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If this up-and-coming singer keeps it up, people won't be asking "Who Is Jill Scott?" for long.

The Poet Steps Out

When Jill Scott finished her debut CD, "Who Is Jill Scott?" she didn't go around bragging about its potential to rack up huge sales.

"I didn't expect anything," the Philadelphia-based singer said. "I just wanted to offer it, not sell it, not force it down people's throats, and see what would happen. And I'm definitely pleased with what has happened."

Since its release last summer, Scott's first CD has passed a million in sales and earned her three Grammy nominations, including one for best new artist.

Now with her most recent single, "Gettin' in the Way," having gone top five on "Billboard" magazine's R&B/hip-hop chart, it seems likely that soon everyone will at least know Jill Scott's name.

There are good reasons "Who Is Jill Scott?" has been making waves. It's one of the more auspicious debuts to come along on the R&B scene since the arrival of Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill — singers to whom Scott is frequently compared.

Like those artists, Scott is bridging the gap between today's street-level rap and the more melodic approach that characterized an earlier generation of urban music.

Scott's music draws on the Memphis-style soul of the 1960s (think Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding) as well as Philadelphia soul of the 1970s (the O'Jays being a prime example) and updates her sound with hip-hop rhythms and an occasional rap. Sometimes a touch of jazz seeps into Scott's singing, as well.

It's a hybrid that's especially effective on songs like "Gettin' in the Way," and "A Long Walk," which wrap warm soul melodies around kicking beats and spoken sections of lyrics.

The quality of Scott's music — she co-wrote most of the songs on her CD — might seem a bit surprising, considering that for a long time she didn't consider music to be a career option. She went to Temple University, where she studied English, planning to pursue teaching. Along the way, though, she discovered an interest in acting and poetry.

In fact, in Philadelphia — where Scott still makes her home — she became a regular presence on the local poetry scene. Eventually, she took her craft on the road and extended her poetry following to New York and New Jersey. Scott considers her poetry readings to have provided invaluable experience for her, not only as a writer, but as a performer in front of an audience.

"Being a poet in Philadelphia and New York put me standing in front of an audience [with only] words," she said. "So it made me realize how very important words are. You want to say something. You don't want it to go in one ear and out the other without making an impression. Being able to stand there on stage with just words and no more, it made me a better artist. It made me a better performer because I'm not afraid."

Scott's poetry also played a direct role in her entry into the music business. A friend of Scott's had introduced her to members of the critically acclaimed Philadelphia hip-hop band the Roots. Eventually, her performances caught the attention of Roots drummer Amir "Questlove" Thompson.

Thompson was so impressed he told the band's producer Scott Storch about Scott. The band invited Scott to join them in the studio one evening and that night she ended up writing the lyrics to the song "You Got Me."

The song was chosen as the first single from the Roots' most recent studio CD, "Everything Falls Apart," and it went on to become a breakthrough hit for the band. Scott, though, did not get the chance to sing on the studio track.

Instead, Roots' record label wanted a better-known performer for the song and enlisted Badu to sing on the track. The song later won a 1999 Grammy for best rap performance by a duo or group.

Scott admits she was unhappy about being passed over to sing on the studio version of the song (although she does sing on the concert version included on the Roots' 1999 live CD, "The Roots Come Alive").

"It was a disappointment," Scott said. "[I thought] I had gotten my first big break. In reality I did. You know, I got a lot of attention as a writer."

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