Melanie Fiona on Her Hip-Hop Upbringing, Collaborating with Nas & J. Cole and Having Jay-Z As a Mentor
Melanie Fiona didn’t need to recite the lyrics of the Pharcyde’s classic “Passing Me By” to prove to XXL that she’s a hip-hop head. But she insisted, and she killed it. The Roc Nation signee has been certified for a while, thanks to some hefty cosigns and collaborations. Nas, J. Cole and B.o.B all make appearances on her new album, The MF Life, which debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 charts last month. XXL spoke with the Canadian rap connoisseur, whom Wale nicknamed “Felony Miona,” to learn more about rap’s influence on her childhood, her connection with Jay and what her favorite hip-hop and R&B collab of all time is. –Calvin Stovall (@CalvinStovall)
XXLMag.com: How would you sum up your relationship with hip-hop?
Whenever I think of rap or I think of hip-hop, I always think of my big brother. He’s older than me, so when I was a kid, he was in high school. And when I was in high school, he was in college. So he was always my source for what was happening in R&B and hip-hop because growing up in Toronto, we didn’t have hip-hop and R&B stations. But he and his friends were DJs and would go to the States. And he schooled me. I remember being a kid and we’d play these games where he was so versed in his music (that) he’d be like, “Yo, pick any album, any CD or tape or record that I have here, and play me the first five seconds of it. And I’ll tell you what album, what artist, and what song.” We used to do this trivia all the time. It was one of my favorite memories as a kid between me and my brother when we weren’t trying to kill each other. My bond to hip-hop was just a different energy and it always reminds me of my big brother and how big of an influence he is on my life.
Now that Toronto is getting that access it’s becoming a hotbed for young talent.
There’s a lot [of talent]. And I feel like we’ve had a lot before. There’s so many artists and rappers that the world never got to know that are from Toronto. That are really dope. Saukrates, Kardinal Offishall, just people don’t recognize the way that they should. And they paved the way for Drake. For him to come out now, I think that he’s bringing life to what Toronto has always had to offer but no one’s ever paid attention in hip-hop because Canadians, or Torontonians, were considered square when it came to hip-hop.
Put the people up on the essentials. What do they need to find on YouTube right now?
You definitely need to get familiar with Saukrates. Sauks is like, he’s foundation. Maestro Fresh-Wes is Canadian! [Laughs.] “Let Your Backbone Slide,” “Drop a Needle,” all that, that’s all Canadian. People forget. So [him] and I think Kardinall Offishall really paved the way for hip-hop (in Canada).
So your brother taught you well. Being a real hip-hop head you must really appreciate getting to work with Nas.
Nas! Okay, this is hip-hop royalty. I’m just so honored that Nas is on my record. Salaam Remi produced “Running” and I was originally rapping on this song [laughs]. But I just did a dummy version; I wanted to have something that was going to be conscious on this record just because it had that dope kind of soulful, 90s hip-hop vibe. And I wanted to get some one that could complete the story. I just mentioned it in passing like, “Yo, Nas would be a great fit.” And somebody from my team jumped on that idea and reached out before I even had a chance to reach out to him. And Nas just took “Running” to a whole other level. Like, a whole other level that comes with so much weight and so much respect. It just made the record so much deeper. And he just kicked so much knowledge from a man’s perspective. And I think that was really, really important and I think that’s what makes “Running” such a classic record. Because you just get that good Nasty Nas feel.
What about J. Cole on “This Time”?
J. Cole, we’re Roc affiliated, Roc connected. I remember meeting J. Cole before he signed to Roc Nation. I remember going to one of his sessions and just being like, “Yo, he’s really talented. He’s coming with something new.” And he’s like, “Yeah, I’m about to be part of the Roc fam.” So we had made a connection before he had even came on the team. And of course once he did, it was just a no-brainer. I think Cole is such a storyteller. And that’s a rare thing ‘cause so many people are just so focused on hype records or what people are going be able to sing along with these days. [He gives] that kind of young, sexy conversation between a man and a woman on the record. So, I think Cole really brought it on this one.
When hip-hop and R&B connect, those are usually the roles they take.
Yeah! Like, Mary J and Method. I didn’t even really give them direction because I respect them so much that I was just like, “Yo, I just want to see what you can come with.” And I love that they all kind of responded to me in a respectful way, but from a male perspective. And that’s always what’s important that I want people to know about music. That it’s not totally one-sided, this music can be for men as well.
What’s your favorite Hip-hop/R&B collab of all time?
Ohhh! That’s a tough one. Since “All I Need” came to my mind and I know every lick, version, ad-lib, lyric...[laughs].
Do you have any aspirations to become an MC?
I have no desire to become an MC on a full-time basis [laughs]. Somebody that really inspired me is Lauryn Hill. She was never solely classified, it was just a triple threat and it was just art; A pure expression of art. And even on the first album, when I did “Ayo,” I have a version with a rap bridge. And on “Running” I rapped the bridge. It’s always something that, because I love hip-hop, and I feel like hip-hop and rappers and MCs, they actually make the best songwriters. So sometimes when I try to write songs, I rap them to get the right timing of how I want to sing the patterns or the words. Because I feel like if more MCs wrote for signers they’d make a lot better songs; because their placement is right. And it’s very rhythmic when they sing. So, I don’t have any desire to become an MC— I don’t have any desire to become Felony Miona anytime soon, even though she is real, up in here. But when you come to my shows, it’s always an element.
Did you just say Felony Miona?
Yeah, I did [laughs]. Shout out to Wale, though. I can’t even take all the credit. He coined that, he used to call me Felony. You have to credit both of us, it’s a collaboration, you know what I’m saying? He used to call me Felony and then Miona was the addition. That’s kind of my thug name, even though I’m not a thug. But I do, I’m really aggressive on stage. And everybody always kind of says that, even when I sing. They say, you don’t sing like an R&B singer. You sing like a rapper. You attack the stage like a rapper. And I take that as a high compliment just because I feel like girls are so focused on being pretty. But when you’re too focused on being pretty, you lose that grit and that edge that comes with the passion of what you do. And a really good rapper or performer comes with that type of energy.
What’s Jay-Z’s role in your career?
Jay’s company is Roc Nation and I’m co-managed by Roc Nation. Everyone knows who Jay is and what that means. And I think not just from being a fan from back in the day and Jay-Z being the rapper, (but) now being a business and being a mogul and being a worldwide superstar that he’s become through his journey of rap. That’s just inspiring and it’s a blessing to have that type of leader and that type of example so close to me in my life. To be able to see and witness that type of greatness. And to see and hear the mentality of what it takes to become a Jay-Z, something so successful. He’s just a prime example of flipping it and taking it. It’s about a brand. It’s about making it a business, and he’s brilliant. And for me, a lot of artists don’t have a co-manager that is an artist as well as a business manager. So, to be able to see that and have that energy around me is really inspiring.
Is he just a spirit that floats in and out of your life, stopping by listening events once in a while and giving advice?
Yeah, he’ll come to a listening event. I’ll go to his shows. And I’ll show up and I’ll support (his stuff). He’s like in the background, because I deal with John Minelli, and Jay Brown and Ty Ty (Smith) from Roc Nation more so on a daily basis. But when he does show up, he shows up and I really take into consideration what he says. When the Grammy’s happened, he reached out and that really meant a lot; to get his support and his congratulation. And he gave me some thoughts on the album and what his choice picks were. And that means a lot. Jay-Z’s telling me he likes something on my album, I’m gonna bet on that one!
You’ve officially passed the test and proven you’re a real hip-hop head. Just to finish them off, what’s a random fact that people should know?
I can recite the words for “Passing Me By” by Pharcyde like it’s the bible [laughs]. My favorite line is, "She was married to a thug, his name was Lee, he drove a Z/he picked her up from school, promptly at three o’clock/I was on her jock, yes indeedy.” If that song comes on, it’s a problem.