10 Fingers: DJ Rasta Root


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?
RR: No.
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.
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.
RR: Why?
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.

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.
EC: Why?
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.

I threw him the Aziz Ansari face again.

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.

10 Fingers: Etienne Charles

Creole Soul

Etienne Charles is a business savvy, multi-talented musician who recently released a very successful album, Creole Soul. I caught up with him in Ann Arbor before his hit at Kerrytown Concert House, the intimate venue that’s a re-purposed Victorian home close to the almost-famous Zingerman’s Deli. We spoke about the usual “10 Fingers” questions, and in celebration of the release of his fourth album, we got a little bit more in depth about his influences, family, friends and school of thought.

Usual 10 Fingers:

1. What music did you listen to today?

Soul Cavern by Charlton Singleton. It’s a brand new record that just came out by a trumpet player from Charleston, South Carolina. He’s a good friend of mine.

2. What is your favorite music to dance to?

Calypso, soca, reggae and salsa.

3. What is your favorite music to listen to if you need to relax?

If I need to just chill, I don’t listen to music. If music is playing then I’m focused on what’s going on, no matter how chill that music is. But Shirley Horn is my “relaxant” but I’m still always thinking about what’s going on.

4. What was the first album you bought that you couldn’t stop listening to?

Wyclef Jean’s The Carnival. It’s a great record, I still bump it in the car.

5. What music was being played around the house when you were growing up?

Everything. Calypso, reggae, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Miami Sound Machine, Gloria Estefan, and whatever was hot on the radio. My dad had the records because he was a DJ, so he would also play the records in the house. A lot of American music too, a lot of Stevie Wonder. One of the first songs I ever remember hearing was “I Just Called To Say I Love You.” Any time I hear the introduction to that song, I’m taken right back to when I was like 3 years old. Also, Marvin Gaye. He was also big into Colombian music like Carlos Vives.

6. What is one thing a mentor has told you that has stuck with you, and that you continue to remind yourself of?

Own your music. Make sure that you come out in your music, make sure that what makes you feel goes into your music and that where you’re from and what you are has a big part in the music. Many different mentors have told me that. Ralph MacDonald has told me that, Marcus Roberts has told me that, Monty Alexander told me that. Put a lot of “you” into it, because that’s all you have. We can only be us, and the sooner you connect with who you are and what has shaped you, the more comfortable you’ll be as your musical self. Own your stuff, really own your stuff. It’s a tough industry out there.

7. What song was stuck in your head today?

You know what? I was at the bar last night, and they were playing MJ, and they just ran down Thriller track for track, and when they got to PYT… *starts humming PYT*

8. Name a few musicians that you’ve never seen live, that you want to see. (alive or dead)

Ray Charles. James Brown. Michael Jackson. Duke Ellington. Count Basie. Frank Sinatra. Shirley Horn. Miles Davis. Freddie Hubbard. Acutally? I saw Freddie live, once. Louis Armstrong. Charlie Parker.

Lord Kitchener. Mighty Spoiler, he died way too young. He was kind of like the Charlie Parker of Calypso music. Marvin Gaye. The original Temptations. Rafael Mendez. Armando Peraza. Harry Belafonte. Tito Puente’s orchestra. One of my biggest regrets is, I was at a band rehearsal in Trinidad the night that Tito Puente played in Trinidad at this festival, and I was in a rehearsal. Then, Tito Puente passed away soon after. I would have loved to see them play their version of Tito’s Odyssey.

And you know what? I would have loved to see Martin Luther King Jr speak publicly. I would have loved to be at one of Stokely’s gatherings.

Ella: Yes! I remember how excited I was to learn you were related to Stokely Carmichael.

Et: I also wish I could have seen D’Angelo’s Voodoo band live. I wish I could have seen Miami Sound Machine live around 1988. I saw Lauryn Hill’s band the year she won the Grammy. I would have loved to see Miles Davis first quintet live and the second quintet live. I would have loved to see Bach sit down at the organ and improvise for three hours. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall listening to that or going to St Mark’s in Venice and hearing great composers. MONK. THELONIOUS MONK QUARTET. FIVE SPOT.

9. What have you learned in the past few years as a teacher, about teaching, that you wouldn’t have learned without the “on-site experience”?

Clarity is everything. Patience. Clarity. Patience. Support. Support your students through this journey of discovering the magic of music. It’s not always just about music either, because music is a part of life, so there is more than just the music too, at times.

10. Who is a young musician that we should be looking out for?

Jacques Schwarz-Bart’s son Ezra just started playing trumpet, today. And he sent me a video, and he’s gonna be burnin’. On drums, Mark Whitfield Jr, Joe Dyson. On bass, Josh Crumbly, Russell Hall. Piano? Victor Gould and Chrisitan Sands. But to me, these guys are my generation. Kayvon Gordon, who’s a great young drummer in Detroit. Max Boiko on trumpet. Marcus Howard sounds really good too, alto. I mean there’s a ton of smokin’ young cats out there, just check out the program here at MSU! I heard this guitar player in St Lucia, he’s 13 or 14 years old and he learns everything he plays on YouTube. He played for me this reharmonization of “Oh What A Friend We Have In Jesus” and he didn’t know what any of the chords were, he just learned it by watching someone play it on YouTube.  Everyone knows Cecile, Cyrille, everybody knows Brianna Thomas. Charles Turner.

Beyond the normal “10 Fingers” questions: 

1. When did you create your record label, what’s it called, and why did you decide to create something independent?

I created a record label in 2006, it’s called Culture Shock Music. I created it because it’s the only way to put out a record if you don’t have a record label behind you. I created my own label to put out my first recordings, and coming out of Florida State I didn’t have people to manage me or boost interest. So, normally a manager will take you and invite record labels to come to your gigs, or invite the A&Rs to come to your gigs. There’s a famous story about George Butler signing Wynton to a Columbia deal after hearing him at Keystone Corners. But, that didn’t happen for me. So I did a record that was a project for school, and I put it out as a record.

I learned a lot of those ropes from Marcus Roberts and Ralph McDonald who both released a lot of their material independently. And you asked why? Because 20 years down the line you still can sell your records and own the music and get 100% of the returns as opposed to a small fraction which people call “royalties.” But most people don’t see those. I was talking to a really good friend of mine, a great musician, and he told me he got a tiny fee to do his first record for a label and it’s his best selling record. It’s a serious thing too, because just like when you asked about my mentors, it really is about owning your music. Musicians for many years have been victims of this business. There are two worlds in the music industry, and we’re in the world that makes this music happen. We should have a big stake in it.

2. Do you think that enough people, especially young musicians, utilize the opportunities they have to create their own companies, non-profits, or to market themselves? What is some advice you have about getting yourself and your work into the public’s eye?

I don’t think anyone uses all of the resources that they have at their fingertips. A lot of times people don’t know about them, but every city has companies that help businesses get started. They help you put a business plan together and organize your taxes. Being American makes life a lot easier. A lot of people don’t understand that if you’re not from this country it’s much more difficult to start doing real business. You could go and incorporate tomorrow! And if I were you, I’d go do that!

First what you have to do is make your product good. And by product, I mean your music. Work on your band’s sound. Work on your concept. Work on it to the point where you know why you want your music to sound the way you want it to sound. Get your favorite people to play your music with you. Play with people that are willing to take the time to make your music get better. A lot of people will just show up, get paid and leave. Get people who are dedicated to making the music grow. Then, that will naturally fall into the public’s eye. Especially with YouTube.

Stuff goes viral very quickly. Scooter Brown discovered Justin Beiber on YouTube. Develop your craft as much as possible, so that not only can you have your stuff together, but so your sound is desirable to other people. Then you’ll be busy working. Think about if you’d rather write music or play other people’s music. I think a lot of musicians think that they have to write music, and I think a lot of musicians think that they have to play standards. Neither one is true. You can do either one. But actually choose what you want to do. Listen, transcribe and analyze what you want to do.
Someone once said to me, “You need to find somebody who loves making money as much as you love making music.” Because that way, you just get to focus on your craft, while someone else is being just as artistic as you, but they’re being that artistic about selling you.

What I focus on is listening to music, sitting at the piano, learning stuff, and figuring out what I like. Then I figure out how to play it. Don’t deal with the art of selling it if you don’t have to. You want to spend your time listening to records and practicing. And strolling in the park.

3. You’ve also been on 16+ albums as a side man. This means you’ve been able to meld your identity to fit into other people’s ideas, and that you have been able to grasp onto what their visions are. What advice do you have for others trying to develop an ability to understand where other musicians are coming from, and to play someone else’s vision without losing the integrity of their own musical identity?

That’s a great question. Variety is the spice of life! I’d also say, and this is from Obed Calvaire, he’s on a few of my records, he was talking to this young drummer at Dizzy’s and he told the drummer “Always play the gig.” As a sideman, that means know what your bandleader wants. The records I’ve done as a sideman are all completely different. In the moment, it comes down to your ability to be a sensitive musician and know what’s going on. It’s not about being caught up in what you do, it’s about being caught up in what’s going on around you musically and putting yourself in there. It’s about being on a team. If you’re just thinking about what type of dunk you’re gonna do when you get to the end zone, that’s not what gets your team the win. (YES HONEY. TELL’EM.) It’s about feeling it out.

Some people tell you exactly what they want you to play. Ralph MacDonald was like “I want you to give me some Trini sh*t,” or “I don’t want you to give me Trini sh*t or things like that. You have to constantly be studying what’s going on around you, and know what the band leader is about. Know what that person is about. Know their music. Music is a people art, so if you get to know the person really well, you’ll get to know their music really well. Ben Williams is one of my best friends, so I know where he’s coming from with his music. You are asked to be a sideman because the leader wants your sound, but your sound in that group might be completely different than what you have been doing normally anyway.

4. If you could describe each of your albums in one word, what would they be (and you’re obviously not allowed to use the title of the albums!).

Culture Shock: Reaction
Folklore: Looking back
Kaiso: Respect
Creole Soul: Now

5. If someone enjoys your style of writing, what are five other albums they should listen to in order to better understand your influences?

David Sanchez, Melaza
Thelonious Monk, Misterioso. Actually, just get the Complete Riverside Recordings.
Stevie Wonder, Music of My Mind. Actually, any Stevie Wonder record.
Jacques Schwarz-Bart, Sone Ka La and Abyss
Marcus Roberts, Deep in the Shed
Oliver Nelson, Blues and the Abstract Truth & More Blues and the Abstract Truth

I’m a composition nut so I listen to a lot of music for the writing. And then I listen to the cats while we’re playing, and I write based off of what they’ve played.

6. If someone enjoys your style of playing, what are five other albums they should listen to in order to better understand those influences?

Miles Davis, Cookin’ Relaxin;
John Coltrane, Blue Train
Freddie Hubbard, Ready for Freddie
Frank Sinatra, Might as well be Swing
Count Basie, Lil ol’ Groovemaker & Chairman of the Board
Viento de Agua, Materia Prima Unplugged
Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
All kinds of ish!

7. What old-school caribbean vocal artists would you suggest for someone to listen to who is interested in hip-hop’s vocal tradition and roots?

In regards to freestyle, that’s called extempo. Lord Pretender, The Growling Tiger of Calypso, Mighty Spoiler, Lord Superior, Black Sage, Big B, Attila the Hun, Lord Executor, Relator & Gypsi.  Also Bunji Garlin is a modern extempo beast.

Then, for vocal arts and their ability to phrase I’d suggest Mighty Sparrow, Lord Kitchener, Mighty Terror, Ella Andall and The Baron. He probably has the sweetest voice. And that’s just Trinidad! So you go to the rest of the Caribbean and you have the griots from Martinique like Ti Raoul, Ti Emile, Elisabeth Kontomanou, & Jacob Desvarieux, and in Jamaica you’ve got Lord Flea, Peter Tosh, & Bob Marley.

8. We’ve had a few post-big-band-rehearsal, YouTube surfing, aren’t-you-supposed-to-be-writing-for-your-senior-recital, yeah-but-i-found-a-recording-of-the-first-synthesizer! but-Qtip-produces-jazz-records, but-Busta-has-such-good-diction! discussions about hip-hop and you once said “you can’t talk about someone like Busta differently than you’d talk about Charlie Parker or any other jazz musician.” Can you explain to the readers what you meant by this?

People like Busta, people like Bunji Garlin, people like Q-Tip, what they’re doing while they’re freestyling, I am amazed and fascinated by. We’re doing it with notes, but I am fascinated by them doing it with words. The rhythmic complexity of what they’re doing is mind-blowing to me. It’s sophisticated, and the wording lines up in a groove. So what I was talking about is, lining up improvised rhythms and words is very similar, or even the same, to what someone like Charlie Parker did in a sense. Every time an emcee comes out with a different style, the music changes.

So like when Busta came out with these fast fast rhymes, it was crazy! My cousin hipped me to that when I was 7 or 8. The fact is, the common denominator is rhythm, and for some reason it’s losing it’s importance in our music. People seem to not focus on groove, and by groove I mean, swing, I mean syncopation, locking in. If you were to make good rhymes into drum solos, it’d be happening. You put notes to it, and it’s happening. You know, a lot of jazz vocalists do it: they put lyrics to Bird solos. And, those guys grew up listening to jazz, calypso and reggae. I mean, you know that your favorite emcee is of West Indian heritage. And you know that, my favorite emcee is of West Indian heritage. Along with most people’s favorite emcees.

9. You teach at a University that holds very tight to a strict jazz tradition. We learn standards, we play in big bands, we go to jam sessions. What traditions do you try to follow with your music, and where do they come from?

I am trying to deal with a bunch of different things because I am influenced by a lot. I’m a jazz musician so I interact with the band, and when we improvise we are playing with each other. I am from the Caribbean, we have a heavy call and response tradition in our music. So, when I write, I write with a lot of call and response. Those two things are the main ingredients, but I’m also heavily rooted in root-grooves from around the diaspora. To me, they’re fascinating. After having drums banned, and then still end up with traditional rhythms and grooves, it makes sense for me to use those. These instruments were banned, but the grooves still survived. We should be using them. It makes sense that you should incorporate grooves, because it all swings. It all has the lilt to it. I also pay respects to my elders, I play the music of Thelonious Monk, I play the music of Horace Silver, Duke Ellington, Count Basie. That’s what we do in the big band. Thad Jones. I keep up as many of the traditions as I can. Digging and going backwards? You always find a way to go forward.

10. You live and work very far away from home, and have friends in many different locations, a lot of whom travel as well. How do you keep in touch with them? What advice do you have for musicians who have started traveling or have recently moved to a different city, who are now far away from home, in a new environment or constantly going away and coming back?

Staying in touch is easy now. We’ve got Facebook. We’ve got Skype. moving to America 11 years ago. A phone call home was very expensive. we didn’t have Skype. It seems like ages ago! There was one person in my dorm with an iPod. It was the beginning of the whole mp3 craze, but anyway. To keep in touch? Facebook, call people, Skype. Keep in touch with the people that you love, and that you keep an interest in.

And, some advice for young musicians who are starting to travel or who have moved to a new city to try to gig: save your money, you never know when a rainy day is going to come. Always have some that you can dig into in case there’s an emergency. Take care of yourself, exercise, eat well and socialize. Music is a social art form, and if you’re not seen you’re not heard. Go out and listen to music, because you will be inspired by your peers. Every time I’m in New York, I’m listening to my peers. I’m of course inspired by the legends, mentors and icons, but I’m also just inspired by my peers, also, the guys that are coming up. Completely absorb what’s around you, and get in to your environment. You’ll learn a lot.

Pace yourself. So many people complain about not getting any gigs, but that’s okay, you’ve only been in town for a year. Give it time.

11. What role do your friends and family play in your music?

I write tunes about my people all the time. “The Folks” is about my parents. I listen to feedback from everybody about music, and I’ll never forget about this tune we did on Folklore called “Laja Who?” Before we did it on the record, we performed it at my graduate recital for Julliard and at the time that was my brainchild composition. So I asked my mom what she thought and she said “It sounded really complex.” Which could mean, she didn’t like it or that it was too cerebral. So I take advice from everybody.

I have tunes that I’ve written about my little nephews that I haven’t recorded yet, but that I have. I’m a family guy, I hung out with my parents this weekend. Being around my family, and being a part of that environment, of course that’s what’s going to influence my music. The records they played with I was 3 or younger, are the records that are the most influential to me now. My sister, who used to do all of these dance concerts with all of the shango drummers, got that sound stuck in my head. The sound of djembe and djundun, the sound of steel band.

My family is a family of characters. It’s fun when we get together, everyone has their different personality, and it inspires different things. It’s a family affair.

Until next time,
Chip, sisters. Chip.
– Ella Campbell –

10 Fingers: Ishmael Butler


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.]

3. What is your favorite thoughtful music? Grachan Moncour III, Air Raid. [Jazz girls. If you are not hip to the album Evolution, I highly suggest you get it. A lot of the cats are on this record.]

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!]

5. What is your favorite basement album? Ariel Pink (whose music has been distributed by Animal Collective)

6. If you could see any musicians perform, alive or dead, who would they be?
James Brown
Miles Davis
Billie Holiday
Erykah Badu
Lil B

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.”

10 Fingers: Casey Benjamin

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.”

4. What music from your childhood has stuck with you? Pat Metheny: Offramp and Quincy Jones: The Dude

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.”
So, mix-tapes.
“Yeah, mix-tapes.”
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.”

9. Who is a new musician we should be looking out for?Thundercat. And me!”

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?”

The spirit of Dilla watches over Casey. Nice shirt Rob!

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]

Keep an eye out for these articles coming soon:
10 Fingers: Derrick Hodge
Transcriptions: Clifford Brown

Until then –
Swing sisters, swing!