“Write bad songs. Write lots of bad songs. Because to get to the good songs, you need to write the bad ones first.” – Deep Cotton
Chuck Lightning and Nate “Rocket” Wonder comprise the American neo-funk duo Deep Cotton. As it turns out, they have written a plethora of really good songs. In addition to being highly sought-after producers and recording artists, they are also on the frontline of the next wave of Afrofuturism—a movement that took root in the early 1990s as an emergent cast of black artists, writers and musicians began interrogating the dilemmas faced by marginalized cultures through their creative work. As founding members of the Wondaland Arts Society in Georgia, they have become figureheads in the genre’s evolution. More recently, you can find some of the duo’s work in their production of Janelle Monáe‘s new music video, “Electrify Lady.”
Indira Cesarine: What inspired your name “Deep Cotton?”
Chuck: There was this quote that Jimi Hendrix had, where he said he wished they’d had guitars in cotton fields a long time ago, because a lot of stuff would have gotten straightened out. We’re huge Hendrix fans, so there was something about that quote. I think, in a sense, both of us are into, I mean Nate’s actually big into history, he kind of has a history. And I know in my family, we have a history with the South to a certain degree. So just like Jimi, we’re kind of inspired by the idea of the magic that can happen in America when we all sit down and look at history and culture from the perspective of freedom and freedom fighting, you know what I mean? I guess you could say we’re futurists, ancient futurists, that are here in America just doing what we can to tell some stories of free folks, that’s all.
IC: Does it have anything to do with you being from the South? I know you’re from Atlanta.
C: Yeah, yeah I think so, wouldn’t you say Nate?
Nate: Yeah, it does. I mean, cotton is a southern thing. Back when people were slaves, when the cotton was deep and there was a high cotton—they called it “high cotton” back then— it was an easy time to sneak away, the slaves.
C: High cotton, just in general, if you own the land, was a great thing because you’re about to take the cotton to the market, you’re about to get rich. So people down south, a lot of people when they say “cotton is high,” it means times are good, things are great, I’m about to get paid, I get paid in full. But it was also a time for slaves to do some thinking because it was also very, very hard to watch the slaves, because there was so much cotton in the fields. So it meant decision time.
IC: You guys are well known for your productions with Janelle Monáe and your work as producers. You also have your own work, recordings and albums. What came first? Producing for other people or your own music?
N: It kind of happened simultaneously. You know, sometimes there would be a Deep Cotton song, or there have been a lot of Deep Cotton songs that have ended up as Janelle Monáe songs, and vice versa. We just try to create with an open mind, we have a lot of energy and freedom, and we let that be the way that the product takes place.
IC: I know that you have also founded the “Wondaland Arts Society.” What is the ethos behind that?
C: That’s fun. I would say we talk about universal stories in unforgettable ways a lot. You’ve already seen the work of Janelle Monáe, and hopefully as the year progresses, you’ll meet more of our—I don’t know if you know Roman John Arthur already, he actually co-produced a lot of the stuff that we’ve done with Janelle, and he’s actually working on his own products. In general, all of us are into innovation, all of us are into technology, all of us are into magic and storytelling, and presenting another side of not only blackness or masculinity or femininity, but also just a different way of co-existing with each other on a human level, do you know what I mean? Just being bold and being unafraid to be different, as you see with Janelle, I think that’s just a thing you see throughout. We have a love for, I guess you could say, the craft of music and the craft of songwriting, which I think kind of harkens back to Motown and stacks, and even stuff you saw in the jazz era. I mean, there’s a real respect and appreciation for the foundation of music: playing instruments and the craft of recording and really working on songs, and really working, working, working, working on them like they did back in the day in like Motown and artist development.
IC: Can you tell me about how you got started?
N: We were rooming together, and I was working on music in the other room, and Chuck didn’t like music at the time. Well, he liked music, but, I would be in the other room working on music, and he was writing stories and trying to write scripts and movies and stuff like that, so that was what he was focusing on. And he was reading Shakespeare, and I was in the other room, just making music or being loud or whatever, and he walked in the room and he was like ‘Open up a track.’ I was like ‘Okay’ and then he got on the microphone and started yelling into the microphone, and I was shocked but I wouldn’t let on that I was shocked, and so I just started making sounds that sounded like I could shock him with them, and from that point on we just started to try to out-crazy each other. We’ve just kind of stayed in that space ever since that moment.
IC: What would you consider your break-through moment as musicians or producers?
N: Working with Outkast. That was a big deal for us. We grew up listening to Outkast. It was like watching a hero create, and being able to create with them, and the lessons we learned were really important lessons, so it was really great. There were just certain lessons that they would teach us while we were in the studio. One time we were watching Dre in the studio, and he was producing a song, and they were rapping over it, and the song was jamming. The music was amazing, it was incredible, and the rapping was really hard. It was a great song. And in the middle of that, Dre was like ‘You know man, it’s cool, like I feel what you’re doing right now, but it’s gotta be something a little bit better, you gotta give them something to take home with them. You’ve got the club part of it out of the way, but you need to give them something to take home. After they leave the club, you have to make them keep that—what you did—in their head. Give them something to think about after they’ve left the club and it’s all over. They’ve got to have something else to think about.’ And that was a very clear moment for me to understand that that balance was really important.
IC: So how would you describe your sound?
N: It sounds very free, it sounds like there’s a lot of freedom, and there’s a fight going on as well, most times. A lot of our songs talk about chores, they mention chores, like there’s cooking or cleaning, whatever it is. Chores are kind of a part of how you define your life as you’re growing up, when your parents are like ‘Do this!’ or ‘Do that!’ The chores help define you as a person, and how good you do your chores is kind of an indicator of how far you go in life later on—if you’re able to really get an idea done.
C: It’s like another way of looking at the 10,000 hours thing. You gotta play your guitar every day if you want to get there. It might feel like a chore today, but you’ve still got to do it.
N: Our fans are the ones who told us that all of our songs are about chores, and it was a really funny moment, because everybody started laughing because our songs do have questions and conversations about chores in them. Like we were really talking about chores, but it wasn’t anything purposeful, but I think as things have progressed we’ve started to realize that the questions we’re asking in our songs are real questions with real implications. Like in “We’re Far Enough from Heaven” when we’re asking, ‘Who will cook, who will clean, who will paint the fence?’ and all of those sort of things, it’s kind of crazy. When you apply those questions to political systems or you look at them from a socioeconomic stand-point, there’s always implications, you know. We like to talk about revolution, looking at that question and saying, hey, all of these revolutions are ultimately about who in society is going to cook, who is going to clean, and who is going to paint the fence. With those three questions answered, you probably have an idea of what kind of society you’re going to have. So it’s been interesting for us to try to have fun, and at the same time do it in a fashion that all of us think. You know, we all grow up doing the things that we’re told to do by our parents and elders: cooking, and cleaning, and painting the fences, and then you get older and you realize you have to do this if your house is going to look a certain kind of way, and I think we’re all kind of dealing with that. Figuring out, either you’re hiring somebody to do it, or you’re doing it yourself, or you’re trying to swindle somebody into doing it for you.
IC: What was your inspiration for your song, “We’re Far Enough from Heaven Now We Can Freak Out.” That’s such a great title! A part of the inspiration for that was also about chores?
C: Yeah, totally. I mean that and, part of it even comes down to the rock and roll thing. Like we were just trying to get down to a rock and roll basic thing. To us, that’s what Deep Cotton is, so it’s inspired by the same kind of things that inspired the Stones and things like that. We really like The Who and even the mod movement before. Before you get to punk, before you get to all that, just the whole era of the 60s kind of rock, it was kind of like, oh shit, people were realizing that this energy had a lot of power, and it was going to change the world and the course of, you know, the Summer of Love and the whole acid rock thing became something different. But I think for us, it’s been how can we use those same kinds of images and thoughts, like The Doors, to sort of open people up to seeing reality and freedom. I mean it’s just a different way of trying to free people. Just trying to find the most fun way to free people.
IC: Have you ever had a difficult performance or been in a situation and thought ‘Oh my god, how am I going to get through this?’
N: There were two shows that we had in one day and the first show was great. They also kind of had a table set up for us, they had like a VIP section after the show. We had a few drinks and things like that after the show and it was great. We were dancing, just having a really good time at that show, but the next show was further away. And the alcohol had not worn off by the time we got ready for the next show, and it was, it was not what we expected it to be. Everybody there was having a good time but it was definitely challenging.! It was like, there was definitely some fish bowl moments where we were literally on stage, looking at each other like, is this really happening? But the funny thing is, because we’re the kind of band that we are. It’s kind of like, anything we do for some people is going to be exciting and be part of the act. It’s like we could start burning the drum-set and people would be like ‘Yeahhh! Wooo!’ I mean, I saw this girl who saw that same show we were freaked out by, in New York, like two weeks later, and she was just talking about how passionate and how crazy and how great the show was and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Oh my god, that show…!’
N: Yeah, we gave it our all. God.
IC: What is the story behind your concept of wearing only black and white clothing?
N: Well I have new ideas around that, but I’m not going to tell them right now. First of all, we like to use all of our colors in the music and on stage, and so that’s an easy way for us to deal with that. It also helps us to start work earlier. In other words, I don’t get up and wonder what I’m wearing. Like right now I have my tie on, and I have my black and white on, and it basically makes my options in the morning when I’m getting ready a lot faster. I don’t have to wonder about that and can go ahead and start working pretty quickly. I’ve got a whole lot of the same kind of clothes, so I can just pick something and accessorize how I want it to be. But in general, I can go anywhere in it, and whatever I’m wearing right now is definitely still appropriate if I want to go to the White House, to a party, I can definitely wear this.
C: It really makes you feel like a superhero all day long actually. It just does. Like when you’re walking around. I remember one time we walked out to get a brownie and this black car pulled up, and the driver rolled down his window and he said ‘Hey, am I here to pick you guys up?’ and we just kind of looked at each other and started laughing, because it was just another moment where we thought it was so funny that he thought he was there to pick us up because that’s the kind of thing that happens.
IC: What, to you, is the definition of ‘legendary’?
N: Legendary. Well I think it’s the root of the word, which is to say history is what is written down, and it’s writing the stories that are told forever. So I think it has to do with what we talk about always, which is how we can tell universal stories in unforgettable ways. That’s what legendary stuff is. Stuff that gets told over and over and over again and, in different ways, at different times, but it’s the story that’s going to be around for a long time. It’s not erasable. You can modify it and you can remix it and all kind of stuff like that but it’s the story that people are going to keep telling. It’s the thing that lasts from generation to generation—it time travels.
C: I think that if you’re asking what makes things legendary to us… I think that’s a really good question. We talk about that kind of stuff a lot. There’s certain art that really means something to us, like the other day Nate was listening to The Fugees, and I heard it just on the other side of Wondaland. It’s kind of interesting when you hear an album that had a lot of power—you grew up on it or something like that—to hear it years later and for it still to resonate. It has that power in it, it’s an interesting thing. I think we’re always listening to stories musically, or in other mediums, like video or something like that (or motion pictures as we call them). We’re always looking to tell stories and provide images and ideas that do that, so we’re trying to go as far and as deep as we can and say to people, across various disciplines, to try to get us close to that type of truth. I think that we tend to like a lot of the people that we feel are timeless, we tend to like things that are timeless. That’s another reason that we like black and white and configurations of black and white, especially when it comes to a tuxedo because it’s great for time travelers. You know, when you time travel in a tuxedo you don’t have to worry about getting out of the ship, you’re going to be fine wherever you go. I think things that tell timeless stories, like Nate said, universal stories in an unforgettable way, it doesn’t matter what era it is. You can take the elements of that story, like folklore and stuff like that: myth, mythology, and folklore, and magic, imagination, all of those kinds of things and seeing how, when you move those archetypes from culture to culture, how they still work and how they still strengthen and empower different people from different traditions and cultures and all of that kind of stuff.
IC: Can you tell me which legendary artists do you feel most inspire you and your work?
C: We bond a lot over Simon and Garfunkel.
N: Simon and Garfunkel, oh my god, yeah. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the band Love, we love Love. To be honest, we have a pretty open filter on the stuff that we would talk about in terms of that. Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, we could go on and on and on. You could probably name the genre and we could tell you who is legendary in that genre.
IC: What do you think about the whole trend of genre mashing?
N: I think it’s a natural thing. I mean, we’re part of the iPod generation, it’s just a natural thing. It used to be that back in the 60s or 70s or 80s or 90s, people would be students of a genre because it costed too much to be really going through albums and keeping up with everything. It’d just be like a really expensive habit for somebody to have. But normal people picked an album, stuck with an album for a really long time, and then got one more album, and then stuck with that sound. Like they know classical music really well or they know jazz music really well, or they know rock and roll music really well, or even a style of rock and roll music, but now it just doesn’t really make sense to segregate your mind in those kinds of ways because you don’t have to! Because, for 99 cents you can open yourself up to something completely different. Or even, for free on Spotify or Pandora, or whatever. You just go and you press a button and you can listen to anything. Your ability to learn is just so wide open, there’s nothing you can’t listen to, so it doesn’t make sense not to listen to it. For most people. The access is just huge.
IC: I know you guys have collaborated with a ton of mind-blowing artists, which are the ones that really stand out to you?
IC: How was it working with Prince? You produced his work?
N: Yeah, we produced his work, and we actually worked on a few songs together and one of them was on, of course, Janelle Monáe’s new album, and he’s just amazing.
C: He definitely is one of the epitomes of that word [legendary]. He’s been such an amazing performer for decades now, but like over the last two or three years we’ve just been watching him continue to grow. It’s almost kind of strange, it’s like, if he was an alien when he landed, he’s going back to his alien like…like how? What’s going to happen next?
IC: Can you tell me about some of the current projects that you’re working on?
C: Well there’s some Deep Cotton oriented stuff for sure. We’ve got two albums done and we’re just trying to figure out the best way to put stuff out. We’re going to put Runaway Radio out probably. We’re working on a collection now we’re calling “The Vampire Love Suite,” which is all about, I guess you could say, an audio motion picture about two vampires who fall in love. The preview of that is “Fork and Knife,” which is on Miller Radio. I remember Nate and I have been intrigued with that whole song and that whole world for a while now. The album we recorded just has a certain thing that resonates so much, so we just sort of wanted to see where that story could go with these two individuals, these vampires, so we’re going to work on that. And then we have our debut album, which is called I Have a Scream, so we’re setting aside things for that and feeling that out as well. And then we’ve got some other stuff that we’re working on which is just Wonderland stuff, where we’re working on secret projects, a Manhattan project that you’ll find out more about as it progresses, we’re really excited.
IC: Do you have any tours planned?
C: All kinds of tours all the time.
IC: Do you play festivals at all?
C: Yeah, we’re doing Counterpoint this year, we’re doing some stuff at SXSW but we’re still hashing out what that’s going to be. Nate and I are interesting, I guess, in some respects, because we’ve always had a thousand and one projects on top of the music projects that we’re working on, and that’s always been really fun too. I do whatever I can to support him because he definitely has a real, I guess you could say, how can you even describe…Nate’s like an inventor, he does a lot. When I first met Nate, I didn’t know he played an instrument. I was looking for somebody to build a website. I was in school like making websites. Coding for people. And that’s how we met.
IC: Would you be a website designer if you weren’t a musician?
N: I would probably be something like that, yeah.
C: We literally, at one point, even in the midst of doing Deep Cotton and working on Janelle, had an idea that was so big that literally we had to make a decision of whether we wanted to move to Silicon Valley and really pursue it or that we were going to do music. It really came down to that because the money we needed to really make the site move, in terms of the burn rate and everything would have required us to move to Silicon Valley. And we just had to, you know, and it was all at the same time.
IC: What was exactly the project that you would’ve had to go to Silicon Valley for?
C: It was crazy. We were figuring out a way to save the music industry. We can’t get all into it because we could still end up using it because they still haven’t figured out how to save the music industry [laughs]
IC: Did it end up going anywhere or did you decide to leave it and just focus on your music?
C: You have to spend your time wisely. Like, we were going to do the Mark Zuckerberg thing and really be that kid straight out of college eating pizza and sleeping on the floor, and working on the website all day. That’s what we would have done and we wouldn’t have done the music. It was a question of what we were going to do. I do really feel like we’re blessed in a certain kind of way, just to have a lot of ideas, you know, Nate is a guy, who when I met him was coding websites, coding this, doing that, he’s fluent in Spanish, he was translating, doing all kinds of stuff. And I was working around with scripts and doing this and doing that. And I think for us, when we come together, we work on music projects, it’s like okay we’re focusing in on doing this. But every year we get together at the top of the year and we say, ‘Okay, what’s the plan for the year?’ and of course Janelle is part of our lives so we’re always looking at what projects we’ll be working on with her, and looking at Wonderland as a whole, thinking about what we can do as a duo to help everybody involved.
IC: When you look at your plan for 2014, is there anything else that dramatically stands out as something you want to achieve?
N: Yeah, there are all kinds of projects that we’re not talking about yet. But we’re excited about it, very excited about it. There’s a pretty big secret project that we’re very, very, very excited about. This is the year of the seed Wonderland. We’re planting some seeds and really watering them and there are some really big seeds we’re planting right now.
C: Yeah we’ve got a lot of fun things.
IC: Where do you guys see yourselves ten years from now?
N: Ten years from now? Gosh. Oh my gosh. That’s so close to the singularity I’m not sure.
C: We could do something that might even incorporate that idea, Nate. You know we just did this BET thing not that long ago where they honored Berry Gordy. We’ve got a chance to be near Berry where they’re honoring him and I think when we started the whole Wonderland thing, we talked a lot about Motown, and what Motown was able to achieve in terms of music and film and culture, inspiring everybody from The Beatles to everybody. It just was such an inspiration, and it changed music, changed culture on so many levels. And I just think that I’m hoping that we continue to do things that resound in that kind of way and go further. And really, really do that, you know? Push it. As much as we can. Music and all the other parts, technology, to the point where we can really have that kind of impact.
IC: Do you have a motto or words of wisdom that you live by?
N: Well, we have core values. I guess this is one of mine, there’s a moment on James Brown’s album where he says, ‘I don’t know, but whatever it is, it’s got to be funky.’
C: You know, it’s funny. I just don’t know what I would say to that right now. One thing I will mention, not that this is a direct answer to your question, but if they had MTV cribs and they came to Wondaland, we would talk a lot about books. Because we love books. And to answer to your question earlier, asking about things that inspired that song, on the literary side there’s an Alice Monroe’s short story called “The Progress of Love” that’s really good. You can look at it, some of the images of that story, as we were working on it, that’s one of the things I was reading. And the other thing is that old ancient book, The Decameron by Boccaccio. In the preface of that, when he’s going through the whole Black Plague, he talks about how the world is crumbling, and it’s just crazy how they take over this house and they stay in the house just living and telling stories, and I guess that song was like our version of that, except our story that we’re telling is about us having this like freak-out session, this party, because the world is ending anyway. It’s interesting, that’s a good question, things we live by every day…the thing in my head right now is that T.S. Elliot line ‘Bad boys imitate, good boys feel.’ It just makes me laugh. But I think all the Asiatic things like ‘Die daily’ sort of stick out.
IC: So let’s say you were to give advice to an aspiring musician. What would you tell them?
N: Fail, and fail often. Write bad songs. Write lots of bad songs. Because to get to the good songs you need to write the bad ones first.
C: Yeah, fail. I think I do say a lot, well there’s a couple of different things I say a lot, but one of them is ‘Collective security for surety’ and that’s a Bob Marley lyric, and I would definitely say that, because it means a lot to me. For us, it’s meant a lot because we’ve sort of gathered together like a tribe, to help each other, create a movement, and look out for each other. The power of the collective has been something that’s really helped us.
Be sure to pick up a copy of The Untitled Magazine‘s “Legendary” Issue 7 here for more from Deep Cotton!