In the early 2000s, Murder Inc. built an indomitable empire of radio hits. With rapper Ja Rule supplementing his swagger and edginess, Ashanti etched her lane as the sensual songbird.
Born Ashanti Douglas, the Long Island native reeled listeners in early on with her smooth vocals. First, she proved to be a formidable feature artist when she co-starred in Big Pun’s 2001 “How We Roll” before appearing on hits like Fat Joe’s “What’s Luv” and Ja Rule’s “Always on Time.” In 2002, her first full-length album, Ashanti, catapulted her to critical acclaim as songs like “Foolish,” “Happy” and “Baby” quickly helped her become a fixture in the R&B landscape.
With five albums under her belt, Ashanti is now a seasoned veteran. Last year, she paired up with Ja Rule for “Helpless” on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton Mixtape, which hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Aside from that, Ashanti has a forthcoming track called “Lose Yourself” and recently appeared on Go90’s new original series called Crashed, where celebrities surprise unsuspecting fans during their regular activities.
In a new interview with Billboard, Ashanti speaks about her recent appearance on Crashed, the 15-year anniversary of her debut album Ashanti, her favorite collaborations with Ja Rule, and how she landed a Notorious B.I.G. verse for her debut single “Foolish.”
You were just on Joel McHale’s new series Crashed. Talk about how that all came together.
It was actually really cool. We’ve known [the talent booker] Betty for a minute, and she reached out to my mom. When I heard about what it was, I was like, “Oh my God. This is so cool.” I wish they would have had this around awhile ago, but it’s a really cool series. It kind of gives artists a chance to do something cool for their fans. I had never even heard of a “busker” [a street performer]. I’ve never heard that word before [doing this show] so, you know, [street performing] was a cool little world we delved into.
What was the fan’s initial reaction when she saw you for the first time?
I think she was kind of shocked, because if you’re just an average person doing what you’re doing every day in the middle of the mall, and somebody that you admire comes walking up to you with cameras, you’re going to be like, “What the?” She was just initially very shocked at what was going on.
If you could have any celebrity or icon crash your everyday activities, who would you choose and why?
If I could choose any celebrity or icon to crash my day? It would depend on the mood I’m in. Right now, I’m in a car mood. I would say the owner of Bentley. Come crash me so I can get a few cars. I need that new truck.
It’s so crazy because I’m in the middle of ordering two trucks while I’m here overseas, and I got my cousin and my dad going to the dealers, working on paperwork and transferring money. That’s why I said that. [Laughs]
It’s been almost 15 years since you released your debut album Ashanti. What’s the best memory you have recording that album?
I would say one of the best memories would be when I wrote the bridge for “Foolish.” First of all, I was surrounded by rappers. I was with Irv and those guys, and no one believed that I wrote my records. They used to make me write at what used to be called Crackhouse Studios on Mercer and they used to make me write in front of them, because they were like, “There’s no way” [I was writing these songs]. So when I wrote the bridge and Irv came back and he heard it, he was screaming, running around the fifth floor of the Crackhouse. Everybody was like, “Oh my God. This is crazy.”
I don’t know if this story ever made it out, but, initially, Irv had called Jay Z to come and rhyme on the bridge of “Foolish.” Jay was in motion. He was in the car and on the way to the studio to record it with me. Then Irv called him back like 10 minutes later, like, “Yo. Never mind. She needs to do this by herself. I don’t wanna do typical R&B songs featuring a rapper. I want to do something different. She’s going to hold this whole record on her own.” That’s what we did.
Speaking of “Foolish,” you actually were able to grab The Notorious B.I.G. for the remix to that record. With it being the 20th anniversary of his death in a few days [March 9], talk about how special it was for you to have Biggie on your remix.
That was like insane. So many people were like, “How did she pull that off?” It was crazy. This is another story. This is funny. I remember 7 Aurelius did the beat. I was at Red Lobster with my then-boyfriend, my ex now, when they played the beat for me over the phone. They were like, “Yo, you’re gonna get a verse from B.I.G.” And I remember, I was in Queens. I had to drive to the city to see what was up and what was gonna happen. Originally, Charli Baltimore was supposed to do the verse. We were able to get B.I.G. Irv was like, “Nah. This is gonna be all for B.I.G. This is gonna be crazy.”
So me and Irv went to Puff [Daddy]’s office to meet with [writer/songwriter/producer] Harve Pierre. Harve had the jack with the vocals, and was like, “Yo. You got it. We’re gonna do it.” I was like, “Oh my God.” Irv went and grabbed the jack and put it in his pocket like it was a piece of gold. He ran out of the office, ran back to the studio, loaded the vocals up, matched everything, and it was just crazy how everything just matched up. It was perfect and it just flowed. It was great. Puff co-signed it. He loved the record. It’s funny, because you know, I was supposed to do a deal with Puff before Murder Inc. I was like 14 so we had a little bit of history already. It was an amazing feeling to have a B.I.G. verse on my first record as the official remix.
You and Ja Rule have penned some great records together. If you could pick your top three favorite collaborations, which would they be and why?
I would go “Always on Time,” “Mesmerize” and “Down 4 U.” I think “Down 4 U” would be my favorite only because, again, for me that was another writing challenge. I was stuck. I was like, “What am I supposed to write about? I don’t know.” They just had the hook and the concept. Nobody had a verse on the record. I was one of the first to put a verse on the record. I remember just being in L.A. and was like, “Well, what am I supposed to say? I don’t know what I’m supposed to write about. What do you mean being down for somebody?” [Laughs] So I just remember the challenge that they would always give me and it just came together really well.
Me and Ja always, always possess this chemistry, and it just came out of nowhere. It’s crazy. It’s very organic. It’s natural. It’s just really genuine. Like, me and Ja could not see each other for months or years, but when we get onstage, it looks like we’ve been hanging out all day, every day. Sometimes, we dress in the same color and we won’t know. I was looking at some of our footage, and one of the shows we did in Australia — it was the last show — I had on all-white and he had on black and white, and we were like, “Oh, what the? What just happened?” [Laughs] We be on the same wave.
“Down 4 U” I would say is one of my favorites. It was a dope record and we had Bobby [Brown] and Whitney [Houston] in the video, which was crazy. Obviously, “Always on Time” [is another], one of our biggest records. Again, that was really supposed to be for Brandy. She turned it down and I gladly took it. [Laughs] At that time, I was super early in the game. I didn’t know what the politics were, but I was in the studio and they were like, “Yo. Let’s have ‘Shanti do it.” And that was history in the making.
What’s one word you would use to describe the type of show fans will get to see when you and Ja Rule grace the stage together on this tour?
One word? That’s tough. I’d say party. You’re at a party with your family. It’s good times, good vibes and positive energy. You’re gonna get to see some sexiness. I have a red-light special section of my show and of course for the ladies, Ja takes his shirt off. [Laughs] So it’s definitely a party. It’s very diverse. There’s a lot of emotion. There are some points of the show that are emotional and very serious. I talk about domestic violence on “Rain on Me.” There’s a theatrical part of the show that kind of has people stunned. It’s good. You’re gonna have an experience — you laugh, you cry, you dance, you get emotional. We did a little section with the whole Black Lives Matter [movement]. We put a lot of thought into it and being creative. You’ll definitely walk away like, “Yo, I had a good time.”
If you could have a conversation with your 21-year-old self, what would you tell her?
I would say to have even more confidence in yourself and be patient, because I promise you, if I had known what I know now about the way the politics and the contracts work… You know, I was never officially signed. I didn’t have a deal when “Foolish” was on the radio, so I wasn’t signed to Murder Inc. I wasn’t signed to Def Jam. I didn’t have a deal at all. I had three records in the top 10 of the Billboard charts without a record deal. [Laughs] If I would have known then what I know now, I would have held out for a few more ends. We were negotiating the deal. It was a holiday. I think we were going into Christmas and I was in the supermarket. It was me and my mom in the grocery store and two of my attorneys, Irv and two other people were on a big conference call. I just remember being in the grocery store and people were like going back and forth on the contract because I wasn’t signed. It was crazy.
Watch Ashanti’s appearance on Crashed here.