“…And for so many years I was looking behind me and I was looking in front me and I wasn’t able to appreciate the moment—that’s the greatest gift I think that I’ve had as a result of everything… the one thing that we have going for us is right here, right now and I love that. I love that I not only know that but that I live that and I recognize that to my core.” —John Forte
”John Forté grab the mic roots sway it this way…” You may have heard his kickass snarky solo in Wyclefs Tryin’ To Stay Alive or maybe you heard about him when he was nominated for a Grammy for his work with the Fugees. And, sadly, you may have forgotten about him—he had a not-so-brief 7 year sabbatical behind bars (FCI Loretto, a federal prison in central Pennsylvania).In 2000, Forté was arrested at Newark International Airport after accepting a briefcase containing $1.4 million worth of liquid cocaine; he was charged with possession with intent to distribute cocaine and conspiracy to distribute. He had toured with Wyclef Jean, recorded with Herbie Hancock, Tricky and Carly Simon, and signed a solo deal with Columbia—he was on his way to making it big and living la vida loca. It’s safe to say his abrupt incarceration caught the hip-hop community off guard.
I first rediscovered how much I liked John Forte when I read some of his writings on DailyBeast.com, where I am also a contributing editor for the Buzz Board. His writing is so intensely poetic and accessibly intellectual. I loved his remake of Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill. Ironically, the friend who introduced him to the song is the same friend who introduced me to John. Small world.
John Forte is a very cool guy. He’s very at ease and exudes a sort of rare nonchalant has-it-all-figured-out aura (he has floor-length dreads). I guess that’s what 7 years behind bars in a federal prison can do in a best case scenario.
John came by our studio to check out the jewelry and hang out a bit before he headed to LA for a month-long recording trip. The DANNIJO crew chatted with John about his dreads, music, skinny jeans, Carly Simon and the moment (and everything in between). Be sure to get the FREE download of Play My Cards For Me from his latest album StyleFREE.
Danielle Snyder: So how’s it going?
John Forte: It’s going great.
Danielle Snyder: We just had sushi and we were talking about your background, your past and we had just started talking about your musical influences…
JF: My music influences: wide and varying. It’s very, very difficult for me to pinpoint one over the other, but a few names that come to mind: Jose Gonzalez, Regina Spektor, Cat Power, Zooey Deschanel –I love her voice. A little bit of a blast from the past is Donny Hathaway- I think he was a musical genius. There’s a new young girl- Alela Diane -who’s from the Pacific Northwest- who’s kind of Joni Mitchell-esque in her tambour, but I expect to see big things out of her. Lisa Hannigan from Ireland, a folk singer, Air. Justice. It’s everything from dance, to singer/songwriter to hip-hop. I’m there. A good song is a good song is a good song, no matter what the genre is.
Danielle Snyder: And you like all different genres?
John Forte: I love all different genres. My history began in classical music but then it morphed into more of an urban landscape, ultimately winding up in my own weird sort of acoustic hip-hop fusion.
Danielle Snyder: So you started out with The Fugees, will you tell me a little more about how you initially got into the music industry?
John Forte: I initially got into the music industry working for an independent company called Ruckus Entertainment. I was the young director of NR; I was 19 at the time. It was my job to fly around the country and to sign bands and to develop those and put them in the studio and oversee the recording process. To hone it if you will, but the irony is that I didn’t have much experience but I was trusted with a pretty significant role.
Shortly after procuring that job at Ruckus, I met Lauryn Hill after seeing The Fugees perform one night at a club called the Super Club in Manhattan and we became fast friends. She introduced me to everyone else and encouraged me not to hang up my artistic hat, my producer’s cap. So by the time the group was working on their sophomore album, which was called “The Score,” I was ready to offer some of my production sensibilities. It went over pretty well because I not only produced on that album but I ended up writing as well as doing some arranging and programming ultimately going up and out on tour with The Fugees and then I went on to work with Wyclef and his solo album and ultimately releasing my own solo album called “Poly Sci” in 1998…
Jodie Snyder: What’s the genre of the first album?
John Forte: Poly Sci was very, very, very hip-hop, but I named it Poly Sci because although I was knee deep in hip-hop, I had still had a firm footing in academia, so it was my quest to marry street smarts with book smarts. And it was ambitious back then and I think I failed miserably with Poly Sci but it was filled with good intention [laughs]
Jodie Snyder: How did you fail?
John Forte: I don’t think I was an effective communicator; I wasn’t at a place where the music was liberated, where the music was done for the right reasons. At that time I was walking into the studio competing with other artists, essentially making music for all the wrong reasons, rather then doing it for myself, I was going in saying I have to appease this chart, I have to compete with this artist, instead of following my heart. It was very lateral, business minded maneuvering. It was calculated.
Danielle Snyder: So you actually thought it was bad? If you were reviewing it you wouldn’t give it a great review?
John Forte: No I wouldn’t. I don’t think the album has aged well at all. Not to down my own work, but artists go thru certain periods.
Jodie Snyder: How did the next album evolve?
John Forte: Well I, John came after Poly Sci. I, John was released in 2002, and that was the impetus for my most recent reincarnation, which was an uncompromised approach to music making. If I walk into the studio on a Monday and I’m feeling a little country, then I’m going to hone in on that. If I walk in and I’m feeling a little reggae, I’m going to hone in on it. If I walk in and I’m feeling a little hard rock, I’m going to go with it. I don’t care what anyone says, because what can they do— just not play the music. But I’m just going to go with whatever that internal zeitgeist pushes me towards.
Danielle Snyder: I know your focus right now is your solo album, but is there anyone in the future you’d love to collaborate with?
John Forte: There are a number of people that I’d love to collaborate with.. the list is too long. I was recently down in Atlanta working with Dallas Austin…But particularly, yeah, there are some people on that wish list, but I think I’m going to be surprised most by the people I would have never imagined. And that’s just how things happen, serendipitously, organically. Just showing up and being in the right place at the right time.
Danielle Snyder: We were talking about what going away [to prison] did for you— musically, spiritually, emotionally, etc. What happened? …how you ended up getting there, and what it gave you?
John Forte: Well after coming off the enormous success with The Fugees, and working with Wyclef, by the time my solo album came out [Poly Sci] it was met with disappointing sales—anywhere from 79,000 to 100,000 units domestic—granted that’s no small number of people who actually went and bought the music, but in the total context of 14 to 15 million units with The Fugees, and 2 to 3 million units with Wyclef, the expectation, the bar that was set for my solo debut was set pretty high. When that wasn’t met by a long shot and Sony dropped me, I was—and I say this now—but that was my justification. I felt forced to have to find my own way, if you will.
Whether it was ego… whether it was hubris, whether it was just foolishness, I didn’t go to friends and family for help, I decided to go to a less than desirable, rather unintelligent criminal enterprise if you will. But I justified it by saying that my role was so mitigating that if the house of cards ever fell, I’d only be slapped on the wrist. Well, unbeknownst to me back then, I wouldn’t be slapped on the wrist, I would be hit pretty hard and in 2001, I was sentenced to 168 months in a federal prison, which was 14 years. And that was big, it was catharsis.
It was a time when I had to ask myself some really, really difficult questions, questions I had probably avoided asking myself for years. Who am I? What am I doing here? What do I want out of life? What’s important to me? Who’s important to me? And slowly but surely I got those answers.
Some might say it was a heavy price to pay to get those answers, but everyone’s path is his or her own. And instead of thinking about or focusing on what I could have lost or what I did lose in the past 7.5 years, I like to focus on what I gained. And it was a better sense of me as a musician, as a songwriter—writing was very, very important to me provided the catharsis for me to heal and to grow and to evolve. But also as a thinker it allowed me to reassess global issues and how issues on the other side of the world directly affect me at home. I fell in love with literature again; I fell in love with teaching. I taught many, many classes while I was away ranging from musical theory to critical thinking classes.
Danielle Snyder: What are you teaching now?
John Forte: Now I teach every Tuesday at City College with a charity called In Arms Reach. Its target group is children of incarcerated parents and I have about forty 12-17 year olds. I’m teaching them songwriting as catharsis because songwriting for me has been my greatest healer during the most adverse times… And so far so good, we recorded our first song a couple of weeks ago. BET came through and filmed it. It was the first time many of the kids were in a recording studio and were in front of a microphone.
Sara Goodman: They were in a recording studio? I’ve never been in a recording studio
John Forte: Right, right. Yeah, so we need to get you guys into a world class recording studio.
Danielle Snyder: Yeah, we’re all very musically inclined.
John Forte: Really? I could tell by that song that you sang at lunch. That was amazing.
Ali Katz: Wait I want to hear.
John Forte: Check, check. Check, check.
Danielle Snyder: No, no… I don’t do back to back performances.
John Forte: Sorry, so sorry.
Danielle Snyder: How would you describe your music style?
John Forte: It’s more lyrically intense, more self contained than ever because back in the day I was dependent on a band or a DJ. But now I can just walk into a room with a guitar on my back and just sing and I have never had that freedom before and it’s awesome.
Danielle Snyder: Whose style do you really admire?
John Forte: Probably not a particular person, but I‘m attracted to that period between the jazz age and civil rights era. Because whether you were a person who was on top or on the bottom, the lines were really, really clean. And there was something to be said about being distinguished or having dignity or being upright rather than what happened in the ‘80s when urban culture unfortunately was influenced by jailhouse fashions and the clothes got really baggy. And it became this sort of it’s an attitude that comes with it.
Danielle Snyder: Like an attention to detail–
John Forte: —I love the attention to detail and it was yours. It’s almost a feeling more than it is description for me. But when I look at some of the pictures from eras gone by, I didn’t feel that we were in the sort of extra, extra large cookie cutter mentality that is getting over now. And I feel like the young people are getting ripped off. They’re paying $100 for a shirt that doesn’t even fit—for a t-shirt that doesn’t fit.
John Forte: I have style. Because right now my socks don’t match my jeans don’t match my shirt.
Jodie interjects [she's been sitting on the couch behind John checking out his dreads]
Jodie Snyder: Wait, I want to know how long it took you to grow your hair.
John Forte: 18 years.
Jodie Snyder: No way.
John Forte: Yes way.
Jodie Snyder: You haven’t cut it?
John Forte: 18 years ago I did.
Jodie Snyder: Really? Not a cut once?
John Forte: I think about cutting my hair every day.
Jodie Snyder: Every day?
Danielle Snyder: You should write a song called “I think about cutting my hair every day.”
John Forte: Do I think I’ll ever cut it? I might.
Danielle Snyder: Will you call us before you do?
John Forte: Why?
Danielle Snyder: We want to watch obviously. We want to get in on—
Sara Goodman: Do you think you’ll cut it buzz cut short?
John Forte: Probably not. Because I’ve got this new growth here that could give me a little bit of a tiny ‘fro.
Danielle Snyder: You’d go from dreads to fro?
Ali Katz: You’d look good with a fro.
John Forte: You think so?
Jodie Snyder: I don’t know, I kind of like your hair. It’s cool.
Danielle Snyder: But Jodie, he’s been looking at it for 18 years. You’ve seen it for two days.
Ali Katz: You need a new look.
John Forte: You think?
Danielle Snyder: NO.
Jodie Snyder: I want to know how long it takes to wash.
John Forte: It takes about an hour and 15 minutes.
Jodie Snyder: To dry?
John Forte: It can take days. Seriously, I washed my hair two days ago and it still like…
Jodie Snyder: Really? I know we’re getting so off topic.
John Forte: No it’s cool. I wash my hair the same way you wash your hair…
Danielle Snyder: ‘They’re just like us.’ Musicians are just like us.
John Forte: The only thing is that it takes a lot of shampoo. And I’m a product freak.
Danielle Snyder: What do you use?
John Forte: I use Aveda.
Jodie Snyder: They must like you.
John Forte: I know and they’re so expensive… so expensive.
Danielle Snyder: I hope they give you free product after this interview.
John Forte: So expensive.
Danielle Snyder: I’m going to reach out to them.
John Forte: Seriously. I go to the Aveda store and every time they see me come in they’re like “JOHNNNN.”
Danielle Snyder: You have to drop the name DANNIJO into one of your songs if we get you free Aveda product for life.
Jodie Snyder: We’re not making deals right now.
John Forte: I have no problems name dropping.
Sara Goodman: How often do you wash your hair?
John Forte: Twice a week. Minimum. You don’t want to wash you hair too much.
Jodie Snyder: I’m glad you’re into hygiene.
John Forte: You’re glad I’m in hygiene? No, but you have these natural oils that you don’t want to rub off.
Danielle Snyder: You don’t want to wash it too much.
John Forte: Uhuh. Because you don’t want to strip it and before you know it, you’ll have all these split ends.
Jodie Snyder: What’s something you can’t live without?
John Forte: Hair.
Jodie Snyder: After 7 yrs in prison, what’s the thing you missed the most? Or was there something you couldn’t have that was killing you?
John Forte: You know, that’s a good question. Not to say I’m surprised. I would think that people on the outside who have never been in would think about the big things. You would think about the house, or maybe that car, or maybe that bed. But it’s the little things. It’s the thing like being able to get an Asian pear at 2 in the morning because you want it.
Jodie Snyder: But that’s not normal, that’s only in New York.
John Forte: But that was normal for me, and normal for me was the city that never sleeps and 24 hour access to whatever you want.
Danielle Snyder: So what would you crave? It was like being pregnant probably?
John Forte: Yeah and it was those little things, and I’ve never been pregnant… This was really predating Amazon, but it was getting a book when you want it, or to listen to a piece of music when you want it. Just the little freedoms I took for granted so much. So then when a person asked me two days ago when I was at a show in Philadelphia, “If you could wish for anything what would it be?” And I told him, I said, “I have everything that I want right now, because I have the moment.” And for so many years I was looking behind me and I was looking in front me and I wasn’t able to appreciate the moment—that’s the greatest gift I think that I’ve had as a result of everything. Yeah we strive for more and sometimes we look back and say, ‘I’d rather that didn’t happen.’ But the one thing that we have going for us is right here, right now and I love that. I love that I not only know that but that I live that and I recognize that to my core.
Danielle Snyder: Sounds like a song. Can we write all those down as lyrics?
Jodie Snyder: I love your quote about the moment. That would be cool on a Harlow i.d. bracelet.
John Forte: Always thinking, the wheels always spinning.
Danielle Snyder: Do you use Pandora?
John Forte: I don’t use it, but I’m aware it.
Danielle Snyder: Well you should.
John Forte: But I don’t know how I would use it.
Danielle Snyder: Like the other day we listened to the John Forte station in honor of you coming. And it creates a station with musical influences and sounds similar to you so it might be interesting to see what your station sounds like.
John Forte: I didn’t know I had a station.
Danielle Snyder: Everyone has a station that’s a musician, I mean you’re John Forte.
Jodie Snyder: What came up on John Forte?
Danielle Snyder: Some pretty heavy shit came up, some intense rap stuff. We were working so we had to next it. Like DMX and hardcore rapper stuff.
John Forte: I worked with DMX, I worked with Fat Joe, I had that incarnation.
Jodie Snyder: I would like you to do a duet with Carly Simon.
John Forte: I have a duet with Carly. On “I, John,” there’s a song we did called “Been There Done That.”
Danielle Snyder: My mom is going to die. She loves Carly Simon.
John Forte: I was just at a venue a couple weeks ago and I was recording with her. In fact, I did a new version of “You Belong To Me.” She’s doing a new album of old songs, I asked her if could I do a new version of “You Belong To Me” as remix for today and she said, “Sure.” And my version is HOT…sizzle. It’s sizzling hot.
Danielle Snyder: So men’s fashion, so not to be superficial all of a sudden.
John Forte: I hate skinny jeans. I can’t stand skinny jeans. On guys. On girls, bestill my aching heart. But on guys, I don’t need to see all that. I love my legs. For years, I had issues with my legs and I went away and I was able to work on my legs and I have great legs now, I run now and I feel great about my legs. But for years, I had leg issues. But I don’t need to see skinny jeans. It makes me feel uncomfortable just imagining what they go through just to put them on, squeezing their feet.
Ali Katz: They were talking on the Today show this morning about how skinny jeans are bad for your health.
John Forte: For guys it’s like shrinking baby count.
Danielle Snyder: What jeans do you wear?
John Forte: Oh gosh…
Danielle Snyder: You can say whatever; you don’t have to give me a label, if you don’t know…
John Forte: But I do know. I know it sounds a little typical but my Seven jeans are my favorite.
Jodie Snyder: That’s what you’re wearing right now, right?
John Forte: Yes.
Jodie Snyder: Do you have a favorite designer?
Danielle Snyder: You were wearing an extraordinarily beautiful Valentino suit when we saw you–
John Forte: Valentino has been very, very good to me and I think were going to continue being good to one another.
Jodie Snyder: That was a good look for you.
John Forte: Thank you. And they don’t do the sort of tapered slacks. And I walked in and I said the one thing I can’t do is the tapered slack look and they said you’re in luck we don’t do that. Perfect.
Danielle Snyder: What kind of jewelry would you wear?
John Forte: I’d wear cuff links, I’d wear beaded necklaces… I would wear cuffs, bracelets.
Jodie Snyder: What’s your favorite place, if you could be anywhere?
John Forte: In the moment. In the moment with DANNIJO. [spells it out again]
Sara Goodman: How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
John Forte: Loving, Good, Air
Jodie Snyder: Is there anything else we should know about you?
John Forte: I’m sure there is, tons of stuff.
Jodie Snyder: Anything else you want to add in?
John Forte: It’ll happen. It will.
Monday, May 20
We sat down with Anne Pasternak for a few questions about Creative Time's past and future, as well as the importance of having an awareness about public art in the city.