[This article is part #TheMic, 5 Mag’s continuing series showcasing the vocalists of electronic music in each issue. Check out other profiles and interviews from #TheMic here.]
This is some Detroit fire: the fuel for underground eruptions from Moodymann and Alton Miller to Javonntte and now an album with UK soul disciple thatmanmonkz, vocalist Nikki O has left her mark on some of the best deep house records of the last fifteen years.
Any singer from Detroit contends with the legacy of Motown, but Nikki O in her own way encapsulates the city of today: funky, eclectic, and something you’re gonna regret if you pass by without stopping. Because she IS a show stopper, that’s for sure, as likely to drop a line in a sweet and syruppy delivery as she is a deep, sultry Billie Holiday trill or a wild Prince Rogers Nelson-like cant.
Nikki O is not a new voice but for some of us she is a new face. The cover of Rough, Rugged, Raw, her new album on thatmanmonkz‘s Shadeleaf Music, captures her as one always imagined: mic in hand, shoulders back and wrecking all kinds of havoc in mid-tune.
Aside from her prolific output in the deep house world, Nikki is a constant fixture in Detroit’s music scene. She also goes by Sky Covington, and is an 8 time Detroit Music Award Winner with a show called The Preservation of Jazz hour on WJZZ Cool TV.
Born and raised in Detroit, “as a child I sang all the time,” she says, “from the moment I woke til I went to bed. Singing became my second language.” She was profoundly affected by Lady Sings The Blues, the 1972 biopic of legendary jazz vocalist Billie Holiday portrayed by an ascendent Diana Ross. (Roger Ebert called it “one of the great performances” of the year.)
“It was a scene when Billie Holiday bought her mother a fancy stole and hat,” Nikki says. “I told my mother, ‘Ima buy you a house one day from using my talent!'”
In the early ’00s, Nikki released several records as “Sky Covington” or just “Sky,” including the soulful “Can You Feel Me?” with Charles Spencer and “Choose to Believe” with Alton Miller. But Nikki broke through with many DJs with the album-length, 9 track Nikki-O EP from 2005. Produced by Moodymann for his Mahogani Music, the original was mostly distributed at gigs in the mid-’00s and almost unattainable otherwise. That, of course, made DJs want it even more, and those who went through the adventure of obtaining a copy were never disappointed by the reward. (The record was later included as a bonus disc and then released on its own for record stores.)
She has never let up. Looking through the Nikki O discography, it’s a remarkable reminder of how much she’s been at the center of it all. First there’s the tracks with Moodymann and the other Mahogani players, from 2009’s jazz diversion called “Rectify” and the sprightly 2013 uptempo track “Music.” And it was her voice that lifted the lights on “Ulooklykicecreaminthesummertyme” on Moodymann’s 2014 self-titled album, considered by many the album of the year. The same was true for 2018’s soulful house track “The Color of Midnight” with Javonntte, which 5 Mag wrote was “of such a high quality that it could serve as a teardown for a masterclass in the genre.”
There are hidden gems in that discography beneath the fold too. Nikki has also engaged in fruitful collaborations with Nicholas Iammatteo (aka “Nicholas”), the Italian producer on several spectacular deep house EPs, You Can’t Hide/Black Sugar, Ghetto Opera (both on X-Masters) and Sound of Earth. The soulful jam “More Positive Things” with Alton Miller has been a fixture on DJ want lists since just about the moment it dropped on Adeen.
Also notable on this list were collaborations featured on thatmanmonkz’s 2019 album Non Zero Sum Game and “Ooh Wee” released on Classic. monkz told 5 Mag they first met online, and then he went to watch her at Baker Street Lounge in Detroit.
“He’s so beautiful to me and an amazingly fine music producer,” Nikki says. “The way he puts his thing together… Amazing! He cares for me. It feels safe to be vulnerable. He really respects me and I like that.
“My most memorable moment was when he was in Detroit before his gig. I made tacos, and he hung out and ate tacos with my family and I. It was so cool cause he had traveled so far from home.”
Rough, Rugged, Raw, her new album on monkz’s label, was released in a hurry in February. The album came together very quickly, working remotely from opposite sides of the world.
“My lyrics are like paint in buckets,” Nikki says. “I add lyrics as I come and go. When the buckets are full, I send Scott a bunch of colors, and he does the other parts of the art piece.
“And I do mean ‘art piece.’ Rough, Rugged, Raw is so colorful. But 2020 was a variation of colors as well.”
Rough, Rugged, Raw showcases Nikki O’s musical versatility and eclectic tastes. Of note is the wild “In The Park After Dark,” a song about “me trying to win back a past love with a summer night of cocktails and good music,” she says. “By the end of the song, like the end of the night, we are together. And we’re still together today.”
Every deep house track with her voice becomes saturated in tones of soul, shades of jazz and funk. But house is “like a plant I don’t really need to water,” she says. “It’s always taken care of itself. I can always dive right in it at any time.
“But I’ve been waiting for this time in particular so that I’d be able to feature a project like this one. I have so much more that I planned to share. Curious to see what will happen if I make it a major priority.”
However much time she dedicates to it, and whatever the priority is, there always seems to be a Nikki O track on the charts. After the release of Rough, Rugged, Raw, her voice finishes off “Breathe” from Aus Music as the best track Dam Swindle (formerly Detroit Swindle) have made to date. What comes after that? and after that?
“The next thing?!” she says. “Let me surprise you.”