After six years of belting her heart out as
SWV's front woman, Coko, one of the hood's most
distinctive songbirds, has finally stepped out on her own.
In the late evening haze, peals of little girl
laughter bubble from just behind parked cars on 37th
street. Two afro puffs fly past Rocket Studio's
metal door and continue to the end of the block. The
girl, no taller than the cars that line the street,
has on roller blades, but doesn't quite know how to
make them work until her footwise, cornrowed
counterpart pushes her from behind. The two giggle
as they gain momentum, leaving a third girl back in
front of the door to the studio. Without noticing,
her friends fly past her, she spins around in her own
roller blades in a kind of controlled reckelssness.
First, too fast, then wobbly, then steady.
"In the beginning, we were friends, and that was the
good part," Cheryl 'Coko' Gamble says of her
relationship with Taj and Lelee, the other two
members of the now defunct R&B trio SWV. She sits
cross legged in the studio lobby where loud music
drowns out the child's play downstairs. "We didn't
need anyone else from the outside to have fun in the
beginning. And on our first album, we learned
But that was then, before the mulit-platinum success
of their 1992 debut It's About Time, and the
two subsequent albums, New Beginning and
1997's Release Some Tension. Before they
became Sisters With Voices singing memorable singles
like "Right Here" and "Weak", they were the
proverbial three friends from The Bronx (Coko) and
Brooklyn (Taj and Lelee) who wanted to start a group.
It was Coko's distinctive, statuesque around-the-way
voice that gave the group their individuality.
Now, nearly seven years later, Coko, the unnoficial
leader, is taking her voice on the road alone. Her
solo debut, Hot Coko, presents Coko's
progression of vocal and personal growth, capturing
the singer's gospel trained talent in songs about
love, trials and happiness. During rehearsal at
Rocket Studios, Coko's voice flies above the DAT like
"After the first album, everyone was shouting,'Coko!
Coko!' and that became a problem," she explains,
smoothing the bandana covering her shoulder-length
hair. A cock of an eyebrown, then: "I didn't have a
problem with sharing the microphone; I just felt like
we are all in this together, we are all getting a
check, we should all be happy."
After the release of Tension, the building
resentment peaked, and neither friendship, nor work
could keep them together. "We did not get along
anymore. Bottom line." Coko explains, nodding her
head for emphasis. "It was to the point where we
would do shows and we wouldn't be speaking, and it's
hard to perform if you're not speaking," Coko
recalls, laughing back at the incredible difficulty
the group was having. "You are supposed to interact
with one another, and we were like, 'What is she
Coko, Taj and Lelee tried to reconcile their
differences, but ultimately they all knew their
working relationship had come to an end. Ironically,
Coko, the one member who had proven she could sustain
a solo career, was willing to try to keep the group
together. "I'll put it to you this way: Two wanted
[the group] and one didn't. I wasn't the one
who didn't." With a tone of finality, Coko says that
she hasn't stayed in contact with Lelee because their
problems were "too big to get into." Every now and
then she speaks to Taj, who is persuing a modeling
career, because she is the godmother of Coko's four
year old son, Jazz.
Four male dancers practice their brake dance solos
while Coko's co-managers [her mother and uncle] sit
along the wall yelling 'Sing it!' when Coko hits the
high notes on "Bigger Than We," one of Hot
Coko's impressive, stirring ballads. Between
songs, Coko walks back and forth through the studio
with the choreographer. Jazz, no taller than Coko's
hip, runs around playing, making his way back to grab
his mother's long legs in short intervals, as if she
were base in a game of freeze tag.
When Coko returns to the mic, Jazz tries a brief
sound check himself, singing the chorus on
"Sunshine," the album's first single, in a
surprisingly accurate, juvenile key. But the cutie
who's missing his two front teeth in the "Sunshine"
video has music in his genes. Coko's mom, Lady
Tibba, is a gospel vocalist who sang backup for folks
like Josephine Baker and Elton John. To hear Lady
Tibba tell it, Coko's been singing since she was 11
months old and, at Tibba's urging, practiced for an
hour everyday as a child. Not to mention Jazz's
father, Ishmael Butler, also known as Butterfly of
the hip hop trio Digable Planets, a man who has his
own way with words and a beat. Just as Jazz (the
genre) was borne of the unlikely marriage of gospel
and blues, Jazz (the son) was borne into a love
between two seemingly incompatible musicians.
"People would ask us, 'What do y'all talk about?'
because we're really different," says Coko of her ex.
A shy laugh gets caught in her voice. "I watch TV,
he doesn't. I eat fired food and pork. He doesn't.
So some things were really weird, but he taught me a
lot and he learned some things from me. But I think
we were too different for it to really last." Coko
smiles as she talks of him, and though she initially
claimed she was mad at Ishmael at the time of the
interview, it's clear the two are still good friends.
"He's a good father," she continues, "and he was
special. We have a special bond, a special
relationship." Raising her eyebrows and lightening
her tone, she adds, "He's a good man. He's going to
make somebody a good husband." Her current beau,
D-Roc, manages Lil' Kim and Lil' Cease.
You may imagine that breaking up with her man,
splitting up with her group, an recording a solo
album all within two years would leave Coko weary and
frowning. She's smiling now more than ever. Instead
of focusing more on the negative aspects of the
changes she's gone through, Coko recognizes the
blessings. "The past year has been really good for
me. I've been happy," she says. Coko understands
why some saw her as "the mean one" in SWV, as she
spent much time angry. "I can't pretend I'm happy
when I'm not. And when the group broke up, I just
felt a release."
In the studio when everyone claps and yells after she
hits a note clear enough to give anyone within
hearing range goose bumps, Coko smiles like a little
girl who just figured out how to spin on her own.