By Al Kaufman
When Cody ChesnuTT released The Headphone Masterpiece in 2002, the music world noticed. ChesnuTT was exactly what music should be. His 36-song masterpiece (the title is not an empty boast) easily encompassed R&B and hip-hop with funk, classic rock, gospel, and even a touch of punk. His songs were songs of passion, a passion that mostly emanated from his crotch. He was equal parts Prince and Curtis Mayfield, with some misogynistic gangsta rap thrown in on songs like, “Bitch, I’m Broke.” It was sloppy raunch and sweet soul, all intertwined into some sort of ragged glory.
The Roots’ Questlove took notice and re-recorded ChesnuTT’s “The Seed” as “The Seed (2.0)” (with Chesnutt) on their Prenology album. Suddenly ChesnuTT found himself rubbing shoulders with the likes of Dave Chappelle. He was young, fresh, and in demand.
Then he went away.
The Atlanta native re-appeared in 2010 as a social activist wearing a hard hat for his EP Black Skin, No Value. A couple of those songs (such as “Everybody’s Brother,” the story of a crack addict that now teaches Sunday school) and more appear on his grown folks 2012 release, Landing on a Hundred. Now Chesnutt sings of God, justice, and the turmoil that is part of love. Like Al Green and latter day Prince, ChesnuTT still brings the funk, just with a whole lot less braggadocio, and sometimes with a choir.
Chesnutt took some time out from his recent tour to speak about his transformation.
What’s with the hard hat?
The helmet? It’s a bit of symbolism—a soldier with a song, with the aim of being on the frontline— giving life instead of taking it.
You went away after The Headphone Masterpiece and came back a different person. Instead of boasting and bragging about your sex life, you are devotional to God, your family, and social change. What caused the change?
My desire to change. After the THM, I knew growth was absolutely necessary—growth of both the spirit and mind. The opportunity presented itself and I embraced it.
What do you think of the Cody ChestnuTT who made The Headphone Masterpiece?
Hmmm, I don’t get caught up on thoughts like that really. I’m completely invested in who I am now and what my life and the art form requires of me in this hour. I can say this though; I love him for making an effort to maintain some degree of artistic integrity, and his love of music.
Is it harder to keep it funky when you’re singing about God rather than sex?
I don’t think so. It’s all about the feeling. You can make any subject matter feel good, if, it’s genuinely in your heart and spirit. (Stevie Wonder: Have a Talk with God, The Staple Singers: I’ll Take You There, etc…)
Were you worried that when you came back after such a long layoff that there wouldn’t be an audience for you?
Not at all. I knew other people were growing in their own lives as well. I knew there would be some that didn’t connect to the new content right away, but I never felt like I wouldn’t have someone to share my new works with.
It was the call of the video director, a cool one. People really dig it, especially the children.
Cody ChesnuTT plays The Loft on Friday, October 4th.