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It’s the fall of 1995 and Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse is packed to the rafters. My seats are down near the front, maybe three or four rows behind then-new artists Outkast and Goodie Mob. The second are the show’s opening act. Representing their “Dungeon Family” they all rocked matching coveralls with “S.W.A.T.S (An Acronym for Southwest Atlanta) on the back.   The headliner for the night was a then 20-something young man named D’Angelo.  

I felt pretty good about myself for scoring press tickets, having only begun my stint as a music journalist in “The A”.  All I could think about were the openers and the headliner, both of whom I saw as mirror reflections of myself: young, creative, progressive-minded, and seeing the world as a complicated place.  But it was the sole female performer of the night who ended up leaving the strongest impression. 

Joi Gilliam steps onto the stage in six-inch heels and a see-through top that shows the silver panties and matching pasties on her nipples.  She is tall and slender but evokes a kind of sexuality that makes me shift in my seat. Her blonde hair is slicked close against her skull and I think she had on some kind of gleaming headpiece. Bottom line:  She was baaaaad!

I had heard good things about her debut album, The Pendulum Vibe, which featured the original version of “Freedom”, the-later-turned-ensemble-cut single for the soundtrack to the movie Panther. With ATL hitmaker Dallas Austin behind the boards, it had been all the buzz in alternative circles.  But that night Joi was playing new shit, screaming ballads laced with rock guitars and bullwhip baselines. Following in the tradition of artists like Nona Hendryx, Betty Davis and Grace Jones, she was a dominatrix with the voice of an angel. From then and there, she owned me.  This second record Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome, was one of the dopest I’d ever heard.

When she screamed on “Hurts Sometimes” that she loved my “dirty, stankin’ draws”, harmonizing over a roaring bass riff that both reminded me of orgasm and catching the Holy Spirit all at once, I couldn’t stop listening.

“I cum like the pourin’ rain/each time you call my name”

I believed her, with every verse, and every note, perhaps more than I ever believed Mary or Patti or even (Queens forgive me) Anita or Sade. There were two versions of the record, one I had on cassette and a later on CD.  I wrote about the damn thing everywhere I could, and knew it was going to blow her into the stratosphere when it dropped. The problem was that it never did.

Joi, along with my Teen Summit compatriot, Lysette Titi, caught the rawest deal in the history of Black music when Dallas Austin’s new label, Freeworld Entertainment, was dismantled quickly and neatly under questionable circumstances.  The record never saw the light of day and only existed in the forms of a sampler and the prized promotional copy that I happened to own. 

Joi bounced back with her third album Star Kitty’s Revenge, which featured the underground favorite “Lick” (that also appeared on the soundtrack to Vin Diesel’s XXX).  Cuts like “17 Inches of Snow” and “Why They Do What They Do” and “Crave” carried the same funky southern swagger that gave me the chills back at the Variety Playhouse.  The same came with her most recent release, 2007’s Tennessee Slim is The Bomb. I still, however believe, that the drowning of her sophomore release was something she never quite recovered from.

I lost the tape, loaned the CD (and never got it back), then found a clean copy from some kid selling bootlegs on Ebay. Lost that when my crib got burglarized, along with the drive where I’d backed it up. The thieves were former landlord’s looking to get even with their former tenant.  I had just been housesitting. 
Today I’m closing in on another copy, ironically enough, a burn made from my original that my boy Rich has had for a good six or seven years. Once I get it back then time I’m keeping a dub in a safe deposit box.

The odd thing about Joi Gilliam is that offstage she’s the sweetest thing.  I ran into her on the set of Goodie Mob’s clip for Soul Food (I almost made it into one of the frames)and have talked to her online here and there. You wouldn’t think that voice could come out of that frame. If I ruled the world I’d buy that Amoeba master from whoever’s holding it and let that silver sparrow fly.  And yet there’s a crown and scepter still in my sight. That album gives me one more reason to keep going for it.