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A 'Misfit' Finds an Audience : Me'Shell's Blend of Styles Fits Her Maverick Label

FAST TRACK: Up and comers in arts and entertainment

November 16, 1993|DENNIS HUNT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"I'm the ultimate misfit," says Me'Shell NdegeOcello, the controversial singer-rapper whose debut album has just been released by Madonna's Maverick Records.

"I'm black. I'm a woman. I'm a bisexual."

But the 25-year-old New Yorker (whose last name is pronounced N-day-gay-O-chello) who performs using just her first name wasn't complaining.

"I like being a misfit," she continues, sitting in a Hollywood restaurant a few days after an impressive Troubadour showcase that created considerable buzz among pop insiders. "It's more fun. It keeps you striving. Fitting in is too easy. I prefer not being like everybody else."

On stage at the Troubadour, her uniqueness leaped out. Her music is a bold synthesis of jazz, funk, rock and hip-hop, falling somewhere between the jazzy cool of Sade and Digable Planets and the raging rock of Living Colour. Her songs are clever and intelligent, sometimes stinging, sexy and angry and, most of all, relentlessly Afrocentric. While not a polished singer, she packs a lot of emotion into her laid-back style.

Sitting in the restaurant, she has that same confident cool. From the tough tone in her songs, you'd expect her to come across as an aloof crusader. Instead she's warm, friendly and outgoing.

On her "misfit" list, the petite, tomboyish artist neglected to include her shaven head.

"Maybe with my look I'm making some sort of statement about independence and marching to your own drummer," says the singer, accompanied by her 4-year-old son and her female companion. "But I prefer to make statements with my music."

And she has.

There's really nothing on the market quite like her provocative first album, "Plantation Lullabies," which has earned her comparisons to Prince, in part because she's one of those do-everything types. On this album she wrote, arranged, performed and co-produced all the songs and plays nearly all of the instruments.

For all her talents, though, the Berlin-born and Washington-raised Me'Shell was turned down by record companies for more than two years before she was signed by neophyte Maverick Records.

"I was looking for a record deal all that time with the same material that eventually got me a deal with Maverick," she recalls. "People at those other labels said my music was too eclectic. They said they didn't know how to market me.

"They said some of the songs were sexy but I wasn't glamorous or sexy enough to put them across. They didn't like me being bald and I'm sure they thought I look too gay--though no one came out and said that."

Explains Maverick Vice President Abbey Konowitch, "What we found most exciting about Me'Shell was that her music is unique, yet it combines elements of what's happening commercially. We were never afraid of her diversity. We didn't think of it as a marketing problem."

But her outspokenness has plunked her into hot water at times. For instance, her song "Soul on Ice," which chides blacks for succumbing to white standards of beauty, has been interpreted as racist.

"People have accused me of that, but they're wrong," she counters. "I'm just expressing a point of view that's shared by a lot of blacks. People are reading a lot of wrong things into what the song is saying."

Ironically, some gays have attacked Me'Shell for not being outspoken enough about her sexuality.

"I'm black first and foremost, and there's some problems women have that need addressing," she says. "One crusade at a time. The gays have to get in line."

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