Shanell Woodgett came up in Southwest Atlanta and attended Tri-Cities High School, where she and her sister Wanita — known as D. Woods from Danity Kane — were friends with producer Bangladesh. A classically-trained dancer, she broke into the industry dancing and doing choreography, before going on to pen songs for artists like Kelis and Ne-Yo. Lil Wayne encouraged her talents, and nowadays she performs as Shanell on the Young Money roster. For Wayne’s current I’m Still Music tour — which hits Atlanta on Saturday — she not only performs but is his show’s artistic director as well. Crib Notes caught up with her this week as she rode on the tour bus.
Where are you right now?
Shanell: I’m in my bunk, on the bus between Miami and Orlando.
How many buses total are there on the tour?
I think there’s 20 buses, and like 15 trucks.
Wow. Who do you ride on the bus with?
I have my own little caravan…I ride with the ladies. It’s me and the dancers.
Does Wayne ride or fly?
Wayne does a little bit of both. On the longer trips I think he flies.
How’s the tour going so far?
It’s going really good. It’s been full to packed, sold out houses every night. It’s makes me happy to see all of us back out there on stage.
As the artistic director for Wayne’s show, what are your specific duties?
I’m in charge of the whole look of the show, from wardrobe to choreography, making sure the lights and sound — and video, if there is video — all go together and make sense. Building a picture for people to see onstage. It was a lot more work in the beginning before the tour started, but now I just clean up things I see, or that Wayne and I decide we want to change. It’s a lot different from doing choreography, which I used to do. This is a lot more work, but it’s good because I’m preparing myself to be able to put together my own show.
And you also perform your debut single, “My Button,” right? Anything else?
Yes, performing “My Button” is exciting for me, because it’s my first single, and it’s 10-16,000 people per night — a great look for me. I also perform on “Prom Queen,” and then when Wayne does “Lollipop” and “Mrs. Officer” I come out and do those with him.
Do you still kiss him when you perform “Prom Queen”?
No, we’ve done that. We gave y’all something to talk about last year, but switched it up this year.
Will there be anything special for the Atlanta date?
Atlanta’s always special. It’s not really fair for the other cities on the tour. Since there’s so much music in Atlanta, Wayne has built so many friends in the industry. I’m sure the show will even be a surprise for me — in terms of who might show up, and what changes there might be. Atlanta usually gets its own unique show. Atlanta, New York, and L.A., those are the shows that end up being just crazy.
Sounds like the shows can be pretty spontaneous. Could someone like, say, Big Boi just jump on the show an hour before?
Yes. Some other artists’ shows are a lot more tight. Wayne has taught me a lot about improvising. Even if a show that has to run one way, Wayne will find a way to incorporate something different. It’s exciting for all of us. The dancers backstage are like, ‘Which song is he gonna do?’
What part of Atlanta did you grow up in?
I grew up between Massachusetts and Atlanta. My parents had separated. My mom said, ‘I found this great performing arts high school for you and your sister.’ We stayed in the Southwest Atlanta area.
How’d you become friends with Bangladesh?
We rode the same bus. [laughs] He was the ‘mean guy’ upperclassman, who used to sit up in front of us and not talk to anybody. All my sisters and friends were like, ‘Who is he?’ He came to the school late, the middle of the year, and he was just mean. My sister got to know him first. Since we had come from Massachusetts and he had come from Iowa, we kind of brought him in because we were the outsiders. He used to make beats back in the day. He would play stuff that was wacky and crazy. It’s that same stuff nowadays that makes him dope.
Seeing as you passed Bangladesh’s beat for “A Milli” to Wayne, are things awkward for you considering he still hasn’t been paid yet?
He still hasn’t gotten paid?! It was a little awkward, because I would talk to both of them and tell the other how incredible the other one is. To see them go past it and work on “6”7””… Now I see it as like, ‘whatever.’ If they’re still fighting, I just ignore it, because they’re still doing great work together. It must not be that big of a deal, because he’s still working with the Young Money team.
How did you parlay your experience as a dancer/choreographer into songwriting credits with artists like Beyonce and Kelis?
I was writing in my spare time, on the bus, in the hotel rooms, and then playing the music on the bus. I would play songs for some of the artists I was working with, and they thought the music was great. Some wanted songs for themselves, some would say things like, ‘I’ll hook you up with Ne-Yo.’ Ne-Yo heard my [music] and said, ‘Let’s write some songs together.’ It was just a networking situation — I was around artists who needed music.
Since you’ve been in the music game so long, why are you just now coming out as an artist?
I started off dancing, and I loved creating. I would choreograph shows, and my hobby was to write songs and record music. It seemed like such a difficult, uninteresting thing at the time. Dancing was more fun. But I started writing songs that couldn’t be pitched to other artists — they were too unique; that’s what Wayne heard. He said, ‘Why are you selling these songs? You should keep them for yourself.’ He offered me a position at Young Money, and I took it.
Do the rumors — like your being romantically linked to Wayne and pregnant with his baby — in any way reflect the reality?
No. If that was the case, I would have been pregnant for a long time. [Laughs] I love hip-hop music, but the one thing I don’t like about hip-hop is…[trails off] I’m a writer, a storyteller, I create a picture. The “Prom Queen” kiss started this whole thing. [People thought] it had to be real, because it was hip-hop. So there’s no way Wayne could kiss someone in a video and it was fake! ‘Oh, they’re dating, she’s pregnant, because she wasn’t drinking in the club.’ That part of the industry is crazy to me.
Is it hard to find a balance between personal and professional relationships?
I don’t have any personal relationships anymore. [On tour] we stay at some crazy-looking, fly-looking hotels, and I just go down and have an apple martini and talk to my dancers. We throw around stories about how we used to have relationships, and then I write a song.
Since you have a number of songwriting credits on Wayne’s album Rebirth, did it break your heart that critics were so hard on it?
Uh huh. I was just like, “Wow.’ I’m trying to learn from that, though. I was just wondering why they were so hard on it. People that listen to rock music not wanting it to be messed with by a rapper? I’m trying to understand that.
It almost felt like he was acting like a rock star — pretending — instead of just speaking from his heart.
Hmm. He’s a whole lot more than a rapper. He has a wacky, crazy side. He’s always had a different side, and I think that’s why he’s picked a lot of the artists he’s picked — like me, and Nicki, and Drake. It’s not just a bunch of hood, hardcore rap. He’s a very emotional person. He was able to speak about a lot of different issues. People ask me what kind of music I do, I say, ‘I do music that sounds good.’ I’m not going to say that it’s rock, just because there’s guitar in it. I think that’s what he’s going for, rather than, ‘I’m doing what Metallica or Nirvana would do.’
You mentioned Nicki Minaj. Even though you’re a singer and she’s a rapper, would you say you’ve been able to learn a lot from her?
We’re all watching each other’s growth process, and proud of each other’s development. I have really watched my sister, D. Woods. She was more there for me in terms of talking to me and showing me the ropes. I’ve seen artists go from their first single to platinum selling, but to actually have my sister, who is totally honest with me, to have her break things down for you…She’s my younger sister, too!
Will an album by you come out this year?
Definitely. I’ve been working on my album ever since I wrote my first song. Something that sets me apart from some other writers, I think, is that my music is timeless. I tell stories that people can relate to today, ten years from now, ten years ago. When Wayne says, ‘You ready to drop an album?’ I could probably drop four or five of them.
Tell us about “My Button.”
There’s a twist — I hate having to say it. But I love the song. It’s about a woman who has to convince a button to work with her in a situation she’s in with a guy. The button is familiar with this guy, and says, ‘He’s wack.’ It’s a game to play, to act in the bedroom, ‘cause whoever she’s with isn’t getting her there. The conversation is between her and her button. It was a joke song. I was listening to Tupac’s “Me and My Girlfriend,” which is about his gun, and I decided to write a song like that. Wayne and all them thought it was the funniest thing.
With Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross, Travis Barker, Mix Master Mike. $59.75-$125.75. 7 p.m. Philips Arena, 1 Philips Dr. 404-878-3000. www.philipsarena.com.
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