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Matson on Music

Music news, concert reviews, analysis and opinion by music writer Andrew Matson.

June 19, 2009 at 12:09 PM

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Interview: Karriem Riggins, unsung jazz-hop genius

Posted by Andrew Matson

If you like the intersection of jazz and hiphop, you must get familiar with this man.

Photo by B+

Birds chirping in the background, Karriem Riggins spoke to me from his mother's house in Detroit. He was rehearsing the Karriem Riggins Virtuoso Experience, which hits Seattle Monday at Triple Door.

Here's his Myspace, and an example of his laid-back side.

The bandleader, drummer, producer, and rapper has excellent taste, obscene amounts of talent, and is advancing music without being alienating about it. He is the future, and he matters. A lot.

After the jump, everything you need to know about him.


Despite its exciting name, Karriem Riggins Viruoso Experience is a sleeper event. Even if you'd heard music Riggins is involved with, you'd know him like you know a drummer in a jazz band -- Betty Carter's and Roy Hargrove's, previously, Diana Krall's, currently -- or you'd know him like you would a hiphop producer, a designation that carries all the fame of one's name buried in the fine print of typically overlooked album liner notes. That is, you wouldn't. He's the perennial "guy behind the guy" (or girl, as the case may be).

A contingent of true-school jazz fans know and revere Riggins; die-hard hip-hop fans know the multi-instrumentalist works with Kanye West, Erykah Badu, and Common, and he completed the late, great producer J Dilla's posthumous album "The Shining." In these decidedly non-mainstream circles, Riggins is regarded as a criminally unsung sensation.

Last time the jazz/hiphop drummer, producer, and rapper was in Seattle (at Neumo's), nobody knew, because everyone who saw him came to watch the evening's headliner, Madlib. But after the show, everyone knew who Riggins was. He stole it from behind his drum kit, playing hip-hop beats with an unbelievable nimbleness that showed he played jazz, and not the elevator stuff. When he really got going, Riggins quit English and spoke drums. The feeling in the room was this guy could do anything he wanted, make any drum/cymbal pattern with any nuance on any part of it. On stage mimicking and battling DJ J-Rocc (himself an academic practitioner of his craft), Riggins was musically combative as he was collaborative, and he sent the crowd's energy through the roof.

Triple Door booked the Virtuoso Experience on a lark -- it's tough to gauge how many people might buy tickets to see an unrecognizable name -- and the brief three-city tour has no precedent, as it opens in Seattle.

On the phone from his mom's house in Detroit, Riggins said he'll play the first half of the Virtuoso Experience show accompanied by DJ (DJ Dummy), then do some jazz standards and original songs, joined by pianist Mulgrew Miller, bassist Joe Sanders, and Warren Wolf on vibes (collectively known as the Karriem Riggins Quintet).


I saw you last time you were in Seattle, it was in 2007, it was on the Stones Throw tour for that basketball video game.

Oh, yeah. I was there with my partner Madlib.

I wrote a review of that night, and I was completely blown away by your interaction with [DJ] J-Rocc. Is that the kind of back-and-forth we can expect from you and DJ Dummy at Triple Door?

Well, it's definitely some rhythms, some syncopation, but what I do with J-Rocc and Madlib is totally different than what I do incorporating a DJ into my quintet. It's more so the DJ spinning different elements of say maybe a guitar in a song, more incorporated as an instrument then it is like bouncing rhythms off each other. We're gonna do some of that, but not in the same vein as with Madlib and J-Rocc.

Okay, well maybe my conception of what you're doing on this tour is off. I'd understood that you'd start out and it would just be you and a DJ, and the second half would be more musicians joining you?

Right, yeah. I mean, I'm definitely playing some beats. I do a tribute section to Dilla, we recreate Dilla's beats in a live setting. But a lot of the stuff I do with the DJ and drums is like soloing, we're soloing. This is more incorporated in a structured format.

So less like jazz and more like songs?

Oh definitely like jazz. It's just, the stuff I do with J-Rocc is so...sporadic, and a lot of it's straight improvising. We never rehearsed. It's just so raw.

[The Karriem Riggins Virtuoso Experience] is more, the music I put together is more arranged.

So does that mean that you've practiced this set before?

Yeah, definitely. Cause I have some tunes in different time signatures, and stuff that definitely a lot of DJs aren't up on, performing a song in 7/8, you know? So there's different things I have to run over with 'em.

So you're a bandleader?


And your band just happens to include a guy who plays turntables like that's his instrument.


So how come this tour's so short? It's just three cities.

Well, I'm pulling a lot together, but by me not having an album out yet, I just wanted to do a short tour. I don't really want to blast off until the album's out. But I want people to get a sneak peek on how my band is running and my interpretation of music, jazz and hiphop. I think people are interested in that.

So this is to raise awareness?


It seems the show is designed to present you intact, instead of broken into this or that type of artist. Does it bother you when people ask you what type of music you make?

No, because nowadays people really separate everything, and people want to know what it is. But a person like me, I listened to R&B at an early age, hiphop, Brazilian music, jazz, all kinds of different genres. That's who I am. All of these different things. So I'm gonna present everything together as one. I think that'll be something new that people will get into.

If people know you, it's as a behind the scenes guy. Are you ready to not be so anonymous?

Ah, not even that, it's just I tour so much and I perform with a lot of different artists. I think a lot of that time was my time for development. I feel like now I'm ready to present what I have. A lot of artists come out when they're super young, and they're underdeveloped, and people watch their growth through the albums they put out, but now, for me, it's the right time.

It's amazing what you think is your education. Cause your education's gone on so long, a lot of other people would have thought it was over a lot sooner than you're saying.

Man, I played with Ray Brown for a lot of years, and when he passed away, he was still on the quest for the new, the next level of artistry. I'm gonna always be on that quest.

That's inspiring.

I think you might be one of the luckiest guys alive because you've worked with guys who are basically Gods to me: Kanye West, Madlib, and especially Dilla. What's it like doing that? Are you able to be yourself? Are these your friends?

I think we all bounce off each other. We need each other in order for the continuation of our growth. Working with all these guys, I feel I can definitely be myself. When people reach out for you to do something, I think it's important to know what they can do, and know what they're about. And I think that's why we collaborated, cause they know what I can do, and we connect on the same wave.

What do you mean? I can see with Madlib, because he plays drums too, and puts rap tracks together like jazz tracks, and jazz tracks together like hiphop, but specifically, why do you think you worked so well with those artists?

There are some artists that don't know what they want, is what I'm saying. A lot of artists, like they know they wanted something ill, but they don't know how to go about being a part of something ill, or being in a group and bouncing ideas, you know, they don't know how to make a classic. But me and Madlib, he knows my beats, when I send him a beat, he'll just kill it. He'll spit to my beat real ill, and it's nothing really that needs to be said, like can you do this or that. We're on the same page. And there's not a lot of artists like that that know exactly what they want.

What I hear you talking about is taste. Can you talk about the evolution of your particular taste, from the sound of a drum, sound of a sample? The selection, manipulation, deployment of those sounds?

Well, I don't know if I particularly have a sound, I think more so a style, and it's a fusion of a lot of different things. I listen for samples that speak to me in a way that's very soulful and very syncopated. My methods, my order of operations, me composing a track is different every time. It's hard to say how it comes together. But it definitely has to have that soul and hit me in the heart.

From the music of yours that I've listened to, I want to break it down and understand it, but I get the impression that it's so organic that it misses the point to be so analytical about it.

Definitely. I can't even analyze my own. A lot of people can break it down, but it just is what it is. It's the soul, and just where you are at that moment, in life.

You play for Diana Krall, and you've played with Herbie Hancock and all kinds of legendary jazz musicians, and I've always been curious: Do you think contemporary jazz players recognize hiphop producers as peers?

A lot of jazz musicians don't necessarily understand hiphop. The ones that do definitely get it. There's a lot of cats like, in my generation, Robert Glasper, Nicholas Payton, Roy Hargrove, they understand and definitely respect it on the level. And I know Diana Krall definitely loves hiphop. We were just talking about how one of her favorite hiphop records is Outkast.

Which one?

What was the one with "Ms. Jackson"?


Yeah. So I definitely know she respects it. And a lot of people do respect it, but a lot of people don't understand it, so they don't know what to think of it. I've just been privileged to work with the people that do understand it. Like Herbie, especially Herbie, that's one of the highlights of my life. Him doing songs like "Rockit" and so many songs that he's done that's been sampled...

I would imagine he would have a clue. He makes so many different types of music.

Oh yeah, he knows, man. He knows.

Were you happy with what Erykah Badu did with the track you had on her album?

The beat:

With Erykah:

Oh, without a doubt. Love Erykah, man. One of my favorite artists.

Did you have any idea she was going to take it and bring that kind of social message to it?

I had no idea. We've done so many songs that she has in the can, and I sent her that track not even thinking she would use it, it was something I thought maybe she would ride out to, like a fluke joint with some raw drums, you know. And she smashed it. She called me one day and said, "Yo, I have a song to it, I'm gonna be in L.A., let's just record it." And then I heard the lyrics and was like, "Wow."

I love that album. The Sa-Ra songs are great, but I love how Stones Throw kind of infiltrated it. Those Madlib beats are incredible.

Oh yeah, she picked some off-the-wall beats. She has big ears.

She has big balls is what she has, because some of those beats are about as abstract as it gets.

Exactly. "My People" is crazy.

[Listen to it here. Live version below.]

It ruined a set of speakers of mine.

Oh, snap!

I mean, my speakers were bad, but really, it ripped them.


So that's powerful. Physically.

Most definitely.

Since I've got you on the line, a question I've always wanted to ask: How nebulous or real is the Soulquarians collective? Is it really appropriate to talk about it like a coherent crew?


Uh, I'm not sure. I wasn't a part of the Soulquarians. I'm not an Aquarius.

Oh yeah, I guess you have to be an Aquarius to get down.

That was my crew, but I wasn't part of the crew. Those dudes, from ?uestlove, one of my favorite drummers and producers...

...Dilla, he's the king to me, Bilal, D'angelo, it's just a crazy squad. And I think cats still want to do stuff together, but I don't know how, with everyone's schedule, that works out, with the Roots doing Fallon, there's just a lot going on.

I mean, every time a collaboration like you and Madlib with Erykah, or Oh No on the Mos Def, even though stuff's not really associated, just tangentially associated, every time something like that happens it makes Soulquarians more real to me.

Definitely. I believe that. That's definitely true.

I interviewed Common about a year ago. Super nice guy, talked to me for a long time on the phone.

Yeah, that's one of my best friends.

Yeah, I'm aware. At the risk of being too personal, I asked him if and under what circumstances he listens to Dilla's music now. He seemed a little reticent to talk about that. Maybe it was too close to home to ask about, but do you mind if I ask you the same question? How does his music fit into your life?

Well, I'm gonna first say about Common that they were roommates. So a lot of his music he created while Common was there. And it definitely touches his heart in a way that he probably can't express.

For me, Dilla's music was and is pretty much the blueprint to a lot that I do in hiphop. He was my inspiration and still is my inspiration since I first heard a remix he did, with Zhane and Busta Rhymes.

That was the first Dilla beat I ever heard. And I've been a fan since then. I still listen to his music. On the daily.


Have you seem this Slum Village video? It's old. Great video. Great beat by Karriem Riggins. Very Dilla-esque.

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