An Interview With Karriem Riggins

Chris Daly speaks to the legendary producer about collaborating with J Dilla, the genre-defying creative process with Jahari Massaba Unit on their new album YHWH is LOVE and more.
By    March 7, 2024

Photo via Jimel Primm

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Chris Daly spent the morning trying to convince AI Drunk Friend it has a drinking problem and needs to seek help.. This bot needs to take a long look at the AI in the mirror.

It’s little surprise that Jahari Massaba Unit are artfully obliterating the lines between jazz, hip-hop, rock, and soul. After all, Madlib, and Karriem Riggins have been doing it for decades. And once again, with their latest album, YHWH is LOVE, the duo have delivered one of the year’s early contenders for funkiest jazz album of 2024.

The process for JMU is relatively simple. Riggins sends drum beats to Madlib to craft into more fully realized tracks. But the results are richly complex. On their debut album, Pardon My French, the two production legends suffused their grooves with xylophones and a smoky cafe feel. It had a, well, French vibe that outlined the contours of their sound and vision. Released earlier this month, YHWH is LOVE feels less constrained by theme, allowing for wider exploration and experimentation. From the Ray Manzerak-style keys on the funky groove “Otis’ Tambourine” to the late night lull of “All Things,” the album flows across myriad styles, all underpinned by Riggins’ lush percussion. Madlib takes care of everything else, including bass, keys, horns and probably some kitchen sink strumming for good measure. His sensibilities as an extraordinary crate digger serve him and the listener well.

No sound is left unexplored. Quiet storm over twinkling keys and crisp percussion? Why not? (“Anointed Soul” and “With YHWH Love”)? Bumping basslines? Everywhere (“Boppin” is a prime example). 70s stylings steeped in slinky keys? You bet (“JMU’s Voyage”). Marriage of African grooves and ballroom? Sure thing (“Massamba Afundance”). Thumping outro? Yessir (“Seven Mile to Oxnard”). More xylophones? Hell, JMU has you covered there, too (“Stomping Gamay”). If your desire is to find yourself awash in jazzy funkification, YHWH is LOVE should be in your library.

To get a better feel for the magic behind the music, I recently spoke with Karriem Riggins to discuss the creative process between the musical madmen. How did the two men meet and make this phenomenal music together? It’s one thing to jam out in person, but how does the JMU back-and-forth-but-not-in-person dynamic differ? How does a duo do its duo-thing under those circumstances? Is it due to the individual player’s dynamic bond? Actual telepathy? What’s the meaning behind YHWH is LOVE?

With SEVEN albums slated for release in 2024, it’s fair to assume that the longtime Dilla collaborator, percussionist and storied producer likely doesn’t get his full eight hours of shut-eye each night, but still Riggins took time out from a super-busy schedule – that also included attending the funeral of Joseph “Amp” Fiddler, which he wanted me to share, because as he pointed out, “we want to keep celebrating our geniuses – to fill in the details. Oh, and while it’s not here, he also has great travel suggestions if you’re visiting Paisley Park and want to impress the docent. Read on to find out more.

Why don’t we start at the beginning so that we get some context. I did a little bit of my own research and looked through the stuff that the label sent over. So you met [Madlib] back in ’07 through Dilla?

Karriem Riggins: That’s a little off, we actually met 2004 at the Fonda theater. That was a night they had debuted the Jaylib record and the MadVillain. It was like a MadVillain and Jaylib show, and we met there. And you know, we stayed in touch, we got a little closer after Dilla passed away. And we were frequently going to a party called The Do Over, that’s a Jamie Strong party. And we start passing each other beat CDs. And that is kind of what initiated our collaboration process and just working together.

My understanding is you’re handing off beat tapes, and that progresses and to you sending over drum loops.

Karriem Riggins: Yeah, I handed him like maybe four weeks in a row just beats to beats to beats. But then it was like, you know, I had been recording drums around that time, just getting creative and just solo drumming, just playing ideas. And I handed him a CD just to see what he thought of it, not even in the context of us creating together. And he went home and came back the next week, and there was an album of 10 songs completed, and that just blew my mind.

There’s just so much chemistry (on the album), it feels like there’s a bunch of people in the same room doing this. Did you guys just immediately bond? How does the connection get there for lack of a better way of putting it?

Karriem Riggins: I’ve done records with so many people in the studio, from working with Diana Krall to Ray Brown and Paul McCartney. A lot of the times when we were recording all of that stuff, we’re all in the same room. But to be able to do this, this was the first time that I was ever in a group where I send someone drums and get back a full repertoire of incredible music. So this is kind of like, you know, this is very organic and new for me to be able to experience music from this perspective.

Can we take any of these tracks here off the new album and go through a step-by-step? Maybe “Funky Tambourine?”

*Editor’s note: the original review album sent out had track three listed as “Funky Tambourine,” when the correct name is “Otis’ Tambourine.” When someone writes the 33 1/3 book on this album, you’re welcome for the otherwise meaningless tidbit.

Karriem Riggins: What’s dope about the way that song came together is that I sent him the drum I did, something that was like a skeleton idea of me playing the cymbal and “less is more,” like simplicity, like a simplistic groove. And he is the person that plays a tambourine on top of that, with all the keyboards that we put on that, so the tambourine ideas, all him, and I was just blown, to hear how he created that, on top of the idea, was just genius. So that’s how that came together. And it he made it very dynamic, because it goes, it changes gears, and it just has a lot of different sections that can paint a picture of where we’re trying to go musically and conceptionally.

I realize you can’t read somebody’s mind, but when you’re playing the drums and the percussion, are these coming back to you in any way, shape or form like you thought, or is it, I threw this out, and he threw it back and just went in a direction that I didn’t even know, but it was fantastic?

Karriem Riggins: A lot of the ideas I’m playing, like actual hits, as if there was a horn player playing a like a melody, like a head melody on a song. He’ll listen to that. And man, it’s like he can read my mind, like, this is the actual head, he knows that that is the melody, and he’ll play something similar, or, you know, along the lines of what I created, and it takes it to another level. I’m always absolutely surprised with what I hear when I get it back.


Karriem Riggins: Well, I’m just an advocate of channeling a high vibration music. I feel like music is healing. You know, and with God the most important thing is having high vibration. People need to be uplifted these days. I know I do. And creating this music is definitely uplifting. So I just feel like Yahweh brings existence with whatever exists. So with that creation of the music, it’s just definitely channeling the Supreme Being.

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