Artists often say that they don’t want to be restricted to specific genres. For Robert Glasper, ducking categorization has been the mission statement for nearly 20 years. Ostensibly a jazz musician, he’s performed with the likes of Erykah Badu, Common, The Roots, Q-Tip, Ledisi and Yasiin Bey (Mos Def at the time) during the advent of the neo-soul movement in the late ‘90s, as musical director for college buddy Bilal. He has two R&B Grammys for his star-studded Black Radio series with his band, the Experiment; released several jazz albums with the historic Blue Note Recordings; and has been a key figure behind the heavy injection of jazz in contemporary hip-hop and R&B, most notably playing on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, Maxwell’s BlackSUMMERS’night, and Anderson .Paak’s Malibu. His band, the Robert Glasper Experiment, dropped an album of cover songs (simply titled Covered) earlier this year, and the group's latest album, ArtScience—which comes out today—experiments with trap and eschews the big guest appearances from the Black Radio series.
Hip-hop and R&B are moving forward, and Glasper manages to keep up without losing himself in the fray; he just hopes jazz can do the same. “You have to go with the times, you’re going to get left behind if you don’t,” he said. “Music changes just like we do.”
Even with a new album out this week, Glasper still has plenty of work on his plate. He’s polishing off a plate of French fries in his Fort Greene, Brooklyn neighborhood after working on music with Common in Los Angeles. In the coming weeks, he’ll be teaching a Miles Davis course at New York University (he’s something of a Davis expert: he handled the music for Don Cheadle’s film Miles Ahead, and crafted a tribute album, Everything’s Beautiful, earlier this year). He’s also working with Terrace Martin: the two are producing jazz legend Herbie Hancock’s next record, and are members of a newly-formed trio with singer/songwriter James Fauntleroy. Speaking with Complex, Glasper argues for the usefulness of genre, even as its clear that labels don't stop his art.
Black Radio had critical acclaim and reached the fans of the artists who appeared on it, but I can imagine that, when it dropped, you faced backlash from jazz purists.
Totally. But they could only backlash to a certain extent because I had proven so much with my trio records. I got a lot of great accolades, record sales, this and that, but also a lot of people saying, “Wow, he’s one of the best cats out here.” But if you’re African-American, they’re quick to make you an R&B or hip-hop pianist, and not want to give you that jazz credibility. That was my main thing: I’m going to get the respect first. That’s what Herbie did. Herbie got the respect first, so you can only say so much because at the end of the day, he can play that fucking instrument. And I knew that going into the Black Radio shit, that I would have to be back backing off of my instrument a little bit, making it more of a sound, not more of a solo. A lot of people don’t fuck with solos, especially in the R&B world. You have to lure them in, so that’s what I did. I had the plan to lure them in, and the plan worked! [Laughs.]
Awards can be validation, but many artists insist that they don’t work for awards—that they’re just happy when they get them. With the backlash you got, did the Grammy feel like validation?
Hell yeah. Fuck yeah. Can’t none of my jazz friends say they got an R&B Grammy. Can’t none of them say that. But this was my plan. I’m doing an album for a specific reason. I didn’t think we were going to win a Grammy, I didn’t think we were going to get nominated. I didn’t feel like we were known enough. So we won that Grammy, dude, and I felt so validated. It opened the door and inspired so many people. The Grammys is more open to alternative shit now. We were nominated for Best R&B Performance and R&B Album of the Year—when you look at those categories before we won it, it was all straight up R&B: Chaka Khan, John Legend, Alicia Keys. We’re the first band to win it since Mint Condition in ‘95. We inspired so many people to keep doing what they do, because they don’t have to feel like they have to sound super R&B, or this kind of R&B, in order to be in the Grammys. Now the Grammys have Tthe Internet, Hiatus Kaiyote. That started with us, and it’s fucking awesome.
How do you think the genre discussion applies to someone like Frank Ocean? His album has been called R&B and hip-hop, but it doesn't seem to be either of those.
I’m not mad. If you call it R&B, that means someone is expanding the genre of R&B and making it wider, for more people to fit in it. Which I’m not mad at. For a while, R&B was going out of style. It was kind of getting kicked to the side. The first year the R&B Album of the Year didn’t get on the TV portion of the Grammys, is when I got nominated. The R&B category built the Grammys, but now it’s not on TV anymore? Only time they’ve put it on after that was when Beyonce was nominated in an R&B category. So if they widen it up, and Frank Ocean is in it now, now it can get back on TV because it’s Frank Ocean! If Miguel is in it, if Chris Brown is in it, it widens it. So I’m not mad at any of that.
Can’t none of my jazz friends say they got an R&B Grammy.
So you think that genres can still be useful in terms of categorizing music?
Hell yeah. A lot of people say, “I don’t believe in genres”; fuck that. I do. Just label the shit right. [Laughs.] That’s my thing: let’s just make sure it’s a good label. I believe in genres, and I feel like as a musician, you pay homage to a genre by studying that shit and knowing how to play it. You’re going to be a jazz musician, that’s a genre. You have to learn to play, and that shit’s hard. You have to put a lot of work into that shit. I always tell people that, just to be a bad jazz musician, you have to be better than most musicians. The worst jazz musicians are normally better than most musicians, because you have to know so much.
This year has also seen a lot more gospel in hip-hop, with Chance the Rapper and Kanye West. What do you think about that?
I love it. I’m from the gospel world, I grew up playing in church. I attribute Kirk Franklin as the reason why there’s a lot of crossover happening, especially for me. When I was in junior high, Kirk Franklin came out with Kirk Franklin and the Family. That joint, “The Reason Why I Sing,” played on every single radio station—hip-hop, R&B, and it wasn’t even that! It was a straight-up gospel song. But it just flew through the genres, no one cared. Then he started incorporating more radio hip-hop into his songs, and we started playing that stuff in church, and I was incorporating jazz stuff that I was learning in school. [I thought] if Kirk Franklin mixes stuff, I’m going to mix stuff too. It’s a good message. I’m tired of the same message in hip-hop; there is no message. I’m high, I’m in the club pouring drinks, I’ve got money. I’m glad Chance did what he did with that record, and ‘Ye.
Some people would say that gospel is sacred and shouldn’t be tampered with by hip-hop.
Not at all. Those are just purists that want to keep the genre—here’s the thing. Jesus went into the bars preaching, he was trying to go where people needed to hear the message. You can’t play some traditional gospel song—how are the kids even going to get the message? They aren’t going to play it on Hot 97. If it can come through ‘Ye, or Chance the Rapper, let the message be told. Fuck is your problem? I can see if there’s cussin’ around it, and even then, whatever—it’s the message of the people. However that message has to get to those people, it gets to those people.
If you’re trying to save 25-year-olds, you can’t play them music for 60-year-olds. That’s just not good business. That doesn’t make sense. I would flip it around. When older people try to play jazz for younger people, they’re not going to get that. Just like I can’t play Fetty Wap for my grandmother right now. Once you deal with that real reality, you go from there.
That’s what Kendrick Lamar does. When I was doing To Pimp a Butterfly with him, he said, “This music is for the niggas in prison. That’s who I’m talking to.” That’s why when you listen to a lot of the lyrics, it’s street shit. But then you’re like, “Wait, this is secretly positive.” [Laughs.] You’re like, “We gon’ be alright!” Niggas in the hood banging that shit. They’re singing that message, making it a mantra, saying it out loud, and that does something to people. But you can’t depend on Common all the time. That’s my nigga, but niggas aren’t listening to “Glory” all the time. However you can get it to them, get it to them.
People have always known about producers like Timbaland or Swizz Beatz, but To Pimp A Butterfly has fans recognizing specific musicians like you, Kamasi Washington and Thundercat and getting your records. Do you think Kendrick will generate interest in jazz that will stick around?
If people capitalize on it and do cool shit. Most jazz musicians don’t do cool shit. So it’s their fault they’re not popping: not mine, not Kendrick’s. Kendrick made it popular to be a jazz musician now. So jazz musicians need to start doing some cool shit and jump on the truck. Not saying that everything needs a hip-hop beat to it or nothing like that, but they’ve gotta do something.
If you’re trying to save 25-year-olds, you can’t play them music for 60-year-olds. That’s just not good business. That doesn’t make sense.
[Jazz musicians] are OK with not being relevant, and repeating history. The sound has already been there. Nobody is introducing much new sound. Part of introducing new sound is using new sounds you’re influenced by. That’s what makes all music change every decade. Because new technology is introduced, a new genre of music has been introduced that you can be influenced by. My new album’s got trap on it, and all kinds of stuff on it, but it’s still my sound with the trap—it’s not like I’m reflecting society without my sound in it. I like mixing my shit, with what’s cracking. That way, you can have something that’s yours and that sounds relevant.
We spoke to Terrace recently, and he said you guys are working on some stuff.
Yeah. Me, James Fauntleroy, and Terrace are starting a group. We’re going to do a little record or an EP, something like that. Me and Terrace have been working with Herbie on his new record too, co-producing it. That’s what’s been on the thing now. We’ve loosely started the Fauntleroy/Glasper/Terrace thing, just little ideas. Terrace said, “we should start a group!” and I said, “I can be down with that, totally.” But we’ve been doing the Herbie thing for a minute.
The new record ArtScience is just you and the quartet, no features. What was that like to just have you guys, rather than lots of guests?
We wanted to add another sound, so I added my friend Mike Severson on guitar. A little DJ shit too, from my boy Jahi Sundance. So we added a few more sounds to the texture, but other than that, yeah it’s just us.
It was great, a long time coming. Many people respect our band, but we always tour without all those singers. So people love that, and they see us live and love us. They ask when we’re going to do something by ourselves, and we’re like yeah, we should. We don’t need all the singers all the time, so it felt great. And the fact that I’m singing on something, all of us are singing—with Auto-Tune of course, you don’t want to hear me without Auto-Tune. It was fun. We wrote most of the songs in the studio together, we got in the studio in New Orleans and we were camped out for two weeks. We just wrote, took our time and did the record. We never rush, and it comes out better when we don’t have to rush.