Alice Meets… Robert Glasper
Soothing and stimulating at the same time – hip hop blended jazz with electronic frosting and sprinkles of just about anything; the music of Robert Glasper satiates just about any musical appetite – and, is truly beautiful.
Having missed their show at Ronnie Scott’s in London earlier this year – I was psyched to catch the Robert Glasper Trio playing a stunning show at the YBCA Forum in downtown San Francisco as part of the SFJAZZ Festival last month.
Just like the rich jazz being played, the atmosphere of the show was all-absorbing, allowing each of the Trio’s songs to take you on a journey through an array of emotions, memories and melodies. Touching on J Dilla, Errol Garner, Cindy Lauper and even an incredibly poignant rendition of ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’, the band’s set catered to its typically diverse SF audience, leaving the house mesmerised and inspired.
So, before the show I caught up with Robert over a bottle of wine to chat about jazz, hip hop, live shows, upcoming projects, public image, Micheal Jackson, the industry, music itself and everything in between…
So I’m intrigued about the show tonight, to see what the audience reaction is when you play? Cos when I’ve been to jazz shows before it’s kind of like you sit down, but when I go to hip hop shows generally people are up all moving around-
So I’m curious when you play whether it’s really varied like your music?
It’s a mixture, yeah. I have a hip hop audience, and I have an older jazz audience as well – some people will be like ‘woo!’, and some people will be sitting there like (taps moderately), like it’s golf or something. One time I was playing some J Dilla and I looked over to a black dude, he was like 19, and this old white lady, she had to be like 75, sitting next to each other and both were bumping their heads to the hip hop shit we were playing – where else do you see that? (laughs) It’s really hilarious. I talked to him afterwards like ‘yeah, loved the Dilla stuff you did’, and then I talked to her afterwards and she was like ‘I loved the version you did of Starlight by Starlight’.
Do you feel like sometimes it sort of educates both?
Oh, exactly. And they both leave with something that they weren’t hip to before so.
Having the more classical jazz mixed with contemporary music like hip hop, it feels like your music reflects all sides of your musical tastes and personality – and so I was wondering whether you feel that your music is something that’s particularly personal to you?
Totally. It’s definitely a part of my experience of what I love as a person – I don’t play this music to please anybody, I play it for me because I love it (laughs). So, hopefully you’ll like what I’m doing for me (laughs). Sounds vain, but that’s the truth – I literally play stuff that I like.
That’s being true to yourself I think.
It’s being true to yourself, yeah. You’re never going to please everybody, so you might as well be true to who you are.
Cool. Sometimes when you see musicians play you can tell someone’s obviously just intensely in the groove – I was wondering whether it’s ever gotten so intense that you’ve not been able to come out?
Oh – I’m all about that. I will stay on the groove forever – people have to tell me to stop (laughs) – cos to me: that’s the feeling. A lot of people when they do a concert feel like they have to play all these songs – but you’re just rushing through the songs, no-one walks away feeling anything. I like to find a space in a song, and if it feels spiritual or like it needs to keep coming I’ll keep going, cos to me that’s spiritual food for somebody. I like to be the soundtrack to people thoughts, so sometimes we’ll be playing something and not a lot’s going on but we keep repeating, repeating. With this trio we do something that sounds like a dj cutting because we play the exact same way every time – I like to do that a lot; act like a piano trio sample, but live (laughs). So yeah, I’m totally about that. And that’s what John Coltrane was about too – he would play vamps for an hour, literally – two hours. One time he played one song for three hours. You give it time to grow, give it time to feel – it’s almost like a relationship or something. You can’t be like: ‘what’s your name? You wanna go on a date? Let’s get a’ – you gotta chill, and then you feel something from someone. You gotta take the time you know?
And how do you feel that your relationship with music first started? Whether it was hearing certain records or…?
My Mom used to play Oscar Peterson around the house all the time – Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald – they had a duet album or something and she used to play it all the time. And I think that’s what really got me into wanting to play jazz, hearing Oscar Peterson around the house.
I would never ask someone to choose just one favourite record – but if you could tell me about one of your favourite records?
Of any genre?
Yeah, any genre. And why…
Oh my god. Wow. Right now? I’d probably say ‘Off the Wall’, Micheal Jackson. It’s definitely one of the top five for me, but right now it’s probably my favourite. A lot of records they’ll have like two songs that I like, but the whole record I don’t like. But Micheal Jackson ‘Off the Wall’ – I love the whole record.
And I was kinda curious if you’re a fan of Elzhi’s ‘Elmatic’ that came out earlier this year?
I haven’t heard it yet. But I played with Elzhi last month (both laugh). I heard him do some stuff live – he did a show in New York last month, and he had me and my drummer sit in with him on a song, but I haven’t heard the actual album yet.
Oh okay, just cos I find with how that album brings in all the instrumentals, the interludes between the tracks-
Oh he does that on there?
Yeah – it’s really good.
That’s like Pete-Rock isms I say, cos Pete Rock does that. His interludes are so dope, really short like 30 seconds – ‘woo-what’s that??’ Then it fades out, onto the next song.
Yeah – it’s like it frames it, cos then you can hear and look for it in the actual track itself.
I find listening to stuff like that just reminds me how rich hip hop is – cos you can listen to it and not realise just how many styles are in there. So I find it similar to your music, you can appreciate the DNA of the music.
Cool, and apart from playing jazz festivals (like SFJazz) – what are you up to at the moment? Are you recording?
I just finished my new record, so it’s gonna come out in January. It features my experiment band, which is the second half of ‘Double Booked’, and I have special guests on there: Erykah Badu, Legacy, Bilal, Musiq Soulchild, Lupe Fiasco and Mos Def – a lot of people (laughs). It was that kinda record like: ‘let me call my friends, call up all my favours – put them all on one album’.
Will it be jazz stuff?
No, it’s really more to cater to the mainstream, so people can become fans of mine and know who I am. It’s like meeting halfway. Because as far as jazz music goes, you know, we’re under the radar. The average person doesn’t know who anybody in jazz is, except they’ll be like ‘Miles Davis?’ It’s always somebody dead – they won’t know anybody offhand that’s alive, and that’s the total opposite for any other genre. I don’t have to listen to RnB to know who Rhianna or Beyonce is. You can be in a cab, see a billboard, you’re gonna see it regardless – Pop, Rock, even Country. Jazz? You don’t see people – and you don’t hear them.
Why do you think that is?
Well, because jazz is not current. It’s a music that has prided itself on the history to the point where people think it’s dead. When people talk about jazz they always talk in the past tense –like ‘yeah, John Coltrane, Miles Davis…’ I love those guys but it’s like ‘look, there’s people here alive still playing music’. Nowadays that’s why we’re not popular anymore, because we’re not of the generation that is now. So, that’s where I come in – I’m playing stuff that’s of now. That’s why I play Radiohead and hip hop – all these things – cos that’s my generation, that’s what I like. And that’s why I don’t just stop at jazz, you know, I’m Mos Def’s music director, played and recorded with Q Tip – most hip hop cats I’ve played with…
Does your new album have a title yet?
‘Black Radio’ – it’s the title track and the song that me and Mos Def wrote together for the record. ‘Black Radio’ – meaning like when an aeroplane crashes and the only thing that survives is the Black Box…
I didn’t know that…?
Whenever an aeroplane crashes, they get all their information on how it crashed and what happened from this thing called the Black Box, or Black Radio. It’s the only thing that survives, so Mos Def has this joke that ‘if that survives-why don’t they make the whole plane like that?’ (laughs). But yeah, ‘Black Radio’ cos I feel like good music will survive, surpass all the bullshit that’s out. And all the artists on the record are black radio personality people/ artists, so it has a double meaning to it.
Yeah, especially with the way that the music industry’s going at the moment – not that it’s going down the drain, but it’s a really crazy time with everything being download – you don’t really get albums you know, people just listen to tracks.
People don’t listen to records anymore, attention spans are shorter…it’s really hard. And everything has to have 19 producers; everybody’s trying to get the ‘hot person’ on a record – nobody does a record where it’s just one producer anymore. Most of the records I love, they just have one producer – ‘Off the wall’, one producer – Radiohead, one producer.
I guess Tribe stuff-
Tribe stuff – is the Ummah. And it’s just one thing.
That one crew.
That’s it. That’s their sound, and this is the record. Nowadays, they have a rapper with like ten tracks and ten different producers and none of it has a vibe – always a different thing so the whole record doesn’t flow.
Yeah, so it’s not one cohesive entity.
Know what I mean? It becomes a money thing like ‘this producer – he’s hot right now’ and it’s not about the music anymore. So, yeah, that’s why music is interesting right now, very interesting (laughs).
Yeah. I hadn’t realised quite how much stuff you’d done with other artists – cos you worked with Ali Shaheed Muhammad on his solo stuff, Bilal on ‘Airtight’s Revenge’ and a ton of others – are there any artists who you haven’t worked with yet that you’d really like to?
There are some artists that I’ve never worked with that I’d like to work with…Busta Rhymes.
Wow. I can’t imagine, cos he’s so hype-
He’s so hype-
On a jazz kind of tip-
Right. But J Dilla did a lot of his early – ‘Woo Hah – Got You All in Check’ – all that shit, that’s J Dilla. Busta’s so great over core progressions, really musical instrumental shit – I love the way he sounds with that. He’s definitely one that I’ve never worked with that I really want to work with, for sure.
That would be very cool.
Yeah. He’s an underrated rapper in general to me. Rhythmically? No-one fucks with him. He phrases his rhymes like a jazz trumpeter – it’s like listening to a jazz trumpet listening to Busta Rhymes. Two of my musician friends actually transcribed Busta Rhymes’ rhythms, because he’s so rhythmically ridiculous. And you can understand everything he’s saying, not in gibberish either. He’s like: ‘you’re going to understand it, and I’m going to say it fast as hell – my rhythm’s gonna be crazy, and what I’m saying is going to be stupid too.’ But, you get past how good he is because of how crazy and shit he is. Sometimes you can see an artist, and not really see how good they are. It’s like Michael Jackson; he’s like…a thing. And he’s so a thing that you forget to be like: ‘wow-let’s just listen to him sing, his vocals’. He can really sing, but you’re in love with Michael Jackson as a whole. So, let’s just break it down, cos Michael Jackson is the greatest artist of all time in my humble opinion. First of all – he’s the most famous person other than Jesus.
Who else is more famous than Michael Jackson? What physical person is more famous than Michael Jackson?
Ah…I find it so subjective though – cos there’s so many people to me, like to my friends I’m all ‘I’m gonna meet…Robert Glasper’ and they’ll be like ‘uummmmm’(Robert laughs) Or something like that, so it’s hard to say…
But Michael Jackson – there’s never been a person as famous as Michael Jackson, period. Not even close. Some people are famous in their lane, like The Beatles. Elvis Presley was famous in his lane, but he’s not famous like Michael Jackson – cos he’s been mega-famous since he was six.
So think about that – from 6 to 50. He was super-mega famous when he was six, and he’s always been mega famous – no-one’s had that kind of career. If you put everybody famous in a room ever – everybody’s gonna be looking at Michael Jackson. The other person like that to me is Prince – if you put everybody in a room, people are gonna be like ‘there they are!’ Ever been in a room with Prince before?
Um – no.
He’s such a thing, everybody’s just like – you try not to stare but…(both laugh).
Do you think Michael Jackson’s legacy will continue then?
Oh, without a doubt. And the thing about him – he can really sing, but let’s just break it down and talk about his dancing. He invented a way to dance – no-one dances like Michael Jackson. You watch him in his videos when he’s dancing with people behind him and they’re all doing the same moves – but no-one’s doing it like him. And his robot – oh my god. ‘Dancing Machine’.
Takes me back! His music videos are just-
Yeah, ‘Smooth Criminal’ was always my favourite – when they do-
All the way down.
Aahhh – and he’s ground-breaking. Always re-creating himself for the world. Trailblazing. So many sides to Michael that he’s innovated. It’s crazy.
How you were saying about people not recognising talent made me think to a chat I had with Lil’ Fame of MOP – he was saying how everyone focuses on the hard-core, bad boy image that generally people don’t appreciate-
What you’re doing?
Yeah, the actual skill and talent they have.
Especially if you’re a person who’s had a hit song that’s on the radio. A lot of the time you don’t know the artist so well – cos you just see them on TV, see what makes them hot, but you don’t really see them as a person. Some people are the total opposite of what you think. I did a show with Ludacris in Atlanta last month. And, you know, ‘Ludacris’ you think…
What was he like?
So quiet and subdued. I went to the strip-club with him (me laughs). All the girls were dancing and he was just (acts all shy) – he’s not what you would think from his videos and stuff. He’s totally the opposite. It’s crazy.
Public image – so much of it is acting – I don’t think people realise that. Last question: could you just describe what music means to you? If you could possibly say…
I mean, for me – music is probably my only real form of expression, to express how I feel. It’s the only thing that really evokes expression for me. I could be happy but you wouldn’t really know it from my face, or you probably wouldn’t see me cry. But it all comes out when I play. So, it’s probably the only way that I can be emotional I guess you could say. I have that problem in relationships – ‘you don’t show any emotions or feelings! – Do you love me or not??’ ‘Yes! I do…’
Like you can’t say it, but you can play it?
Like: ‘You know what? This is how I deal out my shit right here…’ (Motions playing the piano) That’s what music is to me; it’s the way to give and receive emotion. Don’t come up and hug me – play me a song, and I just feel that so much faster
Communication in a way?
Somewhere near there, yeah.
Yeah, that’s the vibe.