Music: From Minor to Major; Her Debut Album Launched Alicia Keys as a Worldwide Star, but She Hasn't Lost Touch with Her Roots. by Gavin Martin
Byline: GAVIN MARTIN
Few artists have performed such a successful musical balancing act as Alicia Keys. The 21-year-old, classically-trained New Yorker's MOBO Award-winning debut album, Songs In A Minor Key, has sold nine million copies worldwide. She has been honoured with five Grammies and Prince, Stevie Wonder, Sting and Elton John have all been quick to recognise her extraordinary talent.
But Alicia says her success owes as much to the music she learned in New York parks as her studies in the conservatory at Columbia University.
"We'd hang out in Washington Square or Union Square, cyphering," she says, recalling her teenage years. "Cyphers is when a bunch of people start rhymin' and freestylin' off the top of their heads. We had a ball down there."
Alicia has been hailed as the musical inheritor of Aretha Franklin's Soul Queen crown - musically sophisticated, socially committed, a voice that goes straight to the heart - but her most recent appearance in the charts has been as backing singer to hard-headed Ruff Ryder rapper Eve on her single, Gangsta Lovin'. Alicia is unique, an artist who gives equal billing to murdered rapper Biggie Smalls and Beethoven in her list of influences.
The effortless blend of jazz, classical, gospel and rap on Songs In A Minor Key bear the mark of a true original, but she has had to struggle to establish her unique sound. Born Alicia Augello Cook to a white actress mother and black father in 1981, she grew up in the Hell's Kitchen area of Manhattan.
"You walked out the door and there were pimps, whores, condoms and needles on the street," she recalls.
As a teenager, Alicia carried a knife for protection and was once held up at gunpoint, but she found inspiration in the conscious soul of Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder. She spent much time with relatives in Harlem, the cradle of so much great black American jazz and soul.
"There's a huge history there, a lot of energy and that's what I picked up on," she says. "It brought me musically to where I am."
In Harlem, she formed a group, Embish'n, with two friends and when she was 14 she was already performing Butterflyz, a track from her best selling album. She was discovered by Jeff Robinson, formerly Mary J Blige's manager, who recognised her potential as a solo star.
But, once signed to a major label, Columbia, Alicia's battle for artistic independence was not over. The record company matched her with big name producers she describes as "psychopaths".
"I had horrible experiences," she says. "They messed up the music so it sounded awful. Then they would say, 'Why don't you come over to my place tonight? …