Music is the soundtrack to our lives. That “special” jam can transport us back to special moments and events in our child and adulthood or create a freeze frame of our personal style or dated centric vernacular. Whenever a classic Keith Sweat tune such as “I Want Her” or “Make It Last Forever” blares, I’m reminded of my personal transition when I straddled the fence of bidding my tomboyish style of oversized baggy jeans with tight spandex shirts for a more alluring, sleeker, sexier young lady who was beginning her journey into early womanhood. Yep, the good old days and Sweat’s music helped me make a smoother transition.
For the first installment of our new interview series “Flashback Fridays,” we pay a respectful nod to Keith Sweat. Essence.com caught up with the former Wall Street employee to discuss his new album, the loss of his friends Gerald and Sean Levert and why begging has always worked for him.
Essence.com: Your new album’s title, Just Me, is pretty self-explanatory. What is the difference between Harlem and Atlanta’s Keith Sweat?
Keith Sweat: There is no difference I’m pretty much a laid-back dude. I’m not in the clubs, I’m a homebody. I go out when I feel I have to for work or if there’s a special function. You might catch me at the grocery store, but you won’t see me out and about in Atlanta.
Essence.com: Say what? You’re an artist. Back in the day how did you deal with frequenting the clubs to promote your music?
K.S.: It was always hard taking time out of my personal life to continue to make yourself viable and visible in this industry. Staying in the loop and making sure you look your best so you aren’t looking any kind of way when you’re on stage is all a part of the job.
Essence.com: What is your least favorite responsibility as an artist?
K.S.: Besides waking up for early morning interviews is that you always have to be pleasant because people don’t care about you having a bad day or that you’re on your own time shopping for groceries. Nowadays, everyone has a camera phone and you have to be careful about being caught out there looking crazy and ending up on the Internet.
Essence.com: So the Internet has invaded your private space?
K.S.: (Laughs) I see pictures of me all the time. I’m like, Who took that picture?
Essence.com: So were you always a homebody?
K.S.: That’s who I’ve always been. Some people find excitement in buying a brand new car, but I’ve never been that dude.
Essence.com: You’re definitely from the ol’ school where you save for a rainy day. How much of that has to do with your upbringing and your brief career on Wall Street?
K.S.: I grew up in Harlem Grant projects and I didn’t have a whole lot then. I’ve always been good about only getting what I need, not what I want. Just because someone else has something, I don’t feel the need to.
Essence.com: Everyone could stand to rid themselves of excess. Back to your new album what is the most poignant song that represents your its overall theme?
K.S.: It would be hard for me to choose one song because I’ve written all of them myself. My entire album pretty much speaks on the same thing—sex and being involved with someone.
Essence.com: So you don’t feel a need to keep up with the younger artists?
K.S.: People try to put that kind of pressure on me. At this point in my career, I’ve had a catalogue of hit records so I don’t feel a need to follow the crowd. What I try to give them is something similar to what I’ve always done. Hey, if it ain’t broke don’t try and fix it, right? Most people like what is familiar to them.
Essence.com: You often stick with the ballads, which the ladies and fellas love. Are you aware that you were always coined “the beggar”?
K.S.: (Laughs) Yes I am. And guess what? I’m going to keep on begging. I’ve also had people tell me their children were conceived listening to my songs or that they fell in love, so I guess all that begging is a good thing and helped contribute the population.
Essence.com: As one of the pioneers of New Jack Swing, are there any of today’s artists who represent a new regime of that subgenre?
K.S.: All music does revolve around itself. Anything you hear right now has been done before. If you do New Jack Swing that sounds very similar to Disco. And I hear a lot of today’s music moving back to that era from Ne-Yo, Usher, Chris Brown, Rihanna and others. The talk-box thing that T-Pain does is something new and different for this generation because they don’t know about Zapp or Teddy Riley. I think he’s creative and has made the talk-box his own in the hip-hop world, but if these young ones studied their musical history they’d know that.
Essence.com: You’ve been off the music scene for more than a minute. Why release music now?
K.S.: When I got out of my situation with Elektra I had other deals, but I didn’t know if I wanted it to go with another major or do it independently. When I did go to another label they were trying to be slick and pimp me. I was so accustomed to the game that I wasn’t having it. The deal with Rhino/Atlantic and the greatest hits was a better experience.
Essence.com: Wow, it’s always a challenge as an artist. Speaking of which, what has been the craziest or most difficult rumor you’ve had to deal with?
K.S.: Four years ago, Patti LaBelle and I performed together at a Caribbean festival and the next thing you know we’re an item. I didn’t combat it. It wasn’t true comment but if folks are talking about you, then you aren’t forgotten even if you’re not in the mix. As long as I’m being talked about in the mix of good company so it’s all good.
Essence.com: It’s been reported that you once dated TLC’s late great Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes. Is that true?
K.S.: Left Eye and I were great friends nothing more. That means that was my friend we were good friends.
Essence.com: Are you married?
K.S.: Nah, single. I’ve been there and done that.
Essence.com: Was divorce inevitable for you?
K.S.: I had no control. My situation was what it was, without going into it a 100 percent. What I learned about me is that I like to finish what I start and finish it well, otherwise I feel as if I failed.
Essence.com: What are the easiest and most difficult lessons in love that you’ve learned?
K.S.: You can’t control what someone else does. You can only be responsible for your feelings and actions. And the easiest is that when you’re ready to go just leave. Don’t procrastinate. Sometimes people think you already know what you’re getting into beforhande and try to change certain things about a person. Don’t try to change people to make them what you want them to be. I’ve also learned that because of my status shouldn’t feel a sense of entitlement like I’m owed something. You think at some point because I’m in this situation I deserve this and this works for me.
Essence.com: Yes we can all be selfish at times. I wanted to offer my condolences regarding the passings of Gerald and Sean Levert. How are you coping?
K.S.: To lose Gerald in itself was tough. He was my brother and so was Sean. You never expect someone that close to you not to be here and to die so suddenly. They were like family to me so to lose them was crazy because those were the first two people I met in the industry. Gerald and Sean are the ones who prepared me for this industry. They were always great friends, great role models and I studied and watched them on stage. I never wanted to follow a Gerald Levert performance but it taught me the art of stage presence. It was a grave loss. We all have to leave here—some sooner than others—but it’s very hurtful when death happens at such a young age. Those brothers brought a lot to the game.
Essence: Have you spoken to their father Eddie?
K.S.: I reached out to him, but I can only imagine what he’s going through and feeling. He had to ask himself, “What did I do to deserve this?” I know how I’d feel if I lost one of my kids—I have two sons 10 and 13. So I’m just trying to respect and honor his need to want to be alone.
Essence.com: Yes everyone’s hearts go out to the Levert family. Let’s switch gears, what is the format of your radio show?
K.S.: It’s called The Sweat Hotel and I play music and talk to the ladies. It’s a one-stop radio show where the audience can apologize or confess and tell someone your deepest secrets while listening to great music.
Essence.com: What do you hope your musical legacy will be?
K.S.: I hope people will say that he’s given us music that we can always remember the experiences they had when listening to music. And that I touched a lot of people’s lives and helped them grow in their relationships.
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