Zo!’s Top Five Moments of 2011 – #1 Going Home and Receiving A Long Ovation at The Foreign Exchange Show in Detroit

May 8, 2011, Mother’s Day…

The +FE crew and I were set to take the short 2-hour and some change drive to Detroit from Cleveland to play our 4th show of the scheduled seven-show tour of Midwest cities. I was up and ready to go this particular morning as we were creeping up on the show date that I was most anticipating. Going back home to perform is always motivational to me because I’m able to catch everyone up on what I have been up to musically  – The same people who saw me making music out of my bedroom in my parents’ house in what I used to call “Crowded Room Studios,” as there was more music and equipment in that spot than space to move around. To be able to bring new levels of success home to folks who have supported you from day one is truly a blessing… So needless to say, I was a bit anxious for this one. As soon as I found out the show was confirmed, I started to text a couple folks here and there and sent a few DMs via Twitter just to make sure that kats were blocking that date off far in advance because at that time folks kept asking, “When are y’all gonna come to The D?”  …The thing was, May of 2011 wasn’t our first time playing in Detroit. The first +FE show at home was over two years ago in June of 2009 and I remember being hyped up for that one too, but this time was much different. First off, the buzz around the show was crazy and the people who were creating it seemed to be super excited. Secondly, there had been four +FE Music releases since that last show: City Lights 2: Shibuya (Sept. ’09), …just visiting too (Nov. ’09),  SunStorm (Jul. ’10) and Authenticity (Oct. ’10). One thing was starting to become crystal clear to us… Detroit was ready, I just didn’t realize how ready.

I’ll put it like this, I was so amped up about the Detroit show that thinking back on it, I barely even remember the actual drive from Cleveland… I remember stopping once for gas after Toledo, but that’s about it. The next thing I remember is checking in to our hotel and asking, “Ayo, who’s coming to the house before soundcheck?” Our bassist, Kush El-Amin and drummer Tim Scott Jr. said that they would roll so we dropped our stuff off in our rooms and proceeded to head out to my parents’ house. As soon as we walked in, I as I normally do when I get home, went straight for the refrigerator to grab a water and a Faygo Redpop to take with me. But to my surprise, Moms had baked a damn sweet poe-tay-toe pie for our arrival… Yep, I said Poe. Tay. TOE. So, uhhh… the three of us had some pie. ….And uhhh…. y’all thought I was greedy as hell? The brotha T. Scott had two pieces.

After we left my parents’ house, I took the fellas to The Bread Basket for a Rueben and some Better Made chips…  For the record, I am currently salivating just looking at the picture below.

After taking our food to go, we only had enough time to head back to the hotel and pick up the rest of the crew for soundcheck at the Magic Stick. Upon arriving to the venue, I started feeling anxious… At that point I just wanted the show to BEGIN. I hadn’t gone home to play in a year and a half, hadn’t been home with +FE in two… everyone was sounding all extra excited about the show – I was truly on edge……… A GOOD edge. Plus, the entire crew knew how big this show was for me… With all that said, I still wasn’t aware exactly how big.

We headed back to the hotel in order to change and get everything ready to go right back to the venue for the show. I was surprising cool, but I could feel my heart rate noticeably increase before taking the stage. Everybody in the crew was looking at me like, “You ready? Are you ready?” I was ready as hell… Normally, the time that we have backstage usually drags along anyway. But for the hometown show, time seemed to be moving at 120 seconds per minute. …..When we finally took the stage, I was the first to walk out to a sea of Detroit faces. I thought to myself, “This crowd is KILLIN the last one… They’re ready.” We proceded to start the show and the crowd was with us the entire time. During the set, I saw a ton of familiar faces, which made me feel even more at home… But still once again, I wasn’t ready.

Now… for those of you who have ever attended an +FE show, you know that there is a portion set aside during each show where Phonte introduces the entire crew individually… The order is normally: band members, vocalists, and last, of course is Nicolay. Well… for the first time in our touring history, the introduction order was different and to say that it caught me way off guard would be an understatement. Phonte went through and introduced everyone and I noticed that he skipped me… I was thinking, “Ok, he’ll probably do it after Jeanne and Sy.” Welp! After introducing Jeanne Jolly and Sy Smith…. He introduced Nicolay. *blank stare* I wonder if anyone has pictures of my face during that time, I’d like to see them because in my head it was, “Oh shit! WTF?… I’m going LAST at the CRIB? This is crazy….!” The next thing I knew, Phonte told us to cut the music and proceeded to go into my introduction. I’m sure I was standing there looking silly and lost as hell leading up to….

“Give it up for your own… Lorenzo Ferguson a/k/a Zo! y’all!”

The place just got LOUD…….. and I couldn’t do a damn thing but stand there and cheese.  In normal situations, people cheer, yell out, etc. and I’ll show love back by waving, bowing or something to make sure that they know I appreciate them. This time was a little different… Detroit got loud…. Matter of fact, Detroit got loud and HELD it. I was smiling… waving………smiling some more………. waving……  That’s when I first realized, “Oh damn, they’re not stopping!” I was completely in the moment at this point, plus my parents and younger sister were in the audience as well so this just became a helluva moment for me. I didn’t know what to do anymore or how to react – I just started looking around with the “This can’t be real” face on and man, it felt GREAT – SO great that I THEN thought to myself, “Oh ok, I see…. these negroes are tryna make me cry now.” And damn if I didn’t feel a lump in my throat – Man, this ain’t good. I just kept thinking, “Naaaah man, I’m not going… I’m not going. Breeeeeathe.” Of course, the more I thought that…. The louder they seemed to get and the bigger that lump got. THEN, I turned to my left to look at the crew, you know, just to kind of get their take on things and they were no help at all as Sy and Jeanne both had their hands on their mouths in the “Awwwww” position looking like THEY were about to cry. SHIT!! It was settled… I definitely wasn’t looking over at the crew for ANYmore support. The crowd thought they had me though!! – Because after awhile, instinctively I took my cap and covered my face with it while turning around. *sigh* This did nothing but fuel it and made them cheer even louder. Their loud ovation went on for a solid couple of minutes. I know I may seem to be making light of it, but it was by far one of the most unbelievable moments of my music career up to that point. Of course I’ve already had a few of my people jokingly say, “Aw man, you were about to cry, you were about to get emotional?” Maaaaaan listen… You work this hard for this long, keep it up after moving away from home and then return to that type of hometown love… If your throat doesn’t lump up from a reception like that, you may need to check and see if you have a pulse. I have never gotten an ovation like that before or since… That was a moment that left me truly humbled and I will never forget it.

Zo!’s Top Five Moments of 2011 – #3 Rock Creek Academy in D.C. Closes Down = Full-Time Musicianship…

Friday, August 5th began early for me as I was picked up from my hotel room in Houston at about 4:45am to catch an early flight back home after wrapping up another successful listening party for my then new release, …just visiting three. For those of you who know me personally, along with others who happen to follow me on Twitter or Facebook know that I taught Music at a Special Education Charter school in Washington D.C. (Rock Creek Academy) to high school kids for five years. Well, August 5th is significant because it marked the last day of summer school at RCA, which also meant that our staff had the entire following week off before it was back to the start of yet another fall semester. I would ALWAYS take the summers off, just so I could regain my sanity and have some time to myself in regards to being productive in the studio without having to worry about my day job. Despite not working in the summer, I was still able to remain connected to the happenings in the school because I still received work emails on my phone. That morning, we all received an email from the CEO of the school that read like this:

After reading the email, I saw nothing out of the ordinary. Normally when we would get this same type of email at the end of each semester or summer session, it would serve almost as our “enjoy your time NOW… because in a week, it’s back to the plantation!” warning. Even with seeing and reading this email, I was so determined to keep the school out of my mind until it was actually that time to go back in there to work – I think any teacher can relate to that. At the time I was focused on my upcoming trip to Atlanta that I had scheduled for another …just visiting three album listening party at Moods Music that Sunday, the 7th. Soon after returning home from Atlanta on Monday, August 8th, received a text from a friend of mine who was formally employed at Rock Creek Academy with me…

“You hear about RCA?”

I responded… “No, what happened?” …but I already pretty much knew what she was about to respond with. When folks text you out of the blue asking if you’ve “heard about” someone or something, it is rare that a positive update will follow. She then proceeded to tell me that the school had shut down and that there should be a letter in the mail formally confirming this. I got up and walked outside to check the mailbox. Sure enough there was a large white envelope from Rock Creek Academy, Inc. that contained one letter of recommendation, a letter instructing us on how to keep our health benefits, and a two-page letter informing us that our signed, upcoming 10-month teaching contracts were “terminated” effective immediately due to the permanent closure of the school. Although the news came as no surprise to many of us (even though we were “assured” throughout the spring semester of 2011 that we had nothing to worry about as the school would remain open in the future), it was kind of a shock when it actually happened. What wasn’t a shock though was the fact that the two-page letter was dated Friday, August 5th… The same day the CEO sent out the “not-so-out-of-the-ordinary” email above thus confirming in print what we all already suspected… He knew. How far in advance did he know the school was shutting down? There’s no telling, but I think he was aware of it way in advance. Personally, I have always thought that was shady as shit… Regardless of what it was, what I SAW was the door to “Full-Time Musicianship” fly wide open, which was excellent… There was also a HUGE change taking place, which set the stage for a rather intense mental battle to take place… The battle started off as a back and forth debate…

“But you’re making a huge impact in some of these kids’ lives” vs. “You’re also making an impact in people’s lives who listen to your music”

“You are salaried at the school” vs. “Music isn’t salaried, but you can definitely work to make it very consistent”

The debate slowly started becoming a bit one-sided…

“Your being an artist was not at all respected by the school at all… Until it was time to show you and your students off” vs. “Your art is respected by your listeners and supporters”

“While you ARE salaried, the school has it set up to where they are not paying you for two consecutive missed days whether you have leave hours or not” vs. “You can go out on the road whenever you need to – No permission needed, no leave slips”

These were all factors that I was weighing when deciding whether or not to go back into the classroom as a music teacher. The thing is, I am very passionate about passing music down to the younger generation of kids – whether it comes in the form of music theory and education or just simply letting them hear my favorite Earth, Wind & Fire record to expose them to what I think is “good music.” I think that it is our duty as music lovers to expose these children early to some good undeniable music. It’s always silly to me when I hear people complaining about what our kids listen to, yet they have never once schooled a kid on anything music-related. Let these kids hear some stuff and pass some history along with the song and they just may surprise you by taking to it. I eventually decided to continue passing along my knowledge of music in the form of private piano lessons, which actually started at the top of this month… Despite not working in a formal classroom setting, music education never stops.

The one thing that I’ve learned since becoming a musician full-time is if you want to know how people truly feel about you, go into business for yourself and start doing what you love as a profession. Maaaaaan, that shit is TELLING!! The few things that I have learned about myself have been interesting as well. For example, I realized that once I get focused on productivity and being consistent whether in the studio, the gym, or on-stage, I have an extremely low tolerance for folks with constant negative energy. I wasn’t fully aware of that until recently and I have certainly had to adjust accordingly. On the other hand, my family and close friends have been nothing BUT supportive in my recently enhanced musical journey and to them I would like to say, “Thank you” and “I love you” for it because honestly, it is part of what drives me during some of those “low” days. Overall, the school’s immediate closure has certainly opened up brand new opportunities as well as a brand new purpose and motivation behind my music career that has resulted in a greater amount of shows and studio time and subsequently a lesser amount of sleep. I am extremely anxious to let you all hear what I have been working on since the closing of Rock Creek Academy and thank YOU for continuing to support what I love to do and that’s create and release quality music.

Zo!’s Top Five Moments of 2011 – #4 First Videos Placed in Rotation

Valentine’s Day 2011 – I had just returned home from the school (or “that PLACE” as I would call it) after a typical day of working as a student bodyguard (a/k/a a teacher) and proceeded to send texts to numerous people in my phone letting them know that If they were close to home, pull up in front of the TV real quick and turn on VH1 Soul at 6pm EST… My video for “This Could Be the Night” was set to make its second television appearance (It was run at 10am earlier in the day). I was very promptly informed by my mother who called that morning and left a super excited voicemail, “It came on! Your video was on this morning!!” (To this DAY, she either emails or sends me a text whenever she happens to catch my video) Her voicemail was then accompanied by several texts and tweets that said the same thing. To me, this was pretty exciting being as though prior to the release of SunStorm, I had no videos. We shot footage for “This Could Be the Night” in June of last year. At the time of the shoot, I was told that the final product would be included in the MTV Networks rotation a/k/a VH1 Soul at a later date… after several steps were completed, so I thought to myself, “Just be patient, it’ll show up.” Hell, most times I would pretty much just put it out of my mind for long periods of time so I wouldn’t have to think about it. This was a fairly important accomplishment for me because a producer is normally more behind the scenes and not necessarily looked at as a “frontman.”As a matter of fact, there have been people who I have run into who had been listening to my music for some years, but barely knew what I looked like. So even just for visual’s sake, I felt that a video would be a great look… After seeing the final cut of the video, I was extremely satisfied with the result and couldn’t wait until folks would be able to see me, the crew, and hear my music on a channel that they were familiar with. When the video finally DID air, I stood up so that I was basically positioned in the middle of the living room floor, grabbed the Verizon cable remote and mashed my thumb on the “Volume +” button, which resulted in the TV blaring throughout my house. From there, I was just kinda staring motionless at the screen as if it was the first time I had ever seen my own video… I know that YouTube and other video-based sites are now almost as relevant as television, but there’s still something about seeing and hearing your work of art being displayed on TV that is still rather fascinating to me (you can tell this is my first televised video, huh?). I got on the phone with my parents and spoke with them while one of my cousins called me and screamed into the phone as if she saw me performing at the Super Bowl during halftime. If I remember correctly, the video ran right after The Foreign Exchange’s video for “Maybe She’ll Dream Of Me” – Definitely a surreal moment.

During the space of time that in which I was waiting for “This Could Be the Night” to air, I was contacted by some of vocalist Conya Doss’ people to meet with them about possibly co-starring in a video of hers (“All In You”) that they were set to shoot in November, 2010… Wow, word? Now that was something different and completely unexpected… I’m definitely no actor, nor had I ever been specifically asked to appear in someone’s video before. Regardless, I set up a meeting with them and talked about the “good guy” role I would be playing in the video and I agreed to do it. I ended up shooting the scenes for my part in a day… The next thing I knew, I had “This Could Be the Night” in rotation… and was simultaneously co-starring in another video that was also being run on television. NOW, I get texts and emails from moms that look something like this… “Both videos were on today… Your video came on at 20-after and your acting video came on at 45 after…” (She passes along the times because she knows that the video shows run the videos in the same order each time they air that particular day). That’s her all DAY… Super informative #1 fan.

“Greater Than the Sun” was a video that Phonte and I discussed shooting early on in the planning process of the album, simply because we knew how easy and stress-free it would probably be. When we eventually shot the video back in February, it was the easiest for kats to shoot… we were in Atlanta for a hot second, shot, and rolled out – AND I had some Zaxby’s while on the set!! BUT on the other hand, it has been the most difficult to get into rotation due to editing issues… The most interesting piece to me and my sense of humor is reading the comments made via YouTube as some think that Phonte is the one driving the car, somebody else thinks that Kareem Johnson produced the song and not the video… It kinda had me thinking, “Well shit… What do folks think I do anyway?” haha …Phonte isn’t driving to go and pick himself up from his house in the video! lol Maaaaan, a brovah can’t get credit for shit! LOL But I love how the bright video directly reflects the mood and the content of the song… Perhaps one day soon we’ll be able to enjoy the second video from SunStorm on TV as well…… Two outta three ain’t bad… That’s two more I had on TV this time last year!

Zo!’s Top Five Moments of 2011 – #5 The Co-Signing of “Flight Of The Blackbyrd” by Original Member Of The Blackbyrds, Allan Barnes

Whenever I do a cover of a song, or in this case an original piece that serves as dedication track paying homage a favorite group (The Blackbyrds) and favorite production team (The Mizell Brothers), the way that I judge the finished product is by asking myself, “Do you think that this piece can be presented to the original artist… WITH confidence?” If the answer to that question is a “yes”… I keep it. If I feel otherwise, I will not hesitate to start over or completely scrap something I don’t deem high-quality enough to keep around. With that being said, let’s discuss a phone call I received the afternoon of January 18th while I was in the classroom teaching… I couldn’t get to my phone obviously, so I let it go to voicemail. When I finally had a free minute to check it, I looked and saw that it was saxophonist and original Blackbyrds band member, Allan Barnes who called. Oh damn, word?! Now, I had not talked to him since the summer of 2007 when I went back home to play keys in Detroit’s CityFest with my former band, The Gorilla Funk Mob (ironically, I actually JUST found footage of this performance on YouTube last month). From checking the voice mail, he was giving me a shout letting me know that he was in D.C. for a day or two… Alright, sounds good to me. So, I called him back and we chopped it up about that for a few minutes. Suddenly, it hit me… I need to ask him about hearing “Flight Of the Blackbyrd” from SunStorm!! A friend of mine and GFM drummer, Tate McBroom told me that he played the record for him a few months prior… Being an original Blackbyrd, I was anxious to hear his opinion first-hand…

Me: I’ve been meaning to ask you about this for a minute…. Have you heard the “Flight Of the Blackbyrd” joint?

Allan Barnes: What? Your joint?

Me: Yeah… The one that just came out last year.

AB: Oh yeeeeeeeah!! That’s the SHIT man!!

Me: *Trying my best not to attempt a back flip that I know I can’t execute*

It was probably the shortest and most direct approval I had ever received, but it didn’t lessen how humbled I was, especially being as though the only other song I have ever received praise for from the original artist was my cover of “Star Of the Story” by Heatwave…  Of course as soon as I got off the phone with AB… I passed the positive news along to Phonte.  

Allan’s words came in addition to what happened soon after SunStorm was released in July of 2010. Larry Mizell Jr. tweeted Phonte and I regarding “Flight Of the Blackbyrd” giving the Mizell Family’s approval… (I wish I would have favorited that tweet). Talk about HONORED. You never know who is listening and possibly enjoying your music – particularly when your music is “to” them…