"If you wanna know what Tiombe's album is going to be like, this should give you a good idea," says Waajeed. In the background, Tiombe Lockhart wantonly shakes her copper coiffure to the sounds of seminal no-wave duo Suicide careening from an old school Select-o-matic turntable.
Even if you muted the stereo, you'd still stand a damn good chance of piecing together Lockhart's aesthetic–at least, if her apartment is any indication. Random thrift-store finds and other oddities adorn her eclectic flat: dismembered baby-doll heads fashioned into armrests, a medieval mace on the wall, Japanese flags as sofa throw covers, an artillery shell suspended from the ceiling, a 12" of Prince-tutored girl group Apollonia 6's salacious 1984 hit "Sex Shooter" in the corner.
By music-industry standards, the bizarre visual/aural collage of Lockhart's life could be perceived as "left-of-center." As a young, black female vocalist, Lockhart should be affecting a glossy video vixen posture for an anesthetized 106 & Park audience, and singing hooks for the latest Top 10 rapper. But self-expression and individuality are not for sale on Lockhart's watch. "Part of what I love and hate about Tiombe is that it's about Tiombe," affirms Waajeed. "She's not one of these dumb bitches where you write the song, tell her how to sing it, and you put her on stage with tits and ass out."
"I don't have a problem with tits and ass," retorts Lockhart with a sly grin.
Piper at the Gates
Lockhart's sound has largely been defined by Waajeed and partner Saadiq's production collaboration, Platinum Pied Pipers. In 2004, PPP dropped a formidable buzz-track trifecta with the hip-hop-inflected R&B singles "Your Day Is Done," "Stay With Me," and "I Got You" (the latter two featuring lead vocals by Lockhart) and the trio embarked on extensive international tours in anticipation of the release of their debut full-length. Triple P was nominated as album of the year by UK soul tastemaker Gilles Peterson at his BBC Radio 1-sponsored 2005 Worldwide Music Awards, and grassroots pundits like ?uestlove sung the group's praises from the mountaintops. In layman's terms, these are usually good omens that you're on to something pretty stellar.
Her success with the Platinum Pieds nowithstanding, Lockhart has been constructing a musical mystery over the past year and a half that may strike some PPP fans as a little odd. Why tamper with a winning recipe? Waajeed offers a bit of insight: "Tiombe has always come with her own style and attitude. I feel like, in some ways, PPP has kind of stifled that. [PPP] was more of a PG-13 thing." Although Triple P was a family affair, with featured guest spots from a variety of artists, Lockhart's solo flight was anything but an afterthought. "I'd always been working on solo shit," says Lockhart. "It was always Waajeed and Saadiq's understanding of 'We know you're doing your own thing, but will you come along on this ride with us?'. There were a lot of great lessons I've learned [with the PPP project], but I've always been working on my own side of things."
Indeed she has. While attending New York City's New School, Lockhart befriended classmates and future major-label recording artists Bilal and Robert Glasper, with whom she recorded a batch of songs later to be released as The Tiombe Lockhart Bootleg #1. One track from those early sessions that garnered Lockhart underground buzz was the metaphorical ode to booze "Mr. Johnnie Walker."
After a failed recording deal with Elektra Records and other prospects in perpetual ebb and flow, Lockhart arrived at a crossroads. "What was happening in my life was that I was fed up," she explains. "I had been signed, and I was wondering, 'Why isn't this happening?'" But following an NYC Slum Village show in 2003, a chance meeting with Waajeed would shift the tectonic plates of her world. While he was impressed with her bootleg and wanted to include her on the PPP project, she was skeptical of his cliché claims of being a producer. Providence ultimately came via Fed Ex. "He sent me the beat... with a check," recalls Lockhart.
Too Hot to Handle
Following the success of Triple P, Lockhart encountered some resistance to her rock and roll spirit. "I feel like a lot of people could not handle what I was doing," she muses. "The reaction was kind of like 'Aw, she's drunk.' And I'm like, are you fucking kidding me?! Iggy Pop is one of the greatest performers of all time! He's bloody and missing teeth when he walks off stage!"
In retrospect, it's easy to understand their response. Her PPP output is embellished with a coquettish vocal panache that hearkens back to a bygone era. On "Mr. Johnnie Walker" in particular, Lockhart croons with a coy Marilyn Monroe appeal against a track with a jazzy 1920s flair that puts Amy Winehouse's retro pursuits to shame. So it's understandable that the crowd looks slightly dumbfounded when Lockhart launches into a Soft Cell-esque song like "Electric Bullets." Still, she refuses to let popular demand box her in. "'Stay With Me' and 'I Got You' were my signature songs for 2004 and 2005," says Lockhart. "And it's not that I don't like the songs. It's just not where I'm trying to go now. But I still see those sad faces when I don't perform them."
With Waajeed's recently released project The War LP in stores, and work on PPP's sophomore effort underway, Lockhart's debut album is beginning to organically take shape. Her uncanny ability to condense all of the mayhem and abstract elements of life into a fitting piece of work is further buttressed by Waajeed's confidence in her skill. "I feel like Tiombe has never needed a producer," he says. "She's always been a person whose had her own ideas and knows what she wants to hear. Because she's so passionate about her ideas, I felt like I should put myself in a position so that I can back out. And that's pretty much how it is. If she needs me for assistance or for a track, I'm there."
So while some listeners may be inclined to lump her in with the new crop of vocalists like Corinne Bailey Rae and Chrisette Michele, be clear that Lockhart isn't your average jazzy belle. With a mercurial alchemy of sophistication and surrealism, the CD-R-only Queen of Doom EP (co-produced by Waajeed and Lockhart) finds her cavorting through a bipolar wonderland of despair, lecherousness, chaos, and resilience that could only be actualized in a dense metropolis like New York City. "What I feel like I'm trying to do is bridge everything that I know with the music I'm in love with," she says. "No one can know where I'm coming from, except for me. All I know is that there is something that I'm supposed to do: sing and write. And I feel like if it's genuine and it feels good, if I fucking bust my ass it's going to be okay."