How Did She Get Here? The Oral History of Deborah Cox's 'Nobody's Supposed to Be Here'

How Did She Get Here? The Oral History of Deborah Cox’s ‘Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here’

This week, Billboard is celebrating the music of 20 years ago with a week of content about the most interesting artists, albums, songs, and stories from 1998. Here, Billboard tells the oral history of Deborah Cox’s “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here,” a song that overcame a difficult development period to become one of the biggest hits of the late ’90s and, eventually, a gay anthem.

The story of Deborah Cox’s 1998 hit “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here” concerns a woman who, after getting burned too many times by love, suddenly finds herself in the fairytale ending she had given up on. But the big question — How did you get here? — is a fitting hook for a song whose path to the top of the charts was an unlikely one: Before it established Deborah Cox as one of the preeminent divas of the late ‘90s, the gospel-tinged slow-jam nearly found another home with an R&B legend. And before it spent a then-record-breaking 14 weeks at the top of the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs Chart — not to mention racking up of the longest stays at the No. 2 spot in Hot 100 history with eight weeks — radio programmers lined up to tell Cox the song would never get played. 

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“Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here,” in short, wasn’t supposed to be here. But not only did it defy the odds, it helped change both the landscape of R&B and preconceptions about dance music, thanks to an iconic Hex Hector remix that’s especially beloved in the LGBT community. (The song was recently immortalized in an epic RuPaul’s Drag Race lip-sync face-off — perhaps the highest honor in the canon of contemporary gay anthems.)

As a part of our week-long celebration of all things 1998, Billboard spoke to Cox — along with the song’s writers, which include ’90s R&B star Montell Jordan, as well as former A&R executives, and others involved in the song’s story — about how it came together, the rocky road to its release, and why it still endures two decades later.

“THERE WAS NOTHING ELSE OUT THERE LIKE IT”

Anthony “Shep” Crawford, co-writer and producer: I wrote the song for Patti LaBelle. I saw her perform at the Soul Train Awards and said to myself, “I need to write a really big song for Patti.” I’ve always been the person that women come to for advice. If a single person says, “Shep, how come I don’t have a man?” I tell them, “When you stop looking, that’s when he’ll find you.” But I didn’t want to just have a happy song. I wanted to make sure it addressed the pain. You can listen it whether you’re in love or whether you’re sitting at home with the shades down.

Montell Jordan, co-writer: Shep and I grew up playing in church together. He was on the organ, I was on the piano. When he came to me, he just had a piece of the chorus.

Crawford: I sung the hook to Montell: “My heart says, ‘Nuh-uh’/ Nobody’s supposed to be here.” And I remember Montell saying, “Patti is not going to say ‘Nuh-uh.’ You have to change that to change that to ‘No, no.’” A couple weeks after that, Montell was supposed to go into the studio [to finish the song with me], but he had to fly out. The studio time was booked, so I went in by myself and recorded all of the music with a band before the verses were even written. Montell came back the next day.

Jordan: I was writing from the perspective of, “If Patti LaBelle was going to be singing this song, what would she say?” So for the line “This time, I swear I’m through, but if only you knew,” we wrote that because of Patti LaBelle’s song “If Only You Knew.”

Crawford: It didn’t go to Patti, of course. It was difficult for us, because we had success with [Montell’s album 1998’s Let’s Ride], but no success with any other artists. So we started shopping the song.

Jordan: It didn’t get placed. The song sat around for over a year with no one wanting it. We were flabbergasted, because in our hearts we knew there was nothing else out there like it. But I guess it was God’s timing, because once the interest finally came for the song, a bunch of people wanted it at the same time. [Elektra CEO] Sylvia Rhone was looking at the song for her artists. Def Jam was trying to move more into the field of R&B and wanted the song for Kelly Price. Puff Daddy wanted the song for Faith Evans [for Bad Boy Records, then in partnership with Arista Records].

Drew Dixon, former vice president, A&R, at Arista Records: I found it and brought it to Arista. I came from Def Jam and had been Montell’s A&R person there. I met with Montell and Shep Crawford, and they played me a bunch of songs including “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here” and “We Can’t Be Friends” [which Deborah later recorded and had a top 10 hit with as well]. I was blown away by the “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here” demo, so I submitted it [to Clive Davis] in an A&R meeting.

Keith Naftaly, former vice president, A&R, at Arista Records: If we were going to present something to Clive, we would have to rate it on a scale of 1 to 10, where 8 meant you thought it could be a top 10 single. It was always such a big deal to present Clive a song. You’d have a cassette of the song wrapped up in the lyric sheet, which was the only way Clive would listen to songs. Drew and I both thought it was a 9 out of 10.

Jordan: Clive Davis approached us and said, “I have all the divas on one label.” So we thought to ourselves, “Well, Patti LaBelle didn’t want the song, it would be great to get a classic artist. If Whitney does this song, it’s out of here. If Aretha does this song, it’s out of here.” We chose to give the song to Clive because of that relationship.

Dixon: I actually said to Clive, “This is silly. You have to break Deborah Cox. You had a whole album, but you never had a record that broke all the way through for her. She was supposed to be your next Whitney Houston. I love Faith. This would be great for Faith. But this could break Deborah.”

Crawford: Puffy wanted the song for Faith, but we were told it wasn’t going to be a single. We felt like it had to be a single.

Dixon: I may have said that to them to get them on my side, honestly. I didn’t want to push Clive to give it to Deborah only for them to say, “We’d rather it be on Faith’s album.” I may have planted that seed: It can get lost on Faith’s album, or it can be the most important record on Deborah Cox’s album.

“I’M HERE, AND I’M NOT GOING ANYWHERE”

Crawford: At the time, we were [talking about] doing “We Can’t Be Friends” with Deborah. Deborah came to the house because we wanted to play more songs for her. We were not supposed to play the “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here” demo for her. [Laughs] But Montell went on and played it, just as an example of what we had. When she heard it, she said, ‘Whose song is this?’ And we said, “Right now Clive has the record.” So Deborah went back to Clive and said “I really, really, really want this song.”

Deborah Cox: The song crossed my path in early ’98. I had taken a little time off — I got married in Jamaica — and was really searching for a direction for the second album. When Shep and Montell played it for me, I immediately knew the song was a smash. I just remember hearing it and going, “Oh my God, this speaks to me!” I had just gone through the same thing: I was caught off guard with the love of my life, so it really resonated.

Jordan: Once we committed the song to Clive, he changes his mind and says, “Well, I’m not going to give it to Whitney or to any of the others. I’ve got this newer artist named Deborah Cox.” It was like, “Wait, we gave you the record because we thought it was going to be something for one of the bigger artists.”

Dixon: When you call somebody and say, “Clive put your song on hold,” the immediate hope is that Whitney’s gonna sing it. But I never said that. I don’t remember a discussion with Clive along those lines.

Crawford: [After that meeting with Deborah] I was in the studio and saw her singing on Lou Rawls Parade of Stars. I told my engineer to turn up the TV and was like, “I did not know she could sing like that.” Our manager called me a week later and said, “What do you think about Deborah Cox doing the song?” If it wasn’t for me seeing her perform on TV, I would have doubted it.

Cox: There were people, including the writers, who weren’t sure whether it was going to be something I could really deliver based on what I had recorded before. I didn’t have a lot of songs on the first record where I could let it rip. I had to really prove that I could perform it.

Jordan: I didn’t feel confident until we got into the studio and heard Deborah open her mouth.

Crawford: She came in, and I was like, “Can you just sing a little bit? We’re just going to test the mic and make sure we get the levels.” And she started singing. The crazy thing is that Deborah knew the song. Sometimes when we work with an artist, they don’t really know the song, so you say, ‘You got the verse? Okay, let’s do the chorus. Okay, let’s get the second verse.” She sung the song all the way through! I told my engineer to record, and my engineer said, “I don’t have the levels yet.” I said “Listen, record.” She was ready to go.

Cox: I knew this was going to be the song where I was able to do a lot of vocal tricks that nobody had ever heard Deborah Cox do. I’ve always wanted to be an artist that had longevity, so I wanted to make that point and let the world know, “I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere.”

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Crawford: While she was singing, I was standing there saying, “Go girl, c’mon!” like I was in church. She delivered it. And the funny thing was, I played a little joke on her: After she hit the money note at the end, when she came out, I acted like I didn’t get [the take]. And so when she went right back into [the booth to re-do it], I told her, “No, no, no, just come on out.”

Cox: When I held that “Nooooooo” toward the end of the bridge, I remember Shep’s jaw dropping and him going, “Oh my God! Oh my God!” Because that wasn’t on the original demo. There was a lot of stuff that wasn’t on the original demo, so I think when they heard what I did it with it and where I took it melodically, they were very pleased.

Crawford: I was told Clive played it at a meeting and got a standing ovation. It was supposed to be the second single — the first was supposed to be [another song from her One Wish album called] “September” — but when he played it at the meeting, he knew it was the one. The song hadn’t even been properly mixed yet. The rough mix is the version we hear today. Clive, being the genius he is, was like, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Dixon: That meeting was a big turning point. When the the promotions department and the urban department heard it, they were blown away. I think that’s when it was really clear: The song moves people.

Crawford: I will tell you Clive was a little concerned that the girls who sung the background sounded too churchy. He felt like maybe we should make it more commercial.

Jordan: Shep had some church girls singing the chorus of the song, this real gospel feeling.

Crawford: I didn’t call my regular R&B demo girls, I called up three girls from my church choir and said, “Can you guys come to the studio tonight?” I remember having this conversation with Drew. I said, “If you take those girls off of this song, it won’t be as special.” I convinced them to please leave those girls on.

“THERE WAS SOMETHING EERIE IN THE AIR”

Darren Grant, “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here” video director: Deborah’s manager at the time hit me up and said, “Clive Davis thinks Deborah’s song is going to be a hit and thinks you’d be great for it. But he wants to meet with you today.” I said, “Well, I’m in New York on a flight back to L.A. in a couple hours.” He’s like, “Great, a car will pick you up and take you to the Beverly Hills Hotel to meet with Clive, so you should have some ideas when the plane lands.”

I really liked that movie Eve’s Bayou and thought, “What if we shot this down south in New Orleans, with the heat of the summer and the mysticism that comes along with that?” Clive said, “I love it!” We actually ended up shooting on the same property where they shot Eve’s Bayou, just because I like that location so much.

Cox: When you think about gospel music, you think about where it came from and the depths of the history of that place. I thought it was a really special place to have the video done.

Grant: There’s something about New Orleans that really is emotionally and spiritually heavy. There was something eerie in the air. The house we shot at was haunted. I remember the caretaker would not enter the house at all because of the stories about nannies appearing in the middle of the night and pictures flying across space. It was really strange, too, because everybody’s devices — phones, computers — were all crashing and not working. There was definitely something mystical happening.

Cox: I just remember the eeriness. It was really dark, and there was just a real energy around. Some of the crew was like, “Wow, this place is really interesting at night.”

Grant: The other night, Sheila Coates, who was on that shoot and worked for the label at the time, asked me, “Do you remember when we pulled Deborah into the trailer and said, ‘You’re not performing it the way you should be performing it?'” There’s a certain delivery artists have to have [on camera] because usually they’re not really singing — I always tell them to sing, because that’s when you get the most natural performance, but it’s hard with multiple takes. But they went in there, had a talk with her, and the next thing I know she came out, veins popping, and delivered what I feel is one of the best ballads of the last 20-plus years.

“I’VE CONFRONTED ALL OF THOSE PROGRAMMERS”

Cox: I knew the song was a smash, but there were slight reservations [about its release] because it was so gospel-laden. I distinctly remember radio programmers telling me that it would never get played at radio.

Dixon: This is going to sound crazy, but I never thought about that. I don’t have the promotion muscle in my body. It’s all creative: What would I love to hear? What would stop traffic? If I had thought about [its radio potential], then I might have second-guessed myself.

Jordan: Clive probably threw everything and the kitchen sink at radio to make sure this record got its play.

Naftaly: We broke a lot of the rules at that time by releasing a single that was a slow jam, which was counter to a lot of the first singles that were being released at the time. And it took off like a rocket. It was an A&R success story beyond our wildest dreams.

Cox: I knew it was a hit when it was on The Beat, a hip-hop-heavy station in L.A. that never played ballads. I remember we were driving down the 405, and it came blaring on the radio, and I was like, “We made it!” We’d have conference calls with Arista staff telling us, “This song is really doing what no other song has done. People are are calling back wanting to hear it over and over again.”

Crawford: Not only did it go No. 1 [on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart] for 14 weeks, but to find out that it is No. 5 on Billboard’s Greatest of All Time R&B/Hip-Hop Songs list? That’s amazing to me. That’s something I want to be able to tell my grandkids, and for them to be able to tell their grandkids.

Cox: I never had an opportunity to really talk about that moment when it was No. 2 [on the Hot 100] for so long. I remember it was under Celine Dion — who was one of the vocalists I sang background for — [duetting with R. Kelly on “I’m Your Angel”]. I remember going, “Wow, it’s No. 2!”

Jordan: Hopefully even Celine was able to look in the rearview mirror like, “Oh cool, this was one of my background singers, and she’s coming for this No. 1 spot!”

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Cox: It’s funny, everyone [who said it wouldn’t get played before] had amnesia or selective memory. And I’ve confronted all of those programmers. They conceded and were like, “You were right, I stand corrected.” That was the year that I moved to Florida, and I was just shocked at how many times it was played on the radio. Every time I would go in my car, there it was! But a lot of artists were really supportive of the song and the way that I was singing it. I remember talking to Mary J. Blige when it was just blowing up, and she was like, “Girl, that song! Girl, that song!”

“TELL THEM WHO THAT SONG WAS FOR”

Cox: My favorite memories of this time are hopping from all these different awards shows in 1999, from the Grammys to the Billboard Music Awards to the Soul Train Awards. I was nominated for an NAACP Image Award. There were a lot of Junos. Being nominated for so many awards was really impactful and gave me everything that I needed to move forward in the industry.

Jordan: “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here” helped jumpstart even more production and songwriting work for Shep and me, because everybody started coming to us saying, “Hey, we want a song like the Deborah Cox song.” That opened the door for us to work with tons of other artists, like Tamia and Lil’ Mo. I think that song validated me as a songwriter, and I’m grateful to Deborah for that.

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Crawford: We didn’t get a chance to really enjoy [the success] like we wanted to because the requests for more songs like that kept coming in. I remember when I first met [producer duo] Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, they thanked us for doing that song. I think producers felt more freedom to use real instrumentation. “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here” was a breath of fresh air in a music industry that was going very digital. Producers felt liberated to bring musicians in. I felt like we made history there.

Dixon: There was really slick, urban, hip-hop-influenced, program-heavy R&B music that was fun to listen to. And then there was this counter movement: D’Angelo records, Lauryn Hill records. I think Shep’s sound was a huge contribution to that body of work.

Cox: I remember going to different performances that Patti LaBelle was doing. She would talk about this hit song that got away, and then she would sing the song! [Laughs] The first time I heard her sing it was at the Essence Festival, and there’s just nothing like hearing your song sung by your hero.

Jordan: I happened to meet Patti many years later, and she pulled me by my ear like an auntie: “Come here, I want to talk to you.” She pulled me over to this group of people like, “Tell them what you did, tell them who that song was for.” I said, “Well, we originally wrote ‘Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here’ for you.” And she stopped for a second and said, “And I couldn’t hear it. Back then, my husband, my son, everybody was trying to tell me, ‘This is you. This is your record.’ I just couldn’t hear it.”

“PEOPLE WERE COMING TO THE DRESSING ROOM IN TEARS”

Hosh Gureli, former senior director, A&R, at Arista Records: I commissioned Hex Hector to remix “Nobody’s Supposed To Be Here.” He was instrumental in [the remix of “Unbreak My Heart” by Toni Braxton, plus he had done a killer remix of Deborah’s “Things Just Ain’t The Same” [the year before], so it was natural to go with him. Hex was certainly my guy for remixes.

Naftaly: Clive definitely took dance music and the crossover potential of a dance song very seriously, not only as something creatively vibrant, but also a significant revenue source and a career-builder.

Crawford: I will say the dance version is as important to the success of “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here” as the original version.

Cox: We had both versions cooking at the same time. We had the dance version of the song, and we had the R&B version at radio. We had club dates booked. We also had R&B dates booked. It really opened up a whole plethora of opportunities that weren’t there before. I remember that New Year’s Eve performing at three venues in New York City, three of the hottest clubs, because the song was so in demand. It was a fun time.

Gureli: It was pretty rare to have such a big remix. The CD single had both the original and the remix version on it. It went on to sell almost 2 million copies. Ballads generally did not do well overseas, but with the remix on there, the record became a big international hit.

Dixon: I had previously tolerated dance mixes as just a necessary part of the process. And when I heard that one, I was blown away. I was like, “Wow, okay, this is not just the ‘dance mix,’ this is its own thing.” It was one of those moments where we got goosebumps in the room. It was not typical for the remix to give you goosebumps.

Crawford: Hex Hector told me that because the original song was 60 beats-per-minute, he didn’t have to touch the vocals. He just took the song and sped it up to 120 beats-per-minute, but he kept the same vocals — they’re not sped up. He said, “It’s easier to remix your songs because you always record your ballads at 60 beats-per-minute.”

Cox: This was a genre that wasn’t really associated with emotion [at the time].

Dixon: The mix really took advantage of the build-up, the layers, the vocals, the passion. It was inspired. It certainly changed my perception of dance music, as somebody who was a more of an urban R&B consumer. I was like, “Okay, respect.” I’m guessing other people felt that way too.

Gureli: It 100 percent [changed perceptions], and Hex had a lot to do with that. Keeping the feel and soul of the original was key to making these big ballads dancefloor anthems. After the success of “Nobody,” every label starting commissioning mixes for their ballads to get exposure both on the dancefloor and in radio mix shows.

Naftaly: It catapulted her to gay-icon status while it was simultaneously No. 1 at the R&B charts.

Cox: I realized it was connecting with the gay community after the shows. People were coming to the dressing room in tears and telling me about how the music helped them come out, telling me really intimate stories that I’ll have to take the grave. It almost felt like the gay and lesbian community started to confide in me. It was a little awkward for me at first, because I didn’t realize how profoundly life-changing some of these songs were going to end up being. But I really took on the responsibility and really understood my role and this platform. The reaction to that song made me more conscious of having a message in my music.

Jordan: It was Deborah’s love for people that opened the door for that to happen. The records she had catered to a lot of the community, but I think it would have happened with other songs as well, just because of who she is as a person.

Cox: I just finished doing the The Bodyguard musical tour [this year], and there were people that came to the show with their parents that they came out to. Their kid was like, “I came out to your music. I was afraid to tell my parents who I was authentically.” And here they were, sitting in the audience, enjoying the music of Whitney Houston, while their son or daughter was enjoying hearing me sing because I was the one they listened to growing up. It was this crazy coming-of-age moment for so many people.

Tom Campbell, RuPaul’s Drag Race executive producer: We’d been trying to get this song cleared as a Lip Sync For Your Life since season one. No joke. The song is amazing. The Hex Hector remix is epic. It’s got everything a lip-sync song should have. First, Deborah’s voice is thick and soulful, smoky and strong, vulnerable and indomitable — all at once. And the remix lets you have it! It’s got starts and stops, key changes, and a groove that throws you down and picks you back up again.

BeBe Zahara Benet, RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars contestant: When I first moved to this country [from Cameroon], one of my good friends took me to my first drag show. I was like, “What is a drag show?” I remember one of the performers, Cee Cee Russell, was performing “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here.” I was like, “Oh my God, I love this song!” I decided to learn it. The energy that you get from performing it, you get that back from the people who are sitting watching you perform — that’s why a lot of entertainers love it. And the remix kicks it up a notch. Once I was told I was going to be lip-syncing to it on All Stars, I was like, “I’m about to murder this song. I know every breath, every syllable.” I was excited to do that on national television. I was humbled by the experience.

Cox: I was touring so much recently that it was really hard for me to catch up on shows. One night, my phone was blowing up. Everybody was texting me, hitting me up on Instagram and Facebook. I was like, “What happened?” And they were like, “Your song was on RuPaul’s Drag Race!” When I saw the episode, I just hollered like, “Wow!” Most of the drag queens that I’ve heard from would say that was their song — they would win competitions with it, it gave birth to their alter egos. It was the perfect choice.

Campbell: Part of our mission at Drag Race is to teach the children by turning them on to iconic artists from our rich gay herstory. If there were a Mount Rushmore of ‘90s divas, Deborah Cox would be on it.

“THE SONG WILL ALWAYS BE ALIVE TO ME”

Dixon: Why has the song endured? You’ve got to go back to the copyright. It’s a clever way way of articulating a universal feeling. It’s clever in terms of the structure and the melody and phrasing. And the performance is just killer. She sang her heart out, she left it all out on the field. It took risks, but it was powerful and had so much soul. It cut through everything else that was on the radio at the time, and it still cuts through today.

Jordan: “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here” means something a little different to me. Coming up from a black community in South Central Los Angeles, where I wasn’t supposed to live to see age 16, and all the different obstacles I’ve faced — I’m not supposed to be here. I feel like I’m someone that you would look at and say, “How did that guy do it? Who would have thought that a kid from South Central would have one of the greatest songs with one of the greatest artists of all time?”

Cox: I never, never, never get tired of it. The song will always be alive to me. It’s still the song I close my shows with today, because it’s such a powerful one. It hits such a high note in the emotional frequency that it’s just hard to beat. Like, what song do you do after that song? [Laughs] I love that the song is the signature song for me and for my career, because I wouldn’t want it to be any other record.