In the 1990s, there was a wave of young R&B acts who were coming of age under the influence of Hip-Hop and rap music.
Coming out of the new jack swing era and into a post-Mary J. Blige urban music landscape, singers like Atlanta native Monica were a part of a wave that would cement Hip-Hop and R&B's fusion.
Monica's 1995 debut Miss Thang announced the then-14 year old as a powerhouse talent, and one of the album's standout singles was the hit "Like This and Like That," a Dallas Austin-produced banger that featured a high-profile guest appearance from a teenaged rapper named Mr. Malik.
"We were all signed to Rowdy Records," Monica recalls. "That's how he ended up on the record."
Dallas Austin was cultivating a hotbed of talent in Atlanta. Having defected from LaFace Records to launch his own imprint, Dallas was guiding Malik at the same time that he was putting together the hit album for Monica.
"Creating at that point, I'm 13 years old," Monica recalls. "I'm having a good time, I'm enjoying life. I was really multi-tasking. I would work at the Rowdy store in Underground [Atlanta] and I would work at the office building. I've always had a hustle in me, that pushed me to want to learn as many facets as i could about the business."
"'Like This and Like That' was one of mine and Dallas' personal favorites," Monica shares.
"At the time, Rowdy had multiple artists, and [Dallas] had a group named Illegal. Mr. Malik was one of the members; [he was] from South Carolina, an extremely dope lyricist. He did work with Snoop and others afterwards."
A protege of Austin's, Malik had broken through as one half of the hardcore Hip-Hop duo Illegal, alongside fellow teen rhymer Jamal. The duo dropped their debut album The Untold Truth in 1993, which featured the Kris Kross diss track "Head or Gut" and the Erick Sermon-produced "We Getz Buzy," and the track "Back In the Days."
Jamal launched a solo career as Malik became a fixture for guest appearances on some major albums. He would land on Warren G's platinum-selling debut album Regulate: The G Funk Era, and Malik would also make a very well-received appearance on Snoop Doggy Dogg's classic Doggy Style. It's Malik's baby-voiced bars that steal the show on the album closer, "Pump Pump."
"We wanted him on that record because he was so smooth and so clever. His wordplay was really distinctive at that time."
Mr. Malik (aka Hershey Loc) would make some more appearances on compilations and soundtracks, but never released a major solo project. Hip-Hop fans who remember the 1990s will remember that he showed tremendous promise as a young talent, even if the promise was never quite fulfilled.
"He was more like an adult," Monica says about Malik as a kid. "He was handling his own business and living on his own. He would come in and create sixteen bars, so fast, whatever you needed. He never had anybody ghostwriting for him."
Of course, Monica would go on to become one of the preeminent R&B artists of the 1990s, and her career is a testament to how seamlessly she blended Hip-Hop and R&B. Over the next 25 years, Monica would collaborate with everyone from Treach of Naughty By Nature to Dem Franchize Boys and Lil Wayne.
"We were just making music and trying to make music the best it could be," Monica says. Growing up in Atlanta and being guided early in her career by Austin gave Monica a strong foothold in both Hip-Hop and R&B.
"It's just who I am and that's what I loved so much about Dallas and [being] on Rowdy Records."
The R&B icon is set to debut her new true crime series Infamy: When Fame Turns Deadly on VH1. She hosts the series, which looks at how notorious crimes affected victims and their families.
"We give you the opportunity to get to know them from the beginning to the very end and we let you talk to the family members," she explains. "They're still mourning but they explain who the victim was [to them]."
The series spans eight episodes and among the crimes the show addresses are the murders of stars like Memphis-born NBA player Lorenzen Wright, who was murdered and found dead in a field in 2010, and New Orleans rapper Young Greatness, who was shot and killed in 2018.
"There's eight very talented people who were loved and respected," says Monica. "And taken from their families way too soon."