Growing up in Motown and being raised by two musical parents it was probably inevitable that Zo! (Lorenzo Fergusen) would be involved in music. Described by his friend and collaborator Sy Smith as a "young Quincy Jones", Zo! can do it all, just don't ask him to sing. The Washington Informer caught up with Zo! ahead of his show at Blues Alley with Sy Smith and discussed his musical influences, finding the time to be a touring musician as well as a music educator and his collaboration with Sy Smith.
Washington Informer: How would you describe your production style?
Zo!: Very free, very open. You know, it's nothing that I like to put boundaries around. I may wake up and wanna do an R&B record, next day I may wake up and wanna do a salsa influenced record, the next day I may want to do a jazz influenced record. So, I would say that it's pretty, pretty diverse. I'm a lover of music, I don't put any boundaries on what I listen to, so I definitely don't put any boundaries on what I'm creating.
Washington Informer: You grew up in Detroit, you now live in the DC area. How has growing up in Motown influenced you musically?
Zo!: I think it influenced me heavily. My mother is originally from this area, she's originally from Maryland and my father was originally from Florida. Living with musical parents I think had even more of an influence than the area, I think we could have been living anywhere and I would have had some type of influence from their musical taste. They were always playing music in the house, always playing music in the car; 8-Track and vinyl was all over the place, so I was exposed to great music very early. I would probably credit them much more so than where I was born, I wasn't around for the golden age of Motown, but it definitely influenced me. I think later on, once I started making music and started getting with other people from the area, we started pushing each other. You know, cats like Wajeed and Nick Speed and of course Dilla and Slum Village. I think growing up around a musical household was more my foundation than anything.
Washington Informer: Being from Detroit, Jay Dilla had to be a big influence on you right?
Zo!: Yeah definitely. You know his music was something that we really took pride in because it was so high quality and was something that nobody had ever heard. You know when I first heard the song "Players" like it kind of changed my view, just on the production quality of hip-hop, because up to that point, what was it '98?, up to'98? I hadn't heard anything that sounded anything like that, not even remotely close. I use to go on campus, I liked to go to the library, and log on to www.sandboxautomatic.com, and click on the [laughs] the little album sample and just listen to that joint over and over again I was like, yeah I was mesmerized.
Washington Informer: Who were some of your other musical influences?
Zo!: They're so many, there's too many to name.
Washington Informer: Just like your top 5.
Zo!: I would say the Mizell Brothers are definitely (in my) top 3. I may have to look at my iTunes, I'm gonna mess around and forget like five people. Definitely Earth, Wind & Fire, I think composition wise, live performance wise and making stuff sound big. Definitely Dilla, that's another one as far as like making your sound diverse. He makes the hard core hip-hop record, (then) he's flipping them up and producing for cats like (Erykah) Badu. His style, pretty much defined the so called "Neo-Soul" era. Let me think of somebody else; of course you've got Stevie (Wonder) and the different Motown producers like Norman Whitfield and cats like that. Quincy Jones is another one, that's another huge one. So I'm definitely leaning on him (Jones) more towards scoring and writing actual compositions so that you have different movements, different phases and different changes. I'm a real, real big music nerd when it comes to that type of thing. It's almost to where I don't even hear the lyrics, I'm paying so much attention to what's going on in the music.
Washington Informer: How has living and working in DC influenced you musically?
Zo!: It's given me a different look on it. When I first got here, it took me about three or four months to even make anything; just the new environment and trying to take everything in. The thing is, DC has a real dope nucleus of musicians as well. So I think the influence here, it's definitely more of a live instrumentation influence. It was different for me coming here because as a musician, I had to get used to being called in for gigs that was something new for me. In the D (Detroit), you're a musician normally you're with a crew and that's your crew and y'all do gigs together and that's it. Here, you know you can play with any group of cats. So, you know you just get a call and "Yo we need a keyboard to do this gig, you free?'' And then you just go play. You get around some of these top musicians man and you know, you get back home and you're ready to put something down or just sit down and practice for a few hours, just to keep your chops up.
Washington Informer: What are some of the instruments you play?
Zo!: My primary instrument is piano/keyboard, secondary would be bass guitar and my third would be drums because I've gigged on the drums before. My last instrument, my weakest, instrument is guitar. I call myself a studio guitarist, because you know you're able to start over and we recorded a lot of good stuff, but I haven't gigged on the guitar yet.
Washington Informer: I've read that you're also a music teacher. How do you find time to be a touring artist as well as a music teacher?
Zo!: I was doing it full time, I was at a special education high school in DC called Rock Creek Academy from '06 until this past August when the school shut down. You know what, I don't know where the time came from, I guess in that sense I guess I'm lucky that I'm a night owl, because I can actually function off of three or four hours of sleep. Because that's pretty much what it took to try to even maintain any type of balance in your life. Since the school shut down I'm giving private piano lessons, either face to face or via Skype. So, I'm still finding time, I still enjoy making a difference in people's lives. I really think that whatever gifts that I have musically, I want to pass it down. I think that, it would be really selfish to take that stuff to the grave with you.
Washington Informer: So teaching isn't just a "day job" for you?
Zo!: Absolutely, absolutely. You can find me sometimes, even at 2 and 3 o' clock (in the morning) just going through ITunes. I'll put a playlist on shuffle just to challenge myself, whatever comes up you gotta learn it and you gotta play it. A lot of times, it doesn't even really feel like work.
Washington Informer: Yeah, that's when it's good [laughs]. Doing something you like.
Zo!: Definitely, definitely.
Washington Informer: Going back to the teaching, in your opinion how important is music education in schools?
Zo!: I think its huge man. I think it's really messed up because as long as I can remember the arts and things like that have always been shunned and kinda pushed to the side and kinda looked at as not really important in schools. And of course, when the budgets are cut, (the arts) that's the first thing to go. Folks, who are typically inclined, normally do better in core, their core classes. There's so many different ways in your core classes; math, English, reading and social studies and things like that, you can incorporate the arts to help your kids to excel. I've personally seen kids that I've taught do complete 180's, not only in the classroom, but in their lives, because they're able to latch onto something that they do well. So it, really carries over man. I don't think a lot of people, even those who call themselves educators, really understand and don't realize how much of an impact, the arts period can have on a child's life.
Washington Informer: How did you start working with Foreign Exchange? Before you answer that, I know it kind of started out as a joke but that Love the 80's record you did with Phonte was great. Seriously, just on the strength of the album cover you guys had me with that one.
Zo!: [Laughs] I met Phonte back in December of '05, he was touring with Little Brother at the time. I was living in Michigan and I went to see them at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor. Basically, what ended up happening was before we even met, I came out with an album that year called Re:Definition, Re:Definition was basically a remix project and on the album I remixed two Little Brother songs. On their message boards at the time, the justiceleague.com message boards, one of the dudes on there was like "Yo, I think Phonte heard the joint" or whatever I was like word? When I went to the show, I was like, let me see if I can catch him real quick and just, you know? Just dap him up, I had that whole little thing mapped out or whatever. We end up running into each other after the show, we introduced each other and he, and he was like "Yo, I know who you are" And I was, like, word! And he was like "Yeah, I got your album in my iPod". So we ended up exchanging information and a couple months later we were working on "Stepping Out" from ...just visiting, the vinyl joint. We started working on the 80's album and like you said, it was as a joke at first. But then I was like shoot, there's about to be some serious music. There's a studio chemistry, we're basically cut from the same cloth of music and listening to diverse stuff. While we were working on the'80s album, he was saying with the next Foreign Exchange record he wanted me to be involved in the live aspect of it.
Washington Informer: Tell me about Sy Smith. You guys do a joint show, how did this collaboration start?
Zo!: Me and Sy met through a mutual friend in Chicago, Duane Powell. Duane is a major catalyst, as far as spreading around underground soul music to the city of Chicago because he used to work at a big record spot there called Doctor Wax. The way he used to do it is, when people would come to the store that he would want you to talk to or meet or whatever, he would just call you. So one day, Sy came through there, I was already a fan of Sy's. So he called me, he was, like, "Yo, Sy is at the store man, you wanna talk to her?" So we get on the phone, we start talking or whatever, just chattin' it up, just lots of small talk. Next thing you know, Duane went out to LA, kickin' it with Sy, he was like yeah, "Sy told me" 'you know Zo's gonna produce something on my new album, he just don't know it yet.' " So we finally met face to face when she did a show at Bohemian Caverns (DC) and maybe a month or two after that we did "Crazy You". A month or two after that we did the "Greatest Weapon Of All Time". Sy's another one, she's super-duper professional, she's been around anybody who's anybody, whether in the studio or singing background for them. That type of thing is nothing, getting music sent to her, going into the studio, that's nothing. That's a day in the office, so anytime I send music to her I know it's in good hands. Matter of fact she just sent me a joint last week for my new album so I'm hyped up about it.
Washington Informer: You've worked with several artists. Who else would you like to work with?
Zo!: There's a few, one is at the top, that's actually one of my favorite R&B vocalist, Faith Evans. I've been a huge, huge, huge, Faith fan since her first album. Actually her first two albums are two of my favorites. I would love to work with Faith Evans just on some let's work from scratch, even if it's just one or two joints. I think that would be real dope. I know that's she's very talented vocally as well as songwriting; I would love to work with Faith. Another one would be Layla Hathaway, of course anything with The Roots, even just sitting in with them, that would be dope. Just to name a few so we're not interviewing until midnight [laughs].
Washington Informer: [Laughs] Your last album was SunStorm. Earlier, you mentioned that you were working on some stuff for a new album, what are you currently working on?
Zo!: Well right now, I'm about 25-plus tracks deep into this new solo album. It is the follow up to SunStorm, between there was ...just visiting three, but that was kinda was the prelude, this is the new solo album. We're looking to have it out at the end of this year, I don't have a working title for it as of yet, I'm sure it'll pop into my head pretty soon. People gonna like it [laughs].
Washington Informer: Are you going to keep it at 25 tracks or you going to cut it down?
Zo!: No, we're cutting that, we're cutting that on down.
Washington Informer: Are you singing on this project?
Zo!: I do not sing [laughs].
Washington Informer: [Laughs] Ok, for the people whom may have been living under a rock and have never seen Sy Smith and Zo! live, please tell them what they're missing.
Zo!: You know what, with us I think it's just a lot of fun man. A lot of people that I work with are also great friends of mine, so when we preform together it shows on stage. We're just not friends on stage and then we just go our separate ways or whatever after the show, this is fun for us. So, you're gonna get a lot of dope music, high energy and a lot of laughs. You gonna see us smiling and laughing while we're playing , just acting a fool man. I think that type of energy is needed at a live show. When folks come out we all gonna have a ball.
Sy Smith & Zo! – Blues Alley / Wednesday, June 13, 2012 / WDC