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Chucky Thompson Soundtracked The '90s, And Brought His City For The Ride

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Before he produced some of the biggest rap and R&B songs of the 1990s, Chucky Thompson made a name for himself in his hometown of Washington, D.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHUCK BROWN & THE SOUL SEARCHERS SONG, "BUSTIN' LOOSE")

CHANG: Thompson cut his teeth playing conga drums with the late go-go pioneer Chuck Brown. He died on Monday.

KOKAYI: It's so crazy because I've known him for a long time. And most recently, we started, you know, collaborating on stuff.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

That's the D.C. rapper Kokayi. He says Thompson was planning to return to go-go.

KOKAYI: He just reminds you of your cousin. You know what I mean? He's your cousin from somewhere. You met him at a cookout or something. If you never, ever met him before, he'd be like, oh, I think I know you. But you know him if you're from here.

SHAPIRO: Thompson played lots of instruments. On the interview series "My Life My Music," he said that gave him an edge in making hip-hop.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUCKY THOMPSON: To be honest, it started there - from me playing the drums to the bass to the guitar, the keyboards and then really understanding what a producer does, you know, which is basically directs all of those instruments I mentioned.

CHANG: In the early '90s, he offered to produce a song for Mary J. Blige for free. Blige and her label boss Diddy - known then as Puff Daddy - were so impressed that they had Thompson produce an entire album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARY JANE (ALL NIGHT LONG)")

MARY J BLIGE: (Singing) I don't want to fuss and fight. I just want to make it right. Ooh.

CHANG: Here's Kokayi again.

KOKAYI: It's wild because if you watch the Mary J. Blige documentary, the way he's talking to Mary, he has all the D.C. colloquialisms in there. He's calling - he's like, joe, young, blah, blah, blah, blah, you know? And he's talking to her. He's not changing. He's not putting on any airs. He D.C. to the bone.

SHAPIRO: Chucky Thompson became one of the Hitmen, the production crew for Diddy's Bad Boy Records. And one of his assignments was to provide a beat for The Notorious B.I.G. But rather than a gritty New York sound, he gave Biggie a smooth groove with an Isley Brothers sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIG POPPA")

PUFF DADDY: (Rapping) I love it when you call me big poppa.

THE NOTORIOUS BIG: (Rapping) Throw your hands in the air if you's a true player.

PUFF DADDY: (Rapping) I love it when you call me big poppa.

CHANG: "Big Poppa" was an enormous hit, and Thompson would have many more with artists like Faith Evans and Nas. But Thompson didn't chase after No. 1 singles. He was asked about that for the "Neo Elite" podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE NEO ELITE AUDIO EXPERIENCE")

THOMPSON: I just don't want nobody to hate the joint. You know what I mean?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

THOMPSON: So at the end of the day, I just try to make it where, you know, people say, that's OK. And it just winds up being, like, a million people says...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

THOMPSON: ...That's OK. You know what I mean?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Wow.

CHANG: Millions have enjoyed the songs made by Chucky Thompson. He was 53 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M GOIN' DOWN")

BLIGE: (Singing) Time on my hands since you been away, boy. I ain't got no plans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.