Twenty-five years ago, Madonna changed. Sure, Madonna was always changing, but with the release of Erotica on Oct. 20, 1992, she fully shed her ebullient ’80s pop skin, donned a leather cat mask, and kicked open a rusty back alley door that previous chart-toppers only dared to scratch at.
You didn’t need to pick up a copy of her celebrity nude-filled coffee table book, Sex, to realize it. You didn’t even need to see Madonna Veronica Louise Ciccone, whip in hand, mugging for the camera in the video for the title track. All you needed to do was press play on the album and let the impossibly thick, libidinous bass line of “Erotica” start vibrating throughout your body. Forty seconds in, the sampled horns of Kool & the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” flare up, but instead of sounding reassuring and familiar, they seem disembodied and eerie. Then, Madonna’s latest alter ego addresses you, low and firm: “My name is Dita / I’ll be your mistress tonight.”
If her earlier work was an invitation to celebrate sexuality without shame, Erotica was a challenge from Dita Parlo – Madonna’s unashamed, unflinching dominatrix persona – to witness and perhaps even indulge in society’s sexual taboos. Madonna may have addressed the male gaze before, but on Erotica, she wasn’t just staring back – she was making the world her sub.
Erotica occupies a watershed place in the pop pantheon, setting the blueprint for singers to get raw while eschewing exploitation for decades to come. For its 25th anniversary, Billboard spoke to the players involved in Madonna’s most creatively daring release. Here’s what producer-writer Andre Betts, backup singer Donna De Lory, producer-writer Shep Pettibone, co-writer Tony Shimkin and Living Colour bassist Doug Wimbish recall of the writing and recording of Erotica, the insane release party for the LP and book, and the collective societal pearl-clutching that followed.
Tony Shimkin: After doing The Immaculate Collection and “Rescue Me,” she let us know she was working on a new album and wanted us to be involved in the writing. Seeing I was a musician and writer and Shep [Pettibone] was more of a DJ and remixer, we collaborated on the writing of the tracks for the Erotica album. We went up to meet with her in Chicago, post-“Vogue,” when she was filming A League of Their Own. So we met with her and started to get to work on some music, and sent it to her as we were working our way through it. She would come into New York and have a book full of lyrics and melody ideas and we started working together in Shep’s home studio. I believe the first time she was in New York for an extended period, we were working on “Deeper and Deeper” and “Erotica” and “Bye Bye Baby.” She’s very driven. There’s was never a period of feeling it out — it was diving in headfirst.
Doug Wimbish: I remember Madonna when she used to go to the Roxy before she got really put on. I’d see her at the Roxy when Afrika Bambaataa was down there or [Grandmaster] Flash, and she was down there jamming out. And not just being a spectator, but being engaged in the scene. Madonna’s association with the dance music and the gay scene and the hip-hop scene merging in the downtown clubs in New York City, and her coming from Michigan, she got it…. And she knew Dre had something special. A song like “Where Life Begins” is right up his alley. She had a relationship with Dre for his rawness and realness. You gotta be around someone in this business who tells you, “No, I’m not digging that, that’s why.” And also keep the window open to listen. I think that’s what Dre did.
Andre Betts: “Where Life Begins” was the first song we wrote on Erotica. I started working on the track and she started writing lyrics. She called me a few weeks before and asked me over the phone, “I’ll be in New York in two weeks, do you want to work?” I’m like, “Yeah of course.” She’s like, “Find a studio, I don’t want to work in a popular studio, I want to be low-key.” [The studio I picked] was a hole in the wall for real. She came in, started writing, she’s like, “What do you think about this direction and these lyrics?” I was like, “That sounds like something I’d write.” Our session got interrupted because a big rat ran across the floor. I’m the only one that got the feet up so at first I didn’t think she saw it, and she goes, “Dre, stop being a bitch, it’s just a rat.” [Laughs] She said, “I’m from Detroit, I’m not worried about a rat.”
Shimkin: She really holds fast to a general rule, which is that she’s in charge of lyrics and melody, and you’re in charge of music. While she has her say in the music end, it’s more about the arrangement and how it works with her vocal. She’ll still be open to ideas you have about a vocal. One is her dominion, the other is yours, and they don’t meet that often, but it’s not unheard of to be able to comment either way.
Donna De Lory: She would completely just hear it in her head. Especially when we’re doing vocals. Sometimes [backup singer] Niki [Haris] and I would be like, “How ’bout this? How ’bout that?” And she was like, “Nope, this is how it’s going to be.” And it ended up being great. She was open to other ideas, but I really respected that.
Wimbish: [My first day in the studio], she rolls up and she’s got a box with these Playboy magazines from like the ’60s. She comes in, Dre sees her and she’s chilling, Dre’s like, “Yo what’s up Mo how you doing?” They start having a conversation. Dre says, “What do you got here in this box.” Before she can say anything Dre takes one of the magazines and opens to the center section, is like, “Damn these old babes had some titties back then!” Dre’s real straight up and down with her. She’s Madonna, she’s got that alpha female vibe — and no disrespect. I’m like “yo, let me see that.” She’s like, “No, no, I don’t want you to see anything ’til you play some bass.” Our relationship was broken in based on Dre, that moment and Playboy magazines. Dre’s looking at the centerfold, Madonna’s doing her Madonna thing, saying, “no, no,” and I’m like, “I’m not doing anything until I see some titties and ass.”
Shimkin: I was 21, 22 years old at the time. While I’d worked on a lot of major artists’ records and spoken to some of them, it can be intimidating at first. When we worked on “Vogue” I didn’t speak to her that much, but when we started working in [Shep’s] house [on Erotica] and you’re there every day, you realize somebody is just who they are. One time, she was asking me if I was done on the computer. She asked me a few minutes later and I was like “not yet,” and I started getting more nervous. The next time she asked me, I lost it and I thought it was the end of my career, I said, “I’m not done yet, make some fucking popcorn and I’ll let you know when I’m ready.” And she was like, “Ah-k.” I think she appreciated someone not being a sycophant and kissing her ass, and just being real. It became much easier as time went on. I think she enjoys having people around her who allow themselves to be themselves. She’s really no different than what she puts out there to the public in a movie like Truth or Dare. There’s not a persona and she doesn’t hide who she is.
Shep Pettibone: “Erotica” was four different songs throughout the process. She loved the groove. She would sing it one way, background vocals harmonies and all, then decide to erase everything and start over again. Every version was very good. Shame she made me erase stuff.