Tour Tales | Music director Jamahl Smith shares how boss Ella Mai became "like a sister" to him
For this installment of “Tour Tales,” we catch up with Ella Mai’s music director Jamahl Smith. He discusses their onstage chemistry, learning from Teddy Riley and more.
Music director Jamahl Smith has worked on every Ella Mai tour and developed a bond with the R&B princess that goes beyond the stage.
“Ella’s literally like a sister to me, man. She asks questions about a girlfriend or family or how my mom is doing. She’s literally a sister to me. She’s always trying to make sure we’re doing good. She’s always super looking out, man,” Smith tells REVOLT.
Who was the first significant artist you performed with on stage?
The first major touring gig I did was with Teddy Riley. That was in . I played with international acts, too. I played with a guy named Daley who’s from the UK as well. He was a pretty big act for me. That was around 2014. I also worked with K. Michelle, but Teddy was my first main gig where we were doing long tours and having long sets and rehearsals. When I was doing Teddy, I was playing for Blackstreet, Guy and a bunch of other people that he produced.
How involved was Teddy Riley in the live shows you were a part of?
Teddy was super involved. He’s the guy who had about maybe five or six different shows that he would pick from night to night. It’d be like we’re doing this type of show or doing that type of show. He was the guy who you always had to be ready for. I remember we were in South Florida, and one of the acts couldn’t make it. Teddy ended up doing his own set with songs he produced on the fly. This wasn’t in our regular show but since one of the acts couldn’t make it, he basically took it upon himself to just say, ‘Hey, let me just do it myself.’ We found out that morning that such and such couldn’t make it and then it was like here’s another hour-long show we will be doing tonight. It was great, man. It was a beautiful experience because it really prepared me — in the sense that not a lot really phases me. In the touring world, anything could go wrong.
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What was your favorite show with Teddy? What was your role?
So, I played bass guitar and key bass with Teddy. I started at the top of 2016, and I played with him until around the middle of 2018. So, for about two years straight. One of my favorite shows was actually Essence Festival 2018. This was pretty memorable because, again, he had a lot of different artists brought out. I got to play with Pharrell, MC Lyte, Jazzy Jeff, SWV, Guy, Blackstreet and all of these different artists I grew up loving. We also had Ella Mai doing the Essence Festival that year, and this was around the time I started playing with her. It was very special. I think Friday I was playing with Ella and on Saturday I was playing with Teddy in the Superdome in New Orleans.
Was that your first time performing with Ella Mai?
I think this was my second gig with Ella. My first gig was actually in Atlanta, where I was living at the time. I was still working with Teddy but with the Ella situation, they needed a bass player, and I hadn’t rehearsed with them or met her yet or anything like that. So, I basically just got up on stage and played a show with Ella. That was my introduction to her.
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What was it like transitioning from Teddy Riley to Ella Mai?
It was completely different playing with Ella Mai compared to playing with Teddy. Teddy has been doing this for about 30 years. Ella hadn’t put out a debut album yet when I worked with her. Ella was very cool. There was no weird or crazy energy. It was more of a collaborative effort. With Teddy, it was more him just telling us what he wanted.
You joined Ella’s camp in 2018. How long was it before you were her music director?
Let’s say about six months to a year. Then, I started MD’ing for her on “The Debut Tour” in 2019.
What is your onstage chemistry like?
Every time we perform, she’ll be performing and turn around and look at me, and I’m really reading her face — not even what she’s mouthing, just reading her face to see what could be wrong or what could be right. We talk so much. We just communicate off the floor so much to where we’re performing and already kind of know what we’re thinking about.
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How has her live show changed since you first worked together on her “Boo’d Up Tour”?
I think it’s been the same intention, but I think it’s just been digging in more. For example, we embellish with lyrics, and now we’re turning up even more and finding more elements of surprise. We give people something that was a little bonus from the records. It’s been the same intention with more growth and maturity.
Have there been any shows that forced you to adapt quickly?
Absolutely. I play bass and key bass with Ella, and I also run playback, which is basically like backing tracks for songs. So, if there’s a flute in a song and we don’t have a flute member on stage, we’ll put that in the backing tracks. We had our track start at one particular show, then it stopped, and Ella was still singing because she didn’t know things had stopped. Basically, I had to look ahead, find out a good place to restart and catch us in time — which was like a live audible moment. It’s not really about the musical choices and the audibles. Sometimes, as a programmer and a producer, I know when to come back in with tracks or know how to communicate to the band by saying, ‘Hey, just stay out of it for right now. We’ll be back in four bars.’
What was one of your favorite Ella Mai shows?
We did a show in Aruba in 2019 that was really dope. We shared the stage with John Legend, Alicia Keys and Charlie Wilson. The energy in the room was crazy. The people really enjoyed us.
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Did you all have fun on that Aruba trip outside of performing?
Yeah, we were all over it. We were riding jet skis, man. A few of us went snorkeling, I believe. The shopping is crazy in Aruba. The food is crazy, and they had different people doing shows, so, for example, we went to a DJ Jazzy Jeff party. This was my first time ever hearing him spin. After hearing him in person, he’s definitely top two of my favorite DJs. It was a lot of beautiful Black people. I loved it.
Ella has brought out a few special guests on tour, including H.E.R. and Meek Mill. How does that kind of situation go?
For those two specific instances with H.E.R. and Meek, we found out about those pretty close to the show. It was almost like the Teddy situation where it was day-of. A lot of artists are very busy, so you never really know if they can make it or can’t, but you get the word like, ‘Hey, so and so might be here, so prepare.’ So, that’ll look like me putting another 16 bars in for their verse. That’ll look like maybe rehearsing with them. I think with H.E.R. we actually got to soundcheck with her the day of, so that was great. She’s amazing, man. It was such a joy to work with her. Meek was dope — even though he was more of a surprise. He literally came in as he was spitting his verse on ‘24/7.’
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How do you and Ella collaborate on the music direction for her live shows?
Man, it’s crazy. We really just talk as friends, bro. We just chop it up via texting or a phone call, and it’s not really like a sit-down business meeting at all. It’s really like friends and teammates talking. It’s not as rigid or formal as people might think. I’ll send her an idea. I’ll arrange something on my computer and say, ‘Hey, do you like this before I finish it?’ Most of the time she likes it. Sometimes she loves it. Sometimes she’s like, ‘Maybe change this.’ It feels like working with your homies but at the same time, she’s my boss. I just try to keep her inspired and not have her waiting on me. I try to feed her arrangements, different shows to check out, stage plots or something and ask her how she feels and keep her inspired.
What are her “tour hits?”
For Ella, a few of those would be ‘10,000 Hours,’ ‘Shot clock,’ ‘24/7’ and ‘Sauce.’
What were some memorable fan reactions at her shows?
When I first started the gig, she used to do something where she would pull people on stage to sing ‘Boo’d Up’ with her. I thought this was real dope. She would pull a guy and a girl up. Sometimes they would be a couple, and sometimes they wouldn’t even know each other (laughs). The vibes would be super crazy to where people might fan-out, or people might sing really good, or they might sing really bad. Some people might try and dance with Ella (laughs). Those were some of my favorite parts.
What do you add to her live rendition of songs?
One of my favorites from her right now is her song ‘DFMU.’ One thing I do is add orchestration. I add live strings to the arrangements, which I’ll work with her acapella and create an arrangement to give more dynamics and change — whether we’re in a verse, hook or a bridge. I’ll add band hits to make other parts very big. It adds an element of surprise to some songs. I’ll strip things down to make it more intimate. It all depends on the vibe of what we’re trying to do.
I know you two are really cool. Don’t you and Ella have your own handshake?
(Laughs) Yeah. We actually are working on a handshake. The bandmates and I have a few handshakes that we do. She’s crazy like that. She’ll pull up with different handshakes. We have to work out a new one because we’ve had so many that some were forgotten.
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What’s her personality like off-stage?
Ella’s literally like a sister to me, man. She asks questions about a girlfriend or family or how my mom is doing. She’s literally a sister to me. She’s always trying to make sure we’re doing good. She’s always super looking out, man. She gets us Christmas presents here and there, and that’s nice. She’s always shown super love, and she doesn’t have to, man. A lot of bosses don’t have to be your friend. They don’t have to look out for you at all. Ella is definitely family.
I know the album’s coming out soon. What do you have planned for the rest of the year?
We’re definitely touring. I can’t say when, and I can’t say where. But, I know we’re touring, for sure. We’re going everywhere. I know we’ve got some special TV performances and concert experiences that’ll be out soon, hopefully. We’re trying to do dope concerts visually and be different than the regular stage setups. We’re trying to take it up a notch.
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