Karriem Riggins is synonymous to jazz. Karriem Riggins is also synonymous to hip-hop. Karriem Riggins makes beats using MPCs, drum sets, samples and anything he can get his hands on. Karriem Riggins rhymes. Karriem Riggins is a musician, a teacher, and a father, but most importantly he is Karriem Riggins. The only thing he prescribes in is what he hears and that’s why you should get to know him. Check out the interview and experience some new tracks from his upcoming Stonesthrow debut entitled “Alone Together.”
Growing up you played a number of different instruments. What were some of your first musical experiences?
I mean, I started playing drums at an early age. I started showing interest around 3 or 4-years-old. I got a set probably when I was around 6. I also played trumpet. I studied with Marcus Belgrave. I played trumpet until seventh grade and I also picked up piano. In high school I picked up the upright bass, in like tenth grade. I played that for a couple of years. I still pick it up after the shows sometimes and fool around. Those were the instruments though I showed interest in growing up, but my main forte is drums and rhythm.
What were you listening to in those days that inspired you to pick up all of these different instruments?
A lot of straight ahead jazz, a lot of Miles, a lot of Trane, Monk, and a lot of drummers like Roy Haynes, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones. A lot of funk as well, a lot of James Brown. That was the inspiration in the house, you know. I was just digging through my mom’s record collection. I also listened to the Fat Boys back then, and UTFO, Big Daddy Kane, a lot of that stuff. A lot of the stuff that people were looping from the funk world like Clyde Stubblefield and stuff like that.
And you spent some time in the studio playing around with your father as well, right?
Yeah definitely. That’s where I learned from an engineering standpoint how to make a record and how to make the drums sound a certain way. You know, tuning and all that, I learned from being in the studio.
You play so many different roles within the music. Lets start off from the engineering standpoint. Is there a certain way you like to mic the drums to get “your” sound?
Without a doubt. I mean, mic placement I think is the most important thing. I don’t have a formula, because every room is different. So I just kind of like to feel the room out and use my ears to get the sound that I really like.
Do you have any favorite microphones to use on the drums?
Not actually, no. I’ve worked with some of the cheapest mics and gotten the best sound.
Do you have any favorite studios to work at?
Yeah, I work a lot in Detroit at Studio A. There’s an engineer there that shares the same vision as I do. His name is Todd Fairall. He’s mixed a lot of the stuff I’ve done and he mixed the old Slum Village stuff. He worked a lot with Dilla. There’s also a spot in LA I use called Castle Oaks. That’s out in Calabasas. There are a few studios, but a lot of them have closed. One Track Record, that was in North Hollywood and I did a lot of stuff there as well.
Going back to your career, did you start gigging out of high school or did you study music in college at all?
Straight out of high school I moved to New York. I basically learned just by going in to hear all of the masters. Back then I got a chance to hear Art Taylor, he was still around, and Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes. There was this guy named Jimmy Lovelace, he was a bad cat. For a few years he would wear all white every day. I would hear him at Small’s and at clubs like that. So yeah, I learned from just being around those guys and paying attention.
What was your first professional gig?
My first professional gig was in Detroit with Marcus Belgrave . I played a lot with him. He did a thing every Sunday that was like a workshop and it was at a place called the Serengeti Ballroom. So every Sunday I would go and play with him.
When did you get hooked up with Ray Brown?
I met Ray Brown in I want to say ’96. Greg Hutchinson, one of my favorite drummers, was playing with Ray Brown at the time and he was leaving to go play with Joshua Redman. He called me and said, “Look, if you want this gig learn the music and I’ll make sure to let Ray know.” I went to their shows and I would record the gigs and then study the music. Then Ray flew me out for kind of like an audition. They played Yoshi’s for a week and I recorded all of those shows. The last day, we had a rehearsal and I was on the gig. It was ’98 and that was the first gig I made with him. And then I think I played for two years with him after that.
As far as mentoring goes, did he take an active role with you?
He taught me a lot of things business-wise and musically. His concept of trios was really deep. He came a lot out of Count Basie and a lot of the big band influence and the sound and I learned that concept for trio.
Now, aside from just being interested in hip-hop at a young age, when did you get involved in producing and writing?
I mean, that was going on at the same time pretty much. I was born into it. It just felt natural to do hip-hop. You know, I had a rap group in elementary school. I started that in like fourth grade.
What did you rap about in fourth grade?
Crazy freestyles about corny stuff [laughs]. I think I have my first demo from like fifth grade. It’s hilarious.
So how did you end up working with groups like Slum Village?
I met a lot of those guys actually while working with Common. I toured a lot of years with Common. I met him in ’96 at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago. Just being on tour with him, I got a chance to meet a lot of those guys. He came to Detroit when he was working on One Day It’ll All Make Sense to get beats from Dilla. That was the first time I met Dilla. We went to his basement in Conant Gardens; so that’s how I met him.
And did you immediately connect with him?
I did, yeah. He gave me his number and I called him. I came back and played him some of my music. We collab’d on a few things and that’s when I played drums on “2 U 4 U” on Fantastic Volume 2. And after that man, we would just connect. It was a great connection.
You have a great connection with Common as well. What did he first see in you that really brought you guys together?
I just always felt like he is one amazing artist that could incorporate a band and take the music so much farther. I think initially that was our connection, you know, trying to take what he does and bring it with the live presentation. We all grow from learning from each other. So we learned a lot from each other.
You produce as well, and not only in hip-hop, but in jazz and a lot of different types of music. Did it take a while to train your ears or was that something that came naturally to you?
I feel it’s natural, but I listen to so much music and I think that the more music you listen to, the more references you have. I just think that it’s very important to listen to as much music as you can and go back and learn the history of it. That’s all part of developing your ear.
Do you still listen to a ton of music nowadays?
Oh I do definitely!
Where do you find most of your music?
I still go to 45 stores, I shop online for mp3s and records, Ebay, Amazon, everything.
What’re some of your favorite things that you have heard recently?
It’s so wild man. I’ve been digging back into the Elvin Jones Merry-Go-Round and that type of sound. A lot of Elvin and a lot of Roy Haynes. And making new beats man, it’s been a lot of obscure stuff.
You have been on tour with Diana Krall for a while as well. How did you get involved with her and why is that a project you want to be involved with?
I’ve learned a lot from playing with Diana. For a drummer I think it’s good to play with a singer. It just adds so much to your style. It teaches drummers how to be dynamic. You have to play with dynamics. She comes out of Nat King Cole and has studied a lot of what I’ve studied. She’s also a protégé of Ray Brown, so she also comes out of that school. It’s just a perfect fit and I enjoy what she does. I learn a lot from being out here.
When was the idea for this Alone Together record first conceived?
It’s been a while. I had a project named Alone Together and it was a whole other batch of beats, but it was called Alone Together. I just started taking certain beats off of it and it started forming into what it is now. Initially I was going to rhyme on a few of the songs, but I decided to just keep it instrumental. Instrumentals are powerful. There’s so much you can get from the music. That’s how it came together.
What was it on the non-musical side that brought you into the space to make this record?
Just being around family and having the space to create. Sometimes I need to be in a new environment to spark that new inspiration and new sound. Having my son too. He’s very inclined to play some crazy rhythms so I got some crazy ideas from him. And yeah, being in Detroit is classic. I feel like I can really create. I don’t get into creative ruts or anything like that in Detroit. I like being here when I’m working on projects.
What has been the importance of the music scene in Detroit? The city has such a rich history.
The scene is very important. I think that there are so many dope musicians, dope producers, and singers that one thing that I do love about Detroit is that the love is still there. I don’t feel like there are any competitive vibes. Some scenes can be a little weird, but Detroit is all about the love. That’s one thing that I really love about my city.
You make the transition between jazz and hip-hop so seamless. What is the connection between the two for you?
I think just living it, you know. I feel like growing up in hip-hop and growing up in jazz, it’s just natural to do. I don’t think I could do any other thing. It’s just what I feel and what I listen to. I think that whatever we listen to is pretty much what we’re going to reflect.
What are you looking forward towards doing next? Is it more jazz, more hip-hop or both?
I’ve got to do it together and just mix it up. That’s the only way I can feel progressed. I want to create new sounds and take the music to new heights. I don’t want to just concentrate on one thing. So I think having a mixture of different paths to go down is good for my creativity.
What was the recording process like for you with Alone Together both equipment-wise and environment-wise?
I made beats at home, in the studio at Studio A in Detroit, some private planes [laughs], some tour bus beats, venue dressing rooms. There’s a mixture man. A lot of different places. I pretty much mixed everything in my studio in Michigan.
Did you bring anyone in to give you a second pair of ears or anything like that?
My son. He even named a few of them like “Ding Dong Bells” and some others. I trust his ears. He’ll be six in November.
How has becoming a father changed your outlook on music?
I think listening from a 5-year-old’s perspective is incredible. To play him something and have him respond to certain things is amazing. Sometimes I think about children when I make beats or when I’m playing certain rhythms. Certain things stick out to kids. At the end of the day, we want to inspire the children. So I definitely try to keep that in mind when I create now.
Seeing as a child wouldn’t know the history of the music, what do you think it is about your music that could stand out to either a child or an adult?
I think just the honesty. Also the rhythmic patterns, especially in some of the beats I created, I felt like less was more. I tried to keep stuff complex, but simple. Simplicity was important to me.
What does the quote, “Alone together above the crowd” mean to you?
It just represents love and being alone together. It’s just like my tribute to having a passion and being in love with this music. Those lyrics really spoke to me.
Do you have any plans to revisit the beats with emcees and producers or are you just going to leave it out there for people to do what they will with it?
I think I’m just going to leave it out there. There are so many different places it could go. If somebody wants to get on it, I’m all for it. But it’s not a project I’m going to initiate.
Do you have a favorite set of equipment that you use?
I do. For this project I worked a lot with the MPC3000, the MPC5000, and a lot with the Native Instruments Maschine. So between those three, I made a lot of stuff.
I’m sure you’ve gone through a ton of equipment. What makes these work for you?
I bought my 3000 in like ’96. I think just working with that machine for so long has let me develop a certain way of doing things on there. It just feels like home. But I wanted to get a couple of new machines to kind of train my brain in a different way. Sometimes you fall into doing stuff the same way. I wanted to get out of that. That’s when I bought my 5000. The 5000 has some glitches, so that’s when I started checking out Maschine. I really dig Maschine.
Working with Dilla of course introduced me to Peanut Butter Wolf and Madlib and a lot of those guys. I’ve just always loved what they do — the way they set the records up, the way they support the artists. I’m a fan. I’m just very honored to have this outlet to put my music out. I love what they’re doing. I love all of the artists on the label. There are a lot of labels out there, but I feel like they really support their artists. They weren’t in my ear like, “You have to have this kind of sound.” They were just like, “When do you want to put it out?” It’s real love. It’s a lot of love.
Speaking of Madlib, you’ve done a bunch of projects together in the past. What makes him special as an artist?
Madlib is just one of those bad cats. He can play instruments; he’s a crazy beat-maker. He’s one of my favorites. I had to work with him. It had to happen. I look forward to doing more things with him. We’ve definitely got to reconnect.
Do you have any specific projects or concepts in mind?
Not as of yet. I think we have a lot of stuff already in the can that needs to be heard. I think we just need to put our heads together and figure out the first steps and what to release.
What’s your life like outside of music? What’re your interests?
Other than fatherhood, I love the traveling and seeing new places. That’s inspiring. It’s a blessing to be able to travel the world and see these places. That’s one of my favorite things to do. I love it overseas. I love it in Europe. I love Japan. I love all of the places that have the illest records [laughs]. I can just get off the plane and go digging. Those are my favorite places.
Do they receive the music differently each place you go?
Definitely. Some places they feel the music, but they may not show you that they’re feeling it. And some places you’ve got people running up to the stage or doing somersaults. I just like the variety and being able to reach the people. That’s a beautiful thing.
Now, if you weren’t a musician, what would you be doing?
I’d probably be working with kids. Definitely, yeah. I’d be doing some type of teaching or doing something like that.
Do you have any projects or shows that you’re looking forward to working on?
I’m looking forward to taking this Alone Together project on the road with my band.
Who’s in your band nowadays?
It varies. I have different cats. For this project I haven’t confirmed everyone yet. But it’ll be a few guys from Detroit and a couple guys from Philly. The instrumentation will have a DJ, percussion, two keyboardists, bass, and drums. These are guys who can play their instrument, but can also dabble with samples and triggers. These are people that can pull it together and make it happen from both worlds.
The Alone Together album release party will hit NY in the Fall. Look out for updates on Karriem’s Website!
Interview by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)