The stats are impressive to say the least. To date, Mary J Blige – the undisputed queen of hip hop soul – has sold more than 50 million albums and 15 million singles worldwide. Recently, US industry bible Billboard ranked Blige as the most successful female R&B artist of the past 25 years.
So why on earth is Mary taking a call from Mixmag in London’s Kings Cross of all places? Well, Mary J is back in London for two reasons: one, she’s got a show at The Roundhouse for iTunes and two, she has a brand new album called The London Sessions to promote. Co-produced by Disclosure, MJ Cole, Naughty Boy, Sam Romans, Jimmy Napes and Sam Smith, it’s a testament to the British electronic talent bubbling in the city that brought this project to fruition. But before we get to the present day, let’s go back to where it all started.
Obviously you’ve recorded a new album in London which we’ll get to in a minute but the first record we all heard in the UK was the Brixton Flavour remix of ‘Real Love’. What did London mean to you in 1992?
“London meant a lot to me then as it does now. I remember doing my first regular concert with a full band in London and for each album I have been coming back and forth ever since. The very first time, you really have to try to get used to it!”
The next big 90s moment for hip hop and house was when C & C Music Factory blew up with ‘Gonna Make You Sweat’ and ‘Things That Make You Go Hmm’. After that, Clivilles and Cole worked with Aretha Franklin on ‘A Deeper Love’. Is working with Disclosure in the same ballpark?
“I remember that [Aretha moment] and I remember C & C Music Factory and Martha Wash on those club songs back in the day. But what happened was I saw the video for ‘F For You’ on VEVO and thought this is amazing, it sounds like something I grew up on and I felt attached to it, the music and the colour, so I said to my manager: ‘I want to do a remix with them’ and it turns out they were in the same system and the calls were made that week. Not long after, the song came out and it blew up over here.”
So you were a fan of Disclosure?
“I was excited by what I heard. The amazing talent that these guys had and how much they knew the history – you can hear it in the songs. It was like what I listened to as a kid. I’m connected to people that give me the nostalgia, so for me it was supposed to happen. When it blew up, we were going to do a whole EP but we changed that to an album. I came down here for the summer and the weather was unbelievable, it was sunny every single day and everybody was amazing and fun. Every day I was excited to get to the studio.”
Your mentor Puff Daddy is notorious for his love of clubs – even today. What about you?
“I stay connected. I still go out to clubs from time to time. I used to love The Tunnel, that was THE club in New York. Also the Palladium and The Red Zone a long time ago.”
Are you surprised to see so many people you came up with make the jump to dance music? Snoop Dogg and Puffy are just two examples
“No, not really, because it’s music and it’s great music. Puffy is an artist and a businessman so he sees what that is and Snoop is the same. I have a serious musical history. People keep me in a ‘soul’ box and won’t give me a credit for the things I can do. I am much more than Mary J Blige the soul singer.”
So making this album was also about making a statement?
“Yeah – it’s a statement that says: I am an artist and I can do so much more. And here it is. And the beautiful thing is it’s still Mary J Blige, I pick things [that] I know are a good fit for me, whether that’s a club song, a blues song or one of the ballads with strings.”
Which leads us to where you are now – ‘Right Now’ for example. How did the songs with Disclosure come together?
“It was easy because Guy is the real deal. We were watching him create the beat as he wrote the song. They know what they’re doing and that really helps me. Sam Smith is also amazing. Melodically he’s a genius, so much fun and a sweet, down to earth guy. Another amazing artist is Sam Romans, another artist/writer from here - this guy is incredible. And Naughty Boy and Emile Sande are the best. I’m not saying it because I have to say it – everyone was a pleasure and a treasure.”
Sam Smith has totally smashed it in America, hasn’t he?
“I was super-excited for Sam. He’s just too good for people not to hear him. I want him to be around as long as the Elton Johns of this world.”
Is there a difference between working with Darkchild and someone new like, say, Disclosure?
“Well, not really. The only difference is that Rodney is like family and that’s just how familiar we are with each other. They all work the same way – like Disclosure, he creates beats on the fly too.”
Two final questions. The Nina Simone biopic – what happened to that?
“That’s been and gone, it didn’t happen and it’s done. I’m not particularly happy but it’s OK.”
Any last words?
“Yes, I absolutely love London and would live here if I chose to!”