Reggie Watts Biography
Staged Play in Elementary School, Pioneered "Ambient Comedy", Pressured to Conform to Radio Formats
Vocalist, instrumentalist, comedian
The musical activities of Seattle, Washington's Reggie Watts are so diverse that they are difficult to classify. His lyrical and wide-ranging baritone voice has drawn comparisons with those of various classic soul stylists of the 1970s, most often Al Green. As lead singer of the Seattle band Maktub, Watts has partnered with musicians from the rock, hip-hop, and electronic fields, and he brings influences from his own classical and jazz backgrounds to bear on his musical creations. A performer with a tireless drive toward improvement, Watts has regularly participated in freeform musical improvisations, done comic revues and standup comedy, and been active as a dancer. All that seemed to hold him and his band back from mass success was the tendency of the music industry to pigeonhole artists for the benefit of format-driven radio programmers and retailers.
Watts was born in Germany around 1972, the son of a French mother and an African-American father who was an officer in the United States Air Force. He is a second cousin of the writer Alice Walker, and his full name was Reginald Lucien Frank Roger Watts. "My mother's French. It's a European thing to have three middle names," he explained to the Seattle Times. Watts began classical piano lessons at age five and also studied the violin for eight years, with the result that, as his friend Heather Duby told Seattle Weekly, he "can play circles around a lot of people." Watts benefited from strong parental involvement. "My mother supported every aspect of my creativity, ranging from violin and piano lessons to after-school theater," he told the Seattle Times. Later, he and the rest of the members of Maktub would reflect on how unusual it was that all their parents remained married.
Staged Play in Elementary School
By the time he was in fourth grade, Watts and his family had moved to Great Falls, Montana. He wrote a play that was put on that year at Chief Joseph Elementary in Great Falls. The play had an anti-drug theme. "I wasn't anti-drug at all," he told the Times. "I just figured it was the best way to get them to let me put on a show." (He later said, however, that the strongest drug he had ever used was Robitussin cough syrup.) After winning several dramatic competitions in high school he and a friend lit out for New York City, where they auditioned for a play. The friend was hired, but Watts was not. After returning home, he took off in the other direction, attracted by Seattle's booming music scene. The year was 1990, and he was 18.
Watts quickly fell in with the city's vibrant musical community. He sang and played in upwards of 20 different bands in the early 1990s, ranging from jazz to rock and R&B to a cover band called Hit Explosion. He also performed in several dance and theater pieces. And he studied jazz singing at Seattle's Cornish College of the Arts. In 1996 he joined with bassist and electronics specialist Kevin Goldman and drummer Davis Martin to form Maktub (pronounced mock-TUBE); the name was an Arabic word, drawn from the novel The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho and meaning roughly "it is written." The band later took on keyboardist Alex Veley and began to build a strong following in Seattle clubs and on the progressive radio station KCMU. Watts's trademark 1970s-style Afro, once called the largest in the Northwest, provided Maktub with an instantly identifiable visual trademark.
Maktub spent several years honing the material for its debut album, Subtle Ways, which was released in 1999. The release garnered a Best R&B Album award at the Northwest Music Awards and won the band fans from as far afield as England after it was made available on the MP3.com Web site. With radio support and a strong local buzz, Maktub seemed to be headed for national exposure–but things didn't work out that way. "There was a period of time when we were getting called by every record label you can imagine, then it just kind of fell off," Watts told the Seattle Times.
Pioneered "Ambient Comedy"
The problem was that Maktub's music fit neither the mold of the neo-soul sound cultivated by vocalists such as D'Angelo nor the Seattle rock of Pearl Jam and its cohorts, although it bore traces of both. The band took an 18-month break as Veley departed for Brazil, while Watts kept busy with other bands and with improvisation sessions several times a week. Some of those sessions involved spoken-word elements. "It's something I call 'ambient comedy,'" Watts told the Times. "Three DJs [spinning] records, and me as the vocalist, telling stories—comedic things." He even headlined a comic revue called "A Very Reggie Xmas" in 2001.
Maktub re-formed in 2001 with keyboardist Daniel Spils and guitarist Thaddeus Turner. The following year they released their album Khronos, which featured Watts's reflections on the passage of time. "I want to see so many things in this world …I'm in hyperactive mode," he told the Times. Musically, the album dipped into classic soul and rock sounds, highlighting Watts's vocal versatility. Critics nationally began to raise the Al Green comparisons, but, noted the Boston Globe's Renee Graham, "Watts can also coax his easy-like-Sunday-morning vocals into a full-throttle howl, as with Maktub's cover of Led Zeppelin's 'No Quarter.'"
Once again, audiences in the Northwest reacted enthusiastically to the album, and a run of 20,000 copies quickly sold out. Major labels again showed interest in the group, but Maktub elected to sign with the New York-based independent label Velour, and sales stalled out at 30,000 copies. Watts continued to gain critical raves, and the group was lumped in with other artists sometimes referred to collectively as the black fringe.
Pressured to Conform to
"I've had so many conversations with [industry] people about how Reggie needs to look like D'Angelo," lamented Maktub manager Dave Meinert, to the Seattle Times. "But Reggie is really more of a modern rock artist than he is an urban radio artist. What happens with black artists is that people don't necessarily judge them on what they're doing as artists, but they judge them on being black artists. It's gotten worse, with consolidation of the formats on the radio. Where would Prince get played on radio today?"
Undiscouraged, Watts released Simplified, a debut solo album of his own in 2003, on Seattle's small nonLinear label. The album merged soul with 1980s New Wave rock sounds and was called by Seattle Times reviewer Tom Scanlon "a very strong starting point for Watts's solo career." Maktub showed no sign of losing its strong ability to draw a crowd, and Watts added live onstage sampling to his instrumental repertoire.
Maktub returned to the studio to assemble its third album, Say What You Mean, which was due for release in the spring of 2005. The album was produced by Bob Power, who had helmed recordings by other unclassifiable bands like the international Los Angeles-based group Ozomatli. Watts headed for Europe in January of that year for a month-long tour as a standup comedian. "He's a true entertainer," Seattle DJ Rebecca "Misskick" West told the Times. "Always on the go."
(With Maktub) Subtle Ways, Jasiri Media Group, 1999.
(With Maktub) Khronos, Velour, 2002.
Simplified, nonLinear, 2003.
(With Maktub) Say What You Mean, Velour, 2005.
Boston Globe, April 22, 2003, p. E1; August 9, 2003, p. C5.
Oregonian (Portland), May 10, 2002, p. 38.
Seattle Times, April 15, 1999, p. G14; May 19, 2000, p. TK15; December 4, 2001, p. E8; April 19, 2002, p. H15; August 31, 2003, p. K4; February 15, 2004, p. G3; August 3, 2004, p. E1; December 19, 2004, p. RZ8.
Seattle Weekly, November 3, 1998.
Washington Post, August 1, 2003, p. T7; August 6, 2003, p. C5.
"Maktub," Vermillion Media Group, www.vermillionmediagroup.com/maktub (March 13, 2005).
"More Music at the Moore: Reggie Watts, MC," www.theparamount.com/education/mm-2003.asp (March 13, 2005).
"Reggie Watts: Simplified," nonLinear Productions, www.nonlinear.com (March 13, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
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