Karriem Riggins Talks August Greene, J Dilla, And Wanting To Form A Supergroup With D'Angelo And Chaka Khan [Interview]
Karriem Riggins has worked with a lot of people. The Detroit-born producer and jazz drummer has crafted beats for the likes of J Dilla, Erykah Badu, The Roots, Talib Kweli, and others. Right now Riggins is focused on a project with Common and Robert Glasper called August Greene.
The three have all worked together prior to forming August Greene, but the group finds the three creating a full-length album together, which drops March 9. The first singles from the self-titled album — a cover of the Sounds of Blackness' "Optimistic" and the soulful "Black Kennedy," are enjoyable selections that showcase the undeniable chemistry between the three artists, celebrating both their blackness and their craft as wildly talented musicians.
Okayplayer spoke with Riggins about August Greene's self-titled debut, how the group represents black excellence, and his dream to work with D'Angelo and Chaka Khan.
OKP: How did August Greene come together? I know there's the origins within the song that you wrote for Ava DuVernay's 13th ["Letter to the Free"], but was something brewing before then or did it start with that song?
Karriem Riggins: It started with us being friends for years. I produced Common's last record, Black America Again, and some of the songs on there Robert Glasper and I co-produced together. Just the working relationship we had in the studio creating that album was effortless; a lot of the songs we came up with were organic. So that album came out and we felt the need to continue to record. We didn't know what project we were necessarily working on — like, was it a new Common album, was it just music? So we just decided to form the group at that time, which was about a year ago. And "Letter to the Free," that was before we actually decided to form August Greene, so everything has aligned for this collaboration to come together.
OKP: What led to you guys deciding to cover Sounds of Blackness' "Optimistic" as the world's introduction to August Greene?
Riggins: It's such a positive song, man. I've known that song since I was younger and listening to it always breathes positivity into my whole day. You can be in a rut or a place where you need some inspiration — I will always play that song. So when I played that in the studio we all shared the same sentiment like, "Man, I love this song." And I had no idea that they felt the same way about it. So we were like "Man, we should just cover it." Then it was like "Who would be able to sing that?" and Robert immediately said "I think Brandy would smash it." So we called her and she immediately flew to New York. She was like "I'm so down to do it." It's just such a positive song and the way she sang it and the way it came together, it's so beautiful. It was just a great representation of what we do and what we're about.
OKP: The music video for "Optimistic" features footage of you all performing the track in a recording studio. Was that footage taken from the recording session in New York?
Riggins: Actually that video was shot in Los Angeles and that session was for that video. But there was so many great moments — we recorded the audio as well. So when you hear it in the beginning of the video and the outro of the video it was just some magical moments we had to keep.
OKP: Yeah, it sounds like you all had a fun time jamming on the outro.
Riggins: Yeah, and it's definitely going to turn into another song. There were some parts where Robert was playing some chords and I was like "Wow, it's another record."
OKP: What was the inspiration behind shooting the music video in Jackson, Mississippi, and including activists such as Hollis Watkins, Frankye Adams Johnson, Dr. Cindy Ayers Elliott?
Riggins: It's about showing we're all united and those activists have been around. They've been a voice for years. So just giving them the light — we need to salute the people giving us our voice. So I think that was the theme behind the video, and a lot of love as well. Also my family and a lot of our families are from Mississippi so it was just the perfect place to shoot the music video.
OKP: How was it recording the album? And are there similar themes throughout it like those found in "Optimistic"?
Riggins: We recorded it in a few different places. In LA we recorded at the Jim Henson studio where The Muppets were created. We did a portion of the record there and when we were in New York we recorded at Electric Lady. So between those two, those were our homes for the record. As for the process, Robert's a jazz musician as well as myself, so we go in with an intention but sometimes we don't even have an idea. Sometimes I'll go into the the studio and track a gang of drums before anyone gets there just to have some ideas on deck. Then everybody comes in, we'll do our jams and come up with songs. Then once we finish that I'll go to some of the drum reels that I recorded and we'll start pulling from those. That's kind of how the songs form. It's a great working relationship working with them. It's almost like Common is digging for records while we're recording. We'll just be jamming, and he'll stop us like "Wait, stop there and embellish on that." It's almost like needle dropping but we're playing live. We all have that ear to know when to embellish on certain ideas and it's a blessing to be able to have that working relationship with like-minded people with open ears as well.
OKP: Is there one song on the album that you feel captures the chemistry the three of you have better than the others?
Riggins: To tell you the truth I've been listening to this record every day. All of these songs stand out to me because it's that formula that we have as a collective. We also worked with a great writer, singer, and pianist named Samora Pinderhughes. He's on a lot of our songs and he's a great collaborator with us. And Burniss Travis, the bass player. When we're in the lab it's just great energy and their contributions go far. I hear the longevity in the music. I feel like it's music that will last — it sounds new every time I listen to it and I listen to it every day. I usually don't listen to a lot of projects that I'm a part of. Once I complete something I like to go to the next thing and not look back. But this is something that I feel connected to and I hope that people receive this the way that I do.
OKP: How would you say August Greene fits into a representation of black love and excellence?
Riggins: I think it's a positive affirmation to know that you can respect your craft too. Robert is one of the greatest piano players ever and Common is one of the greatest MCs. So it takes so much practice to be able to get to a level where you're considered great. And I feel like we play our instruments and it takes a lot but it shows the love and passion for what we do. So that's just another aspect of love. We have no samples on the record. This is maybe the first time I've been on a project where I didn't sample anything. It's really organic how we came up with this music. But spreading love through our music I feel is very important, and I want the youth to get that too. Just to know to respect their instruments and you get it back through the instrument.
OKP: An anniversary that is happening this year is the 10th anniversary of Erykah Badu's New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), which you contributed to ["Soldier"]. I was wondering if you had any memorable stories working with Erykah on that album?
Riggins: Creating that record was great. For the "Soldier" song — a lot of those beats, it was a trip because that was around the time where everybody was on iChat. iChat was like the thing to do. And I would send Erykah beats through iChat all day like "Check this one out. Check this one out." And I sent that beat and that's what resonated with her, and she immediately said "I'll be in LA, let's do that song," and that's when we created it. That is a classic record. A lot of that stuff was done at Sa-Ra [Creative Partners]'s house. They had a studio and we did one of those songs there. It was fun making that record.
OKP: Another anniversary that occurred recently was the birthday and death of J Dilla, who you collaborated with frequently. Were there any memorable moments you had with him?
Riggins: Just spreading love to other musicians. A lot of people who play the same instrument or do the same thing you do have this competitive mindset of not really spreading the love with the information. And we need to do more of that. Dilla was straight open with the information. I'd be like "Man, how did you do that" and he'd be like "Oh, you just do this." A lot of people would be like "Ah man, I can't tell you what record that is," but he was super open with the info. Sometimes when I didn't have any ideas for records he'd ask me "Have you been digging?" and I'd say I hadn't found anything. And he'd just give me a batch of records like "I went through these but you might hear something."
OKP: Considering August Greene is considered a supergroup, if you could make another supergroup with two other artists, alive or dead, who would they be?
Riggins: I love D'Angelo. He's one of my favorites. Questlove linked us and we've been talking back and forth but we haven't necessarily made the connection. But I feel like that's coming. I love Chaka Khan. I've always wanted to work with Chaka Khan. I would like to hear some vocals with them together. Like layered — that would sound crazy.