Jazz pianist and bandleader Robert Glasper is serious about his music. But when it came to naming his forthcoming album Black Radio, he loosely based it on a joke rapper Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) told him. "You [know] the black box in the airplane, some people call it the black radio," Glasper explains. "He was like, 'In a plane crash the only thing to survive is the black radio, so why don't they make the whole plane out of that?' "
For Glasper, applying a bit of that logic to the music business is not a huge stretch. "I have a thing with that, meaning good music and good black music will always survive no matter what happens in the music industry," he continues. "No matter how much horrible music is being mixed and played on the radio and forced down people's throats … you always have the black box, the black radio, that holds the truth of real music."
On his latest effort, he offers an example of that "real music." The disc is a genre-blurring, 12-track set that features his group, the Robert Glasper Experiment, and a list of all-star guests such as Lupe Fiasco, Erykah Badu, Bilal and Lalah Hathaway, among others. A hugely enjoyable listen, it's built around moody textures, dreamy soul-jazz excursions and cymbal-crashing melodic rap. There's even a vocoderized rendition of Nirvana's alt-rock classic, "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
The Root chatted with the Houston native recently about the new disc (which is set to be released Feb. 28) and got his take on the importance of innovating within jazz. He also told us the five albums that have been most influential in shaping his unique approach to music.
The Root: After several albums as the leader of a traditional jazz group, the Robert Glasper Trio, what took so long to release Black Radio, which is your first full-length CD with your more eclectic outfit, the Robert Glasper Experiment?
Robert Glasper: I wanted to solidify myself as a jazz pianist first. People will shoot you down quick if you do other stuff that they don't think is jazz. They're quick to point the finger at a black dude and pin him as a hip-hop piano player. I wanted to make my statement. That's why I did two or three Robert Glasper Trio albums on Blue Note. Then I did this one. I wanted to build up a jazz fan base and then come after the "urbans," the other side.
TR: What's your response to purists who wish you'd just stick to performing jazz?
RG: I feel sorry for them and then I laugh. If everyone had that mentality, then we wouldn't have moved from Charlie Parker. There would be no Isley Brothers, no Stevie. Everyone is influenced by other people, and they take something and they change it. It's innovation. That's kind of how the world works. How are you going to box in the freest music — the most experimental, most alive music, which is jazz? They don't even understand the meaning of it if they feel that way.
RG: It's supposed to be accessible to our generation. Every other music embraces the "new," the new artists of that day. Nobody's like, "Yeah, Chris Brown's OK but what about Marvin Gaye? You got to check out more Marvin Gaye." That's what jazz does. They kill the young artists that are alive to praise the dead. It keeps the music stifled. Jazz was always the most cutting-edge music of the time, period. Now it's at looked like "history music," something that died already. I'm here to revive it and say it's not dead; now it's doing this — different songs, different vibe, different feel. But it's still jazz.
TR: Tell us about the five albums that most influenced you.
RG: Midnight Marauders, by A Tribe Called Quest: I was young, but I had just started playing piano and when I heard "Lyrics to Go," it totally took me for a spin. Because I grew up in Texas, there wasn't much hip-hop. Definitely no East Coast hip-hop, just the stuff that comes on the radio, whatever was hot at that time. But when I heard that CD, I was attracted by how melodic they are and how melodic that song is. They sampled a lot of jazz. It wasn't necessarily the lyrics, but it was the beats. I had never heard of anything like that before.
Like Water for Chocolate, by Common: That record meant a lot to me 'cause I was around during the time they were making it. That album resurrected real hip-hop at that time period [the album was released in 2000]. Me and Bilal were real close, both in college together. I would go with him to rehearsals with him and Common. I used to give Common piano lessons. The beats on that joint were like, "wow." And Dilla produced [some songs on the album]. I met Dilla after Like Water for Chocolate came out. I went to Detroit with Bilal to work with him when Bilal went to work on his first record [1st Born Second]. We stayed with Dilla for two weeks and literally had a jam session with him every day in his basement. I just got a chance to hang with him, learn from him. I watched him make "Reminisce" off Bilal's 1st Born Second.
Fantastic, Vol. 2, by Slum Village: For me, it's mostly musical. With Dilla, Slum Village, the beats on that record are like, "Why'd you do that?" — just sonically, how they sound. The dope thing is that I got to watch him mix songs and he would mix songs specifically for you riding in your car. His car was parked like seven steps from the board where he mixed. He'd mix something, print it and go right into the car and listen to it in the car. Then he'd come back and change it or whatever he needed to do. [He realized] most people listen to music in their car. Not everybody has big studio speakers.
Voodoo, by D'Angelo: That record really changed how musicians play. That was the record to translate how Dilla [made beats] to live instruments — Questlove with his drums, James Poyser [on keys]. It hits you in the chest. It's the first real hip-hop soul album — not soul but hip-hop soul — even more than early Mary J. Blige. For me, that's still like R&B with some hip-hop inflections. Voodoo is just dark and on some gangsta [stuff].
Still Live, by Keith Jarrett: It was a double CD that was live with Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock on the keys. They just played standards. The piano sound on that album … I don't know how to say it but things just sound really organic when he plays it, like he was literally making it up on the spot.
Brett Johnson is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based writer and the founder of the music and culture blog VeryArtistical.com.