Photo: Russell Webster
Remembering Chucky Thompson In 10 Songs: From Bad Boy Hits To Go-Go Jams
Carl E. "Chucky" Thompson originally wanted to manage artists, but his passion for rugged beats, soul samples, and maintaining loyalty to his collaborators led to his ear changing the face of '90s R&B and hip-hop. A self-taught musician, the Washington, D.C. native cut his teeth playing percussion for go-go music legend Chuck Brown's band, The Soul Searchers, before joining Sean "Diddy" Combs' in-house production team at Bad Boy Entertainment, The Hitmen, following the success of Mary J. Blige's My Life album in 1994.
"Certain things are just life and God," Thompson said during a recent GRAMMY.com interview, "that situation came from me being in the right place at the right time."
News of his untimely passing shook up the music industry, but the GRAMMY nominee left us timeless music as an architect of hip-hop soul. Here are 10 hits and album cuts that the beloved Chucky Thompson produced for several immensely talented artists--spanning genres--that meant the world to him.
"Be With You," Mary J. Blige
Mary J. Blige had been crowned the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul following the triple platinum success of her 1992 debut LP, What's the 411? but was in search of material for her 1994 sophomore effort, My Life.
Frustrated by the demos not immediately grabbing her attention, along with her collaborators from the first album raising their prices, Thompson took some siren-sounding keys reminiscent of West Coast G-funk for the intro and slowed down the tempo with some hollow go-go music drumming to make the hairs on Blige's neck stand up. It set the tone for Blige to make her classic, most personal album to-date and for Thompson to take on a lion's share of My Life's production.
"Big Poppa," The Notorious B.I.G.
The Notorious B.I.G. unabashedly made a quintessential playa's anthem for the ages courtesy of Thompson's ear and console control in the winter of 1994. "Big Poppa," with its recognizable Isley Brothers "Between the Sheets" sample coupled with a looped bar that Biggie let out on Super Cat's "Dolly My Baby" remix, convinced listeners and pop radio that the rotund, Brooklyn-born emcee could charm the panties off the ladies and turn that charisma into platinum plaques.
"Think of You," Usher
Usher might be making a splash on the Vegas strip right now, but in 1994, he was just a teenage newcomer still trying to find his musical identity. Thompson was brought into the fold by Diddy to help give the future megastar some edge, so he flipped "Tidal Wave" by Ronnie Laws, a sample he recognized on Black Moon's classic banger "Who Got Da Props," to rub some of that new jack flavor off onto Usher.
That "Think of You" session is also when Thompson first met its songwriters, Faith Evans and Donell Jones: leading to him executive producing Faith's debut LP the following year. Featuring choreography by TLC member T-Boz and an appearance by singer/actress Taral Hicks in the music video, "Think of You" stalled at #58 on the Billboard Hot 100 but remains a favorite for Usher fans.
"CrazySexyCool - Interlude" & "Can I Get a Witness - Interlude," TLC
There wasn't a more successful (or doper) female group than Atlanta trio TLC in 1994. Their sophomore album, CrazySexyCool, was a chart-topping smash that spawned hits like "Creep," "Waterfalls" and "Red Light Special," but Thompson knew the power of making music short but sweet, too.
Playing guitar, keys and drums, Thompson split the playalicious funk groove into two snippets: one featuring T-Boz vamping, the other with Busta Rhymes breaking down the album title and lamenting on the essential qualities of fly chicks while Left Eye ad-libs under his scruffy vocals.
"Can't You See," Total ft. The Notorious B.I.G.
A few scales pulsate before it lays into its groove, thanks to the driving drums and bass riff on James Brown's well-sampled "The Payback." Bad Boy Entertainment's breakout female trio Total was joined by The Notorious B.I.G.'s suave, hot 16 bars to make their debut single first included on 1995's New Jersey Drive soundtrack before it landed onto the trio's debut self-titled project.
Thompson joined his fellow Hitmen producers Diddy, Herb Middleton and Rashad "Tumblin' Dice" Smith to give Total a sonic shoulder to cry on for a lover they can't seem to shake; arguably becoming one of Bad Boy's signature singles.
"You Don't Have to Worry," New Edition
New Edition reunited in full (all six members) for 1996's Home Again. Thompson, along with Hitmen cohorts Stevie J. and Diddy, dug in the crates, found James Brown's "Your Love," and gave the elder R&B boy band some street heat: so much that Michael Bivins and Ronnie DeVoe turn their charm into spittin' a few bars. The album version totally satisfies the palette until the song's Trackmasters remix ups the ante, featuring a pre-superstar Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliot.
"Soon As I Get Home," Faith Evans
Thompson really wasn't up to doing this song because he was heading to catch a flight back to D.C. A loyal person who always put the music first, he was convinced by Diddy per a plea from Faith to dust off a piano melody he wrote when he was just 16 years old. He expertly nestled it under the GRAMMY-winning singer/songwriter's breathy, seductive vocals that she had recorded on her answering machine. Backed by some snapping snares, Faith's plea to an isolated significant other became the second single from her platinum 1995 self-titled debut project and one of her most recognizable ballads.
"One Mic," Nas
Nas is largely considered to be one of the greatest emcees in hip-hop, but in 2001, Thompson knew Escobar needed an anthem for an encore at his performances. The height of the JAY-Z/Nas beef was brewing between "Takeover" and "Ether," but the producer knew to take Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" to give Nas the space to show just how iconic he is. DMX was set to appear as a feature, but Nas wanted that moment all to himself.
"Woman," Raheem DeVaughn
Thompson loved and respected plus-size Black women, so for Raheem DeVaughn's 2008 LP Love Behind the Melody, he convinced his fellow D.C. native to make a song that strictly celebrates the curvy sistas. Inspired by keyboards that he heard on JAY-Z and Chrisette Michele's duet produced by Dr. Dre, "Lost Ones," Thompson helped DeVaughn walk his way towards a GRAMMY nomination for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for "Woman."
"Hit the Floor," Rare Essence ft. Snoop Dogg
In 2020, Snoop Dogg wanted to show love to the go-go scene. The rapper/entertainer teamed up with go-go music legends Rare Essence, Thompson's favorite band, to make a joint that could uplift those sheltering-in-place. The rhythms meshed together the West Coast synths over the D.C. metro's signature tattering percussion to celebrate the insular grooves popularized by bands like E.U., Trouble Funk, Junkyard Band, and Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers.