When R&B singer China-Marie moved from Portland to L.A. about five years ago, she didn’t know anyone. Yet, she was lucky enough to meet Too $hort within her first two weeks in the City of Angels, and over the years, the Oakland rapper provided China-Marie with advice and mentoring.
“I was drawn to work with China-Marie because she is talented, but has the work ethic to become a star,” Too $hort says.
Today, Marie’s debut album, Potpourri, comes out, a 12-track record filled with hip-hop inspired cuts and bassy pop ditties. China-Marie credits Too $hort as “the guiding force throughout the album,” as he helped her craft each and every song. “It probably would have been impossible to do it without him,” she adds.
We spoke with the burgeoning artist about creating Potpourri and how Too $hort helped guide and influence her work.
SF Weekly: How did moving from Portland to L.A. benefit your career?
China Marie: Definitely coming from small progressive city like Portland to a big city like L.A. was challenging. But it was great because you get opportunities you wouldn’t necessarily have in a city like Portland. When I first came here, I met Too $hort in my first two weeks. I met him at a music video shoot for an underground Bay Area artist. I honestly don’t remember who it was. So I met him there and we were talking about music and he’s like, ‘What do you do?’ And I was like, ‘I sing and just moved here from Portland.’ And he’s like, ‘What? That’s crazy. Sing something.’ So I sang Mary J. Blige’s “I’m Going Down.” And when I was done, Too $hort was like, ‘We need to do a song together.’
But at the time, when I first started, I really didn’t know how to start or what lane to go in. I didn’t want to just throw out a song – I wanted it to have substance. And Too $hort, he really picked my mind. ‘Who are you as an artist?’ he’d ask me, and for the longest time, I couldn’t answer. So that was a huge aspect of getting to know myself and having someone to bring that out of me. Because sometimes it really takes someone else to help you figure stuff out about yourself. It sounds weird, but I’m happy I had him.
SFW: But it took about five years for you and Too $hort to actually link up and work together on a project, right?
CM: Yeah. When I first came out, I didn’t know where to start as far as music. And Too $hort had a lot going on with his projects, so it never worked timing-wise. But we always stayed connected over the years. And last year, he started this project with an artist called Digital Boombox in downtown L.A. I ran into him and he said I should come through and play some of my stuff. And when he heard me sing, he was like, ‘We’ve got to work together. You’ve come a long way since I first heard you.’
SFW: How did Too $hort help with Potpourri?
CM: He’s been the person back me and mentoring me through the whole project. He was in the studio with me. We’d go over all the songs together. If he liked it or didn’t like it, we’d reconstruct it. We picked sounds and producers together and really talked about what we wanted it to sound like. Like, we really got into every nook and cranny of the project. It was really fun working with him and getting that insight because his being in the game for so long, I was able to learn a lot. I also exposed him to an urban pop sound that was something different for him. I think it was a challenge and learning experience for him to work with an artist not necessarily in hip-hop or rap.
SFW: Tell me a little more about that.
CM: Basically, I feel like we both taught each other something. We came together with two different backgrounds and had to work together to craft a cohesive project. I think that’s what makes the project really unique because it’s not your typical pop radio songs. There’s a little bit of both on it. And I think that’s what makes it not just another R&B singer-songwriter album.
SFW: Was there anything Too $hort was pretty adamant about having or not having on the album?
CM: He wanted it to be a six-track EP. And I was like, ‘I really don’t have enough content out there, so I want to drop an album so people will keep coming back.’ He took my advice on that.
He was also saying I should do some West Coast beats just so that it would add a little edge to the project and not sound so commercial. Because as a female artist, sometimes it can be challenging for males to relate to her. That might not be her target audience, but it’s important to appeal to a mass of people, like Drake does. You can be a guy or a girl and still understand where Drake’s coming from.
And sometimes he told me I should do certain songs because it would be hard for any other girl to sing how I would on the track. ‘Everyone tries to do the Aaliyah thing,’ he told me. ‘That’s easy, that’s typical. You do some West Coast shit though, and it’s dope. It’s your sound. Your look is completely different. You’ve got to mix it up on people. When I came up, I wasn’t doing the same thing as people. That’s why people know me as being that extra rapper who says what’s on his mind.’