Bass Players To Know: Meshell Ndegeocello
Great artists are known for trailblazing their own path and Meshell Ndegeocello has done just that. The musical definition of “all of the above,” her career is marked by solo recordings and collaborations that showcase her talent as a bass player, writer, producer, vocalist, rapper, and multi-instrumentalist. Known for pioneering the sound of neo-soul and contributing to records by John Mellencamp, Madonna, Chaka Khan, and The Rolling Stones, she has also had original music featured in film and television. With a continually evolving body of work and a successful career as both artist and side person, Meshell Ndegeocello is a bass player to know.
Who Is Meshell Ndegeocello?
Born in Berlin, Germany and raised in Washington D.C., Ndegeocello got her start playing in various go-go groups before signing a record deal with Maverick Records in the early 1990s. Her debut album, Plantation Lullabies (1993), was noted for being at the helm of the neo-soul movement and earned her three Grammy nominations. As the 1990s continued, Ndegeocello was featured as a vocalist, rapper, and bass player with artists spanning multiple genres. She reached #3 on the Billboard charts for the duet, “Wild Night,” with John Mellencamp, and can be heard on records by Madonna, Marcus Miller, Chaka Khan, The Rolling Stones, Vanessa Williams, and Indigo Girls.
By 2000, Ndegeocello released two additional studio albums, Peace Beyond Passion and Bitter, and had songs featured in films including Jerry Maguire, Batman and Robin, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Love & Basketball, and Tyler Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girls, among many others. She was featured as a guest vocalist and interviewee in the documentary Standing In The Shadows of Motown, musing on the influences of James Jamerson and performing her soulful interpretation of Motown classics.
After a three-decade-long career as an artist, Ndegeocello has released twelve studio albums, received ten Grammy nominations, and contributed music to various projects to benefit human rights organizations. She provided the theme song to the Oprah Winfrey-produced television show, Queen Sugar, and has been a featured artist on records by Alanis Morissette, Santana, Citizen Cope, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Mike Stern, Victor Wooten, and Robert Glasper, just to name a few. She continues to tour and produce music soaked in authenticity, creativity, and soul.
Let’s Talk Style
Ndegeocello is an anomaly in the bass playing community and one that we are lucky to have. While most instrumentalists find careers as side people, members of a working band, or as players/producers who work on various projects, Ndegeocello has defined herself through artistry. Is she one of the funkiest and organic sounding bass players that you’ve ever heard? Yes. But the most elegant aspect of her catalog is the fact that the music is enhanced by her voice as an instrumentalist without being defined by it.
It’s no secret that most bass players release albums with an emphasis on technical chops and gratuitous notesmanship—this often alludes to a sub-genre of jazz-like music labeled as “bass records.” Despite being a bass playing front person, Ndegeocello’s projects are purely musical and the song, production, and artistry just happen to be supported by excellent bass playing. If anything, she falls into the genre of well-crafted and socially conscious neo-soul; dialogue-inspiring lyrics accompanied by music that seriously grooves.
That said, as a bass player to know, it’s worth highlighting the fact that her playing is natural, foundational, and beautifully reminiscent of the earth’s landscape. As much as the terrain is varied, from sand to soil, clay to stone, Ndegeocello adapts her playing to the ecology of a song. Slow jams are rooted by dark, full, legato notes. Precious gems in the form of fills and high register vibrato add sparkle and intrigue to every track. Punchy, articulate, and brighter tones add attitude to funk and rock.
A master curator of groove, she often writes parts to serve as counterpoint to vocal melodies, where if you were to strip away the production and to simply bass and vocals, the song would remain intact. This reflects her sophistication as a composer as much as it does the duality of her musical voice. And, whenever she is in the position to play on another artist’s record, she does so with respect for the music she is supporting. Her body of work as a solo artist featured guest, and session player clearly indicates that she is both a gifted artist and a welcome collaborator.
Where Can I Hear Her?
“Ecclesiastes: Free My Heart” (Meshell Ndegeocello: Peace Beyond Passion)
An essential record for any bass player, Ndegeocello makes a statement as an artist, songwriter, and instrumentalist. The perfect marriage of past and present R&B, her deep grooves and soulful vocals shine thanks to her rendition of Bill Withers’ “Who Is He and What Is He To You,” the nod to Marvin Gaye’s “Make Me Wanna Holler,” and her original compositions. This particular track, “Ecclesiastes: Free My Heart,” is marked by simple and poignant bass playing, educated harmonic moves, and a solo section that is full of nuggets of bass playing gold.
“Don’t Disturb This Groove” (Meshell Ndegeocello: Ventriloquism)
Capturing the essence of setting and space, Ndegeocello creates a groove that you wouldn’t dare disturb. During the verses, she plays a syncopated bass part that provides rhythmic contrast to the steady “four on the floor” of the kick drum. The bass drops out just before the chorus to establish a sense of breath and anticipation. It returns in an ever so satisfying manner with a melodic line that is simple, catchy, and begs to be repeated. Offering a counterpoint to the vocals, the chorus sounds circular in nature, as if the listener is meant to get lost in the ongoing trance of the track. As the songs plays out, Ndegeocello adds playful and tasty variation in between the phrases, all the while returning to the ear-wormy melody.
“Wild Night” (John Mellencamp: Dance Naked)
Ndegeocello anchors this tune with a modern take on a classic bass line. Her biting tone and distinctive articulation infuse the song with energy—her notes are strong and foundational with a clever vibrato added to the tail end of the phrase. Listen closely as she sneaks in harmonics, chromatic moves, and a few slap attacks at the end of the song. As she joins as a vocalist, her soulful approach complements Mellencamp’s gritty delivery and reimagines the lyric as a conversation between two characters.
How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Meshell Ndegeocello? Please share with us in the comments.