Interview by Doug Brandt.
YOU KNOW WHO SHE IS, although you may not realize it. She’s had three #1s and two #2s on the Billboard dance charts over the last nine years, and at least five others in the Top 20.
Don’t think you know? Maybe this will ring a bell:
Keep pushing on
Things are gonna get better
It won’t take long
Keep on pushing to the top.
It’s easily understood why you may not recognize her name – she appeared on the single as “Boris Dlugosch presents Booom!” back in 1996.
“It’s funny that people are still just finding out that ‘Keep Pushin” and ‘Horny’ are me,” explained Inaya Day, the powerhouse vocalist behind these massive club hits. “I did the early tunes under pseudonyms in case they sucked because I was doing R&B and hip-hop then.”
Blessed with an amazing gift of song, Brooklyn-born Inaya began singing in church as a young child, where she got her first experience in performing. “I started in church,” she said. “My mom took me to choir rehearsals and stuff from the time I was able to come outside, so music was, and is, second nature.”
She attended the High School of Music and the Performing Arts in her native city, New York, and went on to major in musical theater at The University of Bridgeport. Inaya was then off to the stage to do musicals in New York. She understudied Stephanie Mills in The Wiz, receiving rave reviews when she stepped into the lead as “Dorothy” in New York, St. Louis and Washington DC.
Inaya is no stranger to recording, either. She has recorded vocals for Michael Jackson, Al Green, Sean “Puffy” Combs, MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Moni Love, Big Daddy Kane, Jonathon Butler and Randy Crawford, among others. She even sang the Oprah theme, “I’m Every Woman,” with Valerie Simpson of Ashford and Simpson.
And yet there’s more: Inaya is also an incredibly versatile songwriter, having co-written two songs on Randy Crawford’s album, “Every Kind of Mood.” The songs were chosen to be the first two singles and hit the charts in the U.S. and the U.K. respectively. She also wrote two songs for and with Bootsie Collins for his album Fresh Outta ‘P’ University.
Fast-forward to one day while she was living in Dusseldorf, Germany. Inaya’s Turkish friend Yilmaz passed along her number to his producer friend who had a recording studio in Hannover. The producer called Inaya and arranged for her to take a four-hour train ride from Dusseldorf to Hannover to do a demo.
“I got there and started singing off the top of my head,” she explained, “just making up words.”
“Inaya,” they said, cutting her off, “you have a great voice.”
“Thanks,” she replied, and continued to ad lib.
“Next thing I knew,” she continued, “I was in America listening to the noon day mix and I heard myself on the radio. That’s how it all started with recording house music.”
The producer? Boris Dlugosch. The rest? Chart-topping history: those lyrics eventually became her first hit, “Keep Pushin’.”
Inaya immediately followed “Keep Pushin'” (which reached #2 on Billboard’s Dance chart) with “Hold Your Head Up High” (which reached #6) in 1997, also listed under “Boris Dlugosch presents Booom.”
Then came “Horny,” released in 1998 by one of her long-time producers, Mousse T. “Horny” became an instantly recognizable club anthem and soared to Number One. However, her choral hook and friend Emma Lanford’s verses were credited to the project name “Hot & Juicy” on the single, and Inaya didn’t appear in the video.
Fortunately after three hits in a row, she decided to come out from behind the pseudonyms and become her own artist under her own name. And it was that name that brought us a string of club hits: “Moving Up,” “Feel It,” “Can’t Stop Dancing,” “Shout It Out,” “Save Me,” “Mine,” “I Am the 1,” and others under various producers and labels.
Every Tuesday night Inaya can be seen performing with a funk and R&B band at a showbar called “CafÈ Wha?” in the West Village of Manhattan. “I love singing with them,” she said. “It’s a sin to call it work. And I know you’re gonna bug out over this one, but I also love singing jazz standards. Gospel will always be number one on the list though, as its fused with every type of music.”
I had the fortune of meeting Inaya a couple years ago at Café Wha. Since then, we keep in touch online and try to see each other whenever I’m back in New York. It was my pleasure to be able to finally interview her officially.
When did you first start singing?
I first started singing in church with the Sunday school. Then Mom made me join the kids’ choir. My sister and cousins were in the young adult choir and they could really put it down. I hated being in the little kids’ chorus when I could do all that the bigger kids were doing. But I had to be 16 to get in. I would go home and copy my cousins and sister. I would tape their solos from church and sing ’em back at home.
My cousin Sol is the head of the group SKYY. They made “Call Me,” “Let’s Celebrate,” “High”ä I would play the drums to Earth, Wind and Fire records at my aunt’s house before they rehearsed. He used to put me in the trashcan as a kid and lock the top and roll it around. One time his brother put me in a box and taped it. Then he kicked me down the staircase while my aunts and mom were hosting a Tupperware party. Oh what a tortured existence!
Sounds like you must have been the only girl around!
Well, the only one my age. All the others were older already or too young, or not born yet. I was all they had to mess with.
So I bought the Fame DVD and was glued to the set. What was your personal experience like at the High School for Performing Arts?
Well my high school, M&A or PA, was the bomb. It was very close to what they depicted in the Fame movie. I loved it there and had dreams of being back in high school long after I left. Go figure!
What department where you in?
I was a vocal major, of course.
Ah, the one department not really represented in the movie. Are you still in contact with people you went to school with?
Most of the friends I had in high school are still my friends todayä Like Tichina Arnold – Pam from the Martin Lawrence Show – is one of my best friends on Earth. She wrote and sang “Movin’ Up” with me under the pseudonym Chyna Ro.
Hip-hop has blown up across America and all around the world. How do you feel about the current debate about hip-hop taking over house music in the nightclubs?
Well, people dance to what they hear. Hip-hop is being fed to the world constantly and we have no choice but to ingest some of it, at least. My 67-year-old aunt knows the lyrics to 50 [Cent] songs. I say God bless them for believing in their music enough to get behind it and make it happen. House music is everywhere. TV commercials, fashion shows, movies, and TV series. If only the powers that be would believe in their artists and trust the music enough to push as hard as the hip hoppers do. It’s but there to seize.
Where will they each be in ten years?
In ten years hip-hop will still be here as it’s been here since its arrival with no end in sight, just like rock ‘n roll. It will just evolve. House music will never die as long as there’s someone who believes in it. And from what I see, it’ll only get bigger and may go pop. The media has latched on. We’re snagging them unawares.
What do hip-hop and house each need and/or lack right now?
I don’t think hip-hop needs anything else except a bit more moral fiber in some cases. House needs to fight harder for what it deserves. Mainstream artists cross to it. We need to learn to use that as a rung and climb on up the popular music ladder.
How have they each changed over the years, especially in New York City?
Hip-hop has changed in that it’s become grimier. House has changed in that it’s become more electronic. It has, in many cases, strayed from its originä Disco. We’re losing the authenticity of the instrumentation in a lot of places. But there are some who still hold up the light.
I want an Inaya Day R&B CD! Any record deals brewing?
Yes, record deals are brewing but I don’t want to jinx myself. Shhhhh!
Okay I’ll rephrase that. What genre of music would you release?
I wanna do a gospel album and a funk/rock/neo-soul joint too.
You have several songs out right now, one of which is currently at Number One. Tell me about it.
“Lift It Up” is #1 on the Billboard chart right now and I love it for the Francios ‘n Cruz beats, but also for the inspirational lyrics. Helps me minister to myself as well as others.
And then there’s Prince’s group Vanity 6’s song “Nasty Girl.” What’s the story there?
“Nasty Girl” is a song I sing with my band in New York City. People would say I should re-record it. I decided to listen one day and had [Mousse T] produce it for meä and the rest is, hopefully, history in the making.
Who inspires you to smile and keep going?
Well, on the deep level, my brother Schon, who is dealing with kidney failure like a champ and my mom who deals with everything like a champ. On the touring and more immediate side, lately, it’s been my friend Shanelle. We had a problem recently with this one promoter in Australia. She handled everything like the noble woman she is, while keeping me laughing hysterically at the same time. Even during a performance, if I felt I was fading, I could look over at her and spark a grin. Big ups to her!
What motivates you?
My motivation is God’s word. The Bible says, “All is mine.” It also says he will give me the desires of my heart, so I press on toward the mark for the prize of the highest calling and I know my goals will be reached. I want to be a great thing so I can do great things for my mom who has always expected and inspired nothing but greatness in me.
What do you tell new artists about the business?
I tell new artists to abide in their calling – stick to what they do best – and they shall be great if they want it. I also tell them to persevere and study their craft, for luck favors the prepared.
What does an artist need to be successful?
A thick skin, a goal, a sight for the big picture and a plan to get there.
What else do you like to do – do you knit or collect rocks or go ice fishing or anything?
[Laughs] Well, I like video games, theater and movies. I love hearing live bands. I’m a computer head so I’m always online. As long as I can chill with my friends and family, I’m quite alright.
When are you going to perform in Chicago?
Ya know, I was hoping that you could answer that question for me!