Lenny Kravitz is 50. While you ponder that surreal piece of reality that proves Father Time can be a cheeky bastard, it’s important to note that the seemingly forever young singer-songwriter-producer, who first hit the scene with his 1989 ’60s rock inspired debut Let Love Rule, is still consumed by the music monster. His 10th studio album, Strut, is the first release off of his independent imprint Roxie Records, and it finds Kravitz visiting some familiar and foreign musical territory.
There’s the straight ahead Lenny Kravitz classic rock mojo that has helped him sell over 40 million albums. Then there’s the surprising slight nods to everything from Duran Duran to Cameo. VIBE sat down with the veteran artist, actor, and father of actress Zoe Kravitz to discuss everything from the eyebrow-raising inspiration behind Strut; the racial politics he had to endure in achieving his full blown rock star cred; and finally gaining acceptance in the black community to what makes Stevie Wonder, Prince and Paul McCartney the ultimate badass musicians.–Keith Murphy (@murphdogg29)
VIBE: Listening to some of the songs that have been released off of Strut, there seems to be a lot of things going on. I’m hearing a little Roxy Music meets Duran Duran on “The Chamber” I’m hearing some of that crunchy Lenny Kravitz guitar sound with a wink to the jabbing funk of the Ohio Players and Cameo on the title track “Strut.” Were you in a late 70’s, early ’80s mindset during the recording of this album?
LENNY KRAVITZ: You know what? I didn’t think about it, I just played. I create what I hear, but I definitely feel a lot of my high school era on “Strut.” Those artist analogies that you mentioned were definitely part of that time. It definitely has a late 70’s vibe and an early ’80s feel. That time in my life really comes out on this record.
Strut is the first release off of your newly christened independent label Roxie Records, which is named after your late mother and legendary Jefferson’s actress Roxie Roker. There is a certain freedom that comes with being independent. Can you describe the experience of owning and operating your own label vs. being on a major like Virgin?
I had great days back in the day with Virgin Records. Throughout my career we worked very well together. But with the way things have been evolving in the last years with technology and what not, I didn’t think there was a need for a major label anymore once my contract was up. That I could work independently, set up a label, join forces with a distribution company is great. I always had a hand in the business, but now I can have more freedom with how the business goes and how the money is controlled. That’s just the direction today. People are putting out music on their own. Kids are doing it…young bands. It’s great for artists to have that control in their own hands.
There is some nasty bass being played on this album, especially on the title track “Strut.”
It’s just that funk. It’s definitely a rock kind of tune, but like you said earlier it’s in that Cameo way when they were blending rock and funk really well. It’s about catching that groove where you are playing the least amount of notes and just keeping it real sparse. I was going for that space.
I always felt that you being an multi-instrumentalist was the most underrated part of your skill set. Do you get off showing that side of you as a pure player and is there one musician that makes you say, “Shit, I have to go back to the lab?”
First of all, thank you for the compliment. That’s my thing. People always ask me why do you record so much by yourself. Are you a control freak? But it’s not that at all. I love playing instruments. I have an absolute passion for playing. I wanted to be a studio musician when I was coming out of high school. I used to listen to all the records and read all the liner notes. I knew who played on what record…this drummer, that guitar player, this bassist and keyboardist. That was my whole world. So I was preparing myself to be a studio musician. One of the main guys that would become a big influence on my playing all the instruments is of course Stevie Wonder was a major influence on my drumming. People don’t usually know Stevie as a great drummer. But on those records his drumming was so lyrical and beautiful.
I agree. Some of his best work on the drums was on the Innervisions album. He’s acting a fool on that one.
Absolutely! And of course Prince who was also a major influence in terms of playing everything on record. And Paul McCartney’s first solo album (1970’s McCartney)…another guy who could play all the instruments and make it sound like a great band. That’s what I was all about. And that’s where I’m coming from. I love jumping from one instrument to the next and becoming a different person. Each instrument I play there’s a different personality. It’s fun…just like acting.
Take me back to your 1989 debut Let Love Rule. It is viewed as a classic album, but a lot of critics tried to pick you apart at that time for wearing the 60’s sound of the Beatles and others on your sleeve. As a young artist how did you get through some of that harsh criticism you received early on in your career?
I knew they were tripping. Like any artist, whether it’s the Stones or the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix or whoever, I wore my influences on my sleeve no more than any of them. And I wrote my own music. Now it’s funny…you see some of my heroes, and I’m not talking shit because I adore them, but you look at a great group like Led Zeppelin and where they got a lot of there stuff from. It wasn’t just borrowed, it was very exact. But I wasn’t doing that. I had my influences; I was all over the place. The critics would say in one sentence, “Oh, he sounds like Hendrix; he sounds like the Beatles; he sounds like John Lennon; he sounds like this and that.” They would name 20 artists that I sounded like, but obviously if you have to name 20 things I got my own sound.
You’d look at reviews back in the day…I saw Bob Marley reviews that were horrible. I can’t even say one bad thing about Marley. I’ve seen Led Zeppelin reviews that were horrible. These are people that you grew up idolizing and then you read these negative reviews. Twenty years later, the music is classic. So it’s all about timing. Just do your thing and it will all be revealed.
As a black artist, we all know how much of a battle it has always been in terms of breaking into rock & roll. I can think of yourself, Jimi Hendrix, early Funkadelic, Bad Brains, and Prince as musical figures who defied racial stereotypes and jumped head first into music that was seen in the so called white tradition. How hard was it for you to go to a record label at the start of your career and say, “This is the music I want to do?”
It was very difficult. When I was going around with my music people would say, “Okay, we know you are talented and we want to sign you, but you can’t make that music. You got to do this kind of music.” Whatever was happening in the R&B world at that time that’s what they wanted me to do. I would hear, “You have to get rid of the guitars.” But I didn’t give in and that’s why I didn’t get a deal at age 17, 18, 19, or 20. I got my record deal when I was 23 because I waited. I had contracts in my face with a pen like, “Sign this, brother. What’s wrong with you? We going to give you all this bread and make you famous.”
But I wouldn’t do it, and at that time I was living a Ford Pinto. So I don’t know what made me hold on. I wanted to be me, but when you are being offered recording deals at 17 and you are living in your car you would think I would be like, “Alright, whatever…I’ll make the music y’all want me to make. Let me get this money.” But I didn’t, and I thank God, because you wouldn’t be talking to me today. I would have made one album and it would have been over.
On the flipside, how gratifying was it having records like, “I Belong to You” and “It Over Til’ It’s Over” become such a huge hits with R&B fans?
It was great to being embraced by the community. Music is for everybody. But hearing my music [on R&B radio stations] that really was a great moment for me.
The word is you were inspired to record a cover of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles “Ooo Baby Baby” for Strut after you heard the song while being in a makeup chair for the Hunger Games: Catching Fire film. What turns you on about that classic Smokey-penned track and if you could have toured with any Motown artist who would it be?
Oh God, the Jackson 5 [laughs]. I actually saw them in ’71 at the Garden when I was a kid.
You lost your nappy headed mind didn’t you?
Yeah, man. And that was the first concert my dad took me to. I was blown. And you know who opened? The Commodores! They weren’t even called the Commodores, yet. [Laughs] I ended up working with Lionel [Richie] years ago and I told him about that show and he was like, “Yeah Lenny…we didn’t even have a name.” And I chose Smokey’s “Ooo Baby Baby” because I heard it that day in the makeup chair and I hadn’t heard it years. It was just a reminder of how beautiful it was. It hit me like the first time I was hearing it.
So I’m looking at some of the press photos for Strut. Tell the truth, you are not really 50. You trolling us, right?
[Laughs] Absolutely. Age is all in your head, man. I’m a young man…I’m just getting into my prime. I’m not worried about it. My mom wasn’t worried about it; my grandfather wasn’t worried about it. My grandfather looked 31 years younger than he was. Like I said, it’s all in your head…and in the genes [laughs].