My late grandma always had a saying that I thought was funny as hell but also true: “You can’t be no one-trick pony.”
She taught me that you should spend your life exploring and learning as many skills as you can — not only to make money but also to show the world (and most importantly, yourself) that you’re a bad bitch in every direction. Her guidance has informed the way I approach my work and my curiosity for life.
That, in part, inspired this new HuffPost series, “I Run This,” where I interview dope Black women who are shining in their calling and creating access and visibility in the culture and entertainment industries. Kandi Burruss embodies those qualities as a Grammy Award-winning songwriter and the first Black woman to win an ASCAP for Songwriter of the Year in any genre. On top of that, she’s an artist, actor, television personality, playwright, sex enthusiast, giver of “legs and hips and body” — her list of titles goes on and on.
Say what you want about Burruss, but if she ain’t gon’ do nothing else, she’s gon’ get a bag. One bag that keeps delivering to us all — aside from her 13-year run on Bravo’s “Real Housewives of Atlanta” — is her storied songwriting career. When her R&B group Xscape went on hiatus in 1998, Burruss was then a recent high school graduate and new homeowner. She had no choice but to go into grind mode (second nature for her) and give us hits that stand the test of time.
“I needed money,” she said. “So I had to just start writing and then the song got placed with TLC. Then the other opportunity came up for [record producer] She’kspere and I to work with Destiny’s Child. I literally was in the studio, like, every day.”
Burruss is responsible for two No. 1 hits (“No Scrubs” and “Bills, Bills, Bills” which competed against each other at the 2000 Grammys) and several other classics. She has also written for dozens of artists, including Boyz II Men, Mariah Carey, N’Sync, Pink and Mya, to name just a few. To this day, her work has been sampled and flipped for some of today’s biggest hits and chart-toppers, including Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” and Ariana Grande’s “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored.”
For Black Music Month, I talked to Burruss about her writing accomplishments, using music to pivot to her other jobs and advocating for herself as a businesswoman.
I’m good. Life is good, life is good.
I know that’s right. People know you for having your hand in so many pots, but I want to start with your songwriting, especially since it’s Black Music Month and I think younger generations are just starting to learn about the power of your pen. What was the first song that you wrote?
Honestly, I don’t remember the actual first song that I wrote. I just know I used to have a little notepad when I was a kid. Eighth or ninth grade, I would be coming up with little songs and I had a little notepad that I’d put my song ideas in. I’m not saying they were all excellent at that point, but that’s when I first remember writing songs. I do not remember lyrically what this first song was though.
What was the inspiration behind the songs that you were writing early on?
Mostly songs that I’ve written — except the ones for other artists — are songs that are just inspired about my own personal life. Now, sometimes if I know that I’m writing for a particular artist I’ll link with them and be like, “Hey, what’s going on in your life right now?” And I can literally make a whole story about whatever they told me that day. So it’s inspired by real-life stuff. I know for me, most of the songs that I was doing in the beginning were definitely inspired by past relationships. So I can go back through most of the songs and be like, oh yeah, girl, that was when I was dating this person. He was getting on my nerves. Half of those songs are like a diary for myself.
And I literally go back and think about people that made me want to say whatever I was saying.
Right. I’m sure it’s ugly going through it but then you look back like, wait, that’s given us literal classics, you know?
Yeah. It’s so funny because like “No Scrubs” definitely was inspired by a past relationship for sure. I mean, there’s so many. And it’s not necessarily always a relationship situation. Some of those songs, they’re just about friendship and different things like that were inspired by real people as well.
In that ’90s, 2000s era, you were in your bag as far as making hits that stuck to the Billboard charts. How were you able to really stay there writing-wise?
Well, I didn’t want to be broke no more.
I didn’t go to college or whatever. So our group got our record deal when I was in high school and our first hit came out at the top of my 12th grade year. I finished high school, and I did well but because we were successful, I didn’t go ahead and start trying to go to college. At that time, I was trying to get Jermaine [Dupri] to let us write. And he would let us do little bits here and there. But going into the third album, we already knew that the group was about to be going on a hiatus. And I had just bought my house, and I was stressed out because it was just a lot of turmoil within the group on that third album. And honestly, I did not realize that our group was about to be taking a damn hiatus when I had bought that house. I thought we were about to negotiate and get all these millions.
There were other people who had other plans. So I was like, OK, we got to figure out what we’re gonna do. Tiny and I came together and wrote all the songs on a demo tape and presented it to labels so they could hear the direction we were going. We wanted more creative control.
We met with producers, and we started recording for ourselves, and “No Scrubs” was one of the songs that we did for ourselves. That was supposed to be a Kandi and Tiny song.
I was like damn, I wish we would’ve actually had the opportunity to drop some of those records. Because we have some really, really good songs. We were working with so many different producers and writing and I really started feeling like I found my lane.
I needed money. So I had to just start writing and then the song got placed on TLC. Then the other opportunity came up for She’kspere and I to work with Destiny’s Child. I literally was in the studio, like, every day. And I would not leave till the wee hours in the morning. I was coming up with stuff all the time. I remember that following year, I was like, y’all, we need to be in the studio on New Year’s Day because they say whatever you doing when the New Year comes in is what you are going to be doing for the rest of the year. And I need us to be making some hits; I was so serious about it.
“I started writing for a lot more people and it’s so funny because I felt like the respect was totally different when I became a hit-maker for other people than what it was having hit for ourselves as a group out the gate.”
– Kandi Burruss on gaining respect in the music industry
You’ve always had that hustle mentality: that we not about to get comfortable; we about to get out here and do this work and make this money. Did you face some challenges from people being a woman behind the scenes, especially stepping back from being more in front of the mic to behind the boards and writing and producing early on? Did you get push back or were people more supportive in the music industry?
When I used to say I wanted to write, nobody was really listening to me. They don’t really listen if you don’t get that hit. When TLC decided to do “No Scrubs,” all of a sudden, more opportunities obviously started coming. So I started writing for a lot more people, and it’s so funny because I felt like the respect was totally different when I became a hit-maker for other people than what it was having hit for ourselves as a group out the gate.
They showed us love but it’s like, oh yeah, there go those girls from Xscape or whatever. But when I started writing hits for other people, I noticed it was no longer, “That’s that girl Kandi from Xscape.” It became, we come to a music industry function and then people from every label — executives at every label — is like, “Kandi, what’s up? How you been?”
Because I was consistently writing records. They were like, OK, well, she definitely is one of the people that we need to be in the business with. And it was just like, wow, you have that type of respect from your peers in business. Yeah, your fans are the people who are listening to your music, they loved us. But as far as other executives and industry business people, they didn’t.
I think about the whole “Shape of You,” Ed Sheeran debacle. In situations like that, I think about the longevity of what you were able to do by stepping behind the scenes and writing. When you look back, what are you most proud of when it comes to your career and your journey in music?
One of the things that I was most proud of is being the first woman to win songwriter of the year for ASCAP Rhythm and Soul Awards. I was the first woman to win on the Rhythm and Soul side for ASCAP. But then I was the first Black woman to win any songwriter of the year award for ASCAP, period.
It was like a wow moment for me. I started out as a kid. So you don’t know where life is going to take you and in the beginning, you think, oh, this moment is going to last forever. But when they start falling apart and, sometimes people try to make you feel like you ain’t going to have nothing. So for me to be able to continue on [after Xscape], pick up the pieces and take it to a level, even higher, it was like a very proud moment for me.
Winning the Grammy was a big deal as well. But getting songwriter of the year is something that a lot of people can’t do. You have to have a lot of songs released in the same year and a lot of those songs have to be top 10.
What’s the favorite song you’ve written for another artist? And what’s your favorite song you’ve written for yourself?
Ooh, that’s a good one. I obviously have to say “No Scrubs,” even though I technically was writing it for myself and Tiny when I wrote it. But “No Scrubs” as far as writing for other artists, because that’s the gift that keeps on giving. People keep remaking it, sampling it, whatever. And it keeps turning into other songs for me and other royalties streams. So I have to give credit to that one.
Now, as far as personally, I have a few that people probably never even heard, but I would have to say the song “It Gets Easier.” It was about losing my brother and how you never get over something like that, but it does get easier. It was more so like therapy, you know what I mean?
Yeah. I love that. I want to talk about your business acumen, because if you ain’t going to do nothing else, you’re going to make some money. How did you develop that as you started to get into other endeavors like TV, plays, your sex toy line, etc.?
I had this fear when I was younger of being one of those kid celebrities you hear about that have stuff when they are young and then they grow up to be broke and miserable. So I never wanted that to be me. My mom always used to say don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
And I’m like, you don’t want to be in a situation where you got to be asking other people to pay your bills. I always wanted to be financially stable. When I was young, I was reading a lot of financial books and different things to try to figure out how I should handle my money.
I didn’t come from people who had like a whole bunch of money. So I was having to figure out these things on my own. And, in the books they tell you have to have multiple sources of income to become a millionaire and stay a millionaire.
And so that’s why I was like, OK, I need to be figuring out some other opportunities for myself to keep this going.
“We have to learn how to be confident enough in ourselves to be our own advocate, be our own cheerleader. Be self-motivated and to be able to have these uncomfortable conversations about business and money.”
– Kandi Burruss on learning to advocate for herself
How did you learn how to advocate for yourself in business? What was the best tool for you in making sure that basically people didn’t try to play you or your money?
That’s a good one. I think that’s just something that we always have to learn ourselves through trial and error. We have to learn the gift of speaking up for ourselves. We have to learn the gift of not backing down. We have to learn the gift of asking our price and meaning it. I notice some people are scared to ask about their own money.
You can’t just be so grateful for the opportunity that you don’t want to say anything about your money because you have to train people how to treat you. So if you let them feel like they can get away with different things with you, then they’re just going to do it because you let them feel like it’s OK.
I’m not saying we have to be an asshole about things. I’m just saying we have to learn how to be confident enough in ourselves to be our own advocate, be our own cheerleader. Be self-motivated and to be able to have these uncomfortable conversations about business and money.
How long do you think we’ll be watching you on “Real Housewives”?
I feel like whenever you go through those moments that are very negative and you don’t really like what the fans are saying about you then sometimes we do get in our feelings, right? And we be like, well maybe it’s time for me not to be here anymore.
But for me, I’ve gotten to the point where I feel like I have a great relationship with the network. I’ve still been able to do other things that I’m excited about and take on other opportunities. Whether it’s been being on “The Chi” or doing Broadway, I’ve been able to still figure out other things that I want happening in my career along with doing the show and I have a lot of great things that have come from me being on the show.
So I don’t really see myself just up and deciding no time soon that I’m leaving. I think the thing about it is it’s been good for me.
I met my husband on the show. My last two kids, we had them during my being on the show and my businesses. You’ve seen them develop; it happened on the show. So I’m going to be here for a minute, unless they say otherwise sometime soon, which that could easily happen.
One side thing you do that I love is your YouTube page. I love “On That Note” and “Speak On It.” That interview you had with Nivea was so good. How did you become so good at interviewing people? And what inspired you to start this presence on YouTube?
Well, that’s kind of something I think I kind of fell into. It’s kind of weird.
Yeah. I remember you doing the “Kandi Koated Nights” show a while ago. I used to watch those faithfully.
Oh, wow. We’re actually bringing that back as a podcast.
I randomly started doing Kandi Koated Nights online and that’s when I think I really first started interviewing people in that way. And it was just something fun to do.
I noticed that the people on social media liked it so I just continued to do it. I’m consistent about things even if I’m getting paid for it or not. If it’s something that I like, and I see the value in it being able to have my own platform where I get to really speak my mind. When you’re on TV or reality, they can always edit it how they want to. But on YouTube, we get to decide what we’re going to keep on there and what we’re not. I mean, literally when I used to do Kandi Koated Nights at first, that was on Ustream.
I just enjoy the freedom of being able to talk to people. I think I asked the same questions that other people want to know. I want my guests to be able to speak their mind, but I want them to also feel like they got something out of the platform. Meaning that they got to talk about whatever’s going on in their life, their business, whatever. I like to lift them up. I don’t want to trash anybody.
Yeah. Do you have a dream interview?
I would love to interview Rihanna. I would love to interview somebody like Oprah just because she’s the person that I’ve looked up to. But at the same time, I’m like, would I be intimidated to ask her certain things, just because it’s her? You know?
I couldn’t imagine you being intimidated. I guess everybody does have their moment and you’re human, but I just see you as so fearless, you know?
That’s something that I always try to preach to my kids. Like you got to be fearless, don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid. Just go out and do it. So sometimes if I do get that feeling in my stomach, I just always say, you got to push past it.
Because like realistically fear turns into failure and that’s something I’m not down with.
At the end of the day, what do you want your legacy to be?
I want my legacy to be my kids and how well they do later on. But to the world, I think I would love hearing people that say I’m their friend in their head.
I want people to look at me as somebody who tried to be a good friend to all. Somebody who looked out for people. When I come up, I try to make sure my whole team gets opportunities. Every time I get an opportunity, the people around me get an opportunity. I want to be looked at as a person who uplifted her circle, who uplifted her community, who put a lot of people on in business and who gave people a level to dream towards, to shoot for.