Robert Glasper is a titan of music. He’s worked with hip-hop performers like the Roots and Common. He’s worked with jazz legends like Herbie Hancock. He’s traversed genres and split them wide open. Glasper, who burst onto the scene in 2013 with his Grammy-winning LP, Black Radio, really cemented his mythic status with his work on Kendrick Lamar’s record, To Pimp a Butterfly (2015).
Today, Glasper continues to do it all. He plays in his all-star band, Dinner Party, and produces work for artists like Norah Jones, Anderson .Paak, Brittany Howard, and many others. Coming up in October, Glasper will be participating in several livestreams, as well as a month-long residency at the famed Blue Note Jazz Club. We caught up with the artist to ask him about his relationship to music, how he first came to it, his upcoming gigs, and much more.
American Songwriter: Hello, Robert. Thanks for making some time. I’m sure you have nothing else on your to-do list, so we can take a nice, leisurely conversation!
Robert Glasper: [Laughs] Right!
AS: [Laughs] Okay, here we go. When did you first hear music? I know your mother was a professional musician and performer but when did the idea of music first raise your eyebrow or seem like a rabbit hole for you?
RG: Yeah, so, I mean, my mom raised me mostly by herself. So, when she had gigs, there were a lot of times when she didn’t have a sitter and she would take me to the clubs with her. I remember being in the club when I was two.
RG: Like literally being in the back of a club. Like, she’s singing Top-40 stuff or a blues club or a jazz club. I’m two years old in the back and the waitresses are checking on me while she’s on stage [Laughs]. And I remember being in rehearsals when I was two. I’ve been around it for so long. Because my mom used to do rehearsals in our living room as well.
She had amps and we had keyboards and drums, everything at the house. She would set everything up in the living room and have people over at her place. So, it was just a part of my life, whether I liked it or not! [Laughs] Either love it or hate it, it’s going to be one of the two! So, literally since two years old I’ve been engulfed in it.
AS: What made you decide to invest in music at that point? Was it your relationship later with Bilal? Was it the high school and college bands you played it? Why did you get better and how did you get better?
RG: The real thing is, I started, I was really into athletics. I was really trying to be a track star and basketball star. So, I was doing sports hardcore until I was 14. Until 9th grade. I was in sports in 9th grade but in 10th grade, I was like, ‘let me change over because I was not as good as I thought I was.’
I started playing piano late. I started playing piano at 11-years-old, with one finger. Just messing around with one finger on the piano, learning little melodies from the radio kind of thing. Then I progressively, as I missed around—my mom was the minister of music at her church. It was a small church, called East Wind Baptist Church. It had about 40 members on a full day.
She played piano and she was the music director. But they had a little organ in the corner and on Sundays, I used to just go over there to the organ and just practice and play during the service and figuring out the songs. That’s literally how I learned, just by figuring out the songs during church service while my mom was playing the piano.
So, I learned that and once I realized I wasn’t going to be an athlete for real, I ended up auditioning for the High School of Performance and Visual Arts in Houston. In 9th grade, I auditioned and I got in. But I really wanted to give basketball one more shot, so I didn’t go. I went to a regular high school, Elkins High School [in Texas].
And that regular high school, once I got there, I realized I wasn’t as good at basketball and track as I thought I was. But in junior I was the man, I was the man in junior high! But, you know, when you get to the high schools, you get all the other schools coming into that school, so in 9th grade, I sat on the bench damn near the whole year on the basketball court.
So, I say, I slid the bench right over to the piano! And just decided to go ahead and do that. So, once I got to high school in 10th grade, that’s when everything started moving fast forward. That’s when you had theory classes and jazz combo classes and one-on-one piano lessons. That’s when it really fast-forwarded and I got serious, in 10th grade.
AS: What position did you play in basketball?
RG: I was a small forward. I was tall and lanky.
AS: There must be some connection to you between—you know, people always say jazz is like basketball. There’s improvisation, fluidity, you have to anticipate what your teammates could do. Do you feel that?
RG: Exactly. Just being aware. Being aware and ready for anything to happen and to be able to respond. That’s what happens in jazz. That’s literally what happens in jazz, for sure. So, there is definitely that correlation. And I took it even further and used the crossover! I used the crossover.
AS: Yeah! Okay, well, let me ask this, and it may be a broad question, but what does the idea of jazz mean to you? Or, perhaps this is a better way into the idea: what do people like Herbie Hancock mean to you? Because I can’t help but imagine that he’s something of a secret keeper and secret teller and that must be an important figure for you in music?
RG: Herbie is the epitome of jazz, I feel. Because a lot of people that—there’s a lot of artists that people feel are the gatekeepers of jazz. But they’re really not, because I feel like people forgot what jazz is supposed to be and what it is. I feel like—people always talk about the tradition. And, you know, “I got to hear the tradition in the music. I’m not hearing the tradition. They’re getting away from the tradition.”
But when you really look at it, the real tradition of jazz is that it always changes. That’s the tradition. It doesn’t sound the same from 1920 to 1970. Every 10 years it changed. Every 10 years it had a different sound. Every 10 years it’s influenced by other things that are happening in that time period. Whether it be Broadway shows or other music or whatever it is. It was influenced by other things.
So, the sound changes. Then when you get into the ‘70s, it got influenced because electric instruments started coming into play. You got keyboards, you got Rhodes, electric bass, and all those things. It’s influenced now because there’s rock happening and Motown happening and jazz cats are playing in Motown bands. So, now there’s an infusion of that. So, it’s supposed to sound different because of the influence—unless you’re walking around with your eyes closed and your ears plugged.
The true what jazz really is, it’s supposed to always change and reflect the times. It always reflects the times you’re in. It never reflected history. And now people want it to reflect history instead of reflecting the times. And Herbie’s the gatekeeper of that because Herbie to this day is still searching and trying to do the new thing. To always do the new thing.
Herbie came to one of my shows and I had him play on a J. Dilla beat, you know what I mean? That’s who he was. Herbie’s always searching for the new thing. And that’s why he’s the gatekeeper because he knows the history but he’s not held back by the history. Because he knows the history, he’s learned that you’re not supposed to be held back. You use the history as a springboard. And you keep it moving forward to make more history.
Other than that, if you stick to one part of history, you’re erasing history literally. So, that’s literally why Herbie’s that guy. Period.
AS: There must be some amount of adherence to history can mean actually that someone can own whether or not that’s happening officially.
RG: Yup, absolutely.
AS: Okay, you talked about the “crossover.” So, let’s get into it. You’re something of a musical deity for your work in hip-hop, especially with Kendrick Lamar. And too with Dinner Party and other work. So, how do you think about that killer crossover in your quiet moments, say, when you’re changing your socks at night?
RG: Right [Laughs]. Well, actually, man, it’s just who I am. It’s not even a thought. Like, I’ve always just—I got into hip-hop in high school. Maybe 11th grade I first heard Busta Rhymes—well, I first heard Midnight Marauders by A Tribe Called Quest. There’s a lot of jazz-influenced things on that album. With Tribe Called Quest, in general, there’s a lot of jazz stuff.
But it was then when I was like, “Oh, shit, I know that tune!” But they sampled the tune. Before, I didn’t understand what they were talking about in hip-hop. We didn’t have the same story, growing up. So, a lot of times the lyrics didn’t resonate with me. But when A Tribe Called Quest, when I found them, the music resonated with me, you know what I mean?
And then when I got to New York, it was in the heyday—it was in the beginnings of the “neo-soul movement” in 1997. So, that’s when you had The Roots and D’Angelo and Erykah Badu and Jill Scott and all these people coming out. That’s when I met Bilal in college in 1997 when I moved to New York. So, he was taking me to Philly on the Grey Hound bus into Philadelphia where they were having all these jam sessions. I was sitting in with The Roots, and stuff like that.
RG: So, when the Roots started coming into New York, they would call me to come to sit in with them. So, I was playing with the Roots for a few years. And that’s when I really became—because then you’re playing hip-hop live. No one was really playing hip-hop live with a band before that, really. It wasn’t a thing. That’s when it became a thing. I started playing the Roots and then, through Bilal, I worked with J. Dilla. And we got to jam a lot and boom-boom-boom.
It became a thing, a snowball effect. I started hanging out with Q-Tip all the time, recording with Q-Tip, and going over to Common’s house. I was just engulfed in real hip-hop for real-for real. To me, that’s why when I crossover—the thing about a crossover is, what makes it dangerous, is whoever the basketball player who’s doing the crossover if you know he’s going to go to the right because he’s only good with his right, then you don’t have to guard him.
Because his crossover isn’t going to work because you know he’s not going to go left, really. Because he’s not good at his left, he’s only good at his right. But if he’s good at both hands equally, you don’t know where he’s going to go. That’s when the crossover is dangerous. So, musically, that’s how I am. I made sure that I played with the masters of all the genres that I portray. I played with the masters of hip-hop, I played with the masters of jazz, I played with the masters of R&B.
So, in any of those genres, if I go there, I play it authentically and I play it in its full form. And I’ve given it its proper respect as far as studying it. So, then when I do those things and I go from one thing to another thing, that’s why it sounds the way it sounds versus other people who are only good at one of the things. And then when they go over here, to jazz, you hear the weak links. Like, “Oh, you really don’t play jazz.” Or “you don’t play R&B.” Or “you really only play jazz, you don’t play hip-hop.”
You know what I mean, that’s when it gets corny. So, for me, I play with all these people. That’s literally just been my life. So, it’s nothing for me. Because that’s my life. It’s going on tour with R&B greats, go on tour with hip-hop greats, go on tour with jazz greats. Luckily my thought was I want to go to New York because that’s where all the musicians are. That’s where everybody tours. Because I got a scholarship to Berklee and some other schools. But, no, I was like, I need to be in New York because of that, you know?
AS: Because you have such a wide swatch of abilities and ways to connect, how do you approach a single project? How do you approach working with, say, Norah Jones and then switch to, say, Anderson .Paak?
RG: That’s easy! Once I get in front of the person, I talk to the person and I can kind of get a vibe of what we’re looking for. It’s kind of like a chef analogy. You go to a restaurant and the chef says, “Hey, so, what are you allergic to? Do you like rice? Do you like this, do you like that?” So, once I get that vibe, I can go from there. I’m really good at reading the situation, too.
AS: Like reading the defense on the court.
RG: Yeah, exactly. And I know what to take out, what to keep in. I can figure that out pretty easily.
AS: It’s so fun to talk basketball with you, I had no idea this was coming!
RG: Oh yeah! I’m a fan for sure.
AS: Damian Lillard comes to mind. He’s a really skilled musician.
RG: Yeah, he can rap for sure!
AS: Okay, you have some events coming up, a Livestream on October 8 and 9 with a number of artists and another on October 29 and 30 with Dinner Party members and horn player, Christian Scott Attunde. And you also have a long residency at the Blue Note Jazz Club from October 1 through November 7. What is it like to prepare for both of those?
RG: Shooting the Livestream thing was cool. It was with Dinner Party plus Christian Scott Attunde. We’ve all played together many times in the past, and we’re all friends. Getting together with those guys was just normal, like, okay cool! It was streaming and streaming it is what it is. But now, as far as getting to play the Blue Note, it’s like, ah! Now we get to play in front of people and that’s a whole different thing.
I feel like musicians now understand the value of having an audience because I think we took it for granted for so many years that people are going to be there and what people mean to a show. People mean everything to a show. Doing a streaming show and doing a show with actual people are two completely different shows. You need the energy of the people and definitely a back and forth, for sure. That’s why I can’t wait to do the Blue Note.
I’ve done it twice before. It’s always a great time. It’s always random and I don’t know what’s going to happen tonight. I don’t know who’s going to pop up night to night. It’s just super fun. So, I’m really excited about that. I’m doing different bands. I’m doing two different bands every week. Every week it’s two different bands, special guests every week with different bands. So, it’s going to be fun. Especially since everybody is coming out from not being out so much because of COVID.
These shows are all vaxxed shows. You have to be vaxxed in order to enter. So, I wanted people to feel as comfortable as they possibly can. I want them to come out if they can. But I understand some people are not sure about going out. But at least I’m giving some people who feel like they want to, I’m giving them an opportunity. Music is medicine, you know what I mean? You’re yearning for it and musicians are yearning to play. It’s the therapy we need.
AS: It’s so interesting because these shows at the Blue Note, in part they’re performances and shows but in another way, they’re practice and like being n the gym for you. That’s just an interesting dynamic of what you do.
RG: Exactly. Yup.
AS: How do you think about your future? In reading about you for this conversation, you’ve talked about Miles Davis. And how his music reflected the times, which is what we talked about earlier. So, given that, how do you think about what’s ahead of you?
RG: I mean, Miles is the way Herbie thinks the way he thinks, too. Miles always kept the young cats around because they were the sound of the time. Always. His whole career, he always had young cats around. Because he was smart enough to know that he didn’t know everything. [Laughs] So, he kept those guys around and that’s literally how Herbie is, too. He’s like, “Hey, I’m an older guy!” I’m the same way with cats younger than me! I’m like, “Hey, what’s cracking?” For sure. That’s how it’s supposed to be.
Jazz is so far behind because people pay so much attention to the history of the music, including the musicians. It’s the musicians’ fault. It’s our fault. The people who are not just trying to be present. We’re so far behind that when we’re present, it feels like we’re the future but we’re actually just present. That’s it, we’re just now, now! [Laughs]
So many people tell me that, like, “Robert, you’re the future, you’re the future?” But I’m like, “I’m not, I’m just now. That’s all.” But if you just pay attention to now, then I think that automatically—you’ll stumble into the future how you’re supposed to stumble into the future like every other genre. But in jazz, it feels like, if a new singer’s there, everybody’s like, “Yeah, but what about Ella?” It’s like, we love Ella! But there are new people here!
R&B doesn’t do that. When Usher came in, nobody was like, “Yeah, that’s cool, but what about Marvin Gaye!” They didn’t do that. So, we have to champion our new to keep the music alive. To keep the music alive, we have the champion the new artists, period. Unless you’re going to kill the genre trying to “be a traditionalist,” you know?
AS: It’s like poetry. People too often make it all too hard to enter any modern or contemporary ideas of poetry.
AS: What do you love most about music?
RG: What I love most about music is that I think it allows me to be my true, honest self. I’m myself the most when I’m playing music. I think that’s when I let go the most, that’s when I can be the most honest. That’s when I can play things I feel without offending anyone because it’s music; I’m not saying anything. [Laughs] So, yeah I think I can just be my most authentic self in expressing who I am. I think music is the best vehicle that allows me to do that.
And it translates throughout the world in a way that nothing else I do would translate. I feel like music is the No. 1 language and it’s a blessing that I get to speak it because not everybody gets to speak it. Everyone understands music, everybody loves music. Everybody has a favorite song in whatever country you live in. But not everybody speaks that language. People can adore it. Like I admire Spanish but I don’t speak it. You can admire music but if you don’t play it and produce it, it’s different. So, I’m one of the ones that are blessed to actually be able to speak the language in a fluid way. So, it’s really cool.