Doo-rags, hoodies and baseball caps aren’t the usual attire of jazz aficionados, but Robert Glasper’s crowd is as notable for its youth as its urban fashion sense. He is dressed like one of them – over-sized T-shirt, baggy jeans and the obligatory glass of liquor in hand. “Don’t let this jazz thing fool you,” he jokes mid-gig as he threatens to break into a rap after seizing the mic from a guest MC. And it wouldn’t have been out of place if he had.
For Glasper, a Blue Note signed piano virtuoso, hip-hop is as intrinsic to his being as his first love, jazz. The fact that his show is taking place in a hip nightclub rather than a venerable jazz venue is testament to his street credentials. His warm-up act isn’t some young pretender polishing his bebop chops but a DJ whose vinyl cases are crammed with Soul and old-school hip-hop. At several points throughout his show I half expect Mos Def, Common or Talib Kweli to jump out from backstage and launch in to a freestyle. It could so easily be a cliché if Glasper wasn’t the real deal.
Born in Texas, raised on gospel and schooled by hip-hop, the classically trained pianist inherited his love of jazz from his mother. Describing his music as jazz/hip-hop/alternative, Glasper has collaborated with hip-hop royalty including Q-Tip, The Roots and the late, great J-Dilla, who he pays tribute to on his album, In My Element.
Clutch caught up with the talented musician after his sold out show. This is Robert Glasper in his element, in his own words:
On the youth and diversity of his audience
I have one foot in jazz and one foot in hip-hop. People know I play with Mos Def and Q-Tip. People know that I’ve been playing with Bilal for years. So doing those three things – and I’ve done stuff with Common, I play on and off with The Roots – I dwell in those kind of areas too. I’ve been in all the hip-hop magazines and stuff like that so that crowd of people know me as well. Also, on my last record, I did a tribute to J-Dilla and I can say I’m one of the only jazz cats who actually got to work with J-Dilla, like at his house. A lot of DJ’s copped that tribute and that thrust me in to another audience as well. Normally my trio set has a mixture of some more traditional type jazz and hip-hop stuff so it has a little bit for everybody. I attract older people too. Most of the older people I know are happy to see young, black, urban people at a jazz concert.
On the relationship between jazz and hip-hop
Jazz was also an outlaw, rebel-type music when it first was born. It didn’t get sophisticated until recently. People got it and made it this sophisticated thing. But really it was a tool for black people to cry out and be anti the situation of the time. So it was rebel music, kind of like hip-hop now except that jazz has lived longer so its had time to go through different stages and now it is known as sophisticated music. Hip-hop is only 30 years old, if that, so it hasn’t had time to get to what people call sophisticated. But I’m not trying to do anything. It’s just natural for me and my band to play that stuff. I like it so I play it. It’s of my generation. And that’s what jazz is missing a lot of the time because cats in their 30s, 40s and 50s were playing music of their generation. That was the hip stuff of now back then. People make the mistake of taking that stuff that was hip for them back then and playing it now and wondering why all the young people don’t think it’s hip. That’s because it was hip in the forties! So now you have to play what [matters] to society now to get people to come see you play and actually have a connection with it. I think that’s why I have the audience that I have and the diversity of the audience that I have.
On why jazz-influenced, hip-hop groups died out
The musical factor in music nowadays is in trouble because people don’t take time to make music anymore. Now everybody has an MP3, everybody is a producer. Now all you have to do is have a drum beat and some random chick with a big ass and you’ve got a hit. It’s not even about the music anymore. It’s about what’s hot right now and it’s whack. So nobody has that discipline and the audience has been dumbed down so much because people have fed them such ignorant dumb music that people think that’s what good music is. And that’s not it. Not all music but most of the music I hear on the radio makes me wanna die. Are you serious? You know what I mean? I think that’s what it is. The musician is a lost art. Everybody does everything on their own because they wanna make all the money. They don’t wanna hire musicians; it’s a whole lot of stuff. Especially nowadays, the music industry is a money industry. It’s not about music anymore. It’s about money and power. That’s all. It’s not even about musicality.
On being compared to jazz great, Herbie Hancock
Oh, it’s not a burden! I’m honored for anybody to say my name in the same breath as Herbie. I know what they mean when they say I’m like Herbie. He wasn’t afraid to branch off with a whole different band and go in to other music. He’s still like that today. He’s not one of those people who thinks that people are gonna call the jazz police if they do other than what’s the norm. He’s not the standard cat. He’s always growing. And I feel like I’m always growing and always trying to venture out and try something different and new so I think that’s the parallel. I tell people I wanna be like Stevie Wonder, Miles Davis, Herbie, John Coltrane. Like, anybody in any genre of music, if you go into their iPods, they’re probably gonna have a Stevie Wonder album. They’re probably gonna have a Coltrane album, they’re probably gonna have a Herbie album. You can even go in to Garth Brooks iPod and I bet you! I wanna do that. I don’t wanna be the jazz cat that only jazz people know about and listen to because I wanna reach the masses and make the jazz audience broader.
On his new album
On the new album I have two bands – one of my bands is called The Robert Glasper Experiment and that’s a more electric, hip-hop based type band and there’s my Trio at the same time. So half of the record is my trio and half is that. And I have Bilal on this record and some special guests that I can’t give away right now.
On chilling out
I’m a movie buff. Even when I’m in New York, I really don’t go anywhere. I’m always home and I watch movies. I love to sit down and watch TV or watch movies and have a snack and chill. My favorite TV show is King of Queens. I literally watch that all day, every day. Even when I’m on tour I have the whole box set.
On why he cut off his locs
A friend of mine started them by accident. She just started twisting one day and I just kept it going. And I had them for nine years and my neck was hot! After a while, when you have locs, you start sleeping wrong but you get used to sleeping wrong. I have neck problems and shoulder problems because you have all that bulk on your head and you’re so used to it you don’t realize it’s wrong and you develop a bad habit of sleeping wrong. You get all these knots in your shoulders… and it was time for my new record and I wanted to do something new, come out new, look new, you know, the whole thing.