June 14, 2024


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Detroit’s Karriem Riggins: Jazz, hip-hop and new supergroup August Greene: Video

Karriem Riggins has spent the last 20-plus years becoming one of the most accomplished modern musicians in Detroit, with his jazz and hip-hop productions and session playing landing him alongside the likes of J Dilla, Erykah Badu, Herbie Hancock, Esperanza Spalding, Paul McCartney and dozens of others. But two longtime friendships from the 1990s have earned the drummer/producer his first Emmy Award and the genesis for his latest project, August Greene.

“Most hip-hop producers are not jazz drummers, and most hip-hop producers are not great jazz drummers. To play jazz in general, you have to have a lot of sensitivities when it comes to the instrument, and know how to give music colors,” said Grammy-winning pianist Robert Glasper, Karriem’s August Greene groupmate. “A lot of his beats, he’s actually playing the drums on it. So there’s a human quality you’re getting that’s really hard to capture (digitally).”

Riggins grew up with music as a big part of his family, as his father, keyboardist Emmanuel Riggins, played with jazz legends Grant Green and Marcus Belgrave. He first began playing in middle school, but his career moved along quickly once he started high school. He joined a group called Legacy and performed at clubs around the city, and in 1992, he attended a jam session at the Montreux Jazz Festival with Roy Hargrove and Hutchinson. Riggins met Hutchinson, who introduced him to jazz singer Betty Carter. He joined Carter’s Jazz Ahead band at age 17, and left school in 11th grade to move to NYC and pursue music full-time.

Riggins met hip-hop star and actor Common in 1996 after recognizing him in the crowd on the last day of a week-long visit in Chicago while touring with Hargrove’s band, which he had joined a year earlier. He had enjoyed Common’s 1994 album “Resurrection,” which featured the classic song “I Used To Love H.E.R.”

“I was like ‘We’re in Chicago, it’s got to be him,’” Riggins remembered. “After the show he came up to our dressing room, and I told him how I loved his music. We exchanged numbers, and we just stayed tight.”

The two became friends, and after leaving bassist Ray Brown’s band, Riggins began to focus more on producing hip-hop. His jazz sensibilities gave an organic feel to his rap productions, and Common brought him aboard to produce “Pop’s Rap Part 2 / Fatherhood,” from his album “One Day It’ll All Make Sense.” While visiting Detroit, Common also reintroduced Riggins to J Dilla. Riggins had met Dilla once at a club years earlier, but this new encounter was the start of a fruitful new musical relationship between the two. Dilla enlisted Riggins for “2 U 4 U” from Slum Village’s LP “Fantastic Vol. 2” (2000), “The Clapper” from Dilla’s solo album “Welcome 2 Detroit” (2001), and most tellingly, to help him complete “The Shining,” the final album Dilla was working on before his death in 2006.

Riggins also continued to work with Common on nearly all of the rapper’s subsequent LPs: “Like Water For Chocolate,” “Electric Circus,” “Be,” and “Finding Forever.” In 2015, Riggins began to assemble the skeleton of a new project for the two to work on.

“I was in Europe at the time, making a lot of beats on the tour bus. I would just text Common beat after beat in iMessage, and he was writing a lot when I was in Europe,” Riggins remembers. “We had a few songs, and when I got back from Europe, we wanted to add some things in addition to what we had. That’s when we called in Robert to add to some of that stuff. You think you’re done with (a song) until Robert would touch it. It would be complete then, because he added such an element that it needed.”

Riggins had initially met Glasper in Dilla’s basement in the early 2000s, when Dilla invited him over while he was working with soul singer Bilal. Glasper went to college with Bilal, and worked as his musical director at the time. In the years since their meeting, Glasper became one of the most accomplished musicians in modern jazz: he had won two Grammys for the star-studded “Black Radio” series with his band, the Robert Glasper Experiment, and had dropped several albums with historic Blue Note Recordings.

The trio’s work resulted in Common’s 2016 LP “Black America Again,” an album that featured the Emmy-winning song “A Letter To The Free.” The trio made the latter song specifically at the request of filmmaker Ava Duvernay, who was making a documentary called “13th” about the relationship between race and mass incarceration in the United States. The film was titled after the 13th Amendment, which freed slaves and prohibited slavery – unless as punishment for a crime.

“It’s a pretty deep movie, about the 13th amendment and how crooked the system is. It definitely touched me in a way that you can feel the emotion in the music,” Riggins said. “I had everyone come into the studio and we put a mic right in the middle of the room, we moved the rugs out of the way so we could have the wood floor. I had everybody stomp a hard as they could on one and three, and we clapped on two and four. It’s kind of a gospel vibe. An old negro spiritual or something, where everyone was stomping and clapping.

“I wasn’t actually there to receive it. I was actually on tour. I woke up to an Emmy,” Riggins said. “It’s a beautiful thing to be able to see the award, and at the same time, create awareness for something that needs to have light.”

After completing “Black America Again,” Riggins released a solo beat album called “Headnod Suite” under indie heavyweight (and Dilla’s old recording home) Stones Throw Records. The three musicians then reunited to begin working on Common’s next album. After completing a few songs, they rented a house in Malibu to continue working. Common’s physical trainer, after hearing what they had already made, had a suggestion.

“He suggested that we be a group because the sound of the music we were creating was so original and unlike anything [Common] has done,” Riggins said. They took the trainer’s advice, and formed a trio called August Greene.

“(Common) was like, ‘working with y’all on this albums reminds me of working with Dilla.’ He missed that feeling of really working with people who are actual real musicians,” Glasper said. “When you’re working with jazz musicians who are equally good at hip-hop, there is a certain understanding that we have that others just don’t have.”

August Greene completed its album, but it needed a home, since “Black America Again” had fulfilled Common’s contractual obligations with Def Jam. Common and his management had a relationship with Amazon, and they decided to try something new: releasing the album through the company’s platform Amazon Music.

“Amazon not being a label, but more of a company that pushes us out there. It’s new to us and new to them as well,” Riggins said. The album is exclusive to Amazon Music until May, when it will arrive on other streaming and digital platforms. “I dig having different ways of releasing music, this industry is evolving right now.”

While August Greene is strong on record, it may be at their best live. The trio rocked at South By Southwest in mid-March, performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. on March 29, and at the IAM2018 for the 50th anniversary of the Memphis Sanitation Works’ Strike and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  (The three musicians performed together at the Detroit International Jazz Festival in 2017 before August Greene became an official public group.)

Common has a mainstream-friendly image that gives his music access to places like Kennedy Center that most rappers wouldn’t generally get to perform at. But with Riggins’ equal dexterity in jazz and hip-hop, he had already performed at the Kennedy Center before.

“It’s a blessing to be able to go into both of those worlds,” Riggins said. “I’m still learning as I go.”

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