Dawn Richard: Diddy’s ‘Dirty’ girl ready to go solo
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Dawn Richard has accomplished a rare feat in pop music: she found success in two sonically different groups. First, after competing on MTV’s reality competition, “Making the Band,” Sean “Diddy” Combs handpicked her to be one-fifth of the urban pop girl group Danity Kane. After four years of on-camera turmoil, and two hit albums, Combs disbanded the group and Richard was announced to be the sole girl signed to his Bad Boy imprint. She later became a member of his hip-hop fusion collective Diddy Dirty Money, whose first project, ‘Last Train to Paris,’ was released in December.
Now Richard is ready to step out on her own. The 28-year-old issued her first mixtape, “The Prelude to a Tell Tale Heart,” in February and logged more than 1 million downloads in a month. The mixtape is a teaser to her long-gestating solo debut, which she plans to release as a broken-up trilogy of albums entitled ‘GoldenHeart, ‘BlackHeart,’ and ‘RedemptionHeart.’
With Diddy Dirty Money between projects, she is prepping for her first major solo show at the Roxy Theatre on Thursday alongside buzzy crooner Mateo. Pop & Hiss caught up with Richard to talk about the upcoming album, the breakup of Danity Kane and why she choose to collaborate with Diddy again.
Your first solo project, a mixtape, “The Prelude to a Tell Tale Heart,” racked up more than 1 million downloads in a month. Did you realize you had that strong of a following?
When it first came out I was super-scared. It was my first time doing something alone. I was really worried that people wouldn’t love me because I’ve been in so many different things. The hard work just paid off. If you think about it, I’ve done [almost] every genre. I’ve been in a pop group, I’m in a hip-hop group, and my mixtape is an R&B album. I had to prove to myself that I could do it. And the mixtape was just really that thing for me. I didn’t think people we’re ready for me. And then the Dainty Kane breakup, people gave me a lot of heat for that.
You’ve been in two successful groups and you didn’t think anybody was willing to hear you as a solo vocalist?
I guess I didn’t get that memo. Honestly, I love what I do and it was a hard decision to be in another group again. It wasn’t an easy choice. I’m so worried, because I’m so different. Not just my tone, but my look. So many people have said no to me. They’ve said: You will not leave New Orleans, you’re too dark-skinned, your voice is ridiculously different, pop music mainstream won’t receive you. I was trying to build enough character to make sure people were comfortable with it.
It got people’s attention, though. Instead of the typical mixtape of remixing popular cuts, you offered only originals, and at 15 tracks offered more content than most R&B releases these days.
That wasn’t an album to me. I didn’t go work with top producers, it was up-and-coming young artists. The songs were songs I wasn’t even writing down. I literally walked into the studio and sang. “Bulletproof” I wrote in my head after [surviving] Hurricane Katrina. I didn’t have a track to it. I was singing songs on my heart. I was going to give 20, but we had to cut it down. There is so much more to me than that. The blessing is if you thought that was a lot, I can’t wait for you to hear the album.
You mentioned all the heat you got after the demise of Danity Kane. Can I ask once and for all, what is the real truth behind that fallout?
There is no answer to tell you what happened. It just did not work, and it was no girl’s fault. It was a lot to do with this business. It was just bad timing. But what I will say is people always say, “You don’t give Danity Kane enough credit.” I did, because I love it. I don’t speak about it because I believe I still need to heal. It’s so high on a pedestal for me that I don’t want to hurt it. That’s just my choice to leave it as amazing. … It’s almost been five, six years now [since the group debuted; it was disbanded by Combs on the finale of “Making the Band” in 2009]. It was what it was, and it was so amazing. Can we just leave it as amazing?
People want a reunion, but everyone knows we’ve all gone off to do different things now. Support us and let’s move on. I never wanted to use Danity Kane as a crutch. I never used those girls. I don’t know what happened. Our manager was [screwed] up at one time. The money wasn’t right. We were competitors. There were ... things wrong with us that we couldn’t have prevented. We were competing against each other, and then we were sisters. That’s a problem within itself. I’ll give you a pick at what was wrong, but it wasn’t us. We were five girls that loved it. It didn’t work.
After the drama of one group falling apart played out for the entire world to see, why join another group. Especially one headed by the very guy who ended the group.
He played records. And I said, “I dream like this.” I [told] Puff, I’ve been waiting my whole life. When you get a record, and when you listen to it you see color — the last time I felt like that is when I saw Prince live. And this is what this man is trying to do. Yeah, I want to be a part of it. That’s what made me say yes. Not the fact that I was going to have to be dealing with him again.
People told me I’m stupid for working with him. Because people were like, you’re stupid, you’re going to be dealing with Puff. Yeah, it’s Puff, but has that ever … stopped me. I have been homeless, I’ve been … out of luck. I’m still here. Puff could say, I’m giving you no help, and I would still figure it out. A label is just a label. Puff offered me a solo deal before this, but I said I don’t think it’s time right now. That was a selfless move. He was playing those records. I was vocal producing Grace Jones. I don’t know if anybody can wrap their head around that. That for me is monumental.
How’s the recording process for the record shaping up?
I’m taking my time, but then I’m not taking my time, meaning I’m choosing to pick the right sound for me, because I know what feels good for me. Honest, raw soul is what works for me. You can put a pop, R&B, edgy sound together and still have my tone on a record and it resonates as an R&B record. I think that’s something that’s kind of lacking right now. We’ve been so dance-oriented.
I’m not going to follow the trends; I’m letting everyone know that now. Dirty Money didn’t follow the trend anyway. “A Tell Tale Heart” was the prelude. This is a journey. I’m trying to get from the person I started out as, to the woman at the end of the tunnel who has a whole new perspective on life.
Download “The Prelude to a Tell Tale Heart” here.
Dawn Richard plays Thursday with Mateo, Stacy Barthe at the Roxy Theatre; 8 p.m. Tickets are $15, not including surcharges.
— Gerrick D. Kennedy
Photos, from top: Dawn Richard; Diddy Dirty Money (Dawn Richard, left, Kalenna Harper and Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs). Credits: Candace Meyer; Interscope Records