Karriem Riggins and the “Intersection” between Jazz and Hip Hop
A lot has been made recently of jazz artists working with rappers and hip hop producers, especially folks like Kamasi Washington and Robert Glasper’s work with Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar. A key focus of jazz critics and journalists writing about these musicians is the “intersection” of jazz and hip hop as if the two were separate and bounded entities that must be made through conscious musical and artistic effort to intersect or overlap. It’s an approach that I don’t ascribe to, but it runs rampant whenever a musician who is fluent in multiple styles decides to run with a group of players he or she that critics may not regularly associate them with.
An example nonpareil of the kind of either/or thinking about the intersection of jazz and hip hop that continues to persist can be found on drummer and producer Karriem Riggins’s 2012 album Alone Together. Over the course of this thirty-four track instrumental album Riggins — a Detroit native whose impeccable jazz credentials include time in groups led by Diana Krall and Ray Brown — shows off his mastery of flipping, chopping, and manipulating samples and incorporating them into his performances on various synthesizers, keyboards, drum machines, and his Gretsch drum set.
In the middle of the track “Water” the voice of a radio DJ breaks in:
Unidentified Radio Announcer #1: “You know, sometimes I’m a big jazz fan as you know, and one thing I try to do sometimes is tell people outside of jazz, ‘here’s some things that are maybe happening in jazz, maybe it’s not as insular as you think, you know?’ So last year we looked at the way that so many jazz musicians have turned to the pop repertoire over the last 20, 30 years. And this year I took a different kind of a thing is, people like Karriem Riggins who are right at the intersection of hip hop and jazz, and uh, he’s well known in both worlds. . . . if you follow producers — people whose name isn’t necessarily on the record. He’s well known in both worlds, and I wanted to do an article that kind of went out to both worlds too, and said ‘here’s a guy at the intersection of the corner of jazz and hip hop.’”
Unidentified Radio Announcer #2: “Well, and let’s get a couple of samples of what we’re talking about here. This is Karriem Riggins, and I believe the first thing we are going to hear, is, he produced this, is that correct?”
Announcer #1: “Yes, this is one of his productions.”
Announcer #2: “Ok, here we go.”
The next track, “Double Trouble,” drops in immediately, and while the track may or may not be the one the radio announcers were introducing, it demonstrates Riggins’ incorporation of jazz elements. It begins with a spacey, held synth chord that gives way to a call and response between a vibraphone and flute. The vibes and flute samples, which sit upon a relatively simple backbeat drum pattern, sound as if they could be lifted straight from a jazz album from the 1970s. “Double Trouble” has a kind of soul jazz feel, but Riggins’ decontextualization and looped repetition of the samples transforms the original material into a compelling beat. “Double Trouble” is far from the only beat on Alone Together to draw heavily on jazz. Other songs include samples of Herbie Hancock, jazz flautist Jeremy Steig, trumpeter Hugh Masakela, and a cameo from bassist Robert Hurst.
Listening to Alone Together it’s clear that jazz — along with Brazilian music and other genres — influence and are an integral part of Riggins’ sound world and musical language. When asked in an interview for Revive-Music about the connection between jazz and hip hop, he explained: “I just think living it, you know. I feel like growing up in hip-hop and growing up in jazz, it’s just natural to do. I don’t think I could do any other thing. It’s just what I feel and what I listen to. I think that whatever we listen to is pretty much what we’re going to reflect.” The interviewer followed-up, asking: “What are you looking forward towards doing next? Is it more jazz, more hip-hop, or both?” Riggins: I’ve got to do it together and just mix it up. That’s the only way I can feel progressed. I want to create new sounds and take the music to new heights. I don’t want to just concentrate on one thing.”
For Riggins, jazz isn’t something that he “intersects” with hip hop. They aren’t separate worlds that he chooses to either separate or bring together: he does both, it’s natural to him, it’s what he grew up with, listened to, and feels as a musician. In this way, there is no intersection of hip hop and jazz in the way the radio announcers on “Water” describe. He’s not merging the jazz and hip hop worlds; jazz and hip hop are part of the same world. While the music he plays on tour with Diana Krall is quite different than the beats he produces and releases on Stones Throw, it is all of a part of the same musical universe and continuum. The jazz and hip hop intersection doesn’t exist in Karriem Riggins’ music; it exists in the ways the announcers on “Water” and other critics conceptualize the music.