Condy ChesnuTT, performing at Pagoda Lounge on Thursday, remembers the day in 2002 when his cousin, who was his manager at the time, received a call from the Roots, telling him they wanted to collaborate with him. Specifically, they wanted to cover ChesnuTT’s song “The Seed” and have him sing on the track. It was all very strange considering that he had never met the Roots and his one album, The Headphone Masterpiece, was an obscure indie release.
Flattered, ChesnuTT, who plays the Pagoda Lounge this Thursday, wasn’t sure how he felt about actually doing it. He was still reeling from a debacle with Hollywood Records, which had signed his previous group, the Crosswalk, recorded their album and subsequently dropped them without releasing it. Working with another major-label group didn’t seem like such a good idea.
“I had it out for the industry. [But] my cousin told me it would definitely be a good move to make, so I gave it a shot, and it worked out,” ChesnuTT says.
The Roots’ version, “The Seed 2.0,” became a single on the band’s Phrenology album and the only song to get major radio airplay. With a mix of Black Thought’s rapping and ChesnuTT’s vocal hook, it became an accessible neo-soul pop track with hip-hop street cred.
Oddly, the Roots later told him their label didn’t want ChesnuTT to sing on the song because he wasn’t well known enough; they wanted them to use Lenny Kravitz.
“That right there’s how the industry works,” ChesnuTT says ruefully.
The success of “The Seed 2.0” helped bump The Headphone Masterpiece into the Billboard 200. It was an album completely unlike anything out there—a long collection of Guided by Voices–style lo-fi and four-track recordings that jumped all over the place in the most chaotic and jarring ways possible.
It included psychedelic rock, soul, R&B, hip-hop, gospel and punk sounds—and songs that fell outside of any genre. Some numbers were just short little bursts of emotion, while others were long meandering pieces with friends doing spoken word. Others, like “The Seed,” were genius pop gems.
“I wanted to make a statement. It was an in-your-face kind of project. At that point in time, a lot of the bands were too polished. It was completely at the other end of the spectrum,” ChesnuTT says.
Despite the newfound attention, ChesnuTT didn’t immediately release a follow-up recording. He remained more or less silent for a decade, with the exception of an appearance on Dave Chappelle’s Block Party in 2006 and the release of the EP Black Sin No Value in 2010.
In the midst of promoting The Headphone Masterpiece, ChesnuTT became a father.
“I really embraced the fact that I had to change,” he says. “I took time to get to know what fatherhood was all about and make sure I was in the best space possible to raise another human being. I was re-evaluating myself. I just took time to grow. I didn’t think it was going to take 10 years.”
It was an understandable decision considering the chaotic mind frame he was in while recording The Headphone Masterpiece. “I was all over the place,” he says. “I was rooming with four other people. It was the epitome of the rock & roll lifestyle. You can see it on The Headphone Masterpiece. I had the presence of faith on that record, but there was a darkness—a worldy spirit that occupied my headspace as well.”
Part of changing meant taking his spirituality seriously, which is apparent on his new record, Landing on a Hundred, released last October.
Songs like “Till I Met Thee” and “Everybody’s Brother” express a profound spiritual transformation. But really, everything about the decidedly sweet and passionate Landing on a Hundred is different than The Headphone Masterpiece. Rather than capturing his unfiltered emotions, he gave himself a lot of time to consciously shape everything that he was expressing.
“I took the opportunity to really look at each lyric to be sure it was saying everything I needed it to say without saying too much,” he says. “I put a lot of thought into what I had to say.”
In order to make the best possible album, while still maintaining control, ChesnuTT funded the project himself. When he ran out of money, he turned to Kickstarter to help finish the project and was surprised by the response.
“It just blew me away that people would donate and give so much, especially in a time when people hate paying for a record, even $10,” ChesnuTT says. “But they gave $50–$100 dollars for the project. It shows you the love people have for music, the passion they put behind projects they believe in.”