Chances are you’ve known Karriem Riggins longer than you think. Though a staple of Stones Throw‘s prestigious roster of producers, past and present, Riggins falls far outside of the beatsman mold. The son of prominent jazz composer and key player, Emmanuel Riggins, he’s found success as a touring drummer for stars like Dianna Krall and Elton John, yet remains on-call as the go-to man-on-the-skins for a heavyweight like Common, a friend and collaborator of twenty years. Their creative connection was first heard on the One Day It’ll All Make Sense closer, “Pops Rap Pt. 2/Fatherhood,” only strengthening through two decades of consistently potent, musically rich output.
Today, with the release of Common’s eleventh studio album, Black America Again, we see that bond crystallized in a rich tapestry of political savvy and romance. For Common, it’s a moment to use his voice, amplified as it’s ever been, to speak truth to power and address perpetual systemic failures. For Riggins, however, it’s also the first clear sign of a transformation that began with his debut solo record Alone Together — an album that defies all beat-tape conventions with deceptive depths in musicality, polish and stankface-inducing grit — from J Dilla and Madlib contemporary to producer’s producer. An MPC maven in his own right with the pedigree of his storied peers, Karriem serves as the lone producer of Common’s new album, as a composer and arranger alongside jazz-headed geniuses Robert Glasper, Elena Penderhughes, Keyon Harrold and the immaculate Stevie Wonder, tipping a hat to his homeschooling as he blurs past rattling safe foundations.
With Karriem you get the technical know-how of a seasoned studio rat and the fearless sonic explorations of the bedroom beat scene’s best all at once. It’s no wonder he’s got everyone from Kaytranada to Kanye knocking on his door. Which is to say that even with a mile-long resume of superlatives, the best is still yet to come.
And so we chatted over a buzzing line while he made his way through snappy NYC drivers, fresh out of rehearsal for a benefit show with Krall and Rocket Man himself (promising to inform that latter of his inclusion on Tribe’s final farewell), ruminating on this most prolific year. Despite the chaos he is as calm as can be, grateful to have taken the ride, knowing it’s far from over.
Okayplayer: It’s been a crazy year for you. Would you say you’re currently at your most visible?
Karriem Riggins: Most definitely. On the production side of things … definitely. It’s been a blessing.
OKP: Well, let’s start with Black America Again. It’s a big beautiful record, but you and Common have been working together since One Day It’ll All Make Sense right?
KR: Yeah. Basically since I met him in 1996 it’s been an ongoing working relationship.
OKP: Can you speak to your chemistry as musicians? What’s it like to be in the studio with him?
KR: In a studio session he’s wide open for creativity man. And there are no boundaries to where we can take it. He’s just one of those open-minded musicians. Like a jazz approach. A lot of jazz musicians that I work with like exploring the possibilities of where things could go and that’s what he’s about. And he’s a phenomenal emcee.
OKP: Did you know when you stepped into the studio together you’d be knocking out a whole album?
KR: No initially it was supposed to be an EP. And he hit me up to do an EP. Like “Yeah I’m working on an EP. Let’s just do a strong five songs, and put it out.” And that was the idea initially… and I just kept sending beats. And he kept writing songs. I think I was in Australia at the time. We did the five and then it turned into six and then it turned into eight, and now like 14 songs.