In 1985, former To Be Young, Gifted and Black theatre director and the man who called the shots on disco-era film musical Car Wash and ‘70s Blaxpoitation flicks, Michael Schultz produced and directed a movie based on the early days of hip hop label Def Jam Recordings. Called Krush Groove, it starred a young (soon-to-be L.A. Law TV heartthrob) Blair Underwood as Def Jam’s entrepreneurial kingpin Russell Simmons. The Warner Brothers feature was also packed with famous faces, from members of RUN-D.M.C to the Beastie Boys.
Top billing however went to a first-time actor, and the woman about to tour Australia pounding a drum kit: Sheila E. On the eve of the percussionist extraordinaire’s 2016 Australian shows, Escovedo (the famous musical surname she shortened to just ‘E’) chats about her experiences on set, losing longtime friend and confidant Prince earlier this year, and that extraordinary family of hers.
“That movie was challenging,” says Escovedo down the line from the US.
“I wasn’t received very well in the hip hop community. A lot of the hip hop artists who were in that movie didn’t like me, thinking that I was coming in to be a hip hop artist from the West Coast. There was a rivalry happening between the East and West Coast.”
This is almost a decade before the well-documented tensions between opposing coastline labels Bad Boy and Death Row climaxed in gun fatalities. Yet, as Escovedo is quick to point out: “I wasn’t a rapper, it’s just that I wrote a song that had a bit of a rap – something that made sense to be in the movie.”
Krush Groove’s truth-stretching plot also needed a love interest – or so its writer Ralph Farquhar thought. It was the right decision, because Escovedo completely lights up the screen and brings warmth to the action. An early club scene, where her band (minus the song’s co-vocalist Prince) perform real-life hit A Love Bizarre, is an energetic show-stopper pipped only by a later scene where she performs the aforementioned “rap” song, Holly Rock. Watching the Run-D.M.C. boys’ almost-drooling jaws drop alongside Blair Underwood’s, you’re left to wonder how much of their reaction and on-screen admiration was acting.
“We were on tour,” recalls Escovedo, whose debut album The Glamorous Life and its singles were causing a stir at the time, “and [the film’s producers] called and said they wanted me to fly to New York to do a quick take to see if me and Blair Underwood would have some chemistry. I said okay. We videotaped to see how it was going to work, looked at it and thought it was going to work so they called me back and said: ‘we’ll shoot this in six weeks’.”
Still, why so much animosity on set? It certainly isn’t detectable watching the film.
“It was hard because I had already been on tour for over a year and I just wanted to go home. I was really tired,” says Escovedo laughing at the memory. It seems, as she somewhat embarrassingly recalls, that the cashed-up ‘80s and the decade’s inherent entourages and excess baggage for someone of her star status, was one of the issues. “Because I had been on tour, I bought all my people with me… I bought a lot of things with me! Wherever I went I tried to make it like home. When you’re going to be gone for that long there are ‘things’… So it was just really strange.
“At one point I ended up quitting the movie and saying, ‘this is ridiculous, I don’t want to do it’. It was because of being exhausted and not being received [well] and the East Coast people going: ‘Who does she think she is?’ I was like: ‘Wow – I’m not trying to be anything other than who I am, which is a musician and artist who loves what they do’.”
With a cast that included (aside from the aforementioned Run-D.M.C. and Beastie Boys), Kurtis Blow, Jam Master, The Fat Boys, LL Cool J, New Edition, Richard Gant, Russell Simmons himself, Rick Rubin and Lisa Gay Hamilton, it’s nice to hear Escovedo say that eventually, “we all became friends – the majority of us.”
At the mention of Prince, her former fiancé and musical collaborator, Escovedo is quick to confirm he was “absolutely” one of a kind and it’s clear his passing in April this year has had a toll. That toll manifests on her face during the closing moments of the tribute she staged in June at the BEC Awards.
Pulled together in just two days with many of Prince’s former bandmates, her face is also registering exhaustion from a routine that has her dancing, drumming and singing her way through an eight-minute medley that ends with her cradling a Prince-shaped guitar.
“When we were backstage getting ready to play, I was just trying to breathe and calm myself down because I didn’t want to break down and cry – and I was off and on – we were all off and on crying. The biggest challenge of that tribute was the emotional part and the loss. I didn’t know if we were going to be able to get through it.”
Having met when they were just 18 (he later proposed to her on stage during an emotional performance of Purple Rain), what qualities did she most admire in Prince?
“There are so many great things! His heart. He was always giving and making people laugh. He was an amazing song writer, guitar player. Then, [he was also] very competitive. I met him at the very beginning of his career, right before his first record came out. So from ’77 or ’78 to know this person and then as we had both changed, grew up and him becoming the person that he was.”
Not always easy by some accounts, and as a music director, demanding given the claim in Escovedo’s autobiography that Prince wouldn’t allow her to return home from a tour to attend a family member’s funeral.
That must have been tough given family is important to Escovedo. After all, she learnt to play the drums mimicking her Latin-jazz percussionist father Peter Escovedo (Azteca, Santana) from a very early age. He told Sheila, even before that, she was kicking to the percussion whilst still inside her mother. As a baby he would take Sheila to clubs in a basinet and hide her behind the bar while performing.
The extended Escovedo family is quite a who’s who. Sheila E’s uncles are singer Alejandro Escovedo and drummer Coke Escovedo, while her godfather was iconic Spanish Harlem timbale/vibraphone king, Tito Puente. Her brother Peter Michael Escovedo is also a musician and her niece is celebrity Nicole Richie.
Family gatherings must be a whirlwind of stories. Apart from the fact that they’ve all been on stage with an incredible array of stars, between them they have also been at some of the most hallowed recording sessions of the last 50 years. From Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall (that’s Sheila on percussion in Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough) to the star-studded charity mega-hit We Are The World.
Having written her own book, does Escovedo now feel like she’s heard all the tales worth telling?
“No way have I heard them all! Every time I hear my dad do an interview I’m hearing stories he’s never even told us. I always say, ‘pops this is my first time hearing about this’. He’s finishing up his book now as well.
“My dad [and I] did our first record together when I was 16 with Billy Cobham. I couldn’t believe it,” Escovedo recalls. “Then Billy Cobham introduces us to George Duke and I’m like: ‘Wow this is amazing!’ Then Herbie Hancock. Lionel Richie and then Marvin Gaye… It just kept going on.”
The list of those with whom Sheila has played, does indeed go on. From Dianna Ross through to Beyonce and Kanye West more recently. There was also her time as Carlos Santana’s percussionist, with whom she was also romantically involved.
Though there have been other films over the years (The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, Chasing Papi and concert movie Sign “O” The Times), writing, producing and performing music has been Escovedo’s main focus since she gave up the idea of being an Olympic athlete around 15.
“The… one that was not on my bucket list was Ringo Starr,” says Escovedo. She has regularly been part of The Beatles drummer’s All Starr Band.
“He’s a wonderful man,” she says of Starr. “A great big heart and very funny. And an incredible drummer.
“The other person I wish I would have been able to work with – I met him and had a great conversation – was Sammy Davis Jr. I loved Sammy Davis Jr.”
Well yes, the Rhythm Of Life was a powerful thing!
Sheila E. plays the Meredith Music Festival in December as well as 170 Russell in Melbourne on 7 December and Sydney’s Metro Theatre on the 11th.
It’s worth noting that the man who stars in that recently unearthed West-African homage to Prince film Purple Rain, Mdou Moctar performs at the Sydney Festival in January and that Krush Groove actually stands up quite well considering its vintage, and is well-worth a watch on DVD or streaming services like iTunes.