I’ve never been a man to hold back my opinions and I’ll gladly unleash another:
Playa is the most underrated collection of R&B talent in the modern era. Bar none. And I’m not just saying that because their name happens to be my catchphrase.
I’m sure you remember “Cheers 2 U,” but what else did they contribute? I’m glad you asked – they helped craft some of the best songs of the late 90s-early 00s. I’ll be happy to remind you.
Jawaan Peacock (Smokey), Benjamin Bush (Black) and Stephen Garrett (Static) met in the late 1980s and it didn’t take long to realize that they shared a common musical bond. The boys from Louisville, Ky., originally called their collaboration A Touch of Class. Thankfully that didn’t last long, probably because it sounds like windshield cleaner.
The trio eventually met up with DeVante from Jodeci, who saw dollar signs and signed them to his Swing Mob label. The story of Swing Mob continues to baffle me to this day – DeVante was sitting on a gold mind. Look at this lineup: Missy Elliott, Timbaland & Magoo, Ginuwine, Tweet – DeVante could have had milked that golden cow for years. Even though Playa contributed to Jodeci’s 1995 album The Show, The After Party, The Hotel, they soon headed off to greener pastures with the remaining all-stars.
When Missy and Timbaland began to conquer both hip-hop and R&B in the latter half of the 90s, Playa was right there, contributing to the success. Ginuwine’s first hit, “Pony,” for instance, was the brainchild of Static.
Of course, the boys weren’t content with just racking up production credits on other folks’ albums. They lent their vocals to many of Timbaland’s early hits, including “Luv 2 Luv U,” Nicole Wray’s “Eyes Better Not Wander” and “Raise Your Frown” and, oh yes, even my man Keith Sweat’s “Love Jones.”
Probably their most promising early track was the haunting “Birthday” on Timbaland’s 1998 Tim’s Bio: Life from Da Bassment. Their harmonizing will put chills down your spine.
1998 was also the year of Playa’s debut, Cheers 2 U. The first singles “Don’t Stop The Music” and album teaser “I Gotta Know” were solid but didn’t really catch fire. The title track, however, turned heads, becoming a top 10 R&B hit and reaching gold status. I’ll never forget being in the campus bowling alley when that song came over the speakers – the crowd went NUTS. This song is still in frequent rotation in the Eddmobile.
The success of the single and glowing album reviews all but guaranteed a long and successful career for the trio. Sadly, Playa quickly vanished from the limelight. The planned follow-up album, Never Too Later, was shelved in 2003 and let me tell you, that’s a travesty. I lived in Louisville around that time and the title track received frequent radio play. Do yourself a favor and listen to it right now. It might be the best song they ever recorded. A few years ago, a compilation of unreleased Playa tracks was released, including cuts from the shelved album. “Don’t Be A Stranger” was one of the standouts. The trio embarked on solo careers soon after the Never Too Later disappointment.
Smokey, now known as Smoke E. Digglera, has been extremely prolific, dropping albums left and right since 2006. His voice is as polished as ever. Drake even sampled one of his tracks on his latest album. Black, aka, Digital Black, has been a bit more low-key, but still releases material. The R&Street mixtape produced “If You Don’t Call,” my favorite post-Playa song from Black. And about a year ago, there was talk about an album of ballads.
Static Major tragically died in 2008 following a medical procedure but not before leaving an indelible mark on R&B music. Static had a hand in nearly all of Aaliyah’s hits late in her career, including “Try Again,” “Rock The Boat,” and practically the entirety of her final, self-titled album. He also was featured on Lil Wayne’s blockbuster Grammy-winning single “Lollipop.” I have no doubt that Static would be a huge solo star today simply from the success of that song. Tons of tracks from Static’s solo album Suppertime have been floating around for years but we’ve yet to see an official release. The most notable is probably “4 A Long Time,” but I’m probably just saying that because it sounds like an old Keith Sweat cut.
A few years ago, my wife wrote a fantastic career retrospective on Static Major’s life, told from the mouths of his family and friends. She says it’s the hardest story she’s ever written. I also think it’s the best thing she’s ever written.
Should They Come Back?: It would be really hard to replicate Playa’s magic without Static. Still, I wouldn’t mind major-label solo albums from Smoke and Black. Team ’em with Timbaland and we could relive 1998 all over again. They’re too good to be lost in the waves of time.