Urban Bright

Soul singer Jill Scott shines a light on the ghettos of her native Philadelphia.

Jill Scott, with Mike Phillips State Theatre, Playhouse Square 8 p.m., Thursday, August 8



Face the music: Scott asked that her demos be sent without photos, so her - looks wouldn't influence reactions.
Face the music: Scott asked that her demos be sent without photos, so her looks wouldn't influence reactions.
Long before Jill Scott put her words into a musical context, she was making some noise as a respected poet in the Philadelphia area, where she co-founded and hosted Words and Sounds, a popular performance series that showcased local talent. At one of these readings, Scott caught the attention of Roots drummer Ahmir Thompson and eventually penned the Erykah Badu-sung hook to the Roots' 1999 Grammy-winning single "You Got Me."

Scott's platinum debut, Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1, has some people comparing her to Badu. But Scott is an original. On her album, her sensual meditations on love and all its permutations are accompanied by a straight-up slamming band that jazzes up the funk.

"I wasn't really trying to get a message across, except I just wanted to express my black self and how I feel as a woman in certain situations," she says. "There are going to be times when someone is going to hurt you or you are going to hurt yourself, but there is a greater good. I don't even know if I got that across or not, but I think, to me, more than anything else, this album was an introduction."

Released a year ago, it quickly gained a word-of-mouth following, and Scott went from working in retail to moving some serious units in the record stores and playing sold-out venues.

"I felt like what I put together was a piece of art; something I felt was worthy of respect. And I put it out there, and people felt the same way, and I'm really glad they did."

Two people who helped get Scott started were Steve McKeever and Jazzy Jeff Townes (of DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince fame). McKeever chose Scott to launch his Hidden Beach Recordings, a label devoted to urban music. And fellow Philly native Jazzy Jeff put her on as the first artist to record with his A Touch of Jazz production crew, which laid down the bulk of the album's supple grooves. Scott appreciates them for understanding that "the goal was to support the vocalist and the lyric, and not to have it be just about the drum."

The lyric reigns supreme in Scott's world. In "Honey Molasses," for example, she describes her man as "Honey molasses/Ebony majesty/Chocolate brown shuga/Sweet epiphany." Her attention to detail is what sets her apart from cookie-cutter R&B acts that dominate the charts. "I want [the lyric] to be seen, I want to touch, I want you to be able to taste it, you know, because that is what helps create the mental picture."

A number of songs on the record include poems juxtaposed to sung choruses. On "Love Rain," she utters in a soft tone: "At night we would watch the stars, and he would physically give me each and every one/I felt like cayenne peppa/Red hot spicy/I felt Dizzy and Sonya, heaven and Miles between my thighs/Better than love/ We made delicious."

Despite the confluence of songs and poetry on Who Is Jill Scott?, Scott views the writing processes as distinct.

"Poetry and the songs are from two different mind frames," she says. "When I write poetry, there is pretty much silence; all that I'll hear is the words. And with the songs, I'll hear a melody, I'll hear harmonies, and I'll hear what the drummer is doing. The songs are songs, and the poems are poems. I write differently for each, but they're all coming from the same place."

A strong sense of her Philadelphia roots permeates Scott's work. Even the artwork in the CD booklet, which was designed by her fiancé, Lyzel Williams, provides snapshots of her neighborhood. In soul and spirit, Scott is never too far away from her North Philadelphia home, where she grew up with her mother and grandmother, and where she learned to appreciate the role women play in her community.

Scott accentuates the positives of urban life. Her video for "A Long Walk," which recently garnered an MTV Video Music Awards nomination for Best R&B video, depicts a tight community. "I wanted to show my neighborhood," she explains. "These people in the video are my neighbors. It's showing that a ghetto is not always a place where people sell drugs. It's just a funky name for people and a neighborhood that doesn't have a lot of money. I got a lotta love for my neighborhood."

And plenty of folks love Scott. She has recently recorded with Common ("Funky for You"), appeared onstage with Moby and the Blue Man Group at the Grammy Awards, and opened for Sting. Now, she's bringing her live shows to the masses in a headlining tour. She's also slated to perform at Badu's Marimba Festival outside Detroit, with such kindred spirits as Badu and Macy Gray. Despite the surge in popularity, Scott has remained in control of both her image and her music. When Jazzy Jeff sent out her demos to people in the industry, she requested that he not include any photos of her, because she wanted the focus on her music rather than her good looks. It's a smart move that's made all the difference in establishing her integrity.

"I'm not a slave to this industry," she says. "I have my own mind and my own thoughts, and I love that. I don't know about everybody else, if that's what they have or if they make their own decisions. But I do, and I'll continue to do that. It's in my blood."

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