Robert Glasper is special. A prolific musician with an endless-seeming well of inspiration and enthusiasm to draw from, he's become known over the past 15 years as a jazz and R&B renaissance man and a go-to producer and collaborator for artists as varied as Bilal and Mac Miller. Over the upward trajectory of his career, Glasper has released multiple albums — both solo and as the leader of two bands — to great acclaim. He's also been widely credited with reintroducing jazz to new audiences, upending static, traditionalist assumptions about the genre, and helping to usher in the current wave of jazz cool that's gripping scenes in Los Angeles and New York. In 2012, for instance, Glasper and his aptly named Robert Glasper Experiment quartet won the Best R&B Performance for Black Radio — a jazz album. “Albums [like Black Radio and Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly are giving people a license to do their own thing now,” he told The FADER. “It's like, ‘Oh we can do our own thing? And it can get recognition?’”
The Experiment — which features Glasper on piano, Casey Benjamin on saxophone, Derrick Hodge on bass, and Mark Colenburg on drums — is still doing its own thing, coloring outside the lines prescribed by jazz. On September 16, the band will release ArtScience, a freewheeling, genre-agnostic collection of feel-good songs. Unlike previous projects, ArtScience was entirely written, produced, and recorded by the quartet. For two weeks, they hunkered down in a studio in New Orleans; the result is an expansive, textured roller-coaster on which a sax solo sounds at home right next to a Vocoder-processed vocal. “We didn't pay attention to genre at all. I just said, ‘Let's do an album, let's see where it goes. No matter how different the sound of the songs, let's just do it and see how it comes out,’” said Glasper. “Hence the name ArtScience. It was kind of like an experiment: I locked us in somewhere just so we could feed off each other.”
When he recently visited our offices, Glasper and I spoke about the inherent blackness of American pop culture, the importance of making music with a message, and finding humanity in the work of legends like Miles Davis. And, ever an in-demand collaborator, he also recounted some of his favorite studio memories.
Collaboration with other artists has been the backbone of your career. What was it about this moment that made you decide to just lock in with your bandmates?
Special guests are awesome and I love them, and, like you said, those albums have catapulted me into different spaces. But at the same time, I have arguably the best band in the world. So I wanted to do something where it showcases us. We don't need to have [other] artists on every album. I wanted to give the world a chance to see what we sound like, the different ways how we sound — how we sound in a jazz way, a pop way, R&B way, hip-hop way, a kind of rock-ish way. I wanted to solidify us as our own thing. It's been about time that we did that, so it was time for this record.
Most bands start out that way, and then the collaborations and the special guests and the other stuff usually comes after.
Exactly. Because I started out that way with my [acoustic jazz trio The Robert Glasper Trio], I had already been around for eight years as myself, before The Experiment. So for me it was like, Special guests? Cool, let's do it! I was ready for that. But then after that caught on like wildfire and we did a part two, then it was like, Well, now I have to do something with this band on our own.
You mentioned the different genres on ArtScience. I was listening to it and I stepped away and for a second I thought that my iTunes went on shuffle.
That's exactly how I thought people were going to react to it. That's exactly the vibe. Some songs are going straight from one thing to a totally different thing and it's like, “It's the same album?” I love that. Man, there's a lot of things in there. I'm trying to blur the lines between the genres. I want them to know like, yes, we're one band playing all of this and it's all live.
Can you tell more about the quote in the first song, “This Is Not Fear” — the one that begins, “The reality is my people have given the world so many styles of music”?
Yeah, that was me speaking. I said, “The reality is my people have given the world so many styles of music, so many different styles of music. So why should I just confine myself to one? We want to explore them all.” Black people, we built America and we gave it all of its pop culture and all of its great musical genres. That's us. So why do I have to confine myself to just one? Why, if my first album is a jazz record, do I have to stay a jazz musician my whole life? Why do I have to only do jazz records? I’m saying, “No, this is in my blood.” Because rock music is in my blood. Blues, gospel, hip-hop, R&B, the list goes on — it's in me. I feel like it's a slap in my face to my ancestors if I just choose one and roll with that when I clearly have the capability and the talent to do more. Why not do more? I want to explore them all, we want to explore them all. That was the point. [The album] starts off as straight-up jazz, swing, then goes into the hip-hop thing. And then the first real song is trap, kind of, where I'm singing, and I've actually never sung on record before. So going from a trap joint to, like, a disco joint, it’s kind of just, what the hell? In a good way.
What do you hope people take away from that?
I want to remind people that black music is amazing. And there are all forms of it that we've forgotten, you know? Rock music is black music! Don't forget that's what it is. But in general I always try to reflect what's going on in the world at the time when I put an album out. I'm not the type to talk about it a lot, so I try to put it in music. People will play music over and over again, but they won't play a speech over and over again. If it's attached to a song, you'll hear it more. It does something different, it resonates with people different, you know?
I even have my son on an interlude speaking about the police. I didn't even tell him to — he was just angry one day talking. He saw the news, and his mom just happened to tape him without knowing. He's political and passionate like that. So I used it on my album.
Black people, we built America and we gave it all of its pop culture and all of its great musical genres. So why do I have to confine myself to just one?
A lot of those kinds of conversations happen on social media these days. They can be democratizing but also endless and exhausting. What's your relationship with social media like in that sense?
I probably get into a debate [on Twitter], like, maybe once or twice a year when I feel strongly about something. But I do have a platform, I do have fans, and sometimes I'd like my fans to know where I stand on certain things. And I feel like sometimes I should say something. There have been times where I've said some things and the person's like, “Oh, I didn't know that. Oh snap, OK.” And you see people get enlightened because they didn't know something. I love that. But I'm not Talib [Kweli] — every day, every five minutes, he's going in. He's a smart dude, and I'm not politically on it like he is. Sometimes the conversations need to be had on that level without it having to go to commercial.
My last time getting into it with somebody [on Twitter] was because of the police shootings. It's fairly simple, but so many people don't know that no other race has a history with the police like black people. People don't know that the very reason the police were made was to oversee slaves; they would be called overseers, and if a slave got out of line or tried to break away and escape, these were the people to hold them in and bring them back. Overseer, overseer, overseer, officer, officer, officer. That's the origin of the police. So many people don't know that that's what the history is. So once you know that, kind of puts shit into a little bit of perspective for you. You never hear that on Fox or any of these debates on TV. But I sit down on Twitter and people go, “Oh snap, I didn't know that.” And people read up on it. With certain things you're not going to get the whole truth because people just can't — they're on TV and they have a job. But when you're on Twitter, sometimes it all goes off.
You mentioned you have a song coming out with Common, which has a political theme.
Yeah, Common's very good at laying out the history of our people and doing it in a rhyme, really just nailing so many bullet points. So [the song] is basically that. And it's also an uplifting song. So many songs that are like protest songs can be so dark, like there's no hope. But this song, it actually gives you hope. It lets you know what's going on, but it also gives you a lot of hope when you hear it.
Do you think music has a responsibility to do either of those things?
Yes. It's the biggest platform in the world. I don't think there is a bigger platform than music. I feel like artists need to use it. They use it to say all kinds of bullshit so why don’t you use it to say something positive? Music got us here, music plays such a huge part in every aspect of life. Hell, I might have been conceived to some music, you know? It's the most impactful artform. Everybody has a favorite song, but everybody don't have a favorite painting. So if you do have a platform and you can use it for good, why not? All of our heroes did it and that's why we're here.
Speaking of people that came became before, now you’re teaching a class about Miles Davis.
Yeah, I'm teaching at NYU at the Clive Davis school. I'm teaching it with this journalist and scholar Ashley Kahn, so it's me and him. It's really cool — we're going through the life of Miles Davis and the different styles and different genres that he broke through. We're kind of dissecting it as much as we can.
He's obviously someone whose work has been on your mind, as you worked on the [Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead]. How did being in that zone and focusing on someone else's music make you think about your own work?
I got a chance to really see how Miles worked with other people, even behind the scenes. When I did the movie, I learned more about Miles than I knew before. Being with his son, his nephew, hanging out with Herbie [Hancock] and Wayne Shorter and all these people that knew Miles very well. But then they asked me to do this [tribute] record called Everything's Beautiful after that. They allowed me to go into the vaults and take multitracks from his actual recording sessions, so I had the chance to hear things from the recording sessions that most people haven't heard: him talking to the musicians, how he gets certain points across, how he gets them to do certain things musically that he wants. You never get a chance to know that Miles had a sense of humor, you know? He's funny! I realized we're the same in a lot of ways. When I heard him saying certain things and doing certain things, I realized, Oh, so I'm on the right track then. I'm on the right path with what I'm doing.