end of it, she said, ‘I love you. Keep doing what you’re doing’. When she got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, I was like, ‘Yes. It’s about time’. So yes. She definitely inspired me to do what I did.
Growing up in an era of the civil rights movement. Has anything changed?
I’d have to say, not really. It has but it hasn’t. Certain things. As far as voting and so forth; yes, that’s changed but not so much because they find ways to stop you from voting or doing this and doing that. So I’d have to say they’re still doing the same thing just using different tactics. It’s the same except now the world gets to see it (through mobile phones).
But I grew up mostly with Spanish people, West Indian, Mexican and my mum always gravitated to the Middle Class. So, it was always mixed. I wasn’t taught about colour. I didn’t see colour. My best friend was Spanish. There are Spanish and West Indian people in my family. We weren’t raised up like that, even though (racism) was all around us. My mom just had a way of music. She had a way of making us not think about what was going on outside. Our family was very close and I didn’t get to experience a lot of what other people did with racism. I guess I’ve been pretty lucky on that front. And they tend to treat singers a little bit differently as well. Even down to the police. A lot of my friends are police.
So, you were discovered pretty young at the age of 16 for Sweet Cinnamon.
That was Glen Quick from The Joneses. He was looking for a singer. I was in a laundromat one day just singing because we used to sing everywhere; the bus stop, no matter where we were. He was walking by and suddenly somebody came up behind me and tapped me on my shoulder. He said, ‘My name is Glen Quick and I play for The Joneses’. I gave him that look because I didn’t know who The Joneses were. My mom didn’t let us listen to a lot of music that was being played. We were straight up gospel.
So, we started talking and he wanted to put a female group together. I got my aunt and another girl named Charlene and it was the perfect combination. So, we opened up with this group and one of the guys from the group, Marvin Ceese,did a song called Candy Licker (very nasty lol) and we opened at this club called Moon Indigo on Fulton Street and Nordstrom Avenue. We also performed at a club called 521 on Fulton and Franklin where all the celebrities used to hang out. You name it, they were up in this spot.
We started doing this thing every week and we had some fantastic musicians supporting us including the rhythm section from Isaac Hayes’ band. We did that for about a year and then one of the ladies fell pregnant and everybody split up and went their own way while I continued hanging out with The Joneses.
Have you ever done anything outside of music?
Yeah, nursing; I got my nursing degree. I always felt like I had to have something to fall back on just in case music didn’t work out. I love people. So not only can I give you something musically, or something to touch your heart, if you fall over, I can give you CPR too lol.
I loved it but I couldn’t split the two up. Nursing is something that takes up 24 hours of your day and I was doing 16 to 17-hour shifts which is why there is a period in the 2000s where I kind of just disappeared for a minute. At that time, I was in school and actually working in a hospital. I did it for about three years and then it got to the point where I missed what I do. Even though I was singing to my patients, I wasn’t satisfied. I wasn’t complete. So, I came back to singing.
So, taking you back again. Studio 54, Bonds, the Paradise Garage were all decadent places. How did you align your faith with that scene?
Well I still won’t mix the two. I can’t see me getting up doing a gospel song in a club when everybody’s drinking, sniffing, grabbing etc. I just think that there should be some separation because it is different. So I can’t see myself doing that but I will do inspirational songs. But I feel all music is God’s music.
It’s all in how you translate it; how you put it out there. I don’t feel that there’s such a thing as good music or bad music. It’s all good music. It’s all about the person you put behind that track and what they’re saying; what they’re trying to bring across to everybody. At the end of the day, it’s all good.
So, the people I would meet in Studio 54 were people I had met already. For example, the group Full Force, one of them was married to a relative of mine Michelle Pepsi Riley. We went to Church together. Her sisters and cousins on one side of the aisle and us on the other, battling each other. I grew up round the corner from Mike Tyson. So I didn’t really have to get into the scene because I was enjoying watching them be part of it. I’ve always been the type of person who was never jealous of what people did. I’m inspired by them. I get inspired from watching other people do what they do so well. So, I studied really hard and appreciated every single moment that I had with these celebrities.
Nick Ashford for example was the one who actually got me to change my mind about this business. I was walking in the neighbourhood one day and Nick was outside of his house sweeping. I wasn’t sure whether I should talk to him because most celebrities are shitty when you say something to them lol. I actually passed him and then doubled back. He saw me when I came back and he just stopped sweeping and started talking.
He actually sat down because the conversation went on for so long. But the end result was about the business; how I felt I was being abused and used. And he said, ‘Sweetie, you don’t know what being used and abused and none of that is. When you ride in the back of a U-Haul truck coming from a show and can’t go to a bathroom without going to the back of a building; then you can tell me about you having hard times in this business’. He told me to forget the business and asked me if I loved what I do.
I said of course I loved singing. It’s a gift. It’s life. He advised me that at the end of the day, don’t worry about what’s going on in the business. You do what you do. Keep being loving like you are and giving out that good energy and it will all fall into place. Once he talked to me, I had a whole different perspective on the music game. I didn’t have to worry about being angry anymore at this person or that person because if you really get into it and bogged down into the business part of it; you would quit. Some of the stuff that goes on is mind boggling but at the end of the day if you love what you’re doing, and you surround yourself with positive people, you will come out alright.
So, we thought that we would bring Barbara Tucker and David Morales into the conversation as you are all connected.
As far as clubs, when David played it was like going to church. Listen, the first time I experienced him playing, I got up on the floor, started dancing and I could not sit down the entire time. I was scared, telling people, ‘Please somebody get this man off the damn decks! I would love to sit down!’ The energy was just like church.
It was the same when I met him and we recorded ‘Joy’ together. You connect with his spirit. He brought in three backing singers that I actually went to church with (they were also Mariah Carey’s singers). I had an idea how I wanted my background to go and it was like having church up in that studio. David is one of those producers who makes it very, very, very comfortable for you when you’re in a studio working with him. Period. We’ve done shows together and he always made sure that he took care of his artists.
And Barbara. Well listen!! That’s my girl. Her Underground Network parties, that was the first place I performed. I did maybe 5-7 shows for the Underground and through that I met Louie Vega and recorded my first track ‘Cant Play Around’.
Once again it was Karen Bernard who organised that. She called me and took me to the studio at 2am and it was filled with people; Fred McFarlane, Louie Vega, Kenny Dope, Dave Shaw. Oh my god there were so many people in there. They wanted me to sing this song ‘Can’t Play Around’ by Lace. At the time, I didn’t like to listen to the originals because I wanted to give them my own perspective. If I never heard it before then I can make it my own.
So, I rewrote the intro and started singing the song but they had to turn the lights down low. I couldn’t stand in front of nobody. It was pitch dark. I just started singing the song and by the time I got to the end of the intro, the studio was lit. People were jumping, clapping and screaming. I was like, ‘oh shit what just happened?’ So, my first experience of coming into this branch of music was amazing.
I’ve met a lot of good people through this journey and that’s just to name a few. One of my favourites, actually I won’t say favourite because I have a lot of favourites, but Frankie knuckles was my baby. We were supposed to do a track together but instead he did a remix for me on a track called ‘Not This Time’ on King Street with Satoshie. There is a mix that nobody’s ever heard which has my son rapping over the top of it. That is awesome. I have worked with a lot of good people in this business and still do so today.
Your first real big hit ‘Turn me out’ with Praxis, how did that come about and what does it mean to you now looking back at it?
I love it. I wish they could put it out every year. That’d be nice. When we first did that track, we were in the studio, trying to come up with a follow up for ‘Can’t Play Around’. So, David (Shaw) is sitting there and just started putting some crazy stuff together. Me and Cevin Fischer were playing around; throwing words out. By the time we finished though, I thought it was a stupid track. Now look what happened to the stupid track lol! We were playing around in the studio, just searching for words. The three of us together and we came up with it through the jam.
So, you’ve worked with some astonishing producers, some of the best of all time, what makes a good one?
Okay, one that listens ? Yeah, that’s what I liked about Frankie knuckles. He just took my mix and it was like he was there with me. He arranged it like I would; layered them just like I would have. He felt my energy, my pain. It was like he was in it. So yeah, a good producer is someone that listens, gets to know what you’re about when they create that music with you.
That segues nicely into how songs are written today and how you write…
I need to write a song. You can dissect it all you want after I finish but I personally need to write a full song that explains what I’m trying to say without putting it into three words.
So in the current environment, producers make tracks and put snippets of a vocal in and call it a song. So is there even a place left to tell stories and write songs in house music?
Well, I still do it. I don’t believe in writing songs that you just throw out there, which is, as you say, different from what goes on currently. I kind of blame my generation in a sense for that because we didn’t teach this next generation what it’s all about. We now want to teach them but it’s a bit late.
So, I don’t blame them for how they’re doing things but I’ve always been a strong believer about staying in your lane and doing what you feel is good for you. When I write a track, if I don’t feel that track immediately when somebody plays it for me; I can’t do it because then I’m gonna force myself to try to write something. But if you play a track for me and it automatically hits my soul and my heart; I’m writing before the song is finished playing.
I think this new generation needs to explore more of what is inside of them. Express whatever you want or need to talk about which you can’t do on a normal tip. Tell the story. We want to hear a story that we can all experience and share in. That’s what music is all about. Creating a shared experience for all of us, not some of us.
So do you think that there has been an air of exclusivity creep into the business?
We do have certain cliques in this business and I am not a clique person and never have been. We talk about the love of house but sometimes I feel no love. My love comes from within but I think for us to come together as a music community; if we’re going to sing about love, then we need to show it. We need to prove it. Why does this new generation need to go all around us in this business to get heard? This business is about bringing people in and keeping it growing.
Some of us talk about love but we don’t really love. I try to bring singers together, do like a diva thing because I feel that’s what they did back in the original R&B days. They weren’t afraid to share the stage. I will give the stage to anybody. I bring all my friends onto it. I’ve never had that jealousy that ‘she’s gonna take my spotlight’. My light shines within me so I don’t need to be thrown in front of some light to shine brighter; to block everybody else out. I want it so all of us are glowing on this stage together. But it’s easier said than done. You can’t get a bunch of singers to get up on stage together unless you pay them millions.
Buy Life’s Journey
So let’s talk about your album ‘Life’s Journey’ from last year and your label KB Sounds.
Yes, that’s still selling and I am very pleased with it. I love instruments. We did all live pieces on the album but one track in particular, we had Kevin Sutherland the keyboard player for Lemar working on it. So we wrote that together with him, Cevin Fisherand Dave Anthony. Dave produced four tracks on the album. I have some wonderful musicians on there. All through the album. Everything is not a sample or comes for a machine. That live part is lost on some producers today. They don’t know how to do those things. How to put a track together without using somebody else’s music.
How do you feel about producers not even referencing original artists in their songs and representing them as their own?
That makes me angry because we’re killing that history. I’m listening to people singing covers and they’re not saying that the original singer was Patti LaBelle. That’s not your song. So how are you representing it like it’s yours? When I do a cover, I let people know this is a cover. I did one by Linda Clifford and always give credit to who or what I’m doing, especially when I’m doing this thing over again.
Again, the young generation don’t get taught. In my family I like for all my kids and grandkids to know where we come from, where the music comes from, where their soul comes from and where it all started. Okay, so we have a different sound now and kids are hearing things differently. But it’s our responsibility to teach them. When they don’t acknowledge, people don’t get paid when they just take stuff and sample it; it gets lost in the sauce.
And circling back to the label. How do you feel about it?
Joy!! Because I get to put out what I want to put out and I get to just have fun with it. I’ve had a few artists that have approached me to be signed but I’m not ready for that yet because when I commit, I commit. If I sign you, you’re going to be trained to learn your business, you’re going to know it inside and out. I don’t want to have an artist to just throw out tracks, I can do that on my own.
I want to teach. I think in this business everybody gets screwed one time, at least. Nobody can walk through this business and say they haven’t been touched at all.
So we have spoken about yours, do you have a favourite label other than your own?
I’ve been on just about all of them, MCA, London etc. The one I love the most, I’d have to say, was Defected and that was because of the different variety of DJs Simon Dunmore had coming through. There were so many different flavours that you could just sink your teeth into. Simon is a good guy. He always made sure that vocally it was right. That musically it was right. He would put the two of you in a room and let you do your thing. Working with people like Sandy Rivera, another one of my babies, was great.
That’s why I used to love working with people like David Morales. They didn’t stop until they got something right. I think he had me in New York for about a week. He put me up in a hotel and we must have hit the studio two or three times. And it was a place that Wu Tang used. You could tell Wu Tang used it because they tore that place up lol.
But David was particular about what was coming out. You wouldn’t just sing anything. I mean this is a Grammy Award winning man here. You weren’t just gonna throw down anything and act like it was gonna be ok. It was pleasant. It was just so professional. It couldn’t have got any more professional than that.
Oh and this is something that I never say… When I first started in this business I had a choice between C+C Music Factory and David Shaw and them. I chose Dave but always wondered if I made the right choice lol. C+C used to rehearse upstairs from us which was really nice and everything was bumping from everywhere.
So, your new track with Seamus Haji is a really full lyrical story. How did that come about?
So, we met at the 51st State Festival in the UK. I was standing around with Melba Moore, Barbara Tucker, Robin S, and Crystal Waters backstage when Seamus approached me and tapped me on the shoulder and asked if we could collaborate. We met up in the studio and worked on it together live as opposed to working remotely. I had to come back because I had a stinking head cold. Working with Seamus is fantastic and he is a really generous producer and we have more projects in the pipeline.
How do you prepare for gigs, how long did you think it took to find your voice and has it changed?
I’ve had my voice since I was little so I never had a problem with finding it. My range was always high but I do try to tone it down. But as far as preparing, my throat is always open. I don’t do a whole lot of preparing. Just give me a shot of brandy and a twist of lemon and we are set to go. I can still hit my high notes. I love just letting it out, you know.
Who inspires you to continually improve?
I’d have to say God inspires me to continually improve in myself.
What makes a great DJ?
Okay, well when someone walks into the room I don’t even have to hear him play. If his spirit is bad then I don’t even want to hear him play. But once I hear you play; you have to lift my soul. A good DJ gets people rocking. It lifts people out of the funk they’re in. Whether you’re in the club or not, maybe on the radio or whatever, a good DJ takes everybody on a journey, a ride. And a nice ride at that. So that’s what I call a good DJ. plus a wonderful personality.
So, we’re nearing the end, what have you got in the musical pipeline coming up for people who may not know?
Lots of things coming up. There are a few tracks out now. I did some stuff last year to set up for this. Not knowing we’re gonna have a pandemic, everyone seems to be putting tracks up at the same time and they’re coming out pretty quick. I’m not used to tracks coming out every month. I’ve some things coming up with Timmy Vegas and Soul Central and I just did a cover of Boogie Oogie Oogie that I am gonna do on my label.
- Favourite house track? Stronger On My Own
- Favourite Sound? Mercy, I’d have to say birds.
- Do you have a favourite vocalist? Patti Labelle. Chaka Khan. Beverley Knight. Jocelyn Brown, she was one of my favourite dance artists. I used to dance to all her stuff.
- What are you most proud of? From where I’ve been to where I am now. I am still here.
Finally. A fun question. Your friends get a call to say you are in a bit of trouble. What have you done?
One time I was in Paris and I fell off the stage. The security guards needed to pull me up from a gap in the stage and they snapped my knee. I was stuck in Paris for six weeks.
And with that Kathy laughs once again and we carry on shooting the breeze about other stuff which shall remain our forever secret.
Listen to the Love House Show with Kathy Brown, Jay B McCauley and Nycks