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Otis Brown III Talks The Thought of You, Jazz & Hip Hop’s Symbiosis and Donald Byrd

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Jazz and Hip Hop could arguably go down as the two quintessentially American art forms, musical by-products of the myriad of experiences found in the land between the Atlantic and Pacific. Both have heavy degrees of improvisation, and allow morphing and absorption in a cross-genre manner rarely seen in music. This appropriation, a symbiosis of sorts, of Jazz and Hip Hop became commonplace in the early ‘90s. Horn riffs and upright basslines became the basis for many Hip Hop records that have gone down as cherished compositions in a most revered canon of music. It wasn’t only Hip Hop that borrowed from Jazz. Esteemed Jazz musicians and labels started partnering with Hip Hop producers and emcees to create an ever-growing and expanding sound. Each genre fed off the other, consuming the necessary ingredients to keep the respective music moving forward.

Otis Brown III is one such musician who incorporates those influences that were instrumental in his development. Like many of us, he grew up and understood that the worlds of Hip Hop and Jazz didn’t have to be mutually exclusive. In other words, hard drums could fit perfectly within the traditional structure of Jazz, especially if a genuine appreciation of music exists. The drummer’s latest album, The Thought of You, on Blue Note exemplifies this. Where could you find a Shania Twain cover and a Bilal song on the same album? Otis Brown III is an artist who finds beauty in all music and can manifest that diversity into emotive compositions.

What is the direction you intended to take this album? With Robert Glasper, Derrick Hodge and others in your peer group releasing music straddles the fence of many genres, where do you place this latest project?

For me, I don’t look at this as a traditional Jazz project. I mean, there is some homage to Dilla in there and different drum sounds in there, which may lead some of the traditional Jazz to not like this album, and I’m totally fine with that, too. It’s just a reflection of how our generation came up listening to music. It’s not all the way to the experimental side – there is a bonus track of a Foo Fighter’s cover coming that Bilal sang – but it’s more how me, Robert and Derrick came up listening to music. We all have a church background; we all starting liking Jazz at an early age; and we all came up listening to Hip Hop during the Golden Era Hip Hop –Dilla, Tribe, De La Soul, N.W.A, MC Eiht. We had our feet in all these worlds and this album is representative of that diversity. At the end of “Stages Of Thought” where those heavier drums come in and the interlude at the end was inspired by some Karriem Riggins type stuff. Even “The Thought Of You” song starts off with Bilal singing and then it goes into something more straight-ahead, but then it rides out on a different groove. Even with the Shania Twain cover “You’re Still The One,” I used to like that song when it was just her singing it. It was so big back in the ‘90s. In other words, it’s more about the music than confining yourself to a label.

This project is a little more “free form” than some of the projects that many of the readers have been accustomed. Are you trying to bridge gaps between the “old” and the “new” but in a different way than some of the aforementioned artists?

I think so, without consciously trying to do it. It’s a perfect middle between something very experimental and something in Miles Davis’ more traditional lane. The project covers all bases. The girl, Angelica, who did the bio and the liner notes and some of the other people at the label were caught off guard a little. They were thinking it would be more in the vibe of the Derrick Hodge record or Robert’s record, knowing who was directly involved with my project. This record connects different genres and feels in a different way; it’s not just a singular voice. Back in the day, we all used to go to the Black Lily and sit in with The Roots and the Jazzyfatnastees, while being in school studying the music of Wayne Shorter. With Tribe and Dilla, it was amazing how they would use the same music that we were studying. We’d get together and talk about the samples they used like “Did you that bassline from such and such record? It was Ron Carter playing with Miles.” We talked about Q-Tip flipping certain beats and it was never like “We can’t listen to this or that.” The “either or” didn’t exist with us.

So you guys really appreciated what Tip, Dilla, Diamond D and those guys were doing.

One of my boys, Radar, who’s doing a lot of stuff with Revive, is a programmer and DJ and I thought about people like him and Karriem who are very break beat minded when I was recording various tracks. I mean, I greatly respect how Dilla and Madlib approach music and look at them on the same level talent-wise as some of these artists we record as geniuses in the Jazz world.

How do you approach drumming? Do you look at it from strictly a live perspective or from a programming one as well?

It depends on the situation. With my band on some of the stuff, the more free form material on songs like “The Thought Of You” and “Stages Of Thought,” I kind of think of it more in an improvisational way, like responding to what’s happening sort of way. Then, on the Shania Twain cover, I look at from more of a beat making standpoint. At times, I think about where I’m going to place the rimshot or the hi-hat and if I’m going to play behind or ahead of the beat like Dilla’s stuff. That’s one of the beautiful things of studying Jazz, you have the freedom to go into different situations and be “Ok” playing them. Even when you hear Quest play, he covers all the bases. He’s amazing to me. The amount of music he knows, what he does production wise and playing, he’ll go down as one of the best. He knows a lot Jazz, but he’ll play Hip Hop joints too and it sounds like the person who made the beat. Some people choose to do this and others don’t, but choice is a wonderful advantage of being a Jazz musician.

One of my heroes is this area is Karriem. He is a good friend of mine. It’s a special thing with drummers –It’s more a fraternity (Karriem, Chris Dave, Eric Harmon and me) than a competition with us. Karriem was one of the first people that I wanted to let hear the record when I recorded it. He gave me advice. When I was coming up, I would see this dude playing with Diana Kraal and with the Ray Brown Trio and be as legit in that as he would when he would play with Common or produced stuff for Erykah [Badu]. I thought, “That’s the kind of musician I want to be where big names from every world call me to do stuff.” In terms of versatility, Karriem just excels. He’s one of my heroes and one of my boys, too. We go back almost 20 years! The inspiration from all of us being around really fuels the creativity. Chris Dave, too, he’s played with everybody and he’s always pushing the envelope as an innovator.

A little known fact that many readers would be interested to know is that Bernard Purdie is your godfather.

He lives like 15 minutes from my house! My parents used to live with him when they first got married for like two years. I’ve known him all my life. It’s funny because I knew him, but I didn’t know the magnitude and the impact that he had on music until I got to college. Once I got to college and started hanging with Donald Byrd, I found out that he recorded with my godfather. From there I started getting into Bernard Purdie’s music more. He went from playing with Steely Dan to Aretha [Franklin] to King Curtis. He showed me that you didn’t have to be pigeonholed when playing your instrument.

Speaking of inspiration, I know Donald Byrd provided a lot of guidance and wisdom to you. Please explain more about this connection.

Oh, man, I met him at Delaware State where I was attending school. This was around ’94. He became an artist in residence there during the last two years of my stay. You know, a lot of HBCU programs are like marching band-based programs; many of the musicians are not trying to go into performance. Literally, almost every night for two years, he would come to his office at 10pm at night and we’d be in there until 3 in the morning, listening to music – bootlegs he had of John Coltrane or stuff he’d done with The Blackbyrds – or working on stuff. He talked about being sampled and being an underrated icon in music at a time when the “Jazz Police” were not feeling fusion or other directions Jazz was going.

He was one of the first cats to do the Jazz/Hip Hop stuff with Guru’s Jazzmatazz. He’s amazing. When I started getting into Jazz more and more, I started hearing how the original compositions factored into Hip Hop production as well. I mean, these two worlds didn’t have to be separate. It’s all black music from how we came up and what our ancestors started doing in Africa, different branches of the same tree. Donald Byrd was one of the few older cats of his generation that was asking about what I was listening to. He’d ask me to put on Ice Cube, for example, and we start listening to and learning the chords from that. He helped instill an openness in me before I went to New York. He was a deep cat. He had this African art collection that was worth millions and studied in Paris; he was truly a world citizen. It was somewhat devastating to me when he passed. I feel he needs to be more of a household name for what he did in music in every arena. His music has been sampled and used in Rock, Jazz, and Hip Hop.

On this record, it’s just me. There’s some Gospel in there because I grew up playing in the church. Cool. I wanted it on the record. There’s some heavier drum sounds in there because I love Hip Hop, grew up listening to Hip Hop and still listen to Hip Hop. Derrick and I were cognizant about making a project that appeared seamless, natural and organic. There is something on here that will apply to people who listen to a variety of music.

On “Two Become One,” this record really showcases some strong piano playing from Robert Glasper, almost channeling a Bill Evans vibe. This record seems to evoke deep emotion. Is that a correct assessment?

My wife and I have been married 14 years. First off, one of my wife’s favorite sounds on the drums is the mallet; I love that sound as well. So, I wanted to write something using it and I came up with the groove for it –the simple bassline and the piano part as well. The melody formed from there and Robert added the ambient effect with the fender Rhodes and it just went from there. It’s a dedication to my wife. This record and “You’re Still The One” capture the vibe of the album. I just wanted the listener to feel like they’re in the winter but in a warm blanket. Robert’s playing is just surrounding you, wrapping you up in a sort of way. This was the emotion that I was going for. Dave Kush mastered the song and give it that “warm blanket” feel that Erykah desired for one of the last records being mastered for her project. Speaking of Bill Evans, Robert’s playing is Kind of Blue-esque with his turns and feel on that song. There is a lot of symbolism throughout the song and it’s definitely a tribute to the bond between my wife and me.

Otis Brown III’s debut album The Thought of You is available now on Blue Note Records.

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