"Radio, suckas never play me".
The immortal words of Chuck D often come to my mind when I turn the radio on and scan up and down the dial looking for something to listen to, only to be treated to the same five songs every hour. If variety is supposed to be the spice of life, radio has been feeding us the same leftovers from a bland, tasteless, boring microwave dinner for a very long time now. It's not like there's a shortage of talented, relevant artists out there; radio has fallen victim to its homogeneous, cookie cutter, one-size-fits all programming. Robert Glasper is here to shake things up. Glasper developed his genre bending sound in church, where he would mix gospel harmonies with jazz harmonies. Although Glasper's early albums leaned more towards traditional jazz, Glasper has collaborated with several notable Hip-Hop and R&B artist including Bilal, Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def), Q-Tip, Erykah Badu, Jay-Z and Maxwell. Glaspor's 2009 album Double-Booked, which was split between his acoustic jazz Robert Glasper Trio and the hip-hop/R&B Robert Glasper Experiment, led directly to his latest chart-topping project, Black Radio. Black Radio explores all the sounds that Glasper has worked in: jazz, hip-hop, soul, R&B, rock and blends them into one seamless sound.
The Washington Informer spoke with Robert Glasper before his upcoming show at the Warner Theatre to discuss the importance of arts education in schools, the current state of music and why nice guys get called for gigs first.
Washington Informer: You grew up in Houston, TX. How did growing up there influence you musically?
Robert Glasper: I grew up playing in church in Houston; the Houston Baptist Church influenced me. So I grew up playing in church and I started playing literally with one finger when I was, like 11, 12 years old. My Mother was the music director at the church and the pianist. They had a broke organ that kind of played and kind of didn't, and I practiced on that. After a few years, I got better and better and they bought a new organ. From there, I went to a performing arts high school. That's where I really learned how to play jazz; they had a jazz band and a jazz combo. You know, it was one of those "Fame" schools, where they had dancing and singing and acting, and all that kinda stuff. So, and I learned a lot from the students there. I would say, church, and going to the high school that I went to, HSPVA, had a lot to do with it.
Washington Informer: You attended the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA) in Houston. In your opinion, how important is arts education in schools?
Robert Glasper: It's very important. Music wouldn't be where it was today, especially jazz, if it wasn't for arts high schools, you know? At my arts high school alone - I went there; Jason Moran was there, Kendrick Scott, Eric Harland, Chris Dave, Jamire Williams, Walter Smith, and Alan Hampton. These are some of the premiere jazz musicians out there that are pushing the music and keeping it afloat. So without that, without us, there would be less cats looking up to us, which means less young people playing the music. I also went to high school with Beyoncé. You know what I'm saying? So I think, without that school, without the camaraderie of the students that are doing the same things you're doing and pushing you. It's kind of a competition but in a good way, I think it's extremely important. That's the only reason that I had moved to New York really was because I got a full scholarship to school. If there was no way for me to get a full scholarship playing music I wouldn't have been able to move to New York. Nobody would be able to move to New York, unless you were rich. You know, that's the reason for a lot of great musicians out right now. That's the reason why jazz is still afloat and still has some sort of relevancy right now, because of all the high school and college kids that come out of it loving the music and went to school for it.
Washington Informer: Your Mother, Kim Glasper, sang professionally. Can you tell me one thing she taught you about the business that you still use in your career today?
Robert Glasper: I have my Mother's personality [laughs]. She was always one of those people that people liked, and when people like you that goes far beyond your instrument. There are lot of great musicians out there, doesn't mean they're gonna get a call. So a lot of times, they won't call you, because you're, you know? A messed up kind of person, or just not a good person to hang out with. You got to go on the road with somebody and be on the road with them for three months, kinda want to have someone on the road that you can actually tolerate [laughs]. So I got that from her. Everyone loved her; she was everyone's favorite person. That was just something I saw, she didn't have to say anything, and I guess she taught me by example. I think when people like you, that opens up a lot of doors. Even if you're not a good musician. If you're mediocre, but people really like you [laughs] you can go further than somebody that's really good on their instrument that people don't like. My whole philosophy is - I've met Stevie Wonder and I've met Herbie (Hancock) and they were both amazingly cool - so anybody on Earth can be cool as far as I'm concerned [laughs].
Washington Informer: You come from a "traditional" jazz trio format; you're now incorporating soul, hip-hop and rock into your music. Does this just reflect the evolution of your sound or was it planned?
Robert Glasper: This is definitely the natural evolution of my sound. This is actually something I've been holding back [laughs], this has always been a part of my sound, even on my very first record. I have a record on Fresh Sound label, a small label from Spain. I did a record in 2002 and I have some hip-hop stuff on there and some kinda soul, more soulful vibe stuff and Bilal is on there. So once I got signed to Blue Note, I wanted to be taken seriously as a jazz pianist. So I purposefully made my first few records more straight up jazz, at least my way straight up jazz, so I can get that respect that I want as a musician. As a young black pianist, people are very quick to label you as a "hip hop" piano player. You don't get, those credentials of, being mentioned with people like Brad Mehldau, or Jason Moran, or, you know, those kind of cats when you're young, coming up, so I definitely wanted to make sure that I was able to make that statement first. Then go abroad and do what I do, do other stuff that I wanted to do. I think people respect it more, you know?
Washington Informer: The respect of your peers, is that something that's important to you?
Robert Glasper: I think respect from your peers is very important. The people after you are the future and your peers are the people that keep you afloat. You know? The older cats don't really have much say in what goes on in music nowadays, they're struggling themselves. I'm sure there's a lot of older cats kind of grumpy like hey, 'what is he doing?!? That's not jazz' or whatever but the peers and the people under you are what count. They're always what keep things flowing, keeps you relevant. They can make you relevant or not relevant really fast. It's very important for me to just make sure that they are interested in what I'm doing and they like it.
Washington Informer: In a recent interview you stated that you were "bored" with jazz. Was your boredom with jazz the inspiration behind Black Radio?
Robert Glasper: Yep, totally. Jazz musicians, their music has been stagnant for a long time. People are pretty much doing the same thing. New albums, maybe new songs, but pretty much the same sound. No one's coming out with anything that's really like breaking people's necks like 'oh my God, what's that?' or something cutting edge, something new. It's been a long time since jazz has done that, a very long time. So, yeah I got bored with it. I'm thinking it needed some new life, some new air. So I was like hey, I wanna do this and this is a natural progression for me this isn't something I'm doing just because I think is cool. This is literally what comes natural to me and all these people that are on my record are my friends. I text them all like, 'hey I'm doing an album!' It wasn't something that was farfetched for me. It was just kinda like hey let me just do me, I've always done me, but it's like let me really do me now and just bring some new life in here and stir things up a little bit.
Washington Informer: Black Radio debuted at #1 on the Jazz charts and #4 on the Hip-Hop/R&B charts. Were you surprised by not only the critical acclaim but the sales success as well?
Robert Glasper: Oh man, I was totally surprised. Honestly, I was expecting this album to be a really great underground album that everybody just talked about. But, I was not expecting to be on the Hip-Hop/R&B charts. Because, you know nowadays, real music doesn't get that kind of attention. To be right under Drake and Rihanna - it was Tyga, Drake, Rihanna, and then Robert Glasper Experiment; I would not have thought that in a million years. If you would have told me that before this record came out, I would've laughed. So this, this was a blessing and an amazing, amazing thing that happened here. I really did not expect for this to happen, 21,000 sales in the first week. You know, I honestly was not expecting this to happen. But I'm so happy that everybody got on board.
Washington Informer: The word of mouth on Black Radio, before it came out, was tremendous.
Robert Glasper: Yeah, my boys were being like 'yo, what's this?!? This was like Watch The Throne with Jay-Z and Kanye, you're getting just as much publicity as Watch The Throne' it was crazy [laugh] you know? It wasn't a mainstream album; it wasn't an album with Rihanna and Beyoncé on it. It had Erykah (Badu) and it had Lupe (Fiasco). But, for the most part, it was more soul, kinda underground type vibe – Lalah, Ledisi, Stokley, that kinda thing. It was a good mixture of it, you know what I mean? And that's why I'm really happy because I didn't have to go get a Drake in order to get those kinda charts.
Washington Informer: Black Radio features several guest artists (including Erykah Badu, Bilal, Lupe Fiasco, Lalah Hathaway, and Ledisi). Did the number of guest artists make recording difficult?
Robert Glasper: Recording was difficult because of scheduling purposes because everybody on that album is their own artist, of course, and they all have their own tours and record dates and all that kind of stuff. So those recording dates kept getting pushed around a lot. So it made it kinda difficult. But it worked, you know what I mean? I did what I could in the one big chunk of days I had in LA; we had four days and I was able to record eight of the artists in those four days. Then I just chased the other artists down wherever they were [laughs]. So we, we made it work. It was worth it.
Washington Informer: In the Black Radio liner notes, you say that "98% of stuff you hear on the radio is wack". Besides not playing the same five songs every hour, how can we make radio less "wack"?
Robert Glasper: I guess the radio stations that get the most plays, have the highest ratings, are your Hip-Hop/R&B stations. Nine times out of ten they are playing the same five songs about women, money and the club. If I hear another song about the club, I'm going to jump off the building. It's all about literally the same thing; it's the same kind of one-hit wonder type artist. So my thing is, if they could change the format a little bit, play some music that has some substance, I think our young people will be in a better place. Whether they know it or not, the radio still has a really big impact on young people. My son is three years old and he sings the most outrageous songs from the radio, I'm like how do you know that?!? It's not good songs; it's songs that are saying some things that he shouldn't be saying. So if we could just mix it up, play some things that actually have a good message and an artist that actually can sing, some musicality. Things that have musicality make people want to play instruments you know, it's better for everyone. But, you know, nowadays, in the industry, every record label wants the same artist and they compete with each other for that same artist and that same song, it's just not about the music anymore. It's just all about money now and what's hot and how can we copy whatever is hot.
Washington Informer: I think most people would be happy if we could get a little balance. There's no balance.
Robert Glasper: Oh, yeah, I'm not saying take all that stuff off the radio. Balance, exactly, balance.
Washington Informer: You were recently down at SXSW. How was that experience for you?
Robert Glasper: [Laughs] South by Southwest, I think they have like, what is there, 4,000 bands in 4 days? It's just like a lot of in and out, in and out, in and out and I guess they don't have jazz music there. So when they let us be on the bill they put us in this little small place that only fit 150 people and there were like 400 people outside trying to get in. They didn't really understand our fan base and what kind of crowd we could pull [laughs]. So, I mean it worked out. We only got 45 minutes to play; they had another band before, another band after us, kind of a fast food vibe. It's so in and out; it's kind of fast, kind of hectic. I'm glad we did it, so maybe they'll invite us back and get us a bigger room and a little more time.
Washington Informer: Okay, that leads me to my next question. What do you think about the idea that SXSW has gotten too big, too corporate and has lost touch with its original roots?
Robert Glasper: I think so. I mean, the way it is, it's literally too much. That was really my first time there. I'd never been there and when I told people I was coming, they were like, 'really, you go to SXSW?!?' they weren't expecting that. I do think it's gotten too big, too corporate and maybe less about the music. It's literally like everyone goes in there, you play one song and pack up [laughs] you know?
Washington Informer: Robert, what's next for you?
Robert Glasper: Well, right now I'm in the middle of the Black Radio tour, so we're going to hit a few more things in the states, of course we're coming to DC on the 3rd of April. Right after that, I believe we're going to Europe for pretty much the whole month of April and some of May. And you know I have some boiling thoughts about what I'm going to do next, I'm just keeping that light and let it come as it comes.