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Her Love of Life

Erica Berry
New Diva on the Block: Erica Berry honors soul's forefathers while acknowledging the new beat of hip-hop on her album "Life & Love."

Singer Erica Berry strives for the R&B gold standard

By Nicky Baxter

THE ADAGE "Life sucks" may hold true for some of us, but not for Erica Berry. And why should it? Still in her early 20s, Berry is well on her way to becoming the new diva on the block.

A graduate of Howard University, this smart and sensible Berkeley native is not just another beautiful face. Berry's recording debut, Life & Love, dropped this past June, and her label, Positivity, is working to ensure it gets in the right hands--everyone's. Currently on tour to help the spread the tunes, Berry is winning over new converts. Life is good.

Berry's speaking voice alone is enough to raise goose bumps; just add music and be stirred. One can almost believe that, given the opportunity, she could stop the bloodletting in Bosnia just by launching into song. There's even a number on Life about peace, although it's of a more personal nature.

As far as her own musical preferences go, Berry is something of a "classicist." While acknowledging that she is down with hip-hop--"You'll see me in clubs bobbin' my head to it!"--Berry quickly admits that her true loves are soul and R&B gold standards issued by black pop's royalty: Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Marvin Gaye, and the diminutive symbol man from Minneapolis. Not without some ambivalence, these classic tracks are referred to as "dusties" by the hip-hop nation. Catchy though that designation may be, even the baggy-pantsed brigade have now reconsidered, baby. Says Berry: "It's all part of the same tradition; hip-hop stems from [R&B]."

THIS IS TRUE: Erica Berry didn't plan on becoming a singer. The first instrument she studied was flute. Problem was, her skills were not quite up to snuff, at least according to Berkeley's feted Young Musician Program. After striking out twice, Berry was advised to sing her way in. "I was so desperate to get in," she recalls, "I gave it a try." Not that Berry, then in high school, was a novice; she'd already acquired experience in church choir, a habit she would continue to pursue while attending college.

It was at Howard, where she double-majored in music and political science, that Berry decided to turn professional. "I wanted to be in the business from an early age, so I figured I'd go to law school to become an entertainment lawyer."

Lucky for R&B fans, she pursued another option. All it took was a bit of DIY initiative. Like the art-youth kickin' it at CBGB's during the early '70s, seeing her peers onstage did the trick for Berry. "I was friends with this group named Shy--you remember 'If I Ever Fall in Love'? Well, I saw them perform, and that inspired me to do it."

Name any soul fancy, and chances are it's on Life & Love. Balancing the perfunctory grinding time pieces with uptempo '90s neo-Jack beats, Berry covers considerable territory within R&B's overly formulaic strictures.

With its subtle drum pattern, rippling wah-wah guitar and breathy cooing, "Whispers in the Dark," for instance, harks back to mid-'70s soul crème de la crème, while "Some Things Don't Ever Change" boasts a neo-Funkensteinian synth bass line and Berry's wispy falsetto.

Consistent with the singer-songwriter's optimistic outlook, Life & Love celebrates relationships. For every "Bittersweet Love" or "Is It Time (To Say Goodbye)?" there is a "Peace of Mind," a "Brother Love" or a "Supernatural Lover." (This last opens with a dubwise reggae teaser which suggests Erica Berry can go dread on us anytime she so wishes.)

Summing up, Berry is ... well, upbeat. "When I write lyrics, I try to tell a story. It could be about anything, but I do think that love is the center of life." Right. But will Al Jourgensen or Trent Reznor buy it?

Erica Berry performs Saturday (Aug. 24) at Club Ibex, 55 S. Market St., San Jose. Tickets are $8. (408/971-4239)

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From the August 22-28, 1996 issue of Metro

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