Read Christen’s article about loving her family and loving her city by clicking on the image above.
First and foremost, happy birthday Rasta Root! Second-most, This incredible entrepreneur – and human being – was very patient with all of my questions and shenanigans before, during, and after this incredibly long interview and he deserves a pat on the back and hug if you ever see him.
We met in Chicago during the video shoot for Dear Dilla, Phife‘s new single, of which Rasta Root produced the instrumental. I heard on Twitter four days before filming that they needed extras for the video, and after double checking that it was for real, I cancelled all my weekend plans, rescheduled work, and drove to Chicago by myself. I just couldn’t understand why anyone from southeast Michigan, Dilla territory, would not do whatever they could, to hang around Phife all day and be able to listen to a song dedicated to Jay Dee. So, after shooting, I meet-and-greeted with Rasta Root and Phife and did my best to represent the mitten and all that Detroit Motor City love. I had to get Phife to give a shout out to our blog’s co-founder, Emily Fredrickson, and he willingly obliged so THANK YOU MISTER PHIFE!
The video debuted first in Atlanta, and then the next day at Dilla Day Detroit in the Fillmore on February 7th, Dilla’s birthday. Rasta Root and I met up after the Fillmore show and rapped about a few things. Pun definitely intended.
Ella Campbell: What are you listening to right now? What did you listen to today?
DJ Rasta Root: You know it’s weird you say that. Because I didn’t. I didn’t listen to anything on my own. I mean, I was at the show and everything but I didn’t listen to anything else. Sometimes I need to take breaks. Oh! Okay no I did listen to something. I listened to De La Soul, “Trying People” when I was waiting.
EC: What else do you have in rotation right now?
RR: Lately, this group called The Internet. That’s my music for being at home and relaxing. I don’t always listen to hip-hop, sometimes my ears need a break so I reset them with totally different genres of music. They’re kind based in hip hop but it’s kind of experimental Bjork-meets-Portishead. It’s cool, it’s stuff that takes the edge off me and allows me to relax. It’s something where I’m not so into it that I’m bobbing my head or anything, I can just listen. If I had an elevator in my house, that’d be the music in it.
EC: Did you have a song stuck in your head today?
RR: No. I can deliberately close myself off from music, especially when I need a break. I’m very um. Well. Not a control freak, but, things like that: repetition, or things that suck you into your psyche I try to minimize.
EC: What was the first album you bought that you couldn’t put down?
RR: The first album I bought that I couldn’t stop listening to was Beastie Boys, Licensed to Ill, I remember when that first came out in 1986. Over and over and over.
EC: What’s your favorite song from that album?
RR: It’s a tie between Brass Monkey and Paul Revere.
EC: What music did you grow up listening to?
RR: I grew up listening to a lot of music that my parents played, so a lot of soca, calypso, and reggae. Back then it was like, Blue Boy, Mighty Sparrow, Lord Kitchener, and Crazy. You know, a lot of older calypso artists. We’d travel to Trinidad every year for Carnival, and we’d bring back cassettes. Then we’d just listen to those until our next trip.
EC: Are there any musical or cultural traditions that you try to follow in your music?
RR: From what I grew up on? Um, not necessarily because then I was more-so a listener of music not a creator. Back then I wasn’t trying to figure out how things were composed or “how did they do this? how did they do that?” I just took the music in and listened to it, and either felt it or didn’t feel it. Now I kind of naturally dissect. You know when you hear a snare hit: how it smacks. How did they get it to sound like that?
EC: What other people could listen to in order to understand your production style a bit better?
RR: I would say, I always find myself picking little pieces of people’s different styles of production. Um, so I’d say growing up as a DJ, DJ Premier influenced my scratch hooks or composing scratch hooks or finding —
EC: What does composing scratch hooks mean?
RR: It’s called phrasing. Where you find a capellas like the end of the Dear Dilla. You piece parts of songs together loosely based on different sounds and different word-play. From maybe six different records or so. So if you listen to it, there’s 6 or 8 different pieces I used to make one phrase.
[I interrupted to get him to start explaining again.] [He pulled out his iPod and started playing Dear Dilla]
RR: So I find different things people say, that kind of coincide in some way, and piece them together.
EC: I can’t imagine how many…
RR: It takes forever. It sucks. But I love it.
EC: In a previous interview of yours, I heard you say “I believe if you enjoy doing something, it’s going to show in your work.” Has your work ever been hard for you? Did you and your work ever have a “falling out” or has it always been enjoyable for you?
RR: Um, you know, you have falling outs. You try something, and it doesn’t work, or you try what you heard in your head and then when you put it out it’s like “oof that sounds horrible.” So you leave it. I’m really good at leaving stuff. I’ll go do something else. Like, this song? It took me… literally… a long time. To do it. Over the course of 10 months, pretty much. I just had “Jay Dee flip another beat for me” back to back, and I started seeing the redundancy in it and I had to do something else, so I added all of those scratch hooks. I don’t rush into anything.
Or, with something like this, [pulls out iPod again] I listen to the rapper’s lyrics:
RR: So, if he’s bragging, I find other bragging phrases. If they’re talking about something else, you have to find things that match that.
EC: Wait. I can’t imagine the physical way of achieving this though. I mean it’s not like you have six records lined up on turntables.
RR: “Oh, it’s on ProTools. I record one scratch on one track, then I go,” he held his fingers up as if he was scrolling down a computer screen, “and I add one lyric.”
EC: What first inspired you to pick up the turntables?
RR: Honestly? Well. It’s an interesting story. Growing up the way we did, we would have a lot of house parties. They were like, expat parties, so everyone who was a foreigner living in Spain would get together for Christmas and we’d create these cassettes where it’d be like a song, with a weird blend, because it was a double cassette recorder, and a voice-over mic, and you just make your mixes. There was no blending, it was just, whatever. So I’ve always been exposed to that. Then when we moved to Brazil in ‘85, our place was right off of Copacabana beach, and you can tell whoever lived there before us was, well, not a pimp but, disco-y like, everything had a shiny metallic finish. It was horrible.
EC: Sounds killin’
RR: I mean it was … cool … It was dated. Anyway, it had this setup of two turntables, a mixer, and cassette. I mean, it was a DJ setup. … Were there speakers? I think we had our own speakers. So that was my first experience spinning.
EC: How old were you?
RR: I was 14 or 15. I never took it seriously. I’d just blend the fader back and forth. Nothing that musically made sense. Then I went to college a couple years later, four years later, in ‘89. My roommates were DJs.
EC: Was that by design, or was that by happenstance?
RR: Nah I don’t know. It’s just what black people did. [laughs] It just happened to be that way. It was weird. And I noticed you know, I’m a loner in a sense, I’d go places and just be in my own space. So it was a good way to meet people, and meet DJs. There was a club on campus that we’d go to and we’d DJ there. I just kinda fell in love with it. At first I did it to meet people, but after a while I just couldn’t stop. I became… not obsessed, but whatever is the illness before obsession? [laughs] I had that.
EC: I would always hijack iPods at parties. I’d hide by the speakers and try not to talk to anyone. Then I’d finagle a way to fade between two if just one didn’t have the “right” music on it. Then at one point, one of my buddies told me I should be a DJ and I was like “You know. You’re really right about that.” And now, I’m a terrible DJ!
RR: Are you really terrible?
EC: Well, I’m not that good.
RR: Don’t worry, you’ll get it.
EC: Do you teach?
RR: I’m very much into being a mentor, especially with DJ culture. I think it’s something that needs to be passed on, and you can only learn so much on your own. You definitely need guidance, and assistance with some of those questions that you can’t get past. I don’t teach as much as I used to, but I did teach courses for Scratch Academy in New York and I’ve done private lessons for friends and people who are just interested in seeing what it’s like to be a DJ.
EC: What is something you always tell your students?
RR: Practice hard. Practice every day. Do it over and over until you get it right. That’s very key.
EC: You wanna come to Ann Arbor tomorrow and give me a DJ lesson?
RR: Oh so thaaaat’s why you asked about if I taught DJ lessons.
I threw him an Aziz Ansari face:
RR: … Why is your mouth still open.
EC: I’m waiting for you to say “Yeah let’s do it, let’s go to Ann Arbor tomorrow!”
RR: I have meetings all day so I can’t, I would though. I could give you a theory class. That’s always fun.
EC: I could give YOU a theory class.
RR: Yeah but, YOU wanna DJ.
EC: Yeah. True. … Would you like to be a jazz musician?
EC: Okay, I’ll give you saxophone lessons.
RR: I’m good. But I appreciate it.
EC: I’ll teach you how to do your nails.
RR: No no. We’re good. I think I’ll just give you a theory class.
EC: What type of theory are we talking?
RR: DJ theory.
EC: What does that mean?
RR: How to do it right. How to not do what you do.
EC: YOU HAVEN’T EVEN HEARD ME.
RR: What kind of interview is this?
EC: The best kind.
RR: Theory class is fun. Counting. You’ll do fine because you do music. It’s still a feeling thing too though.
EC: I want to know! I mean, I can tell when I do it wrong.
RR: Yeah, the world can tell. We all can tell.
EC: What is something a mentor has said to you that stuck with you?
RR: I’ll be honest with you, I haven’t had any music mentors. I’ve chosen people as mentors, but they have not communicated with me. I just watched their movements.
EC: Like who?
RR: I mean, it changes a lot, and I don’t think I’d answer this the same way twice, but I’m heavily influenced by DJ Premier. Heavy heavy in the ‘90s. Some great Chicago house DJs. Watching how they mixed records together, and music, and all those things that make their mixes so perfect. I’d take pieces of that as my own, and that’s the type of mentorship, or the role they’ve played in my life. But they don’t know that. Even sitting with Premier today, he has no idea …. I mean, you can look up a video I have where I re-did the Mass Appeal scratches. I learned them from listening to them so much. [Check out Rasta Root’s interpretation here.]
EC: There’s something I’m trying to copy of DJ Dummy’s. It’s where he has the same record on both turntables and then he’ll just repeat the same measure again and again. Then it’ll just be two beats. Then he’ll pause at every beat and make it in half time.
RR: Right, that’s called backspin and strobing. If you want to see who invented that, it might have been DJ Shortkut. When he does it, it’s so sick. [he laughed] I met him in Japan in ‘95. Man, the records he chose? If you look at some old DMC tapes, he does it on there. You go taptap, taptap, and you mix it, and it sounds like it’s stuttering.
EC: I can hear in my head what you’re explaining but it’s not quite that either.
RR: What song was he using?
EC: Shit. I can’t remember. I have to hear it in my head. I can’t hear it. All I can hear is doop doop, DOOP DOOP. The bassline. From Dear Dilla. It’s all I can hear right now. [We both laughed]
RR: Why is that?
EC: Man, I don’t know. It’s literally all I can hear.
EC: I don’t know. I keep trying to shut it off and trying to hear the freakin’ song DJ Dummy used AUGH. It’s a song everybody knows. [pause] I WANNA ROCK RIGHT NOW, DNN DA DAAA DNN DNN DNN”
RR: Oh yeah! OKAY. So what does he do?
EC: He goes “I wanna rock right now. I wanna- I wanna rock right now.” But THEN he goes “i [pause] wan’ [pause] rock [pause] right [pause] now.”
RR: Ah! Yeah, that’s called … Wait. It’s not walking it’s, walking the… Not walking the dog.. but It’s something like that.
EC: I just call it half time. When he does it, it’s super clean. It’s in time. When I do it, I’ll go a little bit too far back and it’ll slow down the time. Or I won’t go back far enough and it’ll sound like it’s speeding up. I’m doing it on a BALLAD right now because I can’t use a normal, more up tempo dance song. I’m not fast enough.
RR: That’s crazy. What song is it?
EC: “Say it Through Love” AND one of my copies of it is warped so if I’m too heavy handed then the needle bounces out. But. Hey. When I do, get it, I GET IT. I get it once every 50 times, and it’s awesome. Someday I won’t have to do it on a ballad…. It won’t be on warped records…
RR: So you have to buy two records with the same tracks?
EC: Yeah I don’t have anything to hook my turntables up to my computer.
RR: A workman always blames his tools…
EC: I’m not blaming my tools!
RR: You’re not! That’s what I’m saying!
EC: What the heck were we talking about?
RR: I don’t know. What the heck WERE we talking about? You know, my friend said he saw someone crying in the crowd.
[I cooed in response]
RR: Yeah, I thought it was very sweet. It was cute.
EC: Yes. That is very cute.
EC: Anyway. Mentors. Advice. Do you have any one-line piece of advice that is your moral compass or anything?
RR: I’m different in that way. I’ve always said, I didn’t know what I wanted to be but I knew who I wanted to be. From a very young age. So, even as a kid, I still had serious goals. It wasn’t anything like “I want to be a doctor or a lawyer” but I was very detailed about how I was going to live my life. I think my mother had a lot to do with that. She raised me to be very independent. Peer pressure and things like that never really affected me because I wasn’t afraid to be my own person. I believe in taking little pieces from people. Things you might say … I know a lot of people that put everything into what one person says, and that’s how they might live their life. But I see a lot of different ways to live, and observe and create. He might have something good to say. And you might have something good to say, and so might she. Just gather what you think is going to work for you. It doesn’t work for everybody, what works for you might not work for me, so it’s hard for me to put pressure on someone to be a mentor. Then they’re responsible for what you do in life. Isn’t that crazy?
EC: What role do your friends and family play in your music?
RR: I don’t think they play so much a role in the creation of the music, and even when they hear it, it may not move them. I mean, my mom is 71, and she came to the premiere but I think she likes it because I like it. Or my sister says “I can tell you did that because it sounds like a beat you’d make: it’s got your vibe. Your feel.” It’s connected in some way, though. Them knowing that I am doing something I love and that makes me happy, and it’s music, in whatever capacity, keeps us connected. When my mom came to the premiere, she stood up and they introduced her and everything. That was out of her normal world, outside of her everyday being, but she enjoyed seeing someone say “Oh look, you’ve raised such a nice son.” It makes her proud to hear my peers talk about me in a positive way
EC: How old were you when you moved to Atlanta? Where did you live before then?
RR: I was probably 25, and I had moved back from Japan where I was living for 3 years. I also lived in Guatemala, Canada, Brazil, England, Spain, Abu Dhabi and Japan.
RR: My dad’s job. He worked for an oil company so every few years they would send him to a different place and we would go with him. He would travel in the neighboring countries while we stayed in one place.
EC: What advice do you have for musicians who are moving to a new city, who want to become comfortable in that city’s musical culture?
RR: Get around. Get out. Go snoop around and see who’s doing what. Don’t be scared to just walk into someplace and start asking questions. You gotta see who runs the place. Cause, somebody runs the place. Somebody runs the city and you need their blessing. Kind of. Otherwise you’ll be ostracized.
EC: How did That Hot Joint Vol. 1 help you?
RR: This was my first move from cassettes to CDs. It was when I moved from Japan to Atlanta, and it was my first production CD to get gigs. I didn’t deliberately make it for that but, well kinda. So, CDs weren’t even popular for DJs to be using back then. In ‘97 the ability to make your own CD was just starting to happen so it was pretty expensive. It was like making an album. You’d have to go through Disc Makers or something. I made the mix and I think it’s the mix that introduced me to Atlanta. It’s special to me. In the photoshoot I had a cassette, and the sticker on the cassette was on fire. And headphones were on fire. That’s Hot Joint. Because it was hot. Fire hot! Back then I was mixing it live. I was just recording straight through as opposed to tracking it out. Busta Rhymes & Lord Have Mercy, Lord Have Mercy says, “Who the fuck you be?” is the question, and in the other blend, Mase from Puffy says “I be the young black …” or something like that, and even though it was a small moment it made perfect sense because it made it a conversation. There should be some cohesion between songs you mix. I love stuff like that. How do you tell a good story even if you only have three minutes?
EC: How did you become a manager?
RR: I fell into that working with Phife on his solo project. When I first met him, he had a manager. I’ve always been business oriented and organized in that sense. Always aware of what makes things work. So anyway, I just sort of fell in it. Our friendship grew and our trust grew and that’s how it’s been since 2002. But my first tour was with a young Dwele with cornrows and a baby face.
EC: Which artists work with your management?
RR: I’m more into branding and marketing. That’s where my joy comes from. But I enjoy seeing what we can do with Phife’s stuff. And I road manage for Dwele. And my own shit.
EC: What does being an artist’s manager entail?
RR: Imagine if you get hired as a manager at The Gap. It’s everything in that store that you’re responsible for. When it opens when it closes. When you have to delegate. You’re responsible for every detail of their career and even personal stuff.
EC: What was your first international tour experience like? How did that shape your skill set? Although I guess the international side of it wasn’t a “thing” to you.
RR: Well, what was a “thing” was, “now I’m traveling and getting paid to do it.” The first international tour I did was when Phife had his first solo album. We did 6 or 7 dates in Germany. That was my first experience. You learn how to grind. You learn how to budget your money, make sure your bills at home are paid.
EC: What is the mission of Riddim Kidz Productions? What has been the process of putting together that project?
RR: Riddim Kidz is what Phife brought from his Tribe days. One of his first skits was produced by Riddim Kidz. That was his contribution to Tribe, and he took that with him. We decided we were going to take that idea and give it back to kids. Teach kids how to make music and rap. We decided to name it that because it’s also building a little tribe of kids who are becoming adults.
EC: Was Smokin’ Needles Records your brainchild or the brainchild of a few people?
RR: It was a few of us. It was my friend Mark-T. He was half Japanese. Third generation Japanese that lives in Brazil. He and I rounded up for our mixtapes. It was really Smokin’ Needles crew. You could battle other people or whatever. Then any mix I’d put out would be under “Smokin’ Needles Records” but it really wasn’t a label per se. It wasn’t really a label until Phife called me one day and was like “I really like that name, I’d like to be a part of that.” That was ‘99 or 2000.
EC: Had you known him before then?
RR: Yep I was already DJing for him.
EC:How did Smokin’ Shells come about?
RR: That was a mistake done good. DJ head shells are black for the most part. DJs would sometimes customize them and paint them. I painted mine blue but I bought the wrong paint. So with grease or smoke or whatever, it started peeling. So I sanded it down and got rid of all the paint I could and then I said to myself “wow it’d be cool if these were shiny.” So I went to this chrome shop that bikers go to and took a few shells with me and said I wanted to get them chromed, can that happen? He said, no, because it has plastic here and there and you have to dip it in a solution. He took one shell anyway and when he brought it back the top was just, mirror-shiny. And i was like “that’s it!” It was just right. My friend DJ Lord and I did a show in Houston and he wanted to know where to get these shells. I said I didn’t know because you gotta buy the shell and strip it down. He gave me some shells, and I did it, and I started seeing that I could take the shell apart and get the plastic off. Totally break it down. That took about a week to figure out. Then the idea started going that other DJs would like this idea. Next thing, it wasn’t a mistake.
EC: What advice do you have for other musically inclined entrepreneurial spirits?
RR: Know when to the musician hat on and know when to put the business man hat on. Even with “Dear Dilla,” at some point, I had to remove myself as the producer and go into the role of marketer and manager. If you don’t do that, you’ll hold onto the song and it won’t do anything because you’ll never think it’s finished, or it’s so dear to you that you don’t want people to hear it. You have to know when to let that go. You have to know when you have the product. You have to have good balance, knowing when to transition into those roles.
EC: What have you learned from touring?
RR: Trust your gut. Trust your instinct. If your gut says don’t do something. Just don’t do it. I was in South Africa with Slum in 2008 or 2009. We were working with some folks that were pretty conniving. They contacted me to book Q-Tip but they couldn’t book him so they got Slum. They promised them a lot of money, T3 told me it’s the most they’ve made. They came up short on the money, but before that I felt a weird vibe so I set up a camera in my room when the man was going to drop the money off. I was road managing for them and I was responsible for them so I recorded it just in case. We were counting the money and he was pacing around. We only got the money because the promoter’s mother, who I had met, paid up. The stress of that trip was crazy.
EC: I can tell, because you’re holding your arms crossed in front of you very tensely.
RR: Yeah, the memory is crazy. I have some bad memories with promoters and people lying. They take advantage. But I’ve let go: there! [He uncrossed his arms] You have it!
EC: I’m here now. You can put it on my shoulders.
EC: What do you never travel without?
RR: I never travel without my laptop.
EC: If you could see any five musicians perform live, who would they be?
RR: If I had a choice, I’d love to see Sade perform with Notorious B.I.G., and Bob Marley. And Jimi Hendrix. Wait I want to add more drums to it. Bernard Purdie, the Funky Drummer. The Purdie Shuffle! What an amazing drummer.
EC: What’s your favorite music to dance to?
RR: I like to dance to reggae music. Or dance hall. But reggae. I had a friend, we went to the after party, two nights ago? whenever it was? The Atlanta one. The DJ was playing and she really wanted me to dance and I said “but I only dance to reggae. If they play reggae, I’ll dance to it.” … And they did. So we danced. Otherwise I’m a head-nodder. I hold the wall up.
EC: … I get that answer a lot.
EC: Who are some young musicians we should be looking out for?
RR: I haven’t found any that aren’t discovered. I don’t know if I could answer that. I’d still say the Internet again. But they’re known. I just like their stuff a lot. But there’s a female Canadian, based in Atlanta, Ruby Velle, who does jazzy soul, with a splash of whatever Amy Winehouse was doing.
EC: What were some of your most influential moments on tour?
RR: One of the coolest moments I had was this summer. It was in, I think it was, Switzerland. It was a moment where Phife, Tip, Ali, Run and DMC were there. They were just kickin’ it. Tip was quoting old 80s rap.
RR: Stop. What are you doing? Stop that.
EC: Did you know I love Q-Tip? Do you have a recording of that?
RR: Yeah I have a video. … Stop. What are you doing. Why do you look like that. I should just stop talking. I matter not to you.
EC: Keep telling your story.
RR: I can’t. I gotta find this shit for you. You’re squirming. You’re like “Can.. you…Did. you. Bruh.reh.reh. re.cord. it?” [laughs] I better find this shit for you.
EC: It’s okay. Finish your story.
RR: That is my story. It was just a moment for me where I was witnessing hip-hop greatness. I’m sitting and watching history unfold and they don’t even know it. I felt bad recording it but I had to. Okay okay I’ll show you the video.
EC: You can just send it to me later.
RR: I can do nothing.
[I watched the video three times.]
RR: That was, you know, “holy shit. that’s happening. right there.”
[I watched the video again]
RR: It was old. It was new. It was hip-hop. It was hip-hop right there in front of me.
Until next time,
Nod sisters, nod.
by Ella Campbell
1. What was the first album you couldn’t stop listening to?
The Soundtrack to Purple Rain. I ended up playing “Purple Rain” with him too, so it ended up coming full circle. I was in his band for two years, but it was kind of a nightmare to –
EC: It was kind of a nightmare?
CAA: Well I mean just logistically. It’s a lot going on. A ton.
2. What music did you listen to in your childhood that stuck with you?
I listened to all types of stuff.
EC: Is there anything specific that you still thoroughly enjoy listening to?
CAA: When I was a little boy I would listen to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts.” That was how my grandfather got us to keep still. So that, I guess. I’m always really captivated by Sir Edward Elgar’s cello concerto in E minor, since I was a little boy. I also used to really love, when I was a little tiny baby, I used to love Rick James, so my mom said.
3. What music do you listen to that makes you want to get up and dance?
Makes me want to dance?
Drop It Like It’s Hot.
That will always be it.
4. What music do you listen to when you’re in a quiet mood? Maybe sleepytime music?
I can’t fall asleep to music. I’m always analyzing it. So when I need quiet, I don’t listen to music.
At this point we got off topic, talking about the food that we were eating, and he told me I wasn’t allowed to post the conversation about the food on the blog. After talking about the food:
5. What music do you listen to when you’re hanging out with people?
Bounce music. Bounce music is project music from New Orleans. The most popular person now is Big Freedia, but there’s DJ Jubilee or Katey Red too. If you’re not from New Orleans though you might not really know this stuff.
6. What song did you have stuck in your head today?
Grand Central. I was humming it this morning when I woke up. You know, Cannonball and Trane.
7. What is the most profound moment you had in a lesson?
A lot of times in conservatories and with younger musicians, they’re constantly being taught within a frame of an incredibly dogmatic and idealized idea of what jazz is supposed to be, and what that usually in turn does is strip away all of the things that actually make a musician unique. Which, by the time they become adults, as players they’re not captivating because you can’t tell what they’re perspective is since it’s been washed away. So I always make sure that no matter what it is, that I’m telling my students that they always continue to cultivate and define the things that make them unique as players.
EC: What about an ah-ha moment for you while you’re teaching?
CAA: When they tell me to slow down while I’m teaching. It’s a very important lesson. As a teacher you have to learn how your student learns. Everyone is different. Some people are auditory, some people are tactile, some people are digital, so you have to figure which combination of all those things works for your student, which is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Especially when you’re teaching something as abstract as jazz music. I have a tendency to move too fast because I know what I’m teaching already, and it’s normal, but I always feel bad because I don’t want them to miss anything.
Then we got off topic and started talking about the Slow Movement. Back to jazzy-things:
EC: Okay last question!
CAA: Wait what? Really?
EC: Yeah the idea is for these to be short interviews. Quick. Fun. Painless.
CAA: F*** the readers! They can read 20 pages! I just made a double record right? 23 songs. No one has a problem with it. It’s the number one jazz record in America and Europe right now.
EC: That’s probably the people that already know about you though and want to hear it all. Or, what if someone bought it and didn’t listen to the whole thing?
CAA: No! What I’m saying is that’s a lot of music right? What if I was like ‘Let me give ‘em just five songs,’ when now, a lot of the feedback I’m getting is that they like the entire thing. And I feel like the vast majority of the times I’ve done interviews over the past couple years are with people who, without intent, just want to find information for short attention spans.
EC: Well, I just said that is the point of this interview. It is for people with short attention spans.
CAA: I know, that’s your intention so that’s good. That’s different. But a lot of times people complain about attention spans being short, and being an older guy, -”
He got food on his face right then and we, of course lost track of the subject again while we bickered over who was going to go get napkins: talk about short attention spans! So here’s the bickering over who’s getting napkins:
CAA: Can you go get me a napkin or something I’m like… over here….
EC: Can I go get you a napkin?
CAA: Ah, you’re too good to get me a napkin.
CAA: You’re being mean.
EC: You’re being a diva.
CAA: Awww geez. Really?
EC: Just… go like this! *demonstrates using shirt sleeve as napkin*
We both start laughing.
Random Lady approaches table: Is this a first date?
Random Lady: Why didn’t they serve you with any napkins?
EC: We were standing at the bar when they brought the food.
CAA: I’m asking nicely!
EC: *Gets napkins*
Random Lady: What are you interviewing for?
EC: I have a blog.
CAA: Can we print this? Can this be in the blog? For real. Print all of that. Okay. Anyway, five more.. wait five what? What’s the next question?
The, now three-person table, laughs.
EC: Just name any five musicians you’d want to see perform. Alive or dead. Anybody.
CAA: I’d like to see some figured bass things. Like Monteverdi or something like that.
Random Lady: She meant naked. Who would you want to see perform naked.
CAA: Well if that’s the case then Monteverdi is out.
Random Lady: I’m just trying to pep up this interview.
CAA: Come on. No this is good. You don’t think watching Brahms naked is funny? That’s great. I’m just saying. Shit. Yeah. Anyway. So Monteverdi I’d like to see, I’d also like to see WC Handy, I’d like to see Bob Dylan and Woodie Guthrie when Bob Dylan was still developing. Um, I’d like to see Clifford Brown and Booker Little play at the same time.
So, maybe I should add that question. Which performers to see naked…. Thanks for the idea, Random Lady.
Until next time,
Always make sure there are napkins at the table before you get comfortable.
PS: “Random Lady approaches table: Is this a first date?” #jazzgirlproblems
by Ella Campbell
For my birthday weekend, I traveled to Detroit to see Ishmael Butler perform in his duo known as Shabazz Palaces. In this group he rolls under the alias Palaceer Lazaro, but he is still affectionately known to many as Butterfly from Digable Planets. We know, Ishmael, Dig Planets take the three of you, but you hold a place in our memories that we can’t ignore! Ishmael is joined by a multi talented Zimbabwean percussionist, Tendai “Baba” Maraire. I love Ishmael’s voice, [I definitely have a place in my heart baby-voiced emcee/producers like Ishmael and QTip.], I love his vibe, style, MUSIC, hair… smile… salt n pepper beard… Lord have mercy.
I was watching the men of Shabazz Palaces create a type of music I’d never seen mixed live before. Their sound was so robust and full that it rumbled, rattled and kicked within my core, and clattered my eardrums. The combination of Ishmael’s skeleton rattling bass and electric sampling, with Tendai’s congas, mbira, hi hat, and other auxiliary percussion was mean. Tendai laid back, hard. Ishmael’s voice floated above it all. The way he pronounced his lyrics was all very soft, soft consonants. The blend of the timbre of his voice and softness of his pronunciation, with the mix’s rumbling underbelly, was truly astounding.
While writing, I’ve been listening to Black Up, Shabazz Palace’s latest album. Then I decided to switch to Reachin’. My heart blossomed with petals of admiration for Ishmael as soon as his voice graced It’s Good To Be Here. I busted out. I know Shabazz Palaces is completely different than Digable Planets, but you can still hear the Butterfly in Palaceer Lazaro – he even references some Dig Planets songs in his rhymes on Black Up. It’s like Daniel Radcliff or the cast of Friends, it’s hard to separate their past endeavors from their new projects. It’s also not a bad thing, just like when you listen to an artist and you hear their influences through them: the Ahmad Jamal in Robert Glasper, the Roger Troutman in Casey Benjamin, the Ray Charles in Ben L’Oncle Soul, the Billie Holiday in Madeleine Peyroux, it aids your admiration. It gives you a piece of history to connect them to.
I’m sure that Ish would be shaking his head if he saw how much I was talking about Dig Planets so let’s cut to the chase. The show ended. It’s amazing how fast the crowd peace’d so it was very easy to get backstage to talk to Ishmael.
1. What music did you grow up with that has stuck with you? Motown. We told him that was a good answer for being in Detroit, and he said “Oh yeah! I forgot that’s where we are. I tried to go to the Motown Museum today but it was closed. At least I got to look at the outside of it.”
2. What was the first album you bought that you couldn’t stop listening to? Prince, 1999. [Ishmael answered this question quicker than anyone we have interviewed yet. He said it before we finished the question.]
4. The first time I asked the previous question, I said artist, not musician, and he mentioned Mickelene Thomas. Ishmael said she has the ability to depict creation in a biblical sense. [I noticed he said “‘biblical’ sense” – while wearing a keffiyeh and performing under the name Shabazz. I don’t think it’s significant, but it’s certainly intriguing!]
6. If you could see any musicians perform, alive or dead, who would they be?
7. What music were you listening to today? “I had a Wiz Khalifa song stuck in my head. I use Shazaam a lot too.” He pulled out his iPod “The song it’s on right now is T Rex, Ride a White Swan.” Tendai said he’s been listening to Lee Morgan and Nite Jewel.
8. Who is a young musician we should be looking out for? OC Notes. That’s all I’m going to say.
9. A film crew from Wayne State University was also there, and they interviewed him before us. We got to stand in the background and watch. They asked what their music was to them and Ishmael said “it’s hip-hop to us.” However, when the camera left and it was just the four of us, I asked him, What do you call the music you perform? “Black music. Because it’s true.” I rebutted, “So what am I doing here?” And they looked at me like I was crazy – Tendai spoke up “That doesn’t mean you can’t be here. It doesn’t mean you can’t listen to it.”
10. We are female musicians. When we go on stage we get a different vibe from the musicians and the crowd. Females add a different energy and dynamic to the stage. Can you tell us what it was like working with Ladybug? What is it like to have a female dynamic in a group? At this, Ishmael bowed his head and started laughing. My fellow jazz girl and I gave each other “that look.” I turned back to Ishmael and said “No. No giggling. Tell me exactly the first thing that came to mind when I said that.”
He looked up – “the first thing? Fantastic. It’s an adventure. It’s an adventure travelling with a woman. She is a true original. And, I like women, I think they are fantastic. But even if you don’t, women have a cerebral sensual power that everyone relates to differently. Female energy is not something to ignore. There is something very visceral about it.”
by Ella Campbell
Allow me to explain what a “10 Fingers” post will be: we ask musicians ten fun and quick questions. Hopefully the answers only require one or two sentences because we know these guys have got a lot of people to talk to! With their short answers, we at Back Beat add links so that you can discover and learn from them everything they mean when they just give us the name of an album or artist.
On Friday night, Detroit was graced by the presence of the Robert Glasper Experiment. If you’ve never seen a concert in Detroit, go there. That city shows LOVE. Well, “moves love,” I suppose. The line-up included Mark Colenburg, drums; George Clint– I mean, Casey Benjamin, saxophones, vocoder and ambient laser sounds; Derrick Hodge, bass; and of course Robert Glasper, keys.
After the show I was lucky to get the chance to have a quick and light-hearted conversation Casey.
1. What is your favorite dance music? He chuckled. “Soca and ‘70s disco.” …Well that explains a lot.
2. What is your favorite thoughtful music? “Todd Rundgren. He’s a folk-rock writer and producer from the ‘70s and ‘80s.”
3. What do you call the music that you play? “Good music.”
5. What is the first album you bought that you couldn’t stop listening to? Al B Sure: In Effect Mode
6. Name some musicians you’d like to see perform, alive or dead: “Miles. Herbie. Well, I’ve seen Herbie. Does that count? … Herbie. Roger Troutman, The Beatles, Gordon Lightfoot, Donny Hathaway. Marvin!” [note: Make sure you peep that Roger Troutman link, readers! He’s the father of the mastery of the talk-box. Check these two vids as well: Roger Troutman Interview and I Want To Be Your Man. As soon as I listened, I was like “I understaaaand.” Listen. Do it.]
7. What’s your favorite basement album? “Well, am I chillin’ in the basement with a bunch of dudes or with a girl?”
I mean a bunch of dudes, because usually I’m chillin’ in the basement with a bunch of dudes (#jazzgirlproblems), but give me an album that you’d listen to with dudes, and one that you’d listen to with girls.
“Okay. With dudes, and I don’t want to sound cliche because I’m in Detroit right now, but ‘Welcome 2 Detroit’”
…He had a lot more to say about chillin’ with a girl:
“Marvin Gaye: I Want You … But I just love, love-songs. I love writing them. I love ballads.”
Well then, feel free to write the Jazz Girls at Back Beat a love-song-ballad, Casey.
“Joni Mitchell: The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Radiohead: In Rainbows, Herbie: Mr. Hands. I mean, I really just listen to songs though. I make my own albums out of them.”
Mix-tapes and love-songs? We’re charmed.
8. What was the most profound moment you had in a private lesson or masterclass? “When I found out I have perfect pitch. I was with Weldon Irvine, who was part of Freddie Hubbard’s generation.”
10. We’re going to have a Top Ten Jazz Booties list. Are you okay with being on that list? “Wait. Male? A list of the best, male, jazz musician, booties? That’s killin’! YES! … Wait. Who else is on the list?”
Even though we’re partial to #JazzGirlProblems, we couldn’t help but notice a few funny and endearing #CaseyBenjaminProblems
1. Don’ git your locks caught in your neckstrap now! #CaseyBenjaminProblems
2. Bassist is soloing. Attempt to subtly walk to the side of the stage. You just can’t hide with a glowing keytar. #CaseyBenjaminProblems
3. Decide to rap about why I’m cool. Digable Planets becomes famous for rapping, and I don’t. #CaseyBenjaminProblems
[Readers that don’t know Digable Planets? Peep this vid for reference: Cool Like That]
Until then –
Swing sisters, swing!
by Ella Campbell
Allow me to explain what a “10 Fingers” post will be: we ask musicians ten fun and and quick questions, and most of the time they will be the same 10 for each artist.
On a brisk Tuesday night in Detroit, a few friends and I checked out the band Snarky Puppy. If you aren’t hip, I highly suggest you get hip to this “music for your brain and booty.” The venue they played at, Cliff Bell’s, is in the heart of Detroit, smack on the Fox Theater’s backside. Usually a hub for straight ahead and organ jazz, the place was transformed into a disco-jazz-booty-funk-fusion dance club for a night. Not physically by any means, waiters and bartenders were still darting around tables, but spiritually, Cliff Bell’s was on a different level. The disco ball on the ceiling finally felt at home, as people squeezed between tables and each other, attempting to find room to dance.
After the show I caught up with Mike League, the leader, bassist, composer and producer for Snarky Puppy.
1. What is your favorite booty music? Shuggie Otis: Inspiration Information
2. What is your favorite brain music? Debussy string quartets
3. What do you call the music that you play? At this question, Mike threw up his hands and sighed. Then, after a thoughtful moment his eyes lit up and he said “Instrumental!” If you’ve peeped any of their videos that we’ve posted here on Back Beat you’ll understand – you can hear a little bit of everything in their music. Literally, everything.
4. What music from your childhood has stuck with you? “The Beatles, Led Zepplin, James Brown, Stevie Wonder …” He paused to see if I still wanted more answers, but I got the gist. Anything that you recognize in his playing is probably from whoever you think it sounds like, and he’s probably been listening to them for a while.
5. What was the first record you bought that you couldn’t stop listening to? Oscar Peterson: Live at the Blue Note (This guy knows what Jazz Girls want to hear!!)
6. What song was stuck in your head today? “You Don’t Know How It Feels” by Tom Petty
7. Name five musicians that you’d like to see perform in a dream-band, alive or dead, any genre: The first two he gave me with no hesitation. “On bass, James Jamerson.” (Again, he knows the answers we want to hear! Detroit!) “On trumpet, Louis Armstrong. On piano…” He stopped. “This is a good question!” After thinking a bit more, almost slipping a jazz piano name out there, he caught himself and said “Mozart on piano. On guitar, Jimi Hendrix and on drums Jason “JT” Thomas.” Hold up. Let’s review that.
Trumpet: Louis Armstrong
Guitar: Jimi Hendrix
Bass: James Jamerson
Drums: Jason “JT” Thomas
Pardon my French but, dat shit cray.
8. Favorite basement album? First, I must define what a basement album is: everyone chillin’ in the basement, smoking or drinking whatever, (or not!) Just. strait. chillin. His answer? No hesitation. “Voodoo.” Mike, on behalf of all Jazz Girls everywhere, we praise you.
9. Most profound moment in a private lesson? “Well, it wasn’t in a lesson, but a lecture with Johnny Vidacovich.” Vidacovich is a drummer from New Orleans who believes that the music is always there, and we are bodies lucky to be participating in the music. The music is bigger than us, it is bigger than being good or being sad. “Therefore, why, when we ‘don’t play well’ do we get upset? And why, when we do play well, do we develop egos?”
10. Who is a young artist we should be looking out for? “Gabe Morales, a thirteen year old guitar player who has a mastery over his instrument unlike anyone I’ve ever seen.”
Next I talked to Robert “Sput” Searight, the drummer from Snarky Puppy. He was a popular man to talk to. I stood off to the side for a while, patiently waiting for my chance to rap with him. After a few minutes of not even being glanced at or recognized for wanting speak, I knew I had to bust through the circle of dudes surrounding him, with my nerdy pad of paper and blue pen, and demand his attention. (Why did I pick a blue pen?! I couldn’t see a damn thing that I was writing!) At my mentioning of writing for a Blog about and for women involved in jazz, he cocked his head to the side and looked at me quizzically. At my mentioning that we enjoy his music, he understood why I was talking to him.
1. What is your favorite booty music? Black Eyed Peas and Will.I.Am
2. What is your favorite brain music? Miles Davis: Bitches Brew
3. What do you call the music that you play? “Jafunkadansion. Jazz-funk-dance-fusion.” How appropriate, Sput.
4. What music from your childhood has stuck with you? “Gospel music. I grew up in the church.”
5. What was the first album you bought that you couldn’t stop listening to? Donny Hathaway: Live (this is also one of Shirley’s favorite albums!)
6. What song was stuck in your head today? “Our music. The songs that we performed tonight.”
7. Name five musicians that you’d like to see perform in a dream-band, alive or dead, any genre: This question stumped Sput for a second, so I told him that Mike chose Louis Armstrong and Mozart to be in the same band and he jumped at it, “Louis Armstrong! Yes. Louis Armstrong on trumpet and Herbie Hancock on piano.” I cued him: drums? “Buddy Rich, and Eddie Van Halen.” Bass? “Oh right. I haven’t named a bassist? Jaco.” He looked like he wanted more so I asked him what else he wanted to say “Well, I want an organ. Jimmy Smith.”
Stop. Rewind. Review:
Trumpet: Louis Armstrong
Piano: Herbie Hancock
Drums: Buddy Rich
Guitar: Eddie Van Halen
Bass: Jaco Pastorius
Organ: Jimmy Smith
… That’s right. He cheated. He named six. 😉
8. Favorite basement music? Radiohead
9. Most profound moment in a private lesson? “My teacher told me to play everything I knew in twenty seconds. And I did. And I felt great about it. But I remember, while I was playing, my teacher was actually covering his ears. Then he told me to play it all again, and play it quietly. And I couldn’t.”
10. Who is a young artist we should be looking out for? “Cleon Edwards. He is the drummer for Erykah Badu, and not many people seem to know about him.”
Content, I found my friends again and we blew off some steam before heading out. We collected our things and went outside, where, at one o’clock in the morning, it was brighter outside than it was inside of Cliff Bell’s. (No wonder I couldn’t see anything I was writing). Near the entrance, a man was sitting alongside the wall playing “Wonderwall” with his guitar, and his voice was incredible. We paused to listen for a moment. Music is everywhere, and as we stood outside near a steaming manhole with the lights of the city to our backs, we made plans to come back to Detroit on Friday. Not only to celebrate the birthday of a fellow Jazz Girl, but to see the Robert Glasper Experiment. We’ll see if I can weasel my way into talking to those guys as well. If anything, there will at least be a review of the concert.
So, Ladies, articles to look forward to include: Shirley’s review of Snarky Puppy’s show and of the Robert Glasper Experiment’s concert, and a Clifford Brown transcription by our editor Sweetie McJivin.
Unfamiliar with the Robert Glasper Experiment? Check them out here.
Swing sisters, swing!