When her debut album, "Who Is Jill Scott?" hit the music racks last July, the soul artist decided she didn't want to shout the answer from the rooftops. There'd be no full-spread ad in Rolling Stone, no "Live With Regis," no cardboard cutouts in Virgin Megastores--even though the man with the money behind her record label, NBA legend Michael Jordan, could have guaranteed that and more. Instead, Scott and her Hidden Beach Recordings opted for a more grass-roots approach. Release day found her at a black-owned mom-and-pop record store down the street from her West Philly home, and in the weeks that followed she plugged her work with visits to high schools in Brooklyn and South-Central L.A. Anyone who really wanted to know who Jill Scott is would have to buy her album.
Traditional? No. Successful? Definitely. "Who Is Jill Scott?" is approaching double platinum, selling nearly 2 million copies, and Scott was nominated for three Grammys as best new artist and female R&B vocalist. "Neo-Soul" artists like Scott, Musiq Soulchild and Lucy Pearl are selling millions of albums by identifying and targeting their core urban audiences before venturing into the mainstream. The Neo-Soul movement began a few years back with singers like D'Angelo, Maxwell and Erykah Badu, whose emotion-filled voices, thoughtful lyrics and spirited grooves hark back to the heyday of Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin. In a show of Neo-Soul's ascendancy, the 28-year-old Scott will appear as a headliner next week on VH-1's all-star tribute to the queen of soul herself.
"I wanted to entice," Scott says of her marketing approach, as she casually sips lemonade at a New Age bookstore. "Don't push so much. Just put it out there. Make it clear and simple--but make it worth curiosity and appreciation. The people will come." Scott's brand of artsy soul didn't endear her to black radio at first, which was fixated on the faster, "sex you up" sound of R&B. But her album, a jazzy blend of seductive ballads and saucy love tales, got the best promotion of all: word of mouth. At Eso-Won bookstore in South-Central, at Nell's Hair House in Brooklyn, on the Internet at Black Planet, listeners vibed on her new release (Shaquille O'Neal even gave her a shout-out on his Web site). But as the album gained momentum over the fall and winter, culminating with her Grammy nominations in December, Scott held back. She turned down magazine features in favor of intimate tour dates at clubs across the country. "I wanted to touch the people I was selling to," says Scott, who got her start reading her poetry in slam contests in Philadelphia and went on to pen a hit song for the rap group The Roots.
Like gangsta rappers in the early '90s, Neo-Soul musicians like Scott are discovering that the surest survival strategy is taking it to the streets. Def Jam Records decided the best way to market Musiq Soulchild's debut soul album was to hand out free CD samplers in inner-city neighborhoods. The album has sold 1 million copies since last November. "The mind-set of this industry is to make money first and not worry about the art of the game," says Soulchild, 23. "But I think there is an entire generation of new soul singers like Erykah Badu, D'Angelo and Jill who aren't getting caught up in that." Steve McKeever, head of Scott's label, says such street tactics are an absolute necessity, especially since black radio doesn't often take a chance on a new or different type of sound like Neo-Soul. "It took months for Jill to get played on most black radio stations," says McKeever, "and that really took the word on the street being so strong to make it happen."
Macy Gray had the same problem with her 1999 debut album, "On How Life Is," a mix of Neo-Soul and pop that won her critical acclaim, a Grammy and sales of 3 million copies--but little exposure on black radio. To make black radio take notice, Gray is employing several rap producers, including Dr. Dre, to arrange tracks for her still untitled second release, due out later this year. "It's been that way forever, from Marvin Gaye to Aretha Franklin," says Dr. Dre. "They had a huge mainstream following, but the black audience was always there first. There's no getting around that for total acceptance and for credibility." Credibility, or "keeping it real," is a not-so- subtle reference to an artist's loyalty to the black community. "I pretty much don't put my soul acts on morning TV shows or late night," says one marketing executive for a major music label. "Those appearances reduce the cool level a great deal, by turning off both the core and hip audience."
The importance of a core black following can't be underestimated. No one knows that better than soulful crooner Luther Vandross. With his 15th album due out in June, Vandross has the staying power this new generation of soul artists craves. To what does he attribute his longevity? "There was a point in my career where crossing over was something I talked about. But there is no more loyal base than your black audience. And while it's always nice to reach a larger audience--and any artist would want to do that--you have to take care of home first."
Now that she has taken care of things at home, Jill Scott is ready to venture out. After a mesmerizing duet at the Grammys with superstar Moby, she made an appearance on "David Letterman." The summer will find her traveling the country opening for Sting. She even just got her own billboard on Sunset Boulevard, which still asks the question who is jill scott? Now we know.