Karriem Riggins Discusses J Dilla's Personality Off The Mic, Which Drum Machine Is "Garbage"
Recently releasing "Alone Together," the veteran drummer/producer speaks about his years with J Dilla, and where he sees Hip Hop and Jazz lining up two decades after US3, Gang Starr & Digable Planets.
Karriem Riggins’ resume finally has it all. The multitalented drummer, producer, and emcee has composed music with Slum Village, Common, The Roots, Erykah Badu, and more. He’s traveled the world as part of famed Jazz bands The Ray Brown trio and the Diana Krall quartet. He’s collaborated with J Dilla and Madlib. Now, after a lifetime dedicated to sound creation, this Detroit impresario celebrates the release of his debut album, Alone Together - the final bullet point on an already impressive bio.
In this interview with HipHopDX, Riggins’ discusses how he teamed with Stones Throw Records, J Dilla, Robert Glasper, and which drum machine is “garbage.”
Photograph by Gerard Victor.
HipHopDX: How does it feel to finally release a proper full-length?
Karriem Riggins: It feels great. I’ve been making beats for a long time and to have this project come out and people feel it, it feels good, man.
DX: I know you debated about rhyming on the project. What was the main catalyst for your decision to release instrumentals only?
Karriem Riggins: It went with the theme of Alone Together being about love and the craft of production and just overall music. I thought that the music would go farther without any lyrics on it.
DX: It has a Hip Hop aesthetic to it sonically. Does it feel like the Hip Hop listener does or does not gravitate towards instrumental projects in the same way a Jazz listener might?
Karriem Riggins: I think it’s changing, especially for Jazz with the younger generation being part of the Hip Hop generation. I think it’s pretty much similar. The type of listener that listens to the things that we do have a trained ear. They are music appreciators.
DX: It feels kind of odd that this is your debut project because you’ve been making music your entire life. Were you more involved and inspired by touring with acts and performing live with your band and working with other musicians?
Karriem Riggins: I’ve always wanted to come out with music but I still feel like I’m in a development stage in my career as a musician. I’m always learning and trying to evolve. I’m eager to put some things out, but I think timing is more important. I like for people to witness my growth but it’s also a development thing. I want to wait to put things out.
DX: Was it more challenging putting together a full-length than expected?
Karriem Riggins: No, definitely not. It felt very natural. From the deejay perspective and putting a sequence of songs together, that’s something that I felt came natural. I wanted everything to be kind of short which is why I tried to fit a lot of different sounds in there. Like a Jazz inspired Hip Hop to Soul to the abstract keyboard moods type stuff. I just tried to mix it up. Variety.
DX: What’s the definition of a success for an instrumental project, in your opinion? Is it different than what would be considered a success for a conventional release?
Karriem Riggins: I’m kind of new to putting out records but I know that the way the label is setting up this project is as if it’s not just an instrumental record. There are listeners out there that will purchase this project. The masses will connect to this music. There’s room and a big fan base for this type of stuff. I’ve seen [J Dilla’s] Donuts - there are lots of successful beat albums that Stones Throw [Records has] put out in the past so there’s room for that.
DX: You’re on the right team. Stones Throw, Peanut Butter Wolf always seem to put integrity first. They care about having a quality sound.
Karriem Riggins: Exactly. That’s very important, man. It’s time for that. I respect everybody on the label. It’s a big inspiration to make records for them. I love J. Rocc, Madlib, Oh No. There are some great producers and artists on the label. It’s truly an honor.
DX: What were the negotiations like [when you were signing]? I know you met the Stones Throw team through working with Dilla and Madlib. What was the negotiation process like for you?
Karriem Riggins: It was all love because I met them through family. It’s all love. I think it was very simple. I had some things that I have on deck with Madlib when we were working on Supreme Team and all that, so that’s how we started off our relationship. Then we did the solo deal. True love over there.
DX: Dilla’s legacy, for better and worse, much larger now than he was when he was alive. Did he ever seem like he was conflicted, from your experience? Q-Tip’s done a few interviews, seminars, and speaking engagements talking about The Ummah and how Dilla did a lot of the production that he wasn’t getting name recognition for at that time. What were your experiences like working with Dilla? What was his energy like in the early to mid 2000s?
Karriem Riggins: Dilla was very confident on the mic. He could floss on the mic, you know. But hanging with Dilla and being close with him, he was one of the most humble guys you’ll ever meet. His ears were open and always willing to create something new and embrace people who are talented. He just really had an open heart. I didn’t really get a chance to experience Dilla frustrated and all of that. I seen him spread love. He’s giving me records and said, “Man, make beats.” These are loops that he knew were crazy and he gave them to me to [make beats]. He had a free heart, man. I don’t think he was about putting out bad energy like that. He went solo and that was the choice he made to get his music out there and create the awareness.
DX: Are there any sounds that are replicated in music today that you love or that annoy you? Sonically, how does music feel to you right now?
Karriem Riggins: Music feels great. I feel like there’s a lot of great music out right now. It’s not always the music that’s right in front of you. It’s music that you have to dig for. I’m a record digger. You’ve got to find that gem. Sometimes you have to dig for it. In the mainstream, there’s some good stuff out there. There’s definitely some good stuff out there. I get something from everything.
DX: How important to you is the specific equipment you use? Is there a vastly different sound or options that you have depending on the equipment. From the outside, a lot of the descriptions sound similar.
Karriem Riggins: Definitely. But there’s a different feel that you can get from different machines as well. There’s a certain way you can chop stuff so you know it’s going to sound the way you hear it. When I’m working with the [Akai] MPC 3000, I know exactly how to convey my idea. I work with ProTools. I’ve done stuff live in ProTools just playing it live directly into the ProTools. I’ve done it that way. I’ve done it with Native Instrument Maschine and the MPC 5000, but I think it’s all really in the ear and just developing your ear and knowing exactly what you want to come out of that machine.
DX: Have you ever felt that you’ve wasted money on machine? Have you ever felt like, “Man, this machine is garbage?”
Karriem Riggins: The [MPC 5000] was garbage. [Laughs] It had some dope elements, but the glitches...On this tour I made maybe 300 beats and then something happened to all of my disks. They got corrupted or something. Every time I turned it on - I could be in the middle of a beat - and then the machine would just freeze up! It was crazy. [Laughs]
DX: When Little Brother first started gaining prominence, everyone was talking about how 9th Wonder used Fruity Loops...
Karriem Riggins: That’s dope. He’s killing Fruity Loops. If he’s using it, that’s crazy.
DX: Break down Fruity Loops’ reputation for someone who might not be up on the nuances between equipment producers use.
Karriem Riggins: I’ve never messed with Fruity Loops, but I know it’s directly on your computer and I think it uses your computer’s sound card and you can chop samples. I think it can also auto-chop and do different things in it. I’ve never really sat down and messed with it. It’s crazy. If he’s using that, he’s smashing it.
DX: Do you have someone who’s actively making music now that really inspires you on the Jazz tip and on the Hip Hop tip?
Karriem Riggins: Definitely. There are so many people that I love. I love ?uestlove as a musician, as a producer. He’s one of my favorites. Chris Day, he’s a drummer/producer. He’s done some interesting things. Of course, Pete Rock and Madlib and all these pioneers. I love Robert Glasper. He’s very very talented. I was sad I couldn’t make his remix album. I was supposed to do the remixes on his new project, but I couldn’t make the deadline. But I’m a big fan of his album. There’s some real good music being created right now.
DX: What happened there? Why couldn’t you make the deadline?
Karriem Riggins: I was on tour with Diana Krall and we just wrapped that tour up about a week and a half ago. There was no way for me to create with the schedule that I had. We plan on doing some stuff. We did talk about doing some stuff.
DX: One of the things The Roots have talked about recently was that for the majority of their career while they were constantly on the road, every album they made was kind of crafted out of jam sessions. Now that they’re doing Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, they’re touring less, so they’re making albums in a more conventional way - in studio sessions and focusing on the project in a different way. Is it challenging creating music while on the road? How’s the dynamic different when traveling for you?
Karriem Riggins: I just think being in different environments brings on different inspiration. For them, those dudes are always playing together so cats that are always together, they can anatomically create something very interesting. They always have something super interesting happening. A lot of the beats that I’ve done have definitely come from jams. Some ideas that I had just jamming and bringing them to the machine, then taking certain elements of that and chopping it up. A lot of stuff comes from that. Some of the dopest ideas come from just being in the studio and directly creating an album as well.
DX: Is there a song you’re most proud of on Alone Together?
Karriem Riggins: I love them all, man. But I’m really connected to “Ding Dong Bells.” That’s my son’s favorite. Creating that one was kind of crazy because I did the drums in a small bedroom in Detroit. It was like two cheap mics and it just came together the way I heard it.
DX: Your son named that one, right?
Karriem Riggins: My son named it. [Laughs]
DX: That sounds like such an innocent title, too. It sounds like something a 6-year old would come up with, like, “That sounds like ding dong bells.”
Karriem Riggins: [Laughs] Right! When he was 3 [years old] and the door bell would ring, he’d say, “Dad, the ding dong bell!” [Laughs] It was funny.
DX: [Laughs] That’s really cool. Is he going to be the third generation Riggins to get into the music business? Is he on that path?
Karriem Riggins: He could be, man. He has music all in his blood from my side of the family and his mother’s side of the family. His mom’s a singer and her dad is a producer/musician. Hopefully.
DX: You’ve been making music your entire life, whether Jazz or Hip Hop or whatever kind of mashup. With everything that’s evolved in music, what still surprises you about Hip Hop?
Karriem Riggins: Man, Hip Hop has grown. I grew up in the 1970s. So from the late 70s to now, to see the growth of Hip Hop is amazing. It’s still prominent. It’s beautiful. I enjoy being able to create and make music and let people hear the music from my perspective. It’s beautiful, man. I love Hip Hop.
DX: I guess it’s a place that you never thought about growing up listening to the Fat Boys and U.T.F.O., right?
Karriem Riggins: Exactly! [Laughs] A lot of the same elements in the music then, the truth in it is still alive today. The young generation now are embracing a lot of that stuff which is really good. You see a lot of the trends coming back. You see young cats with lines in their eyebrows and just the whole thing. It’s a trip, man. It’s a cycle.
DX: I had the chance to speak with George Clinton last year, and we talked about how Clyde Stubblefield [The Funky Drummer] doesn’t get enough credit for his roll in Hip Hop’s foundation. Those were Clyde’s drums that the earliest deejays created breaks out of.
Karriem Riggins: Exactly. Clyde Stubblefield and Jerome Brailey. Jerome Brailey played drums on all of the [Parliament-Funkadelic] stuff back then. He was co-writing a lot of that stuff. He never gets credit either.
DX: I’m waiting for that VH1 Hip Hop Honors.
Karriem Riggins: Yes! We need that. Let’s put that in motion. I would love to see that.