Early Riser may be Brooklyn-based producer Taylor McFerrin‘s debut album, but he’s hardly an amateur. Since the 2008 release of his EP Broken Vibes, McFerrin has been making beats (and beatboxing, and singing) in front of audiences worldwide, performing alongside artists like Erykah Badu, The Roots, Nas, Talib Kweli, and Robert Glasper. Now, with this release from Brainfeeder, McFerrin is introducing his eclectic production aesthetic to the world. With a little help from a slew of of guests, including Hiatus Kaiyote’s Nai Palm, Thundercat, Glasper, and his dad (yes, he’s that McFerrin), he blends analog soul grooves with contemporary electronic music for a dynamic record that showcases all the different facets of his sound.

Read our in-depth interview with Taylor McFerrin below:

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Revive: How did you get started in music? What was your first instrument, first band?

Taylor McFerrin: I took piano lessons when I was in grade school—I guess I had kind of a knack for faking my way through them. My teacher would teach me stuff from the book, and I would memorize it by how it sounded so I could just figure it out on the keys. That was actually kind of foreshadowing, because I never ended up going to music school later in life. I always just made music by ear.

I really started thinking I could make music probably junior year in high school, when I started trying to make beats for me and my friends. I’d have samplers, and at some point, my dad handed down his studio keyboard because he got a new one. The thing was (this was like ’98, ’99), the school curriculums hadn’t really adapted to the music production thing. Now, it’s become an official course, like how to make music on computers and do studio production…because that wasn’t quite happening then, I didn’t realize I could go to school to learn [production]. Since I actually never learned how to read music and I kind of had this free pass to get into a lot of music schools because of my dad, I felt weird about it in general.

R: You still don’t read music?

TM: No—I mean, I’ve started to teach myself a couple times and I’ve gotten pretty far, but then I never really applied it and ran with it.

R: I mean, whatever works!

TM: I usually focus on making music by myself—so I know what kind of key I’m playing in, but I don’t ever have to read anything that someone else wrote when I do what I do. So it never really became a thing I needed to do… though, now that my record’s done, I kind of have time just to focus on getting better at things, as opposed to just finishing a record. So I’m going to be trying to teach myself some more stuff.

But yeah, high school, my friends kind of recognized that I was good at this. I had some confidence that I knew how to make beats, but it didn’t feel like something I could pursue in college. When I went to school though, I was just getting heavier and heavier into it.

R: What were you listening to back when you started out, in high school?

TM: A mix of hip-hop and old soul stuff. I was really into Outkast and The Roots, and senior year was right when the Soulquarian stuff started coming out. Like, D’Angelo‘s Voodoo came out right when I graduated. Same with Erykah Badu‘s Mama’s Gun—that whole scene was bubbling up. I was also into going through my parent’s Motown stuff—Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Isley Brothers… They would get pissed at me because I was just borrowing their CDs and then losing them. Basically just stealing all their music.

It was cool—seeing the connection between that era of music, and the hip-hop that I liked, like soul-based stuff. A lot of times, it was interesting to figure out what they were sampling on a lot of my favorite hip-hop stuff. It helped me identify the sounds that I liked—I realized that everyone was playing these old vintage Moogs and ARP synthesizers. Fender Rhodes became my favorite instrument, because I realized that it was kind of the staple sound of soul. That sparked my quest to build up a studio with old vintage analog stuff.

R: And that’s where you made this record?

TM: Yeah. I have a Roland Jupiter 6 and a Moog Voyager—the Jupiter 6 is old and the Voyager’s new, and I have a Space Echo, a Rhodes, and then drums, bass, and guitar. I don’t have a massive studio, but everything I have is quality.

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R: So, getting more into the record—last time I saw you was at CMJ 2011 with Robert Glasper and Jose James. It was awesome, but mostly beatboxing and your own vocals—there’s a lot less of that on this album. How do you feel your sound has changed, or what’s caused it to change?

TM: I feel like with this record, I had certain things I was trying to accomplish, almost strategically. I’ve always been, in my mind, a studio producer—I started out just making beats, and I just wanted to be the guy in the studio making beats for other artists, whether it was hip-hop artists or singers. That’s how I’ve identified myself. Once I became a working musician, doing shows, I was kind of leaning on beatboxing for performance reasons, for years. There was a while where I was really into it, but I actually prefer beatboxing when I can bounce off other artists and jam, as opposed to trying to be super impressive with the sounds I can make. It helps to start the show because it locks people in, and then I can go do instrumental stuff, and then I kind of bring it back to the beatboxing stuff.

For this record, I really wanted to establish that I love making instrumental music and beats. Initially, when I started making the record, I thought I could sing on an entire record. But I’ve been making beats since like ’98, and I just didn’t get to the point over these last few years where I felt like I found my exact voice, and a way to approach singing with the sense that “this is what I do.” That’s what I’m working towards moving forward, but this record was meant to be a production-based introduction of myself.

R: The album’s been in the works for a few years now—how did you go about editing and shaping the sound of the record?

TM: I made a ton of music, but I was constantly not finishing anything. I think part of the reason was that my show was an improvisation-based show, where I was making beats from scratch really quickly. That started seeping into my mind a little too deeply, where in the studio I would just be making endless amounts of demos, and never returning to them and finishing them. I probably made about 200 tracks—some of them got further than others.

It was cool, because I looked back, and a lot of the stuff made it onto the record was two to four years old. I was able to see what stuff still really meant something to me. I think when you make art, what stands out most is if, when you listen to it or read it (or whatever your art is), that the feelings you had while making it come rushing back. You feel like, “This was a moment, for me.” Eventually, I just chose the tracks that felt like that, as opposed to tracks I had made thinking, “This is my hip-hop song” or “This is my neo-soul track.” I looked back and chose the tracks that I felt told the truest story of what I’ve been doing. It was kind of surprising to me, because it wasn’t necessarily what I would have imagined my first record to sound like, but I kind of liked it in that way. I felt like the tracks have a lot of different moods, but in the album there’s still a consistent feeling that this is my vibe, my sound.

I guess I locked it down to about 25 tracks around a year ago. From that point, I started making playlists, trying to see what songs kind of flowed into each other, and also thinking about what artists might work on certain tracks. I also had an idea that I wanted the album to be about 40-45 minutes long—I just know that when I listen to records the whole way through, even with a lot of my favorites, I’ll start a few songs in, just because I like that length.

I tried to have different emotions on the album, tried to piece it together like scenes in a movie. Certain songs, I added things to the beginning or ending to help them go more smoothly into what was next on the record. Basically, I took the whole entirety of the work I’d made over the years, and just narrowed it down to what felt like it could work together as a single concept.

R: How would you say that jazz fits into your musical aesthetic?

TM: For me, it’s the fusion era—Herbie Hancock, George Duke, Chick Corea. More groove-based music, but with jazz players. The funk-fusion era is a huge influence for me, both in terms of sonics and grooves. That was kind of the golden era of musicianship, and also just sound quality—before digital synths took over and gave everything that kind of 80’s static sound, there was that era when everything was analog, and everyone had crazy chops, and the recording was all straight to tape. There’s so much about that era that influences me, whether or not I even know the depths of all the artists that contributed.

I don’t consider myself a jazz player, mostly because I never really focused on mastering an instrument. I know how to put things together—I guess it comes from the computer and editing programs being my main instrument. Like, there are certain grooves that a well-trained drummer plays, and can just play for a whole song and be on point—I can’t, like, sit at the drumset and hold it down. But I do know what I want to hear—I can go in and play until I lock in for a short period of time, and then I can go back and edit it, and put it in a track, and it has the vibe that I wanted.

R: How would you describe your sound?

TM: Part 60s/70s soul and fusion influences, and partly influenced by my favorite hip-hop producers–Dilla, DJ Premier, RZA, and Q-Tip… and then also, the Soulquarian era. I feel like I’m a part of that lineage, in terms of where I’m drawing my inspiration—soul music from the 60s and 70s filtered through all the things that have happened between then and now.

R: It seems like a lot of people are sort of drawing that line through to the whole Brainfeeder crew.

TM: There aren’t really many tracks on the record that are like “this is this genre.” I think my track “Florasia” is kind of a neo-soul type jam. I’ve never really approached music in that way, and since I’ve been making music so long, I kind of have a sound, and a lot of it comes down to the instruments I’m using. I’ve been making tracks with the same instruments for like six years. So even if it’s a different genre of music, it’s still going to be the same instruments—it’s all going to be kind of connected.

R: What are you listening to right now?

TM: My favorite album of the past few years was probably Hiatus Kaiyote‘s album. Also, a lot of the stuff happening in the Brainfeeder crew—the stuff FlyLo and Thundercat have been doing has been great. I actually dig Hudson Mohawke… even a lot of the good trap music out there. Other than that I just revisit my favorite records—Kid A, early Wu-Tang stuff, Herbie Hancock stuff.

R: Have you been producing for anyone else recently?

TM: Yeah, I’m actually going to do some music with my sister, and Nick Hakim and I are talking about doing a track together.

Beyond that I’m going to start dropping some new music of my own in about six months. I want to show the direction that I’ll be going with the next record, which will hopefully come out next fall. It’s been so cool to actually release a record, way more fun and exciting than I thought it would be. I thought I was just going to be nervous and hating everything, but I’m happy with the record so that made it a lot more enjoyable than it would have been if I was kind of down on it. I want to just keep moving and do a record every 18 months to two years, that’s the goal.

Pick up your copy of ‘Early Riser’ via iTunes and check out Taylor McFerrin’s album release party tonight at Brooklyn’s Lot 45 presented by Red Bull Sound Select. If you’re out in the West Coast, be sure to check out McFerrin at Los Angeles’ Bootleg HiFi on Friday, June 27th.

 

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