Karriem Riggins recently released his “Alone Together” album on Stones Throw records. Gazing over the tracklist I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the young Detroit native who was schooled by Dilla, and also holds a venerable reputation as a contemporary exemplar of jazz drumming. By the time I had finished listening to Alone Together the first time I was completely taken. The experience was very similar to listening to Donuts. Now, I don’t say that as a way to compare Mr. Riggins to Dilla, or to say that the value of Alone Together is dependent upon the value of Donuts. Rather, Alone Together is a similarly constructed lesson in finesse, and masterful craftsmanship. IF you’re at all interested in the art of sampling, or music in general, I highly recommend you make a beeline for Alone Together today. It is one of those rare instances in which a masterful instructor bestows upon you a lesson so beautiful and joyous that you don’t even realize that you’re learning. I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Riggins, and the following conversation covers his making of Alone Together, his approach to creating music, and his outlook on being a contemporary musician. Enjoy.
Karriem Riggins: Hello?
Zachg: Hey Karriem
KR: Hey Zach how you doin?
ZG: I’m alright man, how are you?
KR: I’m good.
ZG: So, are you in NY right now?
KR: Nah I’m in Michigan. Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
ZG: Is that where you’re from? Or you got family out there?
KR: I’m from Detroit, but I live right outside the city. I been livin here since ‘09, I moved back here from LA.
ZG: So, you’re originally from Detroit, and then you moved to Los Angeles and then moved baack to Bloomfield Hills?
KR: Oh nah, I been all over the place man. Initially I moved to NY. I lived in NY for 5 or 6 years back in ’94. And then I moved back to Detroit after that, and then I moved to LA.
ZG: And was it music the whole time that was movin you out to those places?
KR: I just kinda go where I feel the inspiration to create. When I’m not on the road I wanna be in a place where I’m getting good vibes.
ZG: So now Bloomfield is feeling like a good place for that?
KR: Right now it is. Yeah. I may go back West soon, but right now I’m happy here, and I’m creating, and it feels good, and I’m happy with what I’m coming up with.
ZG: What are you workin on?
KR: Just music: beats, practicing. I have a daily routine. I practice drums, I make beats.
ZG: How long you practice for on drums?
KR: I try to get at least 3 or 4 hours in. And just workin out stuff. Workin out different time signatures, as well as rudiments. Practicing rudiments helps work out a lot of kinks and stuff. You could play every day but if you don’t practice certain things you gonna have to brush up.
ZG: Of course. Yeah, I used to play drums but it’s been a long time. I started rapping before I did any of that. I was in college and a homie of mine had trained on drums since a young age, and he would encourage me like an instructor. But when I decided to sit down and play for like 4 hours a day, that’s what made the big difference. And he would always try and teach me rudiments and all this stuff that was beyond me. But, it was always very evident with drumming when you put in the time every day that’s what makes the difference between the dudes who can sit down and blow away a crowd.
KR: Right, that’s true man. And I was told you’re not practicing, or gaining any growth if you don’t sweat when you practice. So I practice till I feel like I’m at a show. Hahaha.
ZG: That makes sense. You take the body to the point of exertion and that’s when you’re gonna get the best music.
KR: That’s right.
ZG: You started out with drums, or with hip hop?
KR: With drums, and with hip hop. Hip hop has always been in me.
ZG: Right, I guess I meant like computer-based hip hop.
KR: Oh yeah, yeah. Professionally I bought my first durm machine, my MPC 2000 in 1996. Like end of ’95, or early ’96. I got that from DJ Houseshoes. We had a class together in high school, and I’ve known him since back in ’93. So, he sold me my first MP and that’s when I started getting into sequencing on the computer.
ZG: Was it pretty quick that the stuff you were doin on drums carried over, or did it take you time to get comfortable and find a way?
KR: Nah, I think I just had to learn how to sample on there, and once I learned that everything else is natural. Using your ears, figurin out each machine takes a couple seconds and then once you got it, it’s all in the ears.
ZG: Yeah, totally. It’s kinda one of the harder things to explain to people that don’t make sample-based music, or maybe that don’t understand the way that sampling works. The work of it is in listening. The bulk of what you might call the skill or the talent, the thing that winds up makin one song good, and one song not so good, is all there in the listening.
KR: Yeah, and I started off sampling myself. I didn’t start off sampling records. I started off listening to music and being inspired from that and creating new stuff. And then that taught me what to listen for in the records that I sampled.
ZG: Right, like the little openings in time. You use the sampler to get in there and ply it open wider and wider. That’s interesting cause I think it’s getting more popular for folks to have a proficiency in other instruments or styles of music before they come to sampling. It’s interesting to see what they bring to it. Like a dude like Sywlkr, I don’t know if you’ve heard of him.
KR: I’ve heard of him, but I haven’t heard a lot of his stuff, but from what I’ve heard he’s dope.
ZG: He’s a dude from Detroit he was playing in more aggressive rock bands, like punk kinda noisy stuff, so in his whole approach to sampling that comes through. I mean you don’t listen to it and go, “Oh this dude must have listened to punk rock.” But you can definitely hear things goin on that are not as typical.
KR: Ok, yeah I’d be interested to hear more from him.
ZG: But honestly, I reached out to you because I heard your record Alone Together last week, and I was blown away. It gave me the same experience that I got from listening to Donuts.
KR: Oh word, thank you man.
ZG: For sure, it’s about that whole listening thing. There is so much finesse in Donuts, and not to say that there isn’t a lot of other skill going on, but the finesse puts this coating over everything. The samples all seem to fall in order so naturally with so little effort, and it’s obvious that you created this thing, and the mark of your hand is there in the overall sound. But in listening to it, it’s hard to explain what’s goin on with the samples. Obviously you understand cause you made it. It’s just a very strong piece of music.
KR: Thank you. I appreciate the love. I think it’s moreso that I share a love for Dilla’s music, just like everyone else. Just being around him I learned about simplicity, and how to let the samples speak for themselves. Sometimes you add a lot to make it really classic, or sometimes you don’t add much and let the sample breathe. Whatever the idea is, whether you played it or not, certain things you can add and they’ll be too much. I just felt like on a lot of the album, less was more. There’s some complex stuff as well, but I just like to keep it funky and interesting. And that was my goal for that album.
ZG: If you had to compare the extremes of doing the least, and doing the most, what songs would you pick on there?
KR: Hmmm, well when I say doin the least I could split the difference by doing the most rhythmically by playing live drums. Like the sample Ding Dong Bells was one of the most simple samples. It didn’t have anything other than that and rhythm. I just felt like I wanted to take someone on a ride rhythmically. That was kinda less is more from the sample aspect of it. And then you have stuff like, hmmm, it’s hard to compare…like as complex as Summer Madness where it’s a lot of chops. Like that, or because there’s a lot of chopping involved, and I feel like it was complex chopping, so less rhythm. It kinda balances itself out.
ZG: It’s definitely a well-balanced record. I think one of the shortcomings a lot of people fall into is, they do something really good, but they do it over and over and over again. Obviously you do something very good, and you do it over and over and over again, but it’s not like playing the same notes over and over and over again, or using the same fills. Because of course music is repetition, but the experience of music isn’t repetitive. How long is the record?
KR: Almost 60 minutes.
ZG: Yeah, at not point do I ever feel like, “Oh yeah he already did this.”
KR: Thank you man. I feel like being a jazz musician—or just being a musician period—playing jazz there’s a form that you play over, but you wanna keep it interesting over that form so the soloist tries to not repeat himself over a form that’s repeating. That’s kinda how I like to do things.
ZG: That’s a good comparison. That’s interesting, I guess that kinda relates to on the record you sample a lot of people talking about you, and especially talking about you making jazz music and hip hop. Did you already have an archive of that stuff, or were you working and you decided to add that in, or how did that come about?
KR: Man, when I was working I just came across certain things. Like just being online, and reading the interviews, and reviews, from previous stuff that I’ve done. And I actually came across it, and I think it was perfect timing. Finding that one interview from Kim Herron (?) where he was talking about bridging the gap between jazz and hip hop, that was found like mid Alone Together creation. That just happened perfect and I put it over that interlude. It’s just a blessing to find some of that stuff. I don’t actually dig for that stuff, but now that I know it’s out there I do wanna keep an archive of those type of things. It would be good to put that kinda stuff out and let people know that there’s another side to what I do.
ZG: Right. That’s another part that I feel like really plays into contemporary music, and maybe something that couldn’t have happened 10 or 20 years ago. You have a fully-formed identity as both a jazz musician playing as a session drummer, or going on tour, but then you’re also a very respected hip hop producer. It’s cool you know, it’s a very contemporary thing to be able to say, “Ok this dude can do hip hop and other stuff, and it doesn’t make the hip hop suffer.”
KR: Yeah I definitely feel blessed. I think just being able to do that I have a job to be the best at it, being as I’m one of the only ones that straddles that. I just wanna be able to represent it, and inspire others. There are a gang of young musicians who I see doing both. We listen to hip hop, we love jazz. Puttin in the work, and studying the records, and trying to go forward with the music. I hear a lot of that, so I’m definitely optimistic about where music is going.
ZG: It feels like hip hop is finally opening up and being ok with being somewhat intellectual about this music. And to be able to speak about it, and have terms to talk about it so we can communicate and have a better understanding.
KR: That’s true.
ZG: We’re lucky man, lucky to be in these times.
KR: We are. We’re definitely blessed. I feel it.
ZG: There was another interlude here that I was kind curious about. It sounds like just a bunch of dudes, like the mic was on during a studio session, and then everybody stopped playing, and everybody’s shooting the shit and talking about stuff.
KR: It’s this late night funk session here in the D. Well, actually I’m tryin to think, was it the guy talking about Sho Nuff?
ZG: To be honest I can’t remember, it sounds like 3 or 4 dudes and I can’t remember the name of it now and I’m looking back at the record…
KR: Oh yeah, I think that’s after Ding Dong Bells. That was at a club called Burt’s here in Detroit. Actually one of the clubs I grew up playing at. I started playing there when I was like 15 years old, professionally doing gigs. After the shows late night you’ll find some of the most interesting people there. I had to capture that moment.
ZG: So that was just a bunch of dudes hanging out talking?
KR: Yeah a bunch of cats that love jazz, at the end of the night too much liquor, just sayin a little bit of craziness. Sometimes you can find knowledge in it, but sometimes it’s just gibberish. So, I think that was just hilarious. I’m glad I caught that. I try to capture a lot of funny moments like that with the iPhone recorder memo thing. You can capture a lot of funny stuff, so It ry to keep that going.
ZG: That’s cool and it really extends the idea of the listening is where the work is. It doesn’t turn off. That’s the other thing I think a lot of people don’t realize. It’s not like, “Ok, I wanna make a beat, so I’m gonna sit down and listen to records until I hear a sample, and then I’m gonna start making a beat.” You never stop listening.
KR: No nah!
ZG: You could be shopping somewhere and a song comes on, and you hear a dope break, or, “What was that dude talking about? I’m tryin to put that in a song.” Just always listening.
KR: I have to really be inspired by a record to turn the machine on, and work on a song. I start out by playing keyboard, or piano, or some live instrument. I take a lot of 45s and import those into my computer so when I’m traveling I can go through a lot of stuff, and set aside loops. So, I like to have stuff already set aside where I don’t get into any kind of a rut, so I’m not in the studio wondering what to do. I like to have a stash.
ZG: That’s a good way to do it. And it reinforces the idea that it’s a lifestyle. It extends well beyond playing and recording the music. There’s a way for you to figure out how to listen to all your 45s, and set aside the loops. You work into your daily routine, or your monthly routine, or whatever it is. That’s one of the cool things about hip hop, is how whatever is goin on with your life you can figure out a way to practice this art all the time.
KR: That’s right. It’s what I love doin man.
ZG: Right, it really comes through in the music. It really, really comes through. Are you gonna be touring for the record at all? Or are you touring right now?
KR: Next year I plan on doing some things. In January I have a series of DJ things I wanna do. I’m on tour with Diana Krall. The month of February we’re gonna do a Canadian tour, and I’ll be doing some DJ dates in Canada as well. And then March I wanna take out my band and do some of the music from Alone Together, as well as playing some of my favorite music.
ZG: Cool. What’s the band?
KR: The band consists of 2 keyboard/piano players, a DJ, Bass, Percussion, and myself. Maybe a vocalist. I’m not exactly sure if I’m gonna incorporate that.
ZG: No guitar?
KR: Not as of yet, no. That’s a big budget HAHAHA. I think having 2 keyboard players that are familiar with triggering samples, and drum machines, and I can trigger a lot of things.
ZG: Nah, nah I feel you. That’s a cool move. The whole no guitar thing doesn’t seem that out of the ordinary, but if you go back and look, almost any band is gonna have a guitar player. It’s a very subtle move, but it’s also very significant.
KR: Yeah, I definitely wanna break the continuum. A lot of hip hop influenced bands that I see kinda have certain personnel and lineup. I kinda wanna go against the grain and incorporate people who know how to work machines and trigger stuff, and keep it real to the essence of what it really is.
ZG: That’s funny that you characterize it like that. You could probably go tonight and take a tour of 50 cities, and find some dudes in a hip hop band, and it’s gonna be exactly the same thing in every city.
KR: Hahaha, yeah it’s true.
ZG: Well I don’t wanna take up too much of your time man. I appreciate you taking the time out to talk to me. Is there anything you wanna let people know about the record, or stuff you got going on, or anything in particular?
KR: Just to look out for the shows, and support the live music cause I think that’s another perspective of an artist’s presentation. If we can get people supporting live bands, and live music I think there would be a lot more growth in the music.