“If You Don’t Continue to Practice, Then You Will Lose It:” An Interview with Karriem Riggins

Joel Biswas speaks to the veteran Detroit producer and drummer about creating spiritual jazz with Madlib, his musical kinship with Dilla, and more.
By    February 26, 2021
Photo by Alex Solca

Please support the OG hip-hop journalism collective by subscribing to Passion of the Weiss on Patreon.

When I speak to Karriem Riggins, he’s on his way to Sunset Sound in Hollywood. From the outside, it’s an unassuming mid-century L.A. bungalow with signage that unironically recalls a 1970’s Malibu surf shop. Inside is a hallowed creative wellspring where Prince, Elton John, Aretha Franklin and the Stones (to name just a few of its illustrious past residents) all made seminal music. Riggins isn’t here to record his 1999 or Exile on Main Street, at least not knowingly. He just wants to practice the drums from a space that drips with potent musical energy.

Riggins has been drinking from the source since before he left the womb. Although he’s probably best known as a key collaborator of Dilla and Common with fingerprints on any number of seminal rap releases from Fantastic Volume II to the The Life of Pablo, this drummer and producer has successfully navigated the current to some truly rarified locales. From drumming with musical hero Roy Hargrove before he could legally drink to playing at the Obama White House, the breadth of Riggins’ work is impossible to chart except through the pedigree of the people he’s worked with — Diana Krall, Paul McCartney, Kanye West, Erykah Badu, Esperanza Spaulding, J Dilla…

Like his influences, the list is endless.

The occasion for our conversation is the release of his latest collaborative project with Madlib, Pardon My French under the rather awesome moniker the Jahari Massamba Unit. First introduced by Dilla himself, Riggins and Madlib have been making and exchanging music for years. Their latest is a joyful jazz freak-out awash in cascading fills, murky breaks, dissolving keyboards and liquid basslines. It’s impossible to tell what’s live and what’s sampled or who’s playing what. Listening to the album feels like eavesdropping on a collaborative conversation that first began with Dilla’s passing. Their rapport and experimentalism echo the partnership that Riggins’ father, the noted Detroit keys player Emmanuel Riggins, enjoyed with drummer Roy Brooks over the course of two decades, making out-there jazz sounds for the sheer hell of it.

Despite the heady context, Karriem isn’t overly concerned with questions of intent, genre or legacy – he’s a rhythm master whose anecdotes collapse time; a genre chameleon who demurs over questions of style. When you’re this deep in the musical waters, the practice is deceptively simple. You avoid the things that take you downstream, away from the pull of the current and you seek the places where ideas flow. — Joel Biswas

Let’s talk about the partnership behind your Jahari Massamba Unit album Pardon My French with Madlib. You guys have an association and collaborative relationship that goes back like 15-20 years.

Karriem Riggins: Man, I met him back maybe around 2004. I met him through Dilla at a show. It was a J-Live show where he introduced us and we stayed in contact. He’s one of my favorites, one of the greatest. So it was just a blessing to finally get a chance to have some of the music that we created together see the light of day. We did a lot together over the years.

You guys worked together on the Yesterday’s Universe project which is where I first saw the name “The Jahari Massamba Unit Feat. Karriem Riggins Trio” back in 2007 as performers on a track called “Umoja (Slave Riot).” Is this a continuation of that project?

Karriem Riggins: It’s a fusion of a lot of things that we’ve done over the years.

It sounds incredibly organic. What is the process of creating and recording together like?

Karriem Riggins: Man, what’s crazy is, we would pass each other CD’s and beat tapes at parties. We would plan to meet up and go out on and we would each come with a stack of CDs. Some would be stuff that I’m inspired by, some of it can be my beats, some of it can be just drums… And he started creating music to the drum projects that would bring to him. It just blossomed into us doing that. We were simultaneously working on other things as well but we started to stack this as the repertoire of Jahari Massamba Unit. It was mainly like I give him the CD and he will come back a week later with an album. So we were doing like an album a week.

After hearing this album, I have the same experience that I had listening to your earlier collabs – the sound of a real live band vibe with lots of instruments and players. Does Madlib bring live instrumentation to the table? Does he play stuff?

Karriem Riggins: Yeah, he does. I think we’re both the same. And I think the message that we like to convey to the world is that young producers can be more than just producers. Madlib is a prolific, great musician who can produce. He’s a chameleon who can do many things. It’s important for people to know is that he’s not limited to just one thing. A lot of people know him for one thing but once you hear this project, you hear how multi-faceted a person can be.

I love how it evokes the idea that of a band. This feels like a great moment for this album – the rise of “spiritual” jazz artists like Kamasi Washington and Shabaka Hutchings or the rediscovery of politically minded jazz of the late Sixties and Seventies. What were your influences for this project?

Karriem Riggins: I don’t necessarily think that we made it with any others in mind but I’m going to say I’m influenced by Miles Davis, Eric Dolphy, Trane, Monk, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones. Madlib has his inspirations as well. I think that fusion of what I love and what he loves, our voices together are a collage of everything that we love, trying to add onto the art or the music that we study. We already had a plan for this to come out prior to this pandemic and everything – that actually postponed the release. And with this whole pandemic and everything, I really started to dig back into the music and it was just no time, better than now for this music to come out. I think people need it more now than ever. But I really don’t like putting a date on stuff. I just think especially to me, what we do is timeless. Putting a date on it and mentally takes you down another path. A lot of the music that we love is better without a date.

Are there any particular artists or records that Madlib has turned you on to someone whose got an ear for rare sounds?

Karriem Riggins: Man, we pass each other so much music. Elvin Jones is one of my favorite drummers and he’s putting me onto some of Elvin’s stuff that I had never heard. At the time, [the LP] On the Mountain was a hard find and he had that record and he brought it to me, man. I was like, ‘Whoa.’ It just blew my mind — Elvin Jones in the seventies doing a kind of a fusion sound with keyboards but staying true to the essence of the drums, still playing in his style through that era… he put me onto a lot of stuff like that. It definitely blew my mind that he would be that deep into stuff that I would want to hear, you know what I mean? When you find somebody like that to connect with, it just elevates you. It inspires me and it lets me know how far we can go know musically.

Anything that you’re particularly proud to have put him onto?

Karriem Riggins: I mean, I can’t even really remember but pretty much everything that I love, man. I got a lot of Miles Davis bootlegs, just kind of crazy stuff, man that I’ve definitely passed on to him. Just recently in the last couple of days, I put him on a great artist that he was familiar with but not with this particular record, The Nurturer by Geri Allen which it was recorded back in 1991 with Kenny Garrett, Rob Hurst and Marcus Belgrave on trumpet. I let him know how important that that record was to me. And he really dug it.

Growing up, your father Emmanuel Riggins was respected jazz musician.

Karriem Riggins: Yeah, he played piano and organ around Detroit with Marcus Belgrave and Roy Brooks and prior to that he played with Grant Green for a lot of years. That’s what brought us to Detroit, a local residency that Grant Green had in the early Seventies. My father had a local collab with Roy Brooks, duo gigs. My dad played bass with his left hand and piano with his right. And Roy would play drums. Roy had this thing he would do playing rhythms off of bouncing basketballs and toy monkeys, doing wild stuff like playing a saw [laughs].

In terms of your path as an artist, is it safe to say that you started out as a jazz player?

Karriem Riggins: No, ‘cos I had always been doing hip-hop. Like fifth, sixth grade is when I started looping stuff, but never professionally until I moved to New York. I played drums professionally as a teenager doing going gigs around Detroit which is what led me to New York. That’s when I got a chance to meet a lot of my heroes and saved enough money to buy my first MPC 2000, which is when I can say my career as a producer started, in ’95. That was a good year. I bought my MPC from DJ House Shoes. We went to high school together.

What took you to New York?

Karriem Riggins: I was a big fan of Roy Hargrove in high school and I went to see them play and I met the drummer Gregory Hutchinson, who’s one of the greatest drummers of our time. We were at a jam session and he heard me play and he’s played with Betty Carter for years. And he’s like “I want you to meet Betty Carter, man. She has this thing called Jazz Ahead when she features young musicians and I want to connect you with her.” And a few days later, Betty Carter called me and flew me to New York to play. And that was my first introduction to New York city when I was 17 years old. From that trip, I never went back home. I saved enough money to stay in New York and just made it happen, made it work.

From the point of view of hip-hop as another passion in your life, what was it like arriving in New York in 1995?

Karriem Riggins: Man, it was incredible just being there. I would find like the sessions and the places where those guys hang out just to hear that and be a part of that, you know? At that time, Guru was around town a lot. I met Grand Puba. New York was a beautiful place at that time.

So you’re in New York and you’re obviously spreading your wings as a jazz player and you’re playing with Betty Carter. At what point did hip hop become part of your career?

Karriem Riggins: I joined Roy Hargrove’s band and moved back to Detroit for a year. And that’s when I bought my MPC and just I learned how to work it without a manual. I really dug into that machine and I started to shop beats. Then I met Dilla in ‘96. So just being around him… Man, he set the bar so high, higher than you can ever imagine to this day. It’s just a big influence on me. His work ethic and everything just stepped my whole musicianship to another level. When we met, he was working on Fantastic Volume 2. And our first collaboration was when I played drums on that song “2U4U.” Right after that, he told me he was going to work on Welcome 2 Detroit. And I was telling him, “I’m doing these beats, man. I want you to hear some of my beats.” He was, like “Come through the basement.” So I would frequently go to his basement and play beat tapes that I created. And finally he heard one of the things that I did and he really loved it which he picked for Welcome 2 Detroit and that song was called “The Clapper.” That was the first beat I ever sold that I made with a drum machine.

I don’t want to digress as it’s probably talked about a lot, but how would you describe his style? It’s so original and a touchstone for so many aspects of music production but I’ve always found it hard to characterize.

Karriem Riggins: First, I’ll say that I’ll never not want to talk about Dilla. I talk about Dilla all day and it takes these kinds of talks to continue his legacy, to keep his name ringing. So yeah, it never gets old just like his style never gets old. It’s very futuristic. It’s original to where it cannot be copied. It can’t be duplicated. The same as Thelonious Monk or Herbie Hancock – nobody can do these people. There’s just something special that they brought to this art form that can never, ever be duplicated. Dilla made history. There aren’t any other producers that I would say have changed the way that a piano player or bass player hears harmony because he heard it in such an original way. I don’t think has ever been done. To this day, a lot of people are influenced by him and don’t even know that it’s the source of what they’re doing. That’s how big his movement is, the music that he created, his style.

Given your roots in Detroit scene, did you have common friends and collaborators when you first met?

Karriem Riggins: The only common friend that we had was House Shoes and a rapper named Beej who we went to high school with. House Shoes and Beej were like my homies and they knew Dilla. And from there I met T3, Phat Kat, Baatin, QD… all the dopest cats around Detroit.

And you met Madlib through his work with Dilla?

Karriem Riggins: Yeah, exactly. It was at a Jaylib show in L.A. But we didn’t exchange info or anything until later. I think we connected after Dilla passed and that’s when we really, really got tight. Dilla brought so many people together, man. He had so much love and was just so generous with music and knowledge of music. It brought all of us together, man. A lot of cats in L.A., we were inspired together. It was like a brotherhood. Madlib and I would see each other at parties. I would run into him at the Do Over. We just stayed in touch and when we started passing each other CD’s, that’s when it all kicked off. I think we’re kind of limited to what we hear and what we know. Practicing and listening to a lot of music will expand your ears and your ability. I think it’s all practice actually because it’s not something that just arrives. You can hear that he’s practiced and he’s has such a great knowledge of music. I’ve found loops that Madlib has used and as a student of the music you loop it up… for the sport of production. But it’s not gonna sound the same. The way he manipulates loops… I think he has a gift of finding different ways to make stuff original. When he programs it’s a high level, the way he mixes, he’s one of my favorite engineers. I heard he did the last Freddie Gibbs record with an iPad. That just shows you that you can do anything. If you can hear it, you can do it — on any, any device, any instrument… if you can hear it, you can do it. To be able to do that on an iPad speaks volumes.

What is your practice like? Where do you spend your time?

Karriem Riggins: I use different periods of time doing different things. Sometimes I think it’s just important to listen and not do anything. So I’ll listen to a lot of music maybe for a couple of weeks. Right now I’m in the period where I’m recording drums every day. I’m on the way to Sunset Sound right now to record drums all day for the next week. Sunset Sound is a classic studio where Prince did Purple Rain — he was there from ‘82 to ’87,’ 88. There’s just so much vibes in there. So I’m just using a lot of the old equipment and that’s like going to school. Working with some of these old consoles and learning how to record drums and mic placement and all of that. That’s just another part of the creative process of getting a sound that you want. So you’ve got the listening, you got the recording and then the practice man, that’s most important, especially as a drummer. It is one of the most physical instruments and you got independence and all this left right brain stuff going on. If you don’t continue to practice then you will lose it. I play through all the patterns that I’ve either been practicing on or that I hear in my head and all of that and I bring it back to my studio at home and I make beats. That’s where the beats come from. Or I’ll hear a loop and I have so many patterns that I’ll know exactly what would fit whatever I chop or loop. It’s just bringing everything together. That’s my process.

What is Madlib’s process like? Is he as reclusive as his reputation would have it?

Karriem Riggins: I think that he is on a position as a producer and artist that he doesn’t need to necessarily be in everyone’s face or be onstage performing. He could survive doing what he loves from his “bat location” and I think that’s his voice. I guess people could say he’s reclusive when he has been in the Batcave creating some of the most classic innovative music ever. It takes time and it takes being in an introspective, kind of solid place to do that.

Who are your drumming heroes?

Karriem Riggins: A drummer in Detroit by the name of Lawrence Williams, who was a prolific writer as well, he was one of my favorites, still one of my favorites. Roy Brooks, Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes… Jerome Brailey who did all the Parliament stuff and with Mutiny is one of my favorites. Jeff “Tain” Watts. Gregory Hutchinson, who I spoke about. George Davidson who is drummer in Detroit actually put together my first snare drum. I didn’t have a set. I just had a snare and he put that together for me.

So I wanted to ask you about one beat in particular — “30 Hours” and how it came to be on Kanye’s The Life of Pablo album.

Karriem Riggins: I had known Kanye around the time I met Madlib, really. I toured with Kanye on what I want to say was his first tour, the Kiss the Sky tour. It was Omar Edwards who’s a great producer and piano player. He played bass and pretty much all the instruments on the keyboard and then I had an MPC and a high hat and Kanye had a string section with four string players. And that was the band. We did the full United States tour and that was pretty crazy. That’s how we initially met and I would play him beats from time to time. When my album Alone Together came out, I got a call from his A&R, saying that he heard the record and he loved it and he loved in particular the song “The Boy is Doing It” and he was like, “Do you have any or anything like that ‘cause Kanye is working on something. Now, it’d be dope if you had some beats to send.” This was around the time that he was making Yeezus. So I sent him beats and “30 Hours” was on that beat CD and he picked it out. So when Yeezus finally was announced and came out, I was like “I didn’t make it.” A few years later it popped back up into the conversation on The Life of Pablo.

I’m a big Arthur Russell fan. It was a crazy thrill to hear him sampled like that.

Karriem Riggins: Oh man, that record is genius, man. The way he recorded it, the way he mixed the voice, the echo — it’s next level.

So dope to have Andre 3000 on a such a perfect beat and it always kills me that he doesn’t rap on it.

Karriem Riggins: Yeah, it was dope, man. I’d been talking to Andre 3000 back and forth around the time that album came out, sending him beats, trying to land the right one with him and it’s just dope to finally have something with them on it. But hopefully one day we’ll collaborate on something. And it was dope too to have El De Barge on there, which is not on the album but there’s a version of it that is floating around the internet.

That’s amazing. Let’s talk about your most recent project with Common, Robert Glasper and others – that’s a hugely ambitious project.

Karriem Riggins: Thank you, man. I appreciate that. I just think that I’m a work in progress and I’m learning a lot like at this present time recording all these drums. I think it is only right to have the greatest musicians come in and create something new. Sometimes the sample is relevant and sometimes bringing the live instrumentation and coming up with something new is the way to add on to the art form. So to have Isaiah Sharkey, Burniss Earl Travis II and Robert Glasper and to be able to interpret their music is a blessing. I’m just honored to be able to work in this way and produce in this way.

Your work with Common is another long-standing creative partnership.

Karriem Riggins: Yeah, what I do love about him is that I feel like he is the greatest – as an MC, as a person, as a friend – very inspiring and he pushes everyone that he works with to want to do their best. It’s like, we can do some dope music but it’s not going to work for him unless it’s incredible. So we ended up doing hundreds and hundreds of beats. I mean, I’ve got hundreds of beats that we’ve created. And I just think that kind of work ethic will push you to be great. And that’s our connection, you know what I’m saying? Wanting to present the best music, wanting to just evolve and be innovators.

It’s got sharp commentary and timely politics.

Karriem Riggins: That’s just his process, man. It’s a balance. We have songs that are about love and you know, the message is the message, man. And that’s the most important thing is for him is using his voice to speak to the masses man and say something good and say something relevant, bring a controversial conversation that needs to be talked about. I think that’s important for him.

It’s the 20th anniversary of the Soulaquarians movement. You were on the scene and working with artists associated to that scene – are some of those ideas and aesthetics coming full circle in 2021?

Karriem Riggins: I wasn’t part of Soulaquarians although I’m a huge fan of each and every one of them — maybe because I’m a Virgo [laughs]. I was in Detroit a lot. I peeked in on a few sessions during Like Water for Chocolate and Electric Circus and they were making some of the illest music ever. I hope someone has some of what they recorded on two inch or DAT stashed away somewhere. Because like you said, it’s relevant. The stuff that they were doing now is timeless music like we were talking about, some of the craziest stuff I’ve ever heard- having Dilla involved and playing bass on, Questlove? on drums, James Poyser — all these guys. They’re all my heroes.

What big projects are on the horizon for you?

Karriem Riggins: We just started The Beautiful Revolution, Part Two. My album is close to being completed, working with a lot of people, man. I’m starting a label with my manager, Jay Barber. We started the label just to present music that we love, man. It’s a lot of artists that are unheard. I want to be able to release my music and these artists and present something super positive into the universe. So that’s what I’m working on now.

Your last album Headnod Suite was firmly in the style of sample-based hip-hop. What is this shaping up to be like?

Karriem Riggins: It’s very different, man. The two records that I have out are beat tapes, so to speak. This is more the producer hat — working with artists that I really, really love. I’ve got about three albums now so I don’t know if I’m going to do volumes or a different title for each one, but I got a chance to get my favorite artists that I’ve been wanting to work with forever here. It’s still coming together.

One last Dilla question. You co-produced Dilla’s final project The Shining and he passed before it was completed. What was it like completing it in his absence? How finished was it?

Karriem Riggins: Oh man, I’d say it was about 70% done. I don’t want to really throw that percentage out there and not be right. We started it together in LA. We did the first sessions with J Rocc. One of the first songs was “Body Moving” and we did a lot of live music, pulled in some rappers. But there were songs that he wanted certain rappers on. There were like certain instrumentals where I felt it needed someone to rap on but we hadn’t talked about it. Like the intro was done with Busta but there was a song “Jungle Love” that I pulled Guilty Simpson and MED onto. “Loving Moving”– I pulled Black Thought onto that one. I had to add some interludes because the album and “Dime Piece” with Dwele. There were a few elements that it needed to be a complete project rather than an EP.

That’s a crazy legacy to be a part of.

Karriem Riggins: Yeah, man. He left all the tools for us to complete it. I got a call from him when he was very ill. He wanted me to help him complete it, like “I need you,” and I helped complete the record. But I didn’t know what he was asking at the time because I always had optimism for his health. Like I always thought he could pull through — because he had been very sick, prior to that last time and he’s always gotten better. So it was like Dilla will be alright — he’ll be good.

Of the many artists you’ve worked with who has been the biggest thrill to work with?

Karriem Riggins: I want to name Dilla. I’ll say Madlib… like it’s super-classic, man. Almost everybody that I’ve worked with has been a blessing, man. It’s been a learning experience for me to get to where I am now — working with Diana, Krall working with Paul McCartney. Common — working with him as a fan of his music when I met him. It’s been a blessing in my career to be able to grow up being a fan of artists and then working with them. The lesson is to be a great listener and student of the music, never feeling like a master. I don’t want to ever feel like I mastered this, like I got this. I want to always humble myself to learn more and be better. I think with that in mind, there is room for growth and that’s what it’s all about.

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!