“Swing is Like the Style that Links Everything Together”: An Interview with Karriem Riggins

Mano Sundaresan chats with Karieem Riggins about August Greene, his work with Madlib and J Dilla, and jazz versus hip-hop.
By    March 30, 2018

Karriem Riggins is the platonic Stones Throw signee. The drummer-producer checks all of the boxes: A foundation in jazz with a cratedigger mentality, friendships and collaborations with J Dilla and Madlib, and most importantly, a knack for fearlessly flipping oddball samples. He also gets bonus points for being relentlessly under-the-radar, having quietly produced many essential records since the turn of the century. He landed his first beat placement on Common’s One Day It’ll All Make Sense, producing the final track “Pop’s Rap Part 2/Fatherhood,” and went on to produce songs from the Soulquarian/Soulquarian-adjacent canon like Phrenology, Fantastic, Vol. 2 and Like Water for Chocolate. More recently, he produced the entirety of Common’s Black America Again, as well as “30 Hours” by Kanye West.

Riggins is finally gaining long-delayed recognition from a wider audience through August Greene, a trio consisting of him, Common, and Robert Glasper. Their self-titled debut, available to stream or download on Amazon Music, is the product of several jam sessions they held at Electric Lady Studios in New York, as well as Henson Recording Studios and NRG Studios in L.A. The songs on this record are simple, yet effective; many are no more than a Glasper chord progression over bass and drums. Common is dexterous and economical, keeping his subject matter more personal than political. Meanwhile, Riggins forgoes fiery drum fills for skeletal, Dilla-influenced patterns.

He employs a sort of virtuosic simplicity, reminiscent of drummers like Ndugu Chancler (the “Billie Jean” drummer) and Jimmy Cobb. In my conversation with him, Riggins described how he discovered Chancler and many other drummers through rummaging through his father Emmanuel’s massive record collection. Riggins grew up watching musicians flood in and out of his Detroit home to play with Emmanuel, a talented keyboardist and composer. He became enamored with jazz early, developing into a prodigious drummer and leaving high school early to move to New York to join Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead band. This catalyzed a series of collaborations with jazz greats like Milt Jackson, Ray Brown, Oscar Peterson, and Mulgrew Miller, before his breakthrough in rap via meeting Common and Dilla.

Riggins now finds himself in a vital role shared by peers like Glasper, Thundercat, and Kamasi Washington as an artist deeply entrenched in both jazz and rap circles. He explained to me the artistic responsibility associated with this positioning, specifically with regards to conveying jazz to future generations. —Mano Sundaresan

We lost Ndugu Chancler last month. What sort of impact did he have on you?

Karriem Riggins: Yeah, one of my favorites. Man, I discovered him through listening to Patrice Rushen records, that’s when I found out who he was. His rhythms sounded familiar to me so I did the research and discovered he played on all my favorite Michael Jackson stuff. It’s like super classic. A lot of mutual friends wanted to introduce us, and when I moved to L.A. I met him. I actually met him at the NAMM show like three years ago. We were both endorsing the same drums, Sakae Drums out of Japan, and we did a panel, and I sat next to him and got to pick his brain. He was a very beautiful human being.

To me he’s like a blueprint for the modern drummer in terms of his versatility.

Karriem Riggins: Definitely versatile, and just keeping the pocket and knowing when less is more. That is what he was about and those are the drummers that I’m really attracted to. Their sound is one that is simple but also has a lot of grit to it, and a lot of rawness.

You hear the opening drums in “Billie Jean” and you just know it’s that song without having to think about it.

Karriem Riggins: It’s a simple beat, but knowing where and how to place it is the secret.

You produced all of Common’s Black America Again record, and Robert Glasper was on a few of those songs. How was recording the August Greene record different from recording that one?

Karriem Riggins: Well I kinda have different sides to my production. There’s the side that’s keeping it raw and true to just chopping beats with the drum machine and programming. I played drums on maybe two songs on Common’s Black America Again. This album, I played everything. On every song I played all the drums. No samples. So it was just like night and day.

I know this was supposed to be another Common project; what was the motivation to make it an August Greene album?

Karriem Riggins: Initially when we went in, it was music for another Common album. We were like, let’s get a jump on working on this great music, because we have such a great connection together. And then the music started to shape into something that was our own sound as a group. And Common’s personal trainer was listening to some of the music as they were working out, and he said, “Man you guys have a sound together. You should start a group.” So that was what kicked it off. I guess we owe his trainer the credit. It was very random.

I’ve read that the name of the group is a play on the jazz standard “Blue in Green” but it’s also a lot of other things.

Karriem Riggins: It is a lot of things. It’s more so just something that stuck, words that fit together. I think a lot of fans have their own interpretations of what it is, what it means, but it is representative of what and who we are.

You’ve played with your fair share of all-time great jazz pianists, from Oscar Peterson and Mulgrew Miller to younger artists like Orrin Evans, and I know they each have their own way of musically interacting with the drummer. What makes playing with Glasper different from playing with other pianists?

Karriem Riggins: Man, that dude is incredible to me. The fact that he knows Oscar Peterson and Phineas Newborn and Herbie Hancock, he knows those records. He could emulate anyone he wants to because of the research that he’s done but he also has his hand in hip-hop and R&B and all these other genres. And he took from all of these things that he listens to and he created his own sound. When you can have someone emulate you, that says a lot about what you’re doing to add to the art form. He’s one of the greatest.

How did you, Common, and Dilla meet up back in the late nineties?

Karriem Riggins: Well I met Dilla in this club in 1995, and I discovered his music in an airport in France. It was a Busta Rhymes remix, and I saw the name Jay Dee. I was like, ‘Damn this is Jay Dee, the Ummah. I gotta meet this cat.’ So then I was introduced to him at this club and he had no idea who I was. I just wanted introduce myself. Then when Common was working on One Day It’ll All Make Sense, he came to Detroit to get beats and he was like, “I’m going over to this producer Jay Dee’s basement, you wanna come with me?” I’m like, “Oh yeah I love this cat.” So that’s initially when we met and exchanged numbers.

And I think a month later he called me—he was working on Fantastic, Vol. 2 at the time—and he said, “Come to the studio. Maybe if you hear something you wanna jump on, you can play drums on something.” So I ended up playing drums on that track “2U4U” on Fantastic, Vol. 2. And that was the start of our connection. And then of course he worked with Common and did numerous beats for Like Water for Chocolate. He didn’t get any beats placed on One Day It’ll All Make Sense, but as you can see on the next album, he was on basically everything. We just stayed tight, man. I would go over there, and he would put me on records, and I would give him drums, and we just had a great working relationship from that moment.

Had you moved back to Detroit at that point?

Karriem Riggins: I was just moving back from New York at that time. I moved back to Detroit around 1997. I lived in New York from ’94 to the end of ’97.

Did you have any idea you were gonna get really deep into hip-hop at that point? I know you moved to New York to pursue jazz.

Karriem Riggins: No I was always into hip-hop, man. I was producing from middle school, just making beats. And my dad was a musician, so I would play with all of the equipment from the studio that my dad had, make little cheap raps and stuff. I was doing that at a young age. I always wanted to do it. It was just being around people who were inspirational to me—that’s when it really took it to another level and I started to invest in the equipment that was needed to produce.

As a jazz drummer who was trying to break into hip-hop in the nineties, did you get any pushback?

Karriem Riggins: No one else was doing it. I was the only one doing it at that time. Of course Guru was representing, doing the Jazzmatazz, and Branford Marsalis, but as a drummer, that was another level, to take it and get a machine and start to chop breaks and loops and stuff like that.

Is there a singular moment you shared with Dilla that you’ll never forget?

Karriem Riggins: Well, I have two moments. The first time we were in the studio recording that Fantastic, Vol. 2, that “2U4U,” when I played that take once. When you listen to that, it’s one take that I did. I finish and I’m still there, I’m like, “I wanna do another one.” He’s like, “Nah, come on in.” I’m like, “Wait, no. You sure you’re good?” He’s like, “I’m good. Come in, you can hear it.” And before I got in the room, he had my drums already gated, all the effects that he wanted on there, and everything was mixed. That was within two minutes. And he was already on doing drops, like certain drops. It was just the craziest thing I had ever seen, for someone to work that fast. And what you hear is what was done. He didn’t add anything after that. He didn’t overthink his production. It was what it was at the time. And that’s how jazz musicians think, this dude was like a jazz musician.

The exact same thing happened when we were working on The Shining, and we did that song “Body Movin’” with J Rocc, and he had it done that fast. It was working on a console that we had never worked on. I forget what console it is, but it was a super old vintage console that was like a Neve replica. But he figured out, man. He had never worked on it but he figured it out and got the sound that he wanted. And that’s the thing that I learned: You can work on any equipment, it’s all about your ear and figuring out what you want and how you want to get the sound that you want out of that gear. And he figured it out.

Are you still producing the same way that you did during those sessions, like going to the record store, digging, and sampling?

Karriem Riggins: No, I have more options now. But when I feel like I need to go to that original setup and just get some of that feeling when I first started, I go back to the MPC 3000, which doesn’t have as many options as working with Ableton or Maschine or a lot of the other machines. You’re working with numbers and you don’t see any sound waves or anything. So going back to that is dope sometimes. But I love working with Ableton, I do a lot with Ableton now.

Do you feel like you imparted certain knowledge on Dilla?

Karriem Riggins: I’m not sure. He would ask about certain things and I would definitely give him my perspective on music and just drums and drum sounds. Back then we would make DAT tapes, the old-school digital audio tapes, and I’d make a full 90-minute DAT of just drums. And I feel like I hear some of those drums on some of his stuff but I don’t know because the way he would manipulate stuff, you never know. That would be more me giving him the sounds and stuff like that, but he knew what he wanted. He knew where he wanted to go musically, and I feel like I learned more from him. I’ve definitely given him some weird rhythms that he went crazy on, and he ended up rapping over some of that stuff.

Are you interested in doing more vocal stuff? I know you’ve rapped a little in the past.

Karriem Riggins: Definitely, Madlib and I had a group called Supreme Team and we got like six songs, seven songs floating around. I was talking to Peanut Butter Wolf about maybe putting out some of those songs on 45s just so people know, because it was some dope stuff that we had going on.

Madlib’s been pretty reclusive with his musical output as of late.

Karriem Riggins: Yeah I haven’t spoken to him in a long while. I think he’s just been a recluse, period. But I have received some beats recently from his manager, and it’s like 400 crazy ridiculous beats. And I talked to Madlib via text, and I’m like, “Send me this beat without the scratches.” And he’s like, “Oh no, man. I got like 2000 more.” So he’s at work, man.

One thing about him is he kept me motivated by giving me a lot of these beats, or just records. He would give me CDs. He’ll just record his favorite stuff of some of the stuff that he went digging for and found. He would burn CDs of it and just give me a spindle. You know when you buy the spindle in the store and there are like 100 CDs? He’ll give me a spindle of just records on CD. And it’s all labeled. He drew artwork on it, like this is this and this loop is here and he’s crazy man. Super dope.

What’s Madlib’s workflow like compared to Dilla’s?

Karriem Riggins: It’s just all the same, that wonderful soul in the music that he understands, man. To work with like-minded people who understand. Not too many you can share this type of stuff with. When we share with each other it just feels good, man, to have somebody who understands what you understand. And the way we work together, he says, “Just give me drums.” And I’ll give him, like, five CDs of drums and he’ll bring me back four albums worth of music with the drums. And we called it Jahari Massamba Unit. It was just some stuff we have in the can. We got like nine, ten albums worth of stuff.

Yeah I’ve heard of Jahari Massamba Unit. Have those songs been shelved?

Karriem Riggins: We gon’ put it out, man, at least put something out this year. There was one track that Madlib put out on Yesterday’s Universe called “Umoja (Unity),” that was one of the songs. But that’s just one of the hundreds.

As a touring drummer is it hard finding time to make beats?

Karriem Riggins: I put stuff together in different places at different times. I have the ability to record in any place. In a sound check or after a sound check, I’ll be doing different ideas. The monitor engineer on tour records my drums so I get all of those drums, and when I’m back in the hotel room I cook up beats. I’m always working on stuff. And it’s cool to be able to practice. I practice a lot during sound check and after sound check, so I get my practice in and I get my beats in.

Is that something that other drummers do, have their drums recorded during sound check?

Karriem Riggins: I don’t know. That’s always been the way I flow. It’s all practice. It’s cause a lot of stuff I do, I can only do one time. And that’s not really something that ends up being a beat. Like some of the August Greene stuff, like “No Apologies” was just a quick idea that I had. And it was one of those things where I couldn’t play it again, so I had to actually practice to learn that rhythm again.

Is that your favorite song off August Greene?

Karriem Riggins: That might be the favorite because it’s the most recent song, but all of the songs are babies. Every song has a meaning. “Optimistic” was super dope because of the content and the song and Brandy. It came together beautifully.

The outro “Swisha Suite” reminds me of some of the longer instrumental passages on Like Water for Chocolate. Can you describe how that came about?

Karriem Riggins: Well, with most of the songs that we do, to get to some of the ideas, we just keep jamming. That was just one of those jams where we did almost three in one. So we called it a suite. We love the whole three-song idea, and we wanted to keep it. We were gonna break it up into three different songs but it just sounded dope as an instrumental. It takes people for a ride and then Rashid felt the spirit to rap on the latter part of it, which came out dope, man.

One of my favorite parts of this album is the constant presence of singer Samora Pinderhughes. Can you tell me a bit about him?

Karriem Riggins: Yeah, Samora is from the Bay Area and he’s an incredible singer and writer. A lot of people don’t know, he also plays incredible piano. He’s a great jazz pianist, he can play anything. And his sister is Elena who’s an incredible singer and flautist. They’re a super talented family.

I know your dad put you on to a lot of music through his own playing and through his collection of jazz records. Do you find yourself doing the same with your son? Is he as eager as you were about discovering music?

Karriem Riggins: Oh most definitely, you gotta put the kids on the right track. I set him up with a little studio in his room and he has a hard drive full of craziness. He pulls from Brazilian records, from like Joyce records to Azymuth to John Coltrane to Elvin Jones. You ask him, he’ll tell you, he’ll know them. He’s 11.

He’s 11 and he listens to Coltrane and Azymuth?

Karriem Riggins: And he gets it from not only me but from his mom. His mom’s side is super deep too. She’s a singer-songwriter and her dad is a musician and he gets it from that side too. He couldn’t escape it.

I sound like the oldest of old heads but it’s so rare to see kids listening to jazz.

Karriem Riggins: He’ll listen but he’ll switch it really quick too. He’ll be like, “Let’s listen to this” and it might be some trap or something.

I know you worked with KAYTRANADA recently and you have credits on the last Earl Sweatshirt album. Are there any other younger artists whom you want to work with?

Karriem Riggins: Definitely, Anderson .Paak. Incredible singer, incredible drummer. We’re gonna work together soon hopefully. There’s a young drummer Marcus Gilmore, he’s a beast, and his grandfather is Roy Haynes so he got it in the blood. Our bass player Burniss Travis is super ill. He sings, and he also plays these crazy loops. Some of the ideas on the August Greene album are Burniss’s. Uhh..Knxwledge, I’m a big fan of Knxwledge’s beats. He has that group Nxworries with Anderson .Paak. He’s dope. There are so many others too, I can keep going. It’s great that people are doing it at a high level. That’s needed right now. There’s a lot of underdeveloped music right now.

It’s good to see artists like you and Robert Glasper from the jazz world collaborating with non-jazz artists, especially given the massive amount of purism still left in jazz.

Karriem Riggins: Oh I used to hear it, man. The jazz police used to come at me, like “Stop doing that hip-hop! Keep swinging, young blood, keep swinging!” Like swing isn’t everything, man. Swing is like the style that links everything together.

Rap is now the most commercially successful genre of music in the U.S. while jazz is the least, according to that Nielsen end-of-year report that everyone’s quoted at this point. Do you feel like you have an obligation in hip-hop as a beacon of jazz?

Karriem Riggins: I think when people are saying jazz is the least popular, they feel like they have to stick to being traditional. But there’s some jazz that’s progressive, next-level. Sometimes you don’t even have to consider it jazz, you just have to consider it as what it is. But yeah, rap is important. I think every genre is important, and it all pushes the whole art form forward. And that’s what we need. We need it in the schools, we need the youth to be in it just as much as the grown-ups. We definitely lead by example.

Do you have any big collaborations or solo projects coming down the pipeline?

Karriem Riggins: I have my solo record that I’m gonna start working on soon. And I just got beats here and there coming out in the next year or so. I have some collaboration projects. Nothing that I really wanna speak on yet until it’s totally on paper, but some really crazy good stuff coming soon. I just did one for BJ the Chicago Kid the other day. It’s out the gate and I’m looking forward to how that ends up.

It seems like you’re constantly multi-tasking with different projects on hand, between drumming, producing, touring, and DJ’ing. Do you have any overarching goals over the next few years?

Karriem Riggins: I think that I want to continue to tour and do more clinics and be more hands-on. Like I said, showing by example. Doing clinics and going to schools for less-fortunate kids, I wanna give back and do some more of that. Because that’s how I learned, from tutelage of Marcus Belgrave and a lot of great musicians in Detroit, MI, they helped us. They weren’t getting paid to do it, a lot of it was just out of love. So I wanna do more of that, give back.

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