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'We Created History': Ashanti Looks Back on Her Iconic Tracks with Ja Rule

Fifteen years after "Foolish," Ashanti opens up about her relationship with her longtime collaborator and the pair's influence on pop culture today.

Jake Lauer

Photo by Epsilon via Getty Images

Fifteen years ago, Ashanti was the princess of hip hop and R&B and her mega-hit "Foolish" had a ten-week reign atop the Billboard charts. She was the first female artist to have three records in the top ten simultaneously, with "Foolish," "Always on Time," and "What's Love." (When I interviewed the singer, she politely pointed out: "Technically, it was four, because I wrote 'Ain't It Funny' for J.Lo.")

Ashanti and label-mate Ja Rule were responsible for countless early-aughts classics like "Down 4 You," "Mesmerize," and "Wonderful," making the pair (and their infamous Murder Inc. crew) hip hop royalty.

Though Murder Inc.'s dominance faded by the late 2000s and Ashanti struggled somewhat to retain her career's momentum, the legend is optimistic about her future. Today, Ashanti is touring, teasing new music, and ready to regain her crown. Broadly caught up with the singer to discuss her career and chemistry with frequent collaborator Ja Rule.

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Broadly: What have you been working on recently?
Ashanti: I just finished my European tour in March. Then I went back out to Russia and performed at the Bolshoi in Moscow. Then I went to Dublin for a weekend. Now I'm in L.A. I've been doing a lot of cool things and having great performances. I've been grinding.

You basically dominated an entire era of hip hop and R&B. Have you seen your influence on the last 15 years of music?
Yeah definitely (laughs). I'm not going to lie, I've seen a lot of people use my "baby, oh baby" in songs. But it's a good thing to have music that inspires other artists who are coming up. That means you did something right. That means you affected someone.

Who have you seen your influence in?
C'mon, don't try to make me be shady. (laughs)

When Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the song "Helpless " for the musical Hamilton, he said he was inspired by the classic Ashanti and Ja Rule sound. You recorded a version for the Hamilton Mixtape album. Did the song sound like an Ashanti song to you when you first heard it?
It's so weird, when me and Ja were watching Hamilton, we noticed certain similarities to our music. We would look at each other in the audience like, "Wait a minute, did he take that?" Especially with some of the Ja references, we noticed little accents here and there that were very familiar to us, and this was before Lin told us anything. When Lin said that we really did inspire it, we were like, "Wow, that's so crazy." It was a dope experience, and he's such a genius, so it was a really good feeling.

I know you and Ja Rule are close. How do you think he's been feeling during all of this Fyre Festival mayhem?
I guess like any human being, when you set out to do something awesome and it doesn't turn out awesome you're disappointed. I'm wishing everything to be positive, whatever the outcome is. For every pointed person involved, I'm just wishing for a positive, peaceful outcome.

Why do you think you and Ja Rule have such great musical chemistry together?
It was from the day that we met. The first time we met was on a video shoot for Caddillac Tah's "POV City Anthem," and we kind of just gelled. And then we shot our first video, "Always on Time." It wasn't like we had each other's numbers, and we didn't see each other every day, but it was just super organic from the beginning. Sometimes people just have that chemistry. Our personalities click like a brother and sister thing.

Are you working on any new music now? You posted a teaser clip of something to Instagram.
Absolutely. I have two records that I'm super excited about. Hopefully, something will be released in the next two weeks. That's kind of a surprise. I'm really excited about that. It's going to be dope. When people hear it they're like, "Ooh!" I just recorded two singles. I worked with A1 who did Chris Brown's single "Party" with Gucci Mane. I also have a record with DJ Mustard and Ty Dolla Sign.

I read that Irv Gotti was relaunching Murder Inc. How are things between you and those guys?
(Laughs) I mean, I'm cool with everybody. It's all love with Murder Inc. As far as the relaunching goes, I'm not too sure about that. But I love everybody from Murder Inc. It's one big family. I think we all just spun off and have been doing our own thing for a minute now. But it's always all love. We created history together.

As a new artist, you were hugely successful right out of the gate. You're in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the highest first-week sales of any female artist's debut album in history. How do you think the music industry has changed for new artists today
When my first album came out, we didn't have Twitter or Instagram. If I had been able to tweet where I was, taking jets here and there, performing in Monaco, the clothes and the cars–­–it would have been very different (laughs). Technology changes and the sound changes. I feel like there was a lot more work we had to put in back then. When you were recording in the studio, you really had to record eight tracks to get harmonies. Now you can press a button. You couldn't do that back then. But it depends on the artist. Your hunger and work ethic has to always remain the same.

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Do you have an era of music that you love the most?
For me, personally, I loved the Murder Inc. era. In the 2000s, I had my career highs and I was breaking records. When my first album came out, I was only 20 years old. I was jet-setting and rocking crowds of 50,000. These are amazing memories, and all of those things molded me into the person that I am today. That would be my favorite era.

What do you know now that you wish you knew during that period?
Oh my gosh, there's so much that I wish I knew! At that time, I didn't even have a record deal. When "Foolish" came out, I wasn't even signed to Murder Inc or Def Jam, so I was a free agent. To be blunt, had I known then what I know now, I would have whopped them for a lot more money.

Do you think that label issues slowed you down?
I think that everyone who's up-and-coming has to learn. You're not given a book that says, "This is the right way to go." You learn as you go, you hire a team of people, and you pray that they're not crooked. Are you going to be taken advantage of? Absolutely. But the important thing is to learn the lessons so that it doesn't happen again. I'm blessed to not be in a negative position like a lot of my peers. I kind of lucked out. I'm still with a lot of the people I started with, going on 15-plus years.