That Jazz Thing? It’s a Rap.

Karriem Riggins is a jazz drummer and a producer too. Now he's an emcee.

Karriem Riggins oscillates between two worlds. Born and raised in
Detroit, he’s a jazz drummer with an exalted musical pedigree: His
father Emmanuel is a respected pianist who played with guitar legend
Grant Green. His sister Tanisha is a phenomenal singer. Riggins has the
makings of a traditionalist, but he grew up listening to Fat Boys 45s
and beatboxing in the school bathroom. Now 34, he is one of the most
versatile musicians in the world, having backed Betty Carter, Roy
Hargrove, and Diana Krall, but also made beats for Common, Madlib,
Erykah Badu, and Kanye West. He’s got a straight-ahead album in the
works. He’s also making his name as a rapper.

While it’s not unusual for jazz musicians to be omnivorous in their
tastes, it is remarkable for someone of Riggins’ stature to be so
firmly grounded in an older scene that’s obsessed with tradition, and a
younger scene that’s wary of interlopers. Having it both ways is
tricky. Other artists of Riggins’ ilk — the Kev Choices, Robert
Glaspers, and Chris “Daddy” Daves of the world — tend to lean in
one direction or the other, as a way of finding and sustaining a niche
market. But Riggins is at the point in his career where he can dabble
freely, and remain conversant in multiple genres. He has no real
antecedent or analogue. He’s a member of two elite circles that seldom
overlap.

“I don’t know how I do it,” he confessed. “It’s pretty much who I
am.”

Jazz was his first love, and he can trace it back to when he was
three years old, listening to his parents’ record collection. “I was
listening to Trane,” he said. “My favorite records in elementary school
were Relaxin with Miles, Philly Joe Jones, Kind of Blue.”
He practiced assiduously, playing along with classic records and trying
to emulate heavyweights like Art Blakey and Tony Williams. After
learning the rudiments Riggins started developing his own sound. He
made up rhythms, put accents in weird places, and altered the pitch of
his cymbal. An abortive stint with trumpet lessons taught him the major
and minor scales, and, more importantly, how to approach the drums as
both a percussive and a melodic instrument. By the time he graduated
from Michigan’s Southfield High School, Riggins was a veritable “young
lion” — which is jazz-speak for a hot-star du jour. He went on to
join Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead band (a residency program for
up-and-coming musicians), then spent three years backing trumpeter Roy
Hargrove. Riggins rose precipitously because he had something that
other young lions don’t: a concept.

He also had a closet interest in hip-hop. Riggins got into hip-hop
as early as second grade, when he first heard the Fat Boys’ 1984 single
“Stick ‘Em.” Sparse and dryly orchestrated, the song features
one-man-rhythm-section Darren Robinson (aka Buff Love) beatboxing
through two voice-modulating machines, a phaser, and a flanger. Riggins
was hooked. “I remember thinking that was the hippest innovation ever,”
Riggins said. From the Fat Boys he ventured into early, drum-oriented
hip-hop by groups like Run DMC. Some of it was scraped clean of melody
entirely. “I was more into the rhythmic aspect of it,” Riggins said.
“If you listen to Run DMC’s ‘Rock the Bells,’ that was just straight
drums.” Later, he got into groups like Stesasonic and A Tribe Called
Quest, who incorporated a lot of jazz samples in their work. In high
school he started making beats on the sly, and cadging them away. He
wrote rhymes but wouldn’t show them to anyone.

Riggins didn’t become a bona fide rap artist until years after he’d
made it in the jazz world. He met the rapper Common in 1996, while
playing a show with Hargrove’s quintet in Chicago. “Common is a big
jazz fan,” Riggins explained. “He comes in, and I was like, ‘Wow, that
dude looks like Common.'” As it turned out, Riggins had just purchased
Common’s 1994 album Resurrection. The two of them hit it off.
That same year Riggins bought an MPC sampler and began making beats in
earnest. He cultivated a unique production style that reflected his
approach to drumming. Riggins is known for chopping up samples to give
his beats a syncopated rhythm or weird meter, almost like a jazz
musician with a penchant for playing “outside” the form. He began
collaborating with Common, who later introduced him to famed Detroit
producer J Dilla, New York rapper Marley Marl, and DJ Pete Rock.
Riggins quickly became hip-hop’s new “it” guy.

Though he’s always appreciated hip-hop groups that use real melodies
and chord changes, what Riggins really looks for is the visceral
quality of the boombap. In that sense, he’s not any more cerebral than
the average hip-hop listener. “My favorite rappers like Dilla, Black
Thought, and Busta Rhymes … the way they phrase the rhythms makes
people really feel it. There’s some rappers that hit you with that
syncopation, you’re like, ‘Wow that’s funky.'” Riggins incorporated a
lot of those rhythmic ideas into his own career. He’s currently working
with Stonesthrow producer Madlib on an album called Jahari Masamba
Unit
, which blends funk, jazz, Brazilian music (one of Riggins’
latest obsessions), and avant-garde forms. If features Riggins on drums
and Madlib on a variety of instruments, including a bass with one
string on it. The two of them also have a duo called the Supreme Team,
which is basically them rhyming over each others’ beats. It’s a much
rawer form, said Riggins: “straight courses with cuts and
scratches.”

In the midst of all these hip-hop ventures, Riggins also is making a
jazz album — his first as a leader — with a quartet that
features Warren Wolf vibes, the legendary Mulgrew Miller on piano and
Rhodes, and Robert Hurst on bass. (They’ll all perform at Oakland
Yoshi’s this week with the exception of Hurst, who will be replaced by
bassist Joe Sanders.) It’s about 75 percent complete, and features some
not-so-obvious standards by avant gardists like Joe Henderson and Woody
Shaw, plus some Brazilian artists who recently piqued Riggins’
interest. The choice of material is unorthodox, but the personnel show
how connected Riggins is in the jazz world.

Granted, he’s not completely immune to the limitations of genre.
Riggins usually collaborates with older hip-hop artists who grew up
listening to the same records he did, and who are more concerned with
musicianship than with selling a persona. As a producer, he’s got
staying power; as a rapper, he’s more of a flash in the pan. Still,
Riggins came up at a very opportune moment for people with his hybrid
sensibility: Jazz is constantly updating itself in order to stave off
death; hip-hop’s audience is aging. Thus, the hip-hop-jazz artist is
becoming less of a novelty and more of a standard. Riggins was one of
the first to do it. He’s still one of the best.

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