The Hip-Hop Troubadour
Tells Her Story
Vocalist and song-writer Vinia Mojica has been featured on the most iconic hip-hop songs of our time. A New York City kid who was born in hip hop, naturally came to rise during the 90’s contributing her artistry to a vast array of musical projects. She has worked with everyone from A Tribe Called Quest, Black Star, De La Soul, Arto Lindsay, Andy Milne, Youssou N’Dour, Eric B, and Heavy D just to name a few. She is a vocalist who is not bounded by genres or labeling. A rather mysterious legend she has never released a solo record, leaving her fans still wanting more. The Revivalist caught up with Vinia Mojica as we gear up for Movement 2 – Excursions: A Tribe Called Quest Tribute Feat. The Revive Da Live Big Band this Friday at Harlem Stage, which she will be featured vocalist along with Dinco D and Charlie Brown of Leaders of the New School, and Dres from Black Sheep. Below Ms. Mojica candidly shares her story of a young woman growing up within the vibrant musical scene of New York City in the late ’80s through the ’90s.
How did you get started in music?
I grew up in New York City, and here is where music became an integral part of my life. Growing up here, and both my brother and sister were a lot older than me, and they were both really into music, so that put me in the perfect position to absorb the musical influences they had. As a child I spent a lot of time on my own, playing with their records. My sister was really into soul, r&b, disco, and musical theatre, and my brother was really into classic rock; Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, The Who, The Rolling Stones. He was also into jazz like John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Immediately my ears were all over the map. By the time I hit my teenage years, I decided music was the most important thing to me. So I applied and got into Laguardia High School where I studied voice. During my time at Laguardia I met just about everyone I would end up working with during my career. They didn’t all go to Laguardia, so it was a combination of my environment, which brought opportunity, and my curious personality.
I love to check out anything, anywhere. I did a lot of hanging out, going to parties way too young, all over lower and upper Manhattan. It was all the right timing to what was happening which was a brand new scene that was merging hip-hop and experimental music. I just happened to run into all these amazing artists. So by the time I was fifteen I had met a lot of people in the music business, which was easy to do back then. There weren’t so many exclusive things going on and nothing really cost much. I had the freedom to hang out during the week, because I was basically growing up with just my mom, and she worked at night, so I was free to roam the streets, and I did just that [laughs]. But it wasn’t just because I had the freedom, it was also just a different time. I had groups of friends that were interesting and liked to explore as much as I did. That’s how I got into music, art, and performance. It was really just the luck of timing of where I was growing up and the culture I was in. And on top of that I was trained, so I was able to actually show up and know what to do. And the next thing I knew, I was a teenager and my friends started making records. It wasn’t really something I put a lot planning into, but I knew I was on a path to what I wanted which was to be an artist, and I was really blessed to be in a circumstance so that it could happen. And I pursued it in a way that was childish and fun which is normal for a teenager, and it worked out. The next thing I knew it was my job. I was on my own by the time I was 18. My mom passed away so it became a necessity to pursue music as a career. That’s how I became a person who jumped from record to record.
Who were you meeting specifically at this time? You also mentioned that it was a different “time” and it was, you grew up in an iconic time in music. How did that feel?
Wow! I guess it was. I never think about it, but now that you put it that way I hear what you are saying. I was a part of it because of circumstance. It wasn’t calculated, so while I was in it I didn’t know that it would be viewed how it is now. So every time I hear someone say that I have a new understanding of my experience, which I love. I was meeting a wide spectrum of people. Around the same time frame I met Q-Tip, Ali, and The Jungle Brothers. I met the Jungle Brothers one night when my friends and I were going to a party on a boat ride. One of my other friends who wasn’t there said she knew people who were performing and she told us to look out for them because they were “brand new.” So that’s what we did, but the boat ride didn’t happen because as soon as we left the dock a fight broke out, which was normal for back then [laughs]. So we never got to see any performances. The group that was gonna perform was The Jungle Brothers. On the walk back from the boat there were droves of people leaving and there were a group of guys that stood out. They were dressed very strangely, they were cracking jokes, and they were funny. They were very friendly, I would say they were hitting on us, but they were just really being funny. So of course they way we were we introduced ourselves, we began to talk, and we became fast friends. Then we found out in that five minutes of walking that they went to Murry Bergtraum High School and they were going to perform on the boat and I figured out they were the group my friend was talking about.
I also met people like Andre Harrel and Heavy D, so there was that R&B side. I also met Puffy when I started to do a lot of session work for Uptown Records and he was interning their at the time. I met Russell Simmons. Some of my friends who I had grown up with in Queens were making a hip-hop record at the time, basically everyone was making a hip hop record [laughs]. They were signed to places like Priority Records, so I would do sessions for them. I even did a session for Eric B. At the same time I also had a whole other connection of friends who were more into the experimental scene and The Black Rock Coalition. So I met Greg Tate and I was performing live with him with a band he had at that time called Women In Love. Through him I met Yuka Honda who would become Chiba Mato and Marc Anthony Thompson who would become Chocolate Genius and at the time they were in a band together. This was all the East village, Lower East Side, and Soho crowd. I just wanted to be making music in any avenue that I could and I was very lucky because I happened to be around people who were very good at it and became successful. Everyone was really interesting and ahead of the curve in whatever genre they were working in. I was a very hungry student, I wanted to see what I could do vocally and where my ears could take me. I definetly knew what sounded good and I wanted to be apart of it.
So to answer your second question it felt really enlightening to be basically this little black girl, running around these different scenes that didn’t really connect with each other; very rarely did these groups of people know each other. That was a normal part of my life even in school, I wasn’t a cliquey girl. I always did my own thing, so I had friends on all different sides of the school. I never felt that I had to be or fit in one place. But I understood that there are some people who find a spot and they like that spot and they stay there. I just never had that sensation. What I was feeling at the time was freedom. I felt that there was nothing limited to me and that I didn’t have to pursue anything specific other than the general concept of being creative, collaborating, and learning.
That’s so dope, because something that is very apparent in your career is your collaborations. You are an intense collaborator; you are able to integrate very well into different sounds.
That’s kind of my personality. I’m a good adaptor [laughs]. There is a plus and minus to that. On the plus side it has made it so in the span of my career, which is has been half my life, I have a really great story for everything. By the time I was 22 I had been to five continents. I had no idea of how vast a part of my life that would become and how it would changed my perspective of the world, and really open my mind to different possibilities. But on the negative side it also made it difficult to really choose, because I was like a kid in a candy store. I look for the balance in everything usually so its hard for me to ignore the dark and the light, I actually don’t want to. I knew that there were some people that I thought were really magical and special and I felt that way about Tribe, De La, who I met at the same time as well. I met De La Soul as a result of being at certain parties at the time which were moving parties at places like Hotel Amazon that used to be on Rivington. The same people showed up to all the parties, and that’s where I would I meet everybody.
Was it ever a difficult being a woman in these men dominated spaces? Did you ever experience any resistance or have to stand your ground against someone?
Yea, it happened a lot. It happened up until recent times, it just depends on who you are dealing with. There are unfortunately still a lot of macho men and the business is flooded with them. And life is flooded with them, and in the entertainment business there is still the same paradigm, men run the show. Few and far between you’ll find really powerful woman. It’s one of the reasons why I pursued my career on the sidelines to some extent, because the more involved I would become I would usually end up in a situation where some macho man wanted to control my entire career. Make me over, make my image and sound and dictate the women I’d be and present that to the world. This would happen to a lot of women artists, they would become really successful and would owe their lives to this dude. And they would take all your money. They’d sign you to these “production” deals that were very popular at the time. “Sign a production deal with me and I’ll make you a star.” I can’t even tell you how many of those I said no to. And as a woman that is a really dangerous position to be in. A lot of people assumed things because I was doing well. The rumors would get back to me implying that I was doing different things to get ahead. But it was just because I knew how to hustle and they couldn’t respect. that. There is a fine line you have to walk as a woman in the world, not just in entertainment, you have to have an awareness of your femininity and learn how to harness the masculine strength that you can put in front and say these are my boundaries. And then you add on a courageous defiance that every artist needs.
I would say for me it was definitely learning as I went along, because I didn’t have any particular mentor. I will say I latched on to different people as a student and I had many mentors whether they were aware of it or not. And sometimes I felt that when I would be dealing with women in any collaborative effort or as a part of a larger group of people I would watch them and see how they managed the men around because they were always more men. I worked almost everyday with a majority of men, I was lucky if I saw a female and if a female showed up it was usually a girl that a man was with at the time. I would be the only woman at the session who was working. So I always felt obligated to make the other woman feel welcome, because usually she was just a trophy and guys sort of treat them that way unless they were a serious girlfriend and they usually weren’t. And sometimes I would let them know that you don’t have to be sitting here for six hours ignored. There are so many different layers. But I found that as I woman it was important for me to be a good example, but also be willing to have fun, and to take myself seriously. But when it came time to be paid, yes I had to be very serious and speak up. I didn’t often work just for the fun of it, because like I said I was on my own and I had rent to pay and most of the people in peer group didn’t. And sometimes money is the last thing an artist wants to talk about. So you just have to learn how to maneuver in those circumstances and also learn how to protect yourself as a woman, because immediately you are a second class citizen, whether they realize it or not, they are conditioned. They don’t recognize that the way the are interacting with you about business with you is completely different than they did with the next man. Everything is clear between the men and then they come to me and their voice gets different, their body language changes, all of the sudden it’s about how nice I look that day. It was very condescending sometimes. And there were times where I did lose my temper because I felt like that they didn’t understand how hard I was working. On top of that in a stressful workplace with men who lacked respect. I found that that happened to me mostly in hip-hop, so I began to pull away, it was like a third job. First job was to learn a melody and write lyrics, second job was to make sure I got paid, and third job was to make sure I wasn’t getting disrespected by some immature guy.
Thank you for sharing that because it is important that we discuss these issues as we move on as a community, as women, men, and musicians. With the recent passing of Whitney Houston who obviously had a very difficult time being a black woman within the music industry, and with the many other examples of black women who have been ill treated, we have to address the pervasive issues of sexism and racism.
I’ve encountered women over the years in various situations, other artists, my peers who will not acknowledge it. Even though they are visibly going through it. They have been brainwashed into thinking that if they speak out about it they are showing weakness or making an excuse or playing a victim. That’s what society does to women who want things to change for the better for themselves, because the only way you can really confront it, is to actually acknowledge that it is happening. A lot of women don’t want to do that, because maybe they don’t want to jeopardize their careers, and I can respect that but I don’t think it is particularly wise. It’s better for the whole to be honest about these little details. But that didn’t stop me, I didn’t get crushed by anything. I thank god that I never had any seriously bad thing happen to me. But I have had to pass up opportunities, I have had to change the direction of certain parts and certain areas of my career as a result, because I wasn’t in the position to do anything differently. I’ve had really great offers come my way that I’ve had to turn down because they came with a lot of baggage that I don’t want. You’re right, I don’t hear enough women talk about that about what they’ve had to give out.
As this is our vocalist issue we are highlighting the the vocalist as a pivotal component of music. Who are some of your vocal influences?
As we are talking I am listening to David Bowie. He is a major influence for me. He’s underrated in terms of what a beautiful vocalist he is. People focus so much on his unique style and sound which definitely counts, but when you listen to a lot of Bowie for example when you asked this question, “Lady Grinning Soul” was playing. He actually wrote it inspired by this vocalist, a beautiful black woman, who used to sing a lot of background for him and Mick Jagger. The song is about how beautiful, strong, sensual, and sexy this woman is and how he is just mesmerized by her. The vocal performance on that song is one of the most beautiful performances I’ve heard from David Bowie. It’s one of the songs that I can play fifty times over. I love the yearning in his voice. I like the way that he is like a chameleon even vocally not just his looks.
Nina Simone. She is a major influence for me. There is a sense of anger in her voice that I find really beautiful. I understand it. Sometimes when I hear her, there is pain, anger, and angst in there. But it’s refined and it’s very reserved. She is adamant, even when she’s talking about love. I love the way she puts across these really beautiful lyrics and melodies.There is a woman that passed away years ago. Karen Dalton she’s was a folk singer who sounded a lot like Billie Holiday who of course influenced everybody, including me. But Karen Dalton who was one of the women who was popular on the scene during the time of Bob Dylan, coming up and singing at all the spots in the village. She’s got this achingly beautiful, bluesy, folky, soul voice. She had a really tragic life I came to find out. I think she only put out a couple of albums but her voice is absolutely stunning.
And then I would say Marvin Gaye. For the obvious reasons. Marvin Gaye is all and every. I also adore classical music, Bach specifically. Believe it or not though there are rarely vocal representations of Bach music but it’s the most beautiful melodies, you can jump all over it. I studied Bach when I was in high school. I used to sing and perform Bach pieces as part of an elective class and it really influenced me about timing, chords, and harmonies. It’s a major way in which I approach music. Whenever I can choose where I want to be it’s never on the one, that’s the best way I can describe it.
You’ve mentioned a wide range of influences and I think that reflects from your roots in hip-hop. In terms of hip-hop and the art of sampling and all of the different sounds and records that go into one track from an Eric Dolphy tune to a Sly Stone tune, I feel like hip-hop is such an immense form of integration of sound.
I agree. I think that’s probably why it took so long for people to appreciate hip-hop in the mainstream. It’s such a specific place in music, it would only have been able to grow in New York City. That little pot that was being stirred, all of these tiny little ingredients, a dash of this a dash of that, because of the way this city functions. Culturally we are open to just about anything as long as it sounds good. As long as it feels good, as long as it’s interesting. Sometimes I feel like it’s getting lost nowadays. But generally I believe that is the reason why hip-hop is specifically a New York City invention. Then overtime it has been taken as a basic recipe all over the world adding all these other ingredients from cultures all over the map, allowing it to breathe new life and sensations into it. Every time that I traveled to all these distant places it was a result of hip-hop. I toured a long time with an avant-garde jazz artist, Andy Milne. I toured about three years with Andy. With him I traveled all over the U.S. and Canada. In those situations my hip-hop influences were filtering there way into this jazz medium that Andy was doing. I jumped around, but every time I toured in another country it was a result of hip-hop. And every time I went someplace, I heard another flavor of hip- hop. Even watching with the process of the french hip-hop group I worked with, Alliance Ethnik, the French emcee was learning how to work the rhythm of the French language into hip-hop and it was amazing to watch, it changes the flow of everything. Every new language changes the flow. I’ve heard people rhyming in Polish and it’s wild. And when I was in Senegal with Youssou N’Dour I was famous there for the work I did with a Senegalese hip-hop group in the states and I didn’t even know. It was all because of hip-hop.
Can you talk about your collaborations with Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and Black Star? How did those amazing records come into fruition?
Well “Verses of the Abstract” I did as a result of a friendly rivalry between Tribe and De La. I believe so, I don’t know if its true [laughs]. I always called them the “boys” the boys had a lot of love-hate rivalries always going on creatively. They always wanted to one up each other. My first recording for anything hip-hop was The Jungle Brothers and shortly after that, Pos asked me to do the De La stuff. And as a result to that I think that’s why Q-tip asked me to do something for their album, even though I was on their first album in the snippets in between. I hadn’t sung on the record but I was there at all the sessions. My mother had died during the time of the making of their second album. I think Bob Power was somehow involved with this, Bob was like the den mother and they wanted to do a tribute to me for my mom, and that tune is called “Vibes and Stuff” and at the end of the song Q-tip makes a dedication to my mom and his father who also passed from cancer. So for me that was a special time when my friends were rallying for me, and showing me love. I really treasured that they respected my opinion and they trusted my ear.
And my favorite couple songs that I’ve done have been with Mos, because they were actually literally one take. Most of the other songs were too but they had a whole like a motion picture going on. It was such a natural easy fit that I feel that they really reflect my natural vocal inclination. Whereas something that I did with De La Soul, “Saturdays” was supposed to be ironic, but everyone recognizes me from that song which I don’t mind, I’m glad people like it, but it’s not really me. I was requested to sing in a particular way and “Verses from the Abstract” there’s really not that much singing going on, it was just me laughing with them. “Get ta Steppin” was my favorite way to record, we did it old school style and we were both on the same mic, that’s why it sounds so intimate. That rarely gets done anymore. It was done in a cheapo studio in midtown at 3:30 in the morning [laughs]. It was beautifully and magically symmetrical. It just came together in an instant. I did it one take with him running through it, and I hadn’t even heard the song really. He just played me a snippet of it, because he’s very spontaneous which I love, and it’s just a feel. And “Climb” was just one take in the Sony studios because he was successful then [laughs]. Now we were in a gigantic orchestra room and he was sitting at the grand piano, and I was in gigantic booth. But once I heard the chord progression in the song and the harmonies in the song, that was the kind of song that if I was going to make my own song at the time I would have made that. That is a reflection of my taste. And “Get ta Steppin” with the intimacy of it I love that because it made me feel like it was the ’70s and we were really doing a real duet. And Mos was so happy with it within five minutes of us doing the duet itself, he went to sleep and while he was sleeping I added my harmonies with the engineer and Hi-Tek was there too. Mos completely trusted my instinct, and a combination of all those things are why those two songs are really special for me because I feel like it is reflection of myself. I feel really fortunate because I have become connected to all of these amazingly talented people during the beginning of their careers it has always been a part of my musical journey.
Interview by Tamara Davidson