Listening To Rap With Robert Glasper
Robert Glasper straddles two distinct worlds. He's an accomplished jazz pianist, who was signed to Blue Note Records in his mid-twenties. And he works with lots of hip-hop and R&B artists, both in the studio and on the stage: Q-Tip, Mos Def and Maxwell, to name a few. Both sides are reflected on his 2009 album Double-Booked, which captures both his acoustic piano trio and his electrified Robert Glasper Experiment collective.
Most interviews I've read approach Glasper from a jazz angle; I wanted to talk to him about hip-hop. So in late 2009, I sat down to play him five different rap songs and talk about them. At the end, we talked further about the idea of being both in jazz and hip-hop worlds at once. I'm happy to finally present the results here.
1. Mos Def, "Auditorium" from The Ecstatic (2009).
Robert Glasper: Mos Def! [hums along]
Patrick Jarenwattananon: How'd you meet him?
RG: I met him because I was playing with Bilal in the city. Mos is on Bilal's first record, on this track that J. Dilla produced called "Reminisce." And the track starts off with Mos, and the ends with Common. So whenever we do shows in New York with Bilal, Common and Mos would come through ... and sit in with us.
PJ: You're also musical director for this big band thing he does. Tell me about that.
RG: It's a big band in the sense of -- we have saxophones, a few trumpets, a few trombones, bass, piano, drums -- the normal setup of a big band. But we do not-traditional big band jazz music, if you will. We do a mixture of old jazz classics, but we also do modern-day hip-hop stuff. Like, we rearrange stuff -- we've done Ghostface [Killah], stuff like that. We do from Ghostface to Bell Biv DeVoe to Neil Diamond -- not Neil Diamond -- well, I wouldn't doubt Mos would do Neil Diamond. I mean we've done so many random [artists], from Radiohead to any genre of music that comes to mind. Because he loves all types of music, and everybody in the band loves all types of music. So it's like a big band, but open to whatever.
PJ: And some of your fellow jazz musicians are in this too.
RG: Actually, I called everybody in my phone that I know to be in this band, you know? Pretty much everybody's a jazz musician, but they're jazz musicians that are open, that can play other things and get it, you know what I mean? Everybody doesn't get it, but everybody in this band gets it, so it works out.
2. Jay-Z, "Empire State Of Mind" from The Blueprint 3 (2009).
PJ: As we speak, this tune is sort of the track of New York City right now. I know you often work with so-called "conscious" hip-hop artists, fair or not, whatever that term is. But you must have grown up with Jay-Z?
RG: Actually, no, because I'm from Houston, Texas. So I didn't even get into -- me and my lady always have these disputes, 'cause she's Brooklyn hardcore, she's straight hip-hop like, born in the Bronx, so we always have these little things. But I'm actually from Houston, so I didn't get up here until '97. So I wasn't a hardcore Jay-Z fan or nothin'.
I wasn't a hard hip-hop fan, really, until I got up here and I started meeting these people and seeing it actually live. It was like, "Aw, man!" I liked hip-hop in high school, but I didn't really get into it and be, like, "Aw, man, I want to do this!" until I got here and got to meet the cats and really get in the vibe.
But I have played with Jay-Z.
PJ: What's it like?
RG: It was amazing. I've never seen that much love for somebody on stage at one time. I was playing Radio City Music Hall -- on and off, I play with The Roots for special occasions or whatever -- and Jay-Z just came through. Out of nowhere, just came through. They were like, "Do y'all know this song?" And we were like, "Yea, we know, we know it." So he just walked on stage with this hoodie, and turned around, and the lights were off. And the lights came on, but he still had the hoodie on. And when he took that hoodie off, I've never been in the presence of something that major, where the applause, and screaming was like -- it was ridiculous. He just has so much respect, first of all, and love from people. It was great playing with him.
PJ: I read somewhere that you went to high school with [Jay-Z's wife and collaborator] Beyonce. Do you still keep in touch with her?
RG: Yea, every now and then. ... A bunch of my friends are in her band too, and that whole thing, you know what I mean? Yea, I see her like once a year [laughs], randomly somewhere. I've known her for years, and my little cousin LeToya [Luckett] was in Destiny's Child, and that whole thing. So I've been around them and their families. So we're cool.
3. A Tribe Called Quest, "Bonita Applebum" from People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990).
RG: I'm not sure who that is! [laughs]
PJ: So this was 1990. How old were you when you heard this?
RG: It might have been then. I was like, 12, in 1990.
PJ: Did it hit you that, you know, this was my sort of thing?
RG: I liked this. When I first heard this, I liked this. Because what I gravitated to most was hip-hop with chord changes, that was really melodic, that had instruments. So those were the kind of things that really grabbed me first. So [A] Tribe Called Quest was the first group that really, I listened to and I gravitated to and I actually bought some of their stuff, like, "Yo, what's this?" You know, because it had some elements I like, which is, a lot of jazz influence. Even at 12 -- you know, I had just started playing the piano, so when I heard stuff that had piano in it, I was like, "Yo, what's that?" I couldn't identify with too much of what they were talking about, but the music element I really liked.
PJ: You work with Q-Tip now too: how'd you come to be working with him?
RG: Actually, I met him when I was with Bilal as well. 'Cause when I first moved to New York, Bilal was the first cat I met at the New School -- we both went to college together. We became best friends from that day, you know what I mean? We were always together. So when he got signed, he started meeting a lot of people, doing that, doing that. So I met Tip through him. And then Tip started coming to my shows when I would do random shows, random clubs, jazz gigs and stuff ... Tip and Ali Shaheed [Muhammad] would come through, hang out and stuff. And I started going to Ali's house, recording stuff with him. So we just got that rapport going...
A few years later, he was like, "I'm doing a record -- will you help me do some stuff on this record?" I was like, "Cool." So then we did some stuff at his house for the record. And as you know, two of the albums never really came out, and that kind of thing happened. But then this album came out [The Renaissance], and I'm on a few joints on this record, and I actually co-wrote the single that's out now called "Life Is Better" featuring Norah Jones. I did a lot of touring with Tip in the last three years.
PJ: He uses live musicians still. Does he ever talk to you about having a "musical" production sense?
RG: Oh, totally. He's one of the most musical cats -- like, MCs -- it's funny. I always tease him and Mos [Def], because they both have perfect pitch, and they both can play keys, and Mos plays a little drums too. And they both just have a really good sense of theory when it comes to music as well. I can actually tell them chord changes -- I always tease Tip, 'cause he'll be in the middle of a verse and be like, "You know what? When we get to that A-flat minor 9, I want you to play--" And I'll be like, "What? You're an MC, you're not supposed to do that." So it's really funny. But I have a lot of respect for those guys, because their knowledge of music is huge. And they have a lot of respect for what I do as well. And that's why we work well together -- it's hard to work with somebody who doesn't know anything! [laughs] That sucks.
4. De La Soul, "Stakes Is High" from Stakes Is High (1996).
RG: [Almost immediately] Whoo! [rhyming along]
PJ: I heard you perform this with Mos Def at Newport. So obviously you've studied this record.
RG: I love this tune. It's one of my favorite beats period. Well, J. Dilla [who produced this song] is my favorite hip-hop producer, hands down. I just love this beat -- it's so melodic. And it comes from "Swahililand," Ahmad Jamal. I just love this tune.
PJ: This was one of Dilla's early beats. What says "Dilla" about this beat?
RG: Well, first of all, the kick drum and the snare. He has a very recognizable -- just his sounds. He uses certain sounds, and I can hear something and be, like, "Oh, that's Dilla. That's Dilla right there." Certain drum patterns are very Dilla-esque. And he's a stickler for melodic things as well -- that's why I gravitate toward him. Those kinds of [producer] cats are the cats I like, as far as that stuff goes. Dilla of course, Pete Rock, DJ Premier -- who's from Houston, Texas [laughs] -- Ali Shaheed, [Q-]Tip. A lot of people don't know Tip is actually a producer -- he does a lot of that stuff. Those are the cats that I look up to as far as that goes.
PJ: You were friends with Dilla. What was his creative process like?
RG: He heard the whole beat before he even did anything. I remember when he actually made "Reminisce," the song off Bilal's first record. And me and Bilal watched him make it. Because the bass line alone came from, like, four different records. Just the bass line alone. So he chopped up, like, three or four notes from three or four different records. And he literally put on one record and be like, "Bilal, can you sing over these three notes? Right there, those three" -- change the record and be like -- "And, those three, right there, and" -- put on another record -- "those three, right there. If I put those together, can you sing over it?" And we were both like, "What? I don't understand what you're talking about." So he was like, "OK, give me a minute." He put it together, and then it became [hums complex bass line]. And we were like, "Oh my God, how'd you hear that?"
After he did that, he laid the drums down first, and he did that, and then, he was like, "I need something else." He walked around for five minutes, was like, "Whoo!" pulled out a record, and went right to a chord. I'm not going to mention the record, but he went right to a chord of this record, and laid that "bling, blung, bling" on top of it. It was like, "How did you do that?" He heard the whole thing before he made a sound. That was just, "Wow." And it happened in like 15 minutes. He was a genius, period.
5. UGK feat. OutKast, "Int'l Players Anthem" from Underground Kingz (2007).
PJ: You grew up in Houston. Did you grow up listening to Scarface, etc.?
RG: Yea, I went to school with his little sister! Like, Scarface used to live down the block from me. I mean, I didn't really know him, but I knew his little sister. He's a legend around Houston, around the crib.
PJ: You said you didn't really get into hip-hop until later, but obviously you were listening to it at the time when Houston rap was developing a certain distinct style.
RG: I was more aware than into it. It wasn't like I was going home and putting on some UGK. But I knew who they were. ... I think my favorite things that I was listening to in high school was [A] Tribe [Called Quest] and Busta Rhymes. And then, of course, you have your Houston-based things: Geto Boys -- whom I used to love -- Geto Boys, you've got your Scarface, and there were certain things that were just extremely Texas, like DJ Screw, and stuff like that. That was just extremely "the crib." Stuff like that I was aware of. When you would go out, you had no choice but to hear it -- people were playing it in their cars and stuff like that.
But I was really a nerd, and I was really more of a jazz nerd. [laughs] So when I had my chance to put on something, most of the time it was going to be jazz, or gospel, or something like that. But once I got into Tribe, it was Tribe, or Busta. And then when I moved to New York, it became bigger. It was like, "Oh, what's this. Oh. Who was that I just played with? Oh, nice." You know?
PJ: Do you feel that's pretty common for a young jazz student? To be like, "I'm going to just listen to jazz records for a long time."
RG: I feel like certain people think that certain styles of music will "taint" their jazz style. Some people have a perception of how jazz is supposed to sound -- "it's supposed to sound this way, so I can't bring this flavor to it, because then it's not going to be jazz any more, or the jazz police are going to come after me." For me, I'm not really married to the craft of jazz -- I'm married to me, and my style, and whatever I produce. So if you don't want to call it jazz at the end of the day, what do you want to call it? 'Cause maybe I made up something new. [laughs] I don't know, you know what I'm saying? I started out playing traditional jazz, and I still do: I love standards, I love the music. But it must move on, and it must live and breathe, and continue to grow, and continue to change, and continue to mesh with other music -- all that kind of stuff. Jazz can be on the playground too, you know.
PJ: So what does that mean to you? I mean, a lot has been made of this jazz and hip-hop that you do. But it's not like you have rappers on this record [Double-Booked].
RG: Well, I have Mos on my new record, but that's specifically for that thing [a shout-out]. It's not like we're swinging, and out of nowhere, there's Mos, like, "I'm mixing it up, y'all!" This is really like me saying, "Hey, this is what I do, I do these two things at the same time." I don't really try hard to mix the two -- it's just what it is. ... There is that Thelonious Monk composition ["Think Of One"] where I mix Dilla and Monk together on purpose. [Glasper plays the melody with the same underlying rhythm of the Ahmad Jamal sample on De La Soul's "Stakes Is High."] But these are two genres that I really love, and I wanted to put it on one album, and make it make sense.
PJ: That's interesting, because you still make it a priority to play jazz when you're, for lack of a better term, "making money" with Mos Def and Maxwell. And you seem to love doing that as well. Why is it important to you to play jazz?
RG: It's just in my soul -- I love it. I don't think I could go without it at all. People get the wrong idea when I'm like, "Yea, we've got to move on, the music's got to move on." That doesn't mean totally abandon jazz at all -- it just means, "Hey, also do something else." ... I love the music -- but I also love this kind of music, and I also love this kind of music, and I also love this kind of music, you know? I'm a musical mutt, so I have a lot of desires, musically, that I want to accomplish.
PJ: You've said before that this will help make jazz more "relevant." What does that mean? It's not just like adding different beats to jazz -- or is it?
RG: No -- well, there's a way to do it. A lot of jazz cats I've heard on records that think if you add a backbeat to something, now it's new and now it's hip-hop and everybody's going to buy your record. No. [laughs] There's a thing to it. And that thing is hard to describe -- it's one of them things you can tell if somebody is being honest or not. Period. Or you can tell if somebody's just doing something to do it, to try to sell records.
My case is just a little different than other cats, because I am a Blue Note recording artist, jazz pianist, but I also play with hip-hop icons. I'm in both worlds as deep as you can get in them, at the same time. I play in front of the audience of Mos Def, Q-Tip, Common, Maxwell, Bilal, all those kinds of people. So those kinds of people are checking me out now, and buying my records, and hitting me up on MySpace. When I see them at Maxwell concerts, I have people come up to me like, "Hey, I got your album! Maxwell Twittered about it the other day, and I went and picked it up! I don't even listen to jazz, but I love number three!"
That kind of stuff I get off on -- I love hearing that. I love hearing people say they don't listen to jazz normally, but they got my record, and they love it. So I feel like I've brought a new member to the audience of jazz. That's what we need, new audiences, new, fresh audiences. People that aren't just jazz heads. That's the thing: If you're not a hardcore jazz head, you're probably not going to know what records are coming out. You're going to know what Rihanna records are coming out whether you want to or not! But a new jazz record, you have to dig and find it. So you have to be a fan already even to know who certain people are. A hardcore fan at that, 'cause you're not going to see an advertisement on the commercial on TV. You probably won't hear an advertisement on the radio, let alone there's only a few jazz stations in the world anyway. So it's very hard for this music in general. So that's why I say I think it's "relevant," what I'm doing -- because I'm putting myself in front of other people who wouldn't normally know where to find it, or even hear about it.