Carl “Chucky” Thompson, a producer and multi-instrumentalist whose slick samples of Seventies and Eighties soul underpinned some of the most popular R&B and hip-hop tracks of the Nineties, died on Monday at age 53, his rep confirmed to Rolling Stone. A cause of death was not immediately available.
In the Nineties, mainstream hip-hop started to move away from building tracks on obscure samples, choosing instead to craft songs around loops of well-known refrains and bass-lines from earlier eras. P. Diddy and his crew of producers — a group known as the Hitmen that included Thompson — were integral to this shift.
Thompson’s credits in 1994 and 1995 alone were remarkable: He co-produced the majority of Mary J. Blige’s My Life album, the Notorious B.I.G.’s swaggering anthem “Big Poppa,” and Faith Evans’ cooled-out neo-funk “You Used to Love Me.” Blige’s album was certified triple-platinum, while both the latter two singles earned plaques of their own and still get played hundreds of times a month on the airwaves, according to Mediabase.
“You were the kindest person the world has ever seen,” producer-engineer Young Guru wrote. “You were the most gifted musician I have ever been around. You treated me like family from day one.”
In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Thompson explained why his productions were so effective. “You’re grabbing something that’s been classic for 20 years and then put it with a young perspective,” the producer said. “I look at what we did with [Blige] as almost the same thing that Quincy Jones did with Michael Jackson. You got Quincy who’s seasoned, older, and Michael is younger. Those two energies together are the reason you can play a song like ‘Beat It,’ a record that came out in the 1980s, to kids today, and they’ll jump around like that shit is brand new.”
Though Thompson was closely identified with New York hip-hop and R&B in the Nineties, he was born in Washington, D.C. in 1968, and he came up steeped in one of the capital’s venerable local traditions: Go-go music. “My whole background is D.C. and Go-go,” Thompson told Rolling Stone. “Back then you either hired a band or a DJ. When they came with the crossfader for DJs, they could play one record and slide right into the next to keep people on the dance floor longer. [Go-go star] Chuck Brown said, ‘man, I’m losing business.’ I played congas with Chuck. He decided, ‘I’ll put a percussion break in between songs.’ So we would finish a song, then I’d do a percussion break, and I’d do a call and response — ask the crowd, ‘y’all tired yet?’ That’s part of what started Go-go.”
In the early Nineties, Thompson connected with Diddy for management. At the time, Diddy was focused on building up a young Bad Boy Records, and he took an immediate liking to the beats Thompson was sending him. He co-produced “Think of You,” which went to a young Usher, and soon the producer found himself in the studio with Blige. (“Think of You” was originally intended for Blige, Thompson said, while “You Used to Love Me” was made for the group Total, but both found happy homes elsewhere.)
At the time, Blige was coming off the breakout success of What’s the 411? and worried about a potential sophomore slump. “She was picking through like a thousand tapes and she hated everything,” Thompson recalled. But she liked his demo for “Be With You,” a G-funk-like track that Blige turned into a bereft breakup song. “I wasn’t initially scheduled to do shit else but that one song,” Thompson said recently. But the two formed a connection, and he ended up co-producing nearly every track on her second album.
My Life relied on samples or interpolations of unimpeachable hits from the Seventies and Eighties: Mary Jane Girls’ “All Night Long,” Barry White’s “It’s Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next to Me,” Curtis Mayfield’s “Give Me Your Love,” Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You,” and Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves the Sunshine,” among others. Thompson drew from the same well for the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa,” which flipped the Isley Brothers’ keening Quiet Storm ballad “Between the Sheets.”
“Around that time Ice Cube had ‘It Was a Good Day’ happening,” which was built around a different Isley Brothers sample, Thompson explained last year. “So I said, let me keep it right there, put a simple drum line under [the ‘Between the Sheets’ flip], and throw this keyboard, West Coast-thing in there and just see where his brain is gonna take it. I threw it in and then I left…. I came back the next day, and they’re like, ‘you gotta hear the hook that B.I.G. just threw on.’”
Thompson continued to produce across R&B and hip-hop, working with Tevin Campbell and Mase, New Edition and the Lox, SWV and Jadakiss, Total and Nas. He’s responsible for Nas’ most urgent record — a violent, wildly compelling single from 2001 titled “One Mic” — that reverses the typical dynamic of pop songs: The verses become increasingly agitated, seething until they boil over, but the hook is a soothing mantra, “all I need is one mic.”
“I’m the type of producer that likes to sit with the artist and get into their story,” Thompson explained last year. He met with Nas at the studio during the height of his public spat with Jay-Z. “I’m like, ‘we got other things to think about,’” the producer remembered. “…Then we had a conversation where if you’re about to go through something, and you know it’s about to get ugly, whether with your family or wherever, what’s that record that you play that gets you prepared, calms your nerves, gets you in that brainspot? That song is mellow but intense. He had the idea of wanting a song where the verses are up but the hook is [cool].”
As the sound of hip-hop and R&B moved away from the soul-centric Nineties, Thompson participated in fewer hits, but he didn’t stop working. He was at work on a movie about the influence of Go-go in his productions, and he also appeared in a recent documentary celebrating the 25th anniversary of My Life.
Reflecting on the endurance of that album, Thompson turned to an unexpected analogy. “You remember those hearing tests we used to take back in high school?” he asked. “That first tone, everybody can hear that shit. It starts going up higher, and old dudes start dropping off. Hitting that first tone is why I feel like My Life still has stamina… We were using older samples, but [bringing] fresh perspective.”
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