Although his path would take him into the world of comedy, music played a significant role in Finesse Mitchell's upbringing. From hearing his mom playing Motown classics around the house to secretive listening sessions of the hyper-profane sounds of Too $hort and 2 Live Crew, the budding entertainer who eventually became a Saturday Night Live cast member now finds himself begrudgingly curating -- and sometimes censoring -- music for his young daughters. And music has become even more embedded in his family, now that he's married to Adris Debarge, daughter of R&B star El Debarge.
With a new special, The Spirit Told Me To Tell You, premiering on Showtime October 19, Mitchell shared advice on how music can play a role in relationships, what makes white people dance, and stories of rubbing elbows with musical icons in his SNL days.
AllMusic: In your new special you talk about how important it is to be television-compatible with a significant other. Does that apply to music, as well?
Finesse Mitchell: I think music is easier, because people can get turned on to other people’s music just by repetition, just by someone not backing down on what they like. I grew up loving Run-DMC and Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh, but my brother loved heavy metal and reggae, and he was older, so he usually got his way with the stereo, so I ended up just liking that music because I heard it all the time. I think it goes the same way with relationships; if you’re in love with somebody, if you intend on having sex with them, you’re going to start liking their music. You can’t keep bagging on their music and then hop in the sack, that doesn’t work.
AllMusic: You've talked about what it was like growing up with a young mother. Did you find your musical tastes overlapped?
Mitchell: No, not really. My mother was heavily into church music, she sung in the choir, and was really into old Motown hits, like Martha and the Vandellas and Diana Ross, that is what we heard in the house. My brother was a thug, but for whatever reason, he was also in the Atlanta Junior Symphony: first chair string bass. So I also got to hear a lot of classical music. We were tolerant in our house when it came to music, but when we got away from each other, that’s when the 2 Live Crew would pop out. That’s when you can get around your own friends and listen to the music you thought was relevant. I’d never listen to N.W.A. around my mom, but N.W.A. and Too $hort was always bumping in the car as soon as I left the house.
AllMusic: Would she have been mad if she found those tapes?
Mitchell: I just had a lot of respect for her, I didn’t want to play “Dopeman” or “Freaky Tales” around her. Why? I didn’t need that much of the whole “Mom, let me be me” thing. She gave some serious whoopings, so I didn’t need to challenge her in her own house, especially when I could just go to a friend’s house.
AllMusic: Before we spoke, you sent a list of songs you remembered hearing around the house as a kid, including a lot of Earth, Wind & Fire, Kool & the Gang and Marvin Gaye, which sounds like the playlist of every wedding I've been to.
Mitchell: I do a lot of corporate events, and it’s always a bunch of white people, and they’re always listening to some golden oldies of Motown, it’s just good dance music. I think about how in the Temptations movie on VH1, you’d see young white kids listening to soul music. I never have hosted an event in my adult life where they’re about to pop on some Johnny Cash, but you can’t tell me he wasn’t a bigger star, and Elvis and all those guys. But when people want to mix alcohol and get dressed up and be over 40 and dance, it’s classic Motown, it’s that era.
AllMusic: Did you eventually come around on her music or was it always corny because it was from a different generation?
Mitchell: It was years later. I hated it. There was one song that started to cross me over, it wasn’t old school, it was of its time: “Genius of Love.” [sings first verse] Sampling is so strong, so many people take these beats and you realize, “Holy shit,” especially when I started listening to New York DJs who would play the originals before they’d play the up to date radio version of a new hit song, that started bridging the gap. So as I got older, I started appreciating that older era, instead of the Kanye version or the Diddy version.
AllMusic: Do you try to avoid pushing your music on your daughters?
Mitchell: My oldest daughter is three, and she’s at that age where she’s learning song lyrics more than the alphabet or numbers. So my wife is really good with singing around the house, playing music. I don’t really get into that, I don’t play anything around her or say, “You should listen to this.” I don’t even play the radio when we’re riding in the car, because she’s repeating everything. She listens to Bruno Mars' “Finesse,” she thinks that song is about daddy. She says, “Play daddy’s song,” and we play the clean version with Cardi B. She’s always singing “Havana” by Camila Cabello. Every now and then I’ll play those two songs, but I’m sick of them, because every time we get in the car, those are what she wants to hear.
AllMusic: You talk about 2 Live Crew in the special. When is the right age for your daughter to hear 2 Live Crew for the first time?
Mitchell: I’d realistically say that between 12 and 16 is the age that kids find music they’re not supposed to listen to, but ideally, I’d say 16, 17, 18. In my generation, you only had 2 Live Crew and Too $hort, on a national level, commercially successful, singing songs that you wouldn’t want your mom to hear you singing, calling girls bitches or big booty hoes or all that other stuff. Now I feel like it’s very hard to find a rap song where a girl isn’t a bitch or a ho and it’s not about getting money or sex. So when you do get a Post Malone or a Travis Scott who finds something else to sing about, it’s refreshing. But at any second you have to be ready to turn it the radio off if you have kids around.
AllMusic: Do you get to choose your own walk-up music when you do live shows?
Mitchell: Eight out of 10 times I come out to T.I. “Bring Em Out.” I’m from Atlanta, and then just to have them say my name and then, “Bring em out, bring em out,” it gets people hyped. Once you find a song that works for you and allows you to flow into your routine, you don’t change it that much. I’ve tried to come out to “Dripping in Finesse” and it went horribly wrong. I actually stopped the show and went back and told them to play my other music and came back out all over again, it was just too slow. Everybody had been telling me to come out to that song, and the night I tried it, it was horrible.
AllMusic: Back in the SNL days, were there any musical guests who made you lose your composure?
Mitchell: Prince, man. He made me a little bit gay, bro. Oh my god, just to be that close to him. SNL is very small, and I was just like, “Homie is right there.” I could walk right up to him and see how tall I am compared to him. Couldn’t touch him, couldn’t talk to him directly, but you could be really close. So I think that’s the first person, and that was maybe the third musical guest of my first season.
Then Bono and U2. I wasn’t a U2 fan, but Amy Poehler and those guys were just Bono-crazy all week long, and me and Kenan [Thompson] were like, “OK, we get it, Bono…” But it wasn’t until the band got there, and they lit that damn studio up. They sang “Vertigo,” and that studio was rocking. I got goosebumps from the electricity in that place tearing it up. The show was going off the air and they kept playing, and we sat in there for like another 35 minutes. What was crazy was it was us, the studio audience, and the guest host. But people jammed in, people must have told their friends, because more people crammed into that place from all over the building and got treated to a free concert, I think we left at two in the morning.
AllMusic: I heard Prince put on quite a show at the after-party for the 40th anniversary.
Mitchell: Yeah, everybody hit that stage. Jimmy Fallon was hosting it, and from Elvis Costello to Paul Simon to Miley Cyrus, everybody was in the room. That’s one party where I can say everybody was in the room: politicians, athletes, rappers, Rihanna, everybody was there. Here’s how cool the party was, my crew that I hung out with all night was Jon Bon Jovi and Derek Jeter. Chappelle walks past us and goes, “Prince is behind you, man.” I turned around and he was leaning against the wall behind us, by himself. We were like, “Holy shit, what’s up, Prince?” I said, “You want to go on?” and he said, “No, I don’t want to go on.” Then Jimmy Fallon was like, “I heard Prince is in the room!” and I was like, “He’s right here!” So Jimmy said, “Prince, come to the stage, man!” and Prince didn’t even hesitate, he walked to the stage like he never told me he didn’t want to go on. He got up and jammed out, and that was a dope night.
AllMusic: If you'd been there a few weeks ago when Kanye gave an extended monologue after the show went off the air, would you have felt compelled to stay?
Mitchell: Nah, I would have left. I’m over Kanye. The College Dropout has officially been worn off of my top ten rap albums. Everyone has a right to believe what they want to believe, but I just think he’s not well. I think he’s forcing a belief on young people -- and black people, especially -- that nobody wants to swallow: nobody believes it. Everybody knows a liar when they see one. It’s not about the great job someone could be doing for rich people or the economy. I want people in office to be doing things I couldn’t personally do because I chose not to live that straight and narrow. If you’re going to look out for everybody, it comes to the point where you have to say, “We disagree but we’re Americans and we’re going to look out for everybody.” I don’t think that’s what’s happening right now, I think it’s us against them, and it’s perpetuated by the man at the top, and if you’re going to follow that guy, I can’t follow you.
That dude is a blatant liar. I’m not going to pretend, even though I might benefit from some of the things he does, that he’s not a liar. The things he gets away with, 44 could never have said that and gotten away with that. Not even once. Any one thing and he would have been impeached. What kills them is that they couldn’t find anything to impeach him on, couldn’t find anything in his past to say, “He did this back in the day.” I used to say, “They couldn’t find one thing on Barack Obama, other than him not being an American.” People used to laugh, but now times are so touchy that people don’t laugh at that shit no more. They’re like, “Hey, it’s not cool.” There was a time in our history where you had a dude that was just morally in check.