Today is Donald Earle “DeVante Swing” Degrate Jr.’s birthday. According to Wikipedia – the world’s most reliable source of information – he is now 47 years old. Based on the series of unfortunate sightings of Jodeci in both its parts and its formation, I think I speak for everybody in saying that it’s an amazing feat of both grace and mercy that all of the members of Jodeci are still with us.
Jodeci is my favorite singing group from the ‘90s (though SWV is 1a.). And without DeVante, there is no Jodeci. K-Ci and JoJo could sing, and Dalvin tagged along better than anybody in history (and played the drums in videos in aggressive fashion on occasion, too), but DeVante was the principal architect of the group. He was responsible for the sound. And while nobody could Jodeci like Jodeci, the times DeVante stepped outside the quartet for work, notably on songs like H-Town’s “Part Time Lover” (RIP Dino) from the Above The Rim Soundtrack prove that DeVante was the reason for the season.
Let’s start back at the beginnings with 1991's Forever My Lady album. The production was sharp, the songwriting was effective, and they had a string of slow jam hits from “Stay” to “Forever My Lady” to “Come and Talk To Me”. The “Come and Talk To Me” Remix took them to a whole different level. It’s where you could hear that real hip-hop edge that DeVante would carry over into his work with other artists. Sure we loved the Jodeci ballads, and of course, I really wanted (I really wanted) her to come and talk to me, but when DeVante decided to become a rapping ass singing ass producer, the Jodeci feel was created.
Enter the album with the most perfect string of six straight ("My Heart Belongs To You" to "Alone") songs in the 90s, Diary of A Mad Band, the 1993 album that kicked in the door, waving the .44. DeVante took his producerial chops to a outer space. The first half of the album is full of slower songs and one of those perfect Jodeci love songs, “Cry For You”, aka The Reason Folks Remember Jodeci and Don’t Care About Boyz II Men, and the second half is the more uptempo half with hip-hop infused beats, including Redman features and early Missy Elliott features.
But listen, each of the first six songs on Diary sound different but all have that unique DeVante signature. This n-word showed his ass. I still listen to the album and am amazed by how much growth I heard in his production. “Alone” by itself should be placed in the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture for how hardbody of an R&B song it is. In fact, if I saw a display that featured this album in there, I’d just nod my head and say, “mmhmm, that’s right” and keep it moving to the next item.
Following this album was the last album I truly credit to Jodeci, 1995’s The Show, The After Party, The Hotel, an interlude-laden album that felt twice as long as it was. I don’t even listen to any songs until “Get On Up”, which is track 8 on the CD. But this album is ANOTHER leap in production for DeVante. The music is cleaner, the “swing” is more palpable. And it creates the song that is arguably the epitome of the Jodeci sound and the DeVante signature in “Freek’n You”. It’s raunch and sex set to an amazingly hip-hop/R&B beat that is 100 percent mood music but dope enough to blast from your car window. It is, in a word, perfect. Every time I close my eyes, I hear this song. That’s not true. But if you’re still reading this, it’s too late.
This album also contains ANOTHER perfect DeVante helmed ballad in “Love U 4 Life”, a song that could be used in any wedding, any place that also had an awesomely 90s video.
DeVante is also responsible for the last half of the 90s in the principal players he tutored while trying to get The Swing Mob off the ground. Timbaland and Missy Elliott are the still present superstars from that time, but DeVante had a hand in the success of Ginuwine, Aaliyah, Nicole Wray (she got what you want), Playa, etc. DeVante crafted a sound that Timbaland and Missy took all the way to the bank after creating their own unique takes. If there’s no DeVante, who knows what hip-hop looks like during the late 90s and early 00s. I’ve never felt like DeVante truly got the credit he deserved for how instrumental he was and is to the music we view as the sound of those times. I also feel the same way about Teddy Riley and Jermaine Dupri. Shit, Prince Paul too for that matter.
While DeVante definitely had some moments that made many of us wonder if he was hitting some of those good drugs a little too frequently, and I’m guessing there was a fallout of the Swing Mob, the fact is that his work with Jodeci was strong enough and staple enough to STILL sound good over 20 years later. Diary of A Mad Band sounds as fresh today as it did then and I can still remember the day I purchased the album. K-Ci and JoJo had successful careers as a duo and Dalvin Dalvin'd (he actually got into songwriting and production). But everybody’s best years were during the Jodeci heyday and that’s in no small part thanks to DeVante and his musical abilities.
So today, on this is 47th birthday, I salute Donald Earle “DeVante Swing” DeGrate, Jr. as a beacon of sound and a titan of production who helped create the soundtrack of my life as well as the lives of others. Happy Birthday, DeVante.
May the Swing be with you, now and forever.