A Chat With Drummer Karriem Riggins About Bending Genres To Make A Career

Few musicians move so fluidly between genres as drummer and producer Karriem Riggins. As a jazz sideman, Riggins has played with jazz artists like Diana Krall, Milt Jackson and Oscar Peterson while simultaneously contributing beats and productions to records by Common, J Dilla, the Roots, Erykah Badu and others. 2012 has been a particularly fruitful year for Riggins. It began with his appearance on Paul McCartney’s most recent record, Kisses on the Bottom, in which the former Beatle covered and channeled the prewar pop songwriters that he listened to as a child. And in October, Riggins released his first solo LP, a kaleidoscopic instrumental hip-hop album called Alone Together, on Stones Throw Records.

Hip-hop and jazz have overlapped and fed each other for decades, but the genres remain stubbornly separated in the marketplace despite attempts by artists to bridge the gap from both sides. Stones Throw, with an aesthetic that prizes crate-digging and esoteric sounds, does as good a job as any label on earth at erasing the separation between the two. I talked to Riggins about how he’s managed to earn a living by stretching his talents in as many directions as possible.

JOHN LINGAN: You’ve been making beats and playing drums as a sideman for ages. How did a solo record finally come together and what was the process like?

KARRIEM RIGGINS: I had an idea to put Alone Together out for some years. And once I got on Stones Throw, it took maybe a year to pull most of the songs together. Some of them are a little older, most of them are more recent.

A lot of the ideas sparked from samples. This was more about exploring the raw side of my beat making. Showcasing a lot of chopping, the raw element of hip-hop. Most of them started with loops, and I played on top of some of them. But the process is different each time; I try to approach each song by stepping through in a different way. These are songs that I really didn’t hear anyone on, they speak on their own. I’m sure there’s an MC or a singer that could do them justice, but I think they stand alone.

Stones Throw Records has, over the years, built up an incredible reputation. What’s been your experience with them so far?

I met [Stones Throw founder and president] Peanut Butter Wolf and Madlib, pretty much all the guys over there, through J Dilla. They don’t really have much creative input, they leave it to the artist to have creative control. I have the freedom to do whatever I want, and that’s a blessing. That’s a really important label right now. They’re putting out vinyl, they’re putting out cassette tapes, they stay true to the essence of the music, all the artists are different. They have a wonderful, beautiful thing going on over there.

Is it different than other relationships you’ve had with labels?

I’m such a chameleon, and I think that’s why it’s such a great home. The music they go for is really just heartfelt music. And that’s the home for me. I’m comfortable there.

I had a connection with BBE, back when Dilla did his Welcome to Detroit record. We talked about doing a project. But just being a producer, being a musician, going on tour, that wasn’t something I could commit to back then. I think now, I felt it was just time to get with a label that was supportive and so I set that up. People have been waiting for a while, so I thought it was time.

So where did this all begin for you? When did you commit to music as a career?

I’ve always wanted to be a musician. I started playing drums when I was three. My dad’s a jazz musician so being around him at rehearsals influenced my love for music. And I loved hip-hop at the same time. That’s what was going on in the neighborhood, with my friends and peers. It’s always been a part of me.

I didn’t start making beats till the 7th or 8th grade. I got my first drum machine, an MPC-3000, in 1996. Bought that from DJ House Shoes, a real ill DJ from Detroit, living in L.A. now. In high school I was just toying around, looping up my drums. I did plenty of that. And I was really seriously buying records then as well.

First and foremost, being a musician taught me about work ethic, about practicing, trying to be the best I can be on my instrument. And I’ve tried to apply that to the other parts of my life.

And who were you listening to back then, in either genre?

A Tribe Called Quest was very influential, and all the other groups that incorporated jazz and hip-hop. Pete Rock and CL Smooth, that was some of my favorite music back then. Black Moon, Gang Starr, that was my daily music. I still listen to it, but that was the blueprint for what I do now. The pioneers.

[At the same time,] every time Wynton Marsalis came to town I’d go to see him. Reginald Veal was on the bass at that time, Herlin Riley on drums. And when Branford came I’d go to see Jeff “Tain” Watts [on drums]. They inspired my whole young generation. And of course all the guys in Detroit: Lawrence Williams was a big drummer here. Bobby Battle. Roy Brooks. Kenny Cox. Michael Belgrave. Having all that around, and seeing all these different guys coming to town, made an impression.

How’d you make the leap to professional musician then?

I went straight to New York when I was a senior in high school. I met Greg Hutchinson, a drummer from Brooklyn, one of my favorites. He came in to town with [trumpeter and bandleader] Roy Hargrove and he met me after a gig. I think I sat in on a jam session and he really liked what I was doing. So he gave me his number, said if I had any questions he’d point me in the right direction. He really helped me out.

He told [legendary vocalist] Betty Carter about me and said she may call about her new program called Jazz Ahead. She called and then flew me to New York to do that series of workshops and two shows at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and another at the Apollo. With the money I got from those shows, I never went back to Detroit. I stayed there for years, living in like three different places over the next couple years. There were so many people there, so many young musicians. It was so inspiring to see level these guys were on.

When was this? How did the New York scene differ from Detroit’s?

This was 94. Detroit was great because there were a few venues that let us work out whatever we needed to work out. But moving to New York, there were so many super-serious musicians playing at an advanced level. Being around that was bananas. And so many jazz clubs, so many opportunities to hear so much music. From reggae to calypso to straight-ahead jazz to funk. Everything was there. Hip-hop—Guru was doing his Jazzmatazz thing. I mean, I got around. I didn’t get to bed ‘til 7 in the morning every night. There was so much knowledge in that city. I learned a lot.

I had maybe a couple gigs a week, but the majority of the time I was practicing. I’d wake up about probably at noon, practice ‘til about 7 o’clock, and then bounce around all night trying to hear new music. That was my school. That was the daily scene.

So you were relatively deep into a jazz career before you made any headway in hip-hop?

Oh, definitely. When I bought a machine, I think that’s what pulled a lot together. And having a chance to link up with Common. When I met Common, he hipped me to a lot of different things in hip-hop that inspired me to do it. I had joined Roy Hargrove’s band in ’95 and met Common near the end of 96 at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago. He’s one of my best friends to this day. When I first went to Chicago he came and took me around, played me music. I learned from being around a true MC who’s a part of the essence of hip-hop. That’s what inspired me to start making beats and make a career from producing, even rapping.

I didn’t really start producing ‘til I moved back to Detroit. That was around 96, early 97. I bought my machine and kind of starting to go deep into the practice room on just chopping samples and finding loops.

Why move back to Detroit if New York was so mind-blowing?

I was touring so much, it made no sense for me to spend that kind of money on an apartment. I was touring ten months out of the year, it was just a money saver. I was in Roy’s band, I was in Mulgrew Miller’s trio, and after that I was in the Ray Brown trio. And I played with Ray Brown for about four years, and that was like going to school again, Ray Brown being a pioneer on the bass. I learned so much about bebopping and approaching arrangements. I learned more about Oscar Peterson and Nat King Cole… I learned so much music from him. That was the highlight of my life.

Did you already know Dilla when you came back to Detroit?

No, I met Dilla through Common, and that was in 96. Common came to Detroit to get beats for One Day It’ll All Make Sense, but the beats that Dilla submitted for that didn’t make that album. That’s when we met, and they started working on Like Water For Chocolate after that.

Initially, I didn’t know about Dilla’s music until I bought this Busta Rhymes remix album, and Dilla had a few remixes on that. And I thought, “Who is this cat Jay Dee? This is crazy.” Then I got the Slum Village cassette and my head was just blown. “He’s my favorite producer and he’s from Detroit!” I didn’t even know he was from the D.

So when Common brought me over to meet him, I saw his setup and it was crazy: Just two turntables and an SP-1200. And an MPC. I was thinking he had all kinds of EQ stuff and crazy mixers, but it was so minimal. He was sampling from cassettes… it blew my mind, seeing how he worked.

I’m a Donuts obsessive, so I’ll try not to make this all about him. But what was his musical background. Did he play traditional instruments?

He could play a little on all the rhythm instruments, just enough to get his point across on a song. I don’t think he would have the chops to do live shows, but he knew enough about music and his ears were wide open. I know his dad was a soul artist as well. He was around music all of his life. It could only be something like that, to put out the kind of music he put out.

What was your first introduction to the hip-hop scene?

On One Day It’ll All Make Sense, the final track [“Pop’s Rap Part 2/Fatherhood”], Common’s father did a poem over one of my productions. That was the first work I ever did on a hip-hop record. But it was kind of jazz influenced. It wasn’t a hip-hop song. The first hip-hop song that I produced on my drum machine, Dilla bought it and put it on Welcome 2 Detroit, and that was “The Clapper.”

To tell you the truth, I’ve never been involved in a “hip-hop scene.” I was just fortunate enough to hook up with Dilla and Slum Village. It’s just been kind of like a family thing, I’ve never really participated in a scene. I don’t think I was even in Detroit when the scene was really popping. I was in New York. I’ve kinda just been a jazz head who happened to be there, listening.

Did your hip-hop friends have a similar jazz background as you?

Dilla definitely knew jazz. I was surprised to see some of the records he had in his collection. He never sampled them, but I know he listened to them. Common, I would say the same thing. He knows good jazz music. And he’s open to learn more. I just want to be around people who are open to learn more. Not people who shut it off. There’s so much to learn.

That’s why I love being around Madlib. It’s so inspirational. Last time we took a road trip, digging, was some years ago. We were in Indiana and he pulled out some old issues of Downbeat from, like, the 60s, and we read those on the road trip. I like to be around people like that.

How about Paul McCartney and Diana Krall? Not many people get to go from BBE to Verve Records and the Beatles.

Of course I’ve always been a fan of the Beatles’ music, and I’ve been hearing them since I was a small child. And I never thought in a million years that I’d record with Paul McCartney. I got the call from Tommy LiPuma, a great producer. And the rest is history.
It was an incredible experience recording with Paul. Paul’s a great person and it was wonderful just being around him, hearing his stories. Just seeing him work, hearing his voice, how strong his voice is. He’s very inspired in the studio. He’ll come up with ideas it’ll just be like, “Come on, guys. It might not work but let’s try this, let’s go. Bang.” And it’s classic. [Laughs] I strive to be that.

And hooking up with Diana, she’s also been through the school of Ray Brown. I met her through Ray Brown in fact. He had a record called Some of My Best Friends are Singers, and I met her around that time. When her last drummer left she gave me the call. And now I’ve been working with her for eight years.

With any artist, knowing where they come from musically, what they really want, that’s huge. As a producer, too. So I had to check out a lot of stuff she was into, and now I’m into it as well. She hipped me to a lot of music—Peggy Lee, a lot of Nat King Cole. I dug into a lot of Nat King Cole. There’s a certain sensitivity in that music, you have to learn it like a different language. And it’s fun because she’s into a lot of different things besides jazz, like punk or soul music. It’s a great experience working with her.

Where are you going now? What’s up next, and what collaborations or styles do you still want to explore?

I want to do everything. I want to do rock. I have a straight-ahead jazz album sitting here that’s ready to come out. I have half a rap album that I’m doing. It’s all timing, let this one breathe and let people connect to it. Then I’ll see what comes next. I know God will lead me in the right direction.

With Madlib, I’ve got about nine or ten albums of… I don’t want to call it ‘jazz.’ But it’s really interesting music. Hopefully some of that will come out soon. A couple tracks came out on his record Yesterday’s Universe. And hopefully we’ll get back on the Supreme Team, where we’re both rapping. I’m also doing a project with Common in the near future. Using a lot of live musicians, incorporating some machine work, just mixing it up.

I’m doing so much hip-hop right now, in January I’m doing some DJ dates. Then in February I’m going out with Diana again, doing a tour of Canada. It’s balanced, that’s the only way I could do it. I feed from everything I do, I need all of it. Like vitamins.

Previously in series: A Chat With Ted Leo About “The Weird Small Business” Of Indie Music

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John Lingan’s writing has appeared in The Quarterly Conversation, The Morning News, Slate, and other places. Follow him @busybeinglingan. Photo by Randy Miramontez / Shutterstock.com.