“This second set, bro...”
Robert Glasper mischievously smiled and widened his eyes as I began to turn off my recorder. We’re wrapping up an interview and sitting side by side near a soundboard at the historic Blue Note jazz club in New York City, where fans are packed downstairs for the third night of Glasper’s month-long residency. He had a previous residency at the Blue Note last year, and it was a hot ticket: acts such as Black Star, Anderson .Paak, and Lupe Fiasco shared the stage with him, while celebrities like Chris Rock, Cornel West, and Chadwick Boseman came to enjoy from the audience.
For the start of this year’s residency, the elusive, expressive Yasiin Bey joined him for four nights in a row, with two shows each night. On Saturday (Oct. 5), the Brooklyn renaissance man wore a black hoodie over a solid black tee, wielded his signature bright red retro mic, and went through fan favorites like “The Boogie Man Song,” “Auditorium” and “Casa Bey,” all over fresh, warmly layered interpretations by Glasper and his bandmates Derrick Hodge, Chris Dave and DJ Jahi Sundance. Bey is visibly impressed by the band, and at one point, dances and spins in place for 10 minutes while vibing to the music. But with Glasper’s reputation and relationships, other artists are prone to just show up, and that’s why Glasper was so excited about the second show: god-level MC Black Thought and soul singer Bilal both made surprise appearances, leaving members of the crowd hyperventilating. Thought exhibited his otherworldly lyricism and breath control, dropping sets of what felt like 100 bars at a time and trading rhymes with Yasiin while the band played a rendition of Madvillain’s “Meat Grinder.” Bilal performed his timeless 2001 single “Reminisce,” with Yasiin spitting his verse from the song. Main Source cofounder Large Professor slipped in the door before the show as well, though he didn’t take the stage. For much of the show, Glasper goofily joked with the crowd, often prompting Yasiin to flash his own bashful, dimpled smile. It's just one night of more to come: the rest of the residency will continue through the beginning of November with Esperanza Spaulding, Luke James for a Stevie Wonder tribute, T3 of Slum Village for a J Dilla tribute, and the original Robert Glasper Experiment, with more guests sure to pop up unannounced.
That same spirit of spontaneity fueled Glasper’s new mixtape, Fuck Yo Feelings. Glasper arranged a two-day jam session with his band and invited artists and friends to keep company. What began as a good time with loved ones resulted with a mixtape that features YBN Cordae, Buddy, Rapsody, Herbie Hancock, Bey, Muhsinah, and many more. It's the latest release in a career that has seen Glasper simultaneously carry on jazz traditions and buck its conventions. As a pianist, bandleader and musical director, he’s excelled with making jazz records for the iconic Blue Note Records that traditionalists can love; but he’s also earned two Grammys for his two Black Radio albums, which employ raps and vocals by Yasiin Bey, Lalah Hathaway, Erykah Badu, and more. He's consistently lent his talents to other musicians’ albums as well – most notably Kendrick Lamar, for his game-shifting 2014 LP To Pimp A Butterfly. Regardless of the platform, Glasper is always making jazz cool, and adding victories to his own belt in the process.
VIBE: You’re back at Blue Note for your second residency here. How was last year, and what made you come back?
Robert Glasper: Last year was amazing, with all the guests that came through and the turnout. We sold out 44 of 48 shows. The shows, the people, the guests following out that were in New York. It was just epic shit. And Blue Note was like, “we definitely need to do this next year.” So I was like “cool, let’s do it.” I get to be home for a month, and I’m never home for five weeks straight. Gives me a chance to be home, hang out with my son every week, and the money ain’t bad either. (laughs) It’s kind of like being on tour without being on tour.
Last time we spoke, you were telling me that even though you live in NYC, that most of the creative energy is in LA because that’s where everyone records.
There’s more recording in LA, because everybody moved there. But the creative energy is still here. From my experience, you learn how to play and create in New York, you get all those skills. And then you move to LA to make money with it. (laughs) New York’s the place to go when you’re dope, kind of for most things. The competition is so crazy. In other places, it’s slim pickings of who’s dope, so it’s not something that’s going to push you hardcore. But when you’re here, everywhere you go, muhfuckas is dope. I went to college here, there’s motherfuckas here who made me scared to play piano. They would call my name, and I’d sit at the drums because I’d rather sound bad on drums than piano in front of these people. It really chiseled my shit to be dope as fuck.
LA is the place with a plethora of everything you need to make money. All the studios, the producers, all the film stuff. The opportunities are in LA. Before you used to go back and forth from New York to LA for opportunities because there were still a lot of artists and producers here. But it’s so expensive, everybody moved out to LA. It’s more stuff out here, you get more bang for your buck, get some sun. You might die in an earthquake, but you know, see where it takes you. (laughs)
You’re very intentional with how you label records: you have ArtScience, you have Black Radio and Black Radio 2. Why is Fuck Yo Feelings a separate mixtape, and not in one of those other series?
All my records start off one way, and end up another way. I always say the universe produces half of my albums. Originally this was going to be a jam session with my band, and we were just recording it. I ended up being like, let’s bring people to listen to the recording. Not even artists, just tastemakers, friends, VIPs, to come hang out and put a bar in there, 15-20 pairs of headphones so they can be in the room and be part of the experience. It wasn’t an album; it was just, let’s record for two days and see how it sounds. But people started falling through the studio, and it just became a thing. As we kept recording –- we were only there for two days – I had the amazing singer/songwriter SiR come through. He’s a super-fast writer so I said, “while we’re jamming, if you have any ideas, just write them down, and maybe they can become songs later.” One of the songs he had an idea for was “Fuck Yo Feelings.” That was early on the first day. The singer YEBBA was there, and I’m like, “let her sing that.” And that became the premise of the whole shit.
I feel like that’s a great mantra for today’s times. Where I’m coming from, Fuck Yo Feelings can mean so many different things. This is a time where everybody’s fighting for their place in the world to be who they are, whether you’re LGBTQ, whether it’s the females trying to get equal pay and equal rights, black people trying to finally be equal and end racism. Fuck Yo Feelings is a mantra saying, respect someone else’s plight that’s not your own. Take your feelings out of it and just respect their fight, understand what it is, and hell, fight with them. Just because it’s not your fight, it doesn’t mean they don’t need allies. Or, just get out of the way. Also, feelings can lie to you. You get in your feelings about shit, and a lot of times, feelings aren’t going to be what propels you to the next chapter. Sometimes, feelings can hold you back and give you a false sense of reality. Sometimes, you have to say “fuck how I feel, I need to do this.” There’s so many angles you can go with it, and this is something that so many people feel like saying, or say in their mind.
I hear that, but I can’t front: the cover has you sitting on a throne with your shirt off. So I thought the title was basically saying “fuck these artists who think they’re fucking with me.”
(laughs) Well, humbly speaking, I don’t think there are dudes that think they’re fucking with me. (laughs louder) In a real way, I don’t know the pianist that’s arguably in the top five in the jazz world, top five in the hip-hop world, is arguably the top five in the R&B world in terms of playing my instrument. I don’t know that guy, but me. You can have your little argument, “I’m better than you at jazz,” sure. If you want. But all three? And I have the Grammys to back each one of them up? I put in work out here. So it wasn’t that. It’s more like fuck your feelings when it comes to all the stuff I just said. But also, people have an issue with how I’m crossing all these genres and doing what I do. The average jazz musician doesn’t look the way I look, talk the way I talk, or behave the way I behave. Most jazz musicians are in a box, and it’s a box that people are comfortable with and a box you’ve seen before. People got some shit to say about my shit all the time, and I’m definitely saying fuck your feelings to that, too. Because I’ve done the box you like, I’ve proven I can do that. So what’s next? I don’t need nobody’s approval because Herbie [Hancock] loves me, so I’m good. (laughs) If Herbie’s down with me, I don’t need one other person’s approval in the world.
This mixtape also has a lot of younger rappers: Denzel Curry, YBN Cordae, Buddy. Was that intentional?
Yeah. I want to keep my hand in the young pot, too. I’m not getting any younger. I wanted this record to be something that everybody could love and like, even different generations. I felt it was important to have younger cats on here, and to put younger cats in situations they wouldn’t normally be in. YBN Cordae wouldn’t normally be on a track with Herbie Hancock, but he’s so dope. YBN Cordae is an old soul, and he respects the people that came before him, while he’s making new things. Terrace Martin hooked me and YBN up, and Terrace is all about that too. People always associate me with the backpack rappers, and they should, because that’s what I’m dwelling in all the time. But I like other shit, too.
I want to talk about your relationship with Yasiin. I know he was on the first Black Radio, and you’ve worked together before that too, right?
Live, all the time. He basically used my band for his live stuff all the time. I was his music director, starting in like 2006. Whenever he would do things with a live band, they’d be with my band. At first, something happened and his piano player couldn’t make one gig. So when I sub a gig… (laughs) I went in there and put the kitchen sink in that mufucka.
He got fired on his day off?
It was a wrap. So I start putting my guys in his band. “I see what you’re going for. You need Chris Dave. You need Derrick Hodge.” But I’d met him before because he was around Bilal all the time. He was on Bilal’s first record, and I was his music director the whole time till 2007. But I started doing my own thing and we’ve been rocking ever since. We just have one of those connections on stage, bro – he’s like another instrument. He’s always comfortable to the fact that we play shit that most rappers would not rap over because they don’t know how. It’s not your average four-bar chopped beat. He’s like, “I love that. It’s got 32 different changes in it, and I want to rap over the whole thing.” Or odd time signature shit that’s not normal, he’s comfortable. He can go anywhere on stage, and that’s why every show we do is different. It allows me to still be free and not have to worry about, “we have to stay in this box for him.”
He seems to be a recluse in a lot of ways, especially in the past five or six years. But he’s on your new project, he’s doing four nights in a row with you with two shows per night, and he did shows at the Kennedy Center with you recently. How do you get a hold of him?
I got the bat phone, my nigga! (laughs) Nah, we have mutual respect for each other. He tells me this: this is the highest musical level, I feel, you can possibly be in when it comes to rocking with a band. It may be different, but it ain’t gon get no higher. He has such a love for jazz and hip-hop and other styles of music, he knows we can go anywhere. We’ve done pop songs together. I’ve done Cyndi Lauper stuff with him, Neil Young, Radiohead, we go all over the place because he loves to sing too. He has a respect for what I do and respect for the musicians I have. And he wants to do it. It’s different when it’s a gig, versus, I want to do this, because it feeds him musically, too. Some gigs are just gigs; you show up and you might not, because you’ve done this before. We could do the same songs and it’s going to be totally different than last night. I think he feeds off that.
But he’s definitely a recluse, and sometimes he won’t show up every now and then. (laughs) He’s never stood me up. It was never, “where’s Mos?” He can do that to people, but he’s never done that to me. He may say, “ah, missed a flight,” so we have time to figure shit out. It’s a respect thing.
What are the chances you two make an EP, or a full album together?
We’ve been talking about that for years, and that’s super, super duper most likely going to happen. Without a doubt. He wants to, every time we talk, we talk about that. All these shows are being recorded every night, by the way. So it could be shit from here, live.
He was supposed to drop multiple albums over the past few years. He had the album with Mannie Fresh, and another solo, Negus In Natural Person. He dropped the album with Ferrari Sheppard, December 99th, on TIDAL in 2016, but that wasn’t my speed.
I give him shit about that every day. (laughs) I give him shit about most of his last albums. “Fuck that shit, my nigga. What are you doing?” That’s my dude, I can talk to him like that. “What are you doing, my nigga? You know what this is. This is magic! That shit ain’t magic!” He looks at me like (curls top lip and lowers voice to impersonate Yasiin Bey) “nah you right, you’re right, Ron.”
His second album, The Ecstatic, isn’t on streaming services anymore.
He doesn’t believe in all that. We talked about that last night. He’s not necessarily in with the new times like that. “I gotta give away my shit for free, just because you’ve got Wifi? Nigga, you know how hard I worked on this shit?” He ain’t even got a cell phone, so getting him to understand the new wave of shit is different. (Ed. note: at the beginning of both shows, Yasiin Bey requests the crowd not use their cell phones during his performance, and promises to “enforce” if they don’t get with the program. ) He’s very much anti all that shit. It’s going to be something to gradually get him to understand. We put “Treal” (from Fuck Yo Feelings) out and he’s like, “yo. I just saw a video of our song on YouTube. For free?!” Mos, no one buys music. That’s just not what it is. These days and times we’re in, you get out there and try to be popular as you can, and when you do shows, that’s where your money comes from. But no one is baking cake off of music anymore. That's not the day we’re in. Unless somebody like Taylor Swift. I know at one point she was like “fuck that shit” and it wasn’t on Spotify. But her fan base is millions of people; she puts something out, and they’re going to pay for it. Our people, eh, not so much. (laughs)
You also said a few years ago that you’d be forming a group with Terrace Martin and James Fauntleroy. Is that still going on?
We did like one or two songs, fucked around. This is one of those things where everybody got busy. I’ve had a few groups go like that. But it takes a while for a group to do a project. You do a song this month and then three months later you do another song, so the album may not come out until two years later sometimes. But that’s still something we want to do. It was hard to do August Greene, with Common [and Karriem Riggins]. That was hard to get done, and it’s not easy to tour that. We all have our respective things happening, so we’re looking in the cracks like “let’s try to do a show here.” Rashid’s doing movies and that kind of stuff.
What would you say you’ve learned from Herbie Hancock, and do you think you’ve given him any gems that he didn’t have before?
There’s two things I learned from Herbie. You’re a person first, and you’re a musician second. No matter what you do in life, you have to remember that you’re a human being first, and what you do is secondary. What you do can always be taken away from you, and then you’re just left with who you are. I was at his house doing chants with him, because he’s a Buddhist, and I just listened to him talk and that’s one of the things he said. The music is connected to the person and the music, person and spirit are all combined. If you’re a good person, that can come through the music. You just have to remember you’re a person first, and a musician second. That’s how he is, how his aura is.
Second thing I’m learning from Herbie, you can learn from anybody. No matter how high or great you think you are, you can learn from younger people. That’s something that he saw firsthand with Miles (Davis). Miles got Herbie in his band when he was like 19. And Miles trusted the young cats. When he saw these young people got something to say. All Miles’ bands were young people. Miles was a genius at knowing what situation to be a part of because he saw they were on the brink of something. Miles put himself in that and could help grow that, but he knew he could learn from young people. That’s why Herbie hangs out with us. Where we be at, he be pulling up. So I learned that from him: always have your ears open. Even if you’re a master at something, masters can learn.