Shirlette Ammons is On Her Grind
By Brian Howe
Durham’s Shirlette Ammons joins the Dynamite Brothers, guest stars to go ‘larger than this moment’
At 1:15 on a recent July afternoon, a compact figure came bopping into The Federal in Durham with a purposeful spring in her step that belied the reckless heat outside. She wore a form-fitting mesh jersey and low-slung jeans, with a metal stud piercing her lip and her dark hair skinned close on the sides. A journalist waiting at the bar noted that she was just late enough to be fashionable, but not so late as to require an explanation—perfectly played. The bartenders cried “Shirlette!” in unison, saluting the musician, poet, and Durham fixture. It felt like being in an unusually fresh episode of Cheers.
She whisked the journalist into a quiet rear dining room, explaining en route that she would be intermittently fielding calls from people at the NC Museum of History, who were to record her saying “I’m from North Carolina” for a permanent installation. After they ordered veggie-burger sliders (his) and pimento cheese (hers), she began to explain the origins of her new album of soul, funk, hip-hop and more, And Lovers Like, which features backing by local journeymen the Dynamite Brothers and a cornucopia of guest stars. But then she broke off mid-sentence to trade slang with a tattooed passerby who may or may not have been a shaved bear. (Dude was burly.) “I’m politicking,” she said, indicating the journalist.
People, this is official: Shirlette Ammons is on her grind.
Her name already rings out in North Carolina, but she wants more. The dominant traits of And Lovers Like—the new focus on everyday life, the cultural cross-section of collaborators and styles—stem from her desire not to be just a local artist, a local African-American artist, or a local African-American queer artist. She is all of these things, and they’re all reflected in the record, which is largely narrative and autobiographical. But it’s simultaneously more personal and more universal than her work as a poet and with the band Mosadi Music, where commentary on culture, gender, and race can be found in greater supply than lived experience. Ammons is widening her aim—and hopefully, her audience along with it.
“I’m all about legacy,” she said, reflecting on artists who achieved it while neither hiding nor amplifying their sexual orientation. “For me, Me’Shell Ndegéocello was the one who made queerness not the focus of the music, but a part of it—the music stood alone. It wasn’t just that she was a ‘gay artist;’ she was good. If you want to go back further, to [early-twentieth century blues singer] Bessie Smith, she was queer and a dope-ass musician who included her experience in music she was making for everyone.”
“That’s the audience I want,” she went on, holding it in her mind’s eye—litanical now, the poet coming through. “That’s the audience I want, who’s willing to be emotionally expansive and not require you to look or be one way all the time. Who’s cool with a loud guitar but also with a nice wah-wah rhythm. Who can hear funk in a way that’s not sterile. An expansive audience who’s willing to make us larger than this moment.”
But if Ammons has one eye on a broader horizon, the other peers deeply within. “Introspection” is a concept that came up again and again. It’s the quality that first attracted her to the Dynamite Brothers, who have a sensitive feel for pensive funk and soul. And it’s the quality that she sought to achieve in her lyrics.
“I was approaching 40,” the 37-year-old said, “and I’d never written about fucking, or being in love, or being in flux. It’s probably because I’m country, and raised Christian, and queer. So how do you manage all that? But I think we now live in a moment when, even though we are marginalized, it’s valuable to chronicle queerness in a way that’s not necessarily…un-normal.” In other words, the journalist suggested, a street-level view, rather than more symbolic, bird’s eye-type stuff.
“Yeah,” Ammons nodded. “Why do you have to dress up in a meat suit? Can I just rock my t-shirt and jeans?”
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If you follow hip-hop mixtapes, then you’re familiar with the concept of rappers adding new vocals to pilfered instrumentals. Think of any number of high-profile Lil Wayne tapes—figuratively, of course; “mixtape” is an anachronism for these digital artifacts—or Clipse’s We Got it for Cheap series. That’s kind of what Ammons has done here, with key differences. Instead of cherrypicking chart-hop beats, she went ham on a set of instrumentals from one record, the Dynamite Brothers’ 2009 LP, Again. Instead of tossing off freestyles, she wrote fleshed-out songs that were laced with hip-hop but more deeply rooted in funk and soul. And instead of just jacking the music, she worked with the band’s blessing and participation—though it sounds like at least a hint of coercion was involved.
“It all started with me and Mitch [Rothrock],” Ammons said. “He’s solid, man. He has a gentle heart.” The gentle-hearted Dynamite Brothers frontman had been a fill-in guitarist for Mosadi Music, and Ammons bonded with him over a mutual love of the vintage analog sound. “I get antsy when Mosadi and my poetry are at a lull,” Ammons said, “and want to work with other people’s ideas” – a situation she found herself in around 2008. “So I’d hit up Mitch like, ‘Send me some music! Send me some music!’ I just wanted to fuck with something.”
Ammons worked on the instrumentals intermittently, adding vocals in Garageband, and then put them aside. Fast-forward to the 2009 release of Again, when hearing some of the same instrumental parts she’d fucked with inspired her to send her own efforts to the Dynamite Brothers, who dug them. They had the idea of making an album using Again instrumentals with a different artist on each track. “But I had already done so many!” Ammons recalled. “I was geeking out on it.” So they decided to make the album “Shirlette & the Dynamite Brothers” while keeping the idea of having guests on every song.
Rothrock and Ammons pieced the record together from a patchwork of Again instrumentals, new music, and remote collaborators. She got Kelly Crisp of the Rosebuds to sort of rap, in the style of Blondie’s “Rapture,” on “Nevamind,” which was originally the Dynamite Brothers’ “In Time.” She had Applejuice Kid record Yahzarah in his home studio. Daniel Hart emailed in what Ammons correctly described as the “sick violin outro” of “Kissin’ and Cussin’,” a remake of a song by former Carolina Chocolate Drop Justin Robinson.
But don’t think the record was assembled by cold committee—it has a live, organic feel, and there is evidence that Ammons ran the show. “Mitch sent me this programmed drums and bass demo he called ‘Intergalactic Love Affair,’” Ammons said, cracking up affectionately. “I was like, ‘[That title] is awful, man! This needs work.’” The gospel-tinged tune appears on the record, thankfully, as “The Catch Up.”
It’s all part of the plan to nudge things away from the exotic and abstract, toward the everyday and tangible. For another example, Ammons wanted opening song “The Shakes” to be “kind of crass and lustful”—so of course, she hit up local rapper Juan Huevos. In back-to-back verses, they each take on the venerable hip-hop topic of meeting a hottie on the street, forging camaraderie between two experiences—gay African-American female and straight Caucasian male—that are often portrayed as worlds apart. “People may not notice at first that we’re both using the ‘she’ pronoun,” Ammons said. “I think that’s cool.”