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Karriem Riggins Will Sleep When He's Dead
Karriem Riggins Will Sleep When He's Dead

Karriem Riggins Will Sleep When He's Dead: The Stones Throw Producer on a Prolific Year [Interview]

Karriem Riggins Will Sleep When He's Dead

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.

Below you'll learn what's to come. Pick up Common's new album Black America Again on iTunes or stream it via Spotify to hear the gawd at work.


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.

Karriem Riggins Will Sleep When He's Dead: The Stones Throw Producer on a Prolific Year [Interview]

OKP: Is this the first time you've produced a full project for an artist?

KR: Yeah this is ... I worked on this project with this singer named Keziah Jones from Paris. But this is the first full-length album produced solely from my sequencing, drum machines ... coming from that aspect of creating. So this is a blessing. Other than my Alone Together album, this is something that's, well...this is big for me.

OKP: We'll get to Alone Together. I've got a lot to say about that, but Black America Again with both politically charged and deceptively romantic. Is this a love record or a protest piece?

KR: I think it is just a mixture of everything. Just like a picture is not one color. It's everything together that makes it a great piece of work. And I think that's great for hip-hop records. All the classic hip-hop records that we love have had everything. I don't think he initially went into writing mode trying to put it together that way. This is just the way it came together. And the songs, the politically charged records definitely set the tone on the album because there's some powerful songs.

OKP: Is this a reactive record then?

KR: It definitely is. I mean in a lot of songs that he's done prior to this has been speaking to exactly what's going on now. There's a lot of stuff that's going on now that's been going on for years. He's speaking of re-writing our story, which is a positive way to look at it because a lot has happened. I just think that is a creative way to approach the content.

OKP: Do you think the artist has a responsibility in the face of such persistent systemic injustices?

KR: Absolutely. The artists that are aware of what it is, and just not ignorant on the subject. Because some artists are just feel-good artists and they just do what they do. I don't feel like they should feel obligated to do that, when they don't really know, but someone like Common, who is very intelligent and studied ... he knows what's happening. He uses his voice to try to make a change in the world and that's important.

OKP: Common has said that this is the most inspired he's felt since Dilla passed. You knew Dilla better than most, and you're also one of a handful of musicians that have actually laid hands on a Dilla production while he was still around. Do you feel obligated to carry the Detroit torch on record or in spirit?

KR: Man...I feel like I'm a student. I've been a student of his music and even more so his work ethic and his drive. That inspired me for this album. Because usually for an album we make a beat or 10 beats and think that these songs will be picked. And then that's it. But Rashid (Common) pushed me to make as much music as I can. And I know Dilla working with Common made hundreds of beats. Even Kanye [West] spoke about it on some songs. Man he passed on his beat, you know? So I had to make a lot of beats to make the album. And I think that was the Dilla approach because he would come through with a 12-beat CD he had made that day (laughs)

OKP: Just came with the full regime every time, didn't he?

KR: Exactly! And I would be like "Man! How'd you do that? I just made half a beat".  Yeah he definitely set my game up.

Karriem Riggins Will Sleep When He's Dead: The Stones Throw Producer on a Prolific Year [Interview]

OKP: Did you pick up any production tricks from him?

KR: Oh definitely. I think just being a musician about it, listening to records from that perspective is different from a producers' perspective. And I think I learned how to fine tune my ear for listening for certain notes and nuances and rhythms. I learned that from him. Even just listening to his beats.

OKP: Finding the good mistakes?

KR: Yeah, exactly.

OKP: Between Alone Together and the top of this year, it seems like you'd remained pretty quiet. Then, boom, "Bus Ride" and "30 Hours" drop and all of a sudden Karriem's back and the shit is crazy. How did those collaborations (with Kanye and Kaytranada) come together?

KR: Basically after Alone Together, I got a call or an email from Che Pope. They were in the studio, and I think that either he or Kanye just had my album and they were playing it. Said that he really loved the album and that he wanted rap to one of the tracks on the album and wondered if I had any new beats. So I was really pushing like "Yeah I have new tracks" and I went in. I really didn't have a beat CD, but worked for the next week and put together a bunch of beats for him. He was like "Send me the beat for track blank."

OKP: You were like "Oh, the Arthur Russel flip?"

KR: Yeah exactly! And that was it. I think it was prior to him doing Yeezus. So this was supposed to be for that album if I'm not mistaken. He sat on this beat for a while.

OKP: That's crazy.

KR: Then we got a call around the time [The Life of Pablo] came out saying he wanted to use it. I was surprised. Definitely grateful because I'm a fan of his music, his thinking and his creativity. It's an honor to work with him.

OKP: That's incredible. And you got Andre in there too!

KR: Exactly, man. Classic.

OKP: What about "Bus Ride"...? That's you on the drums right?

KR: Yeah it is. He opened for me when I went to Montreal to DJ, and man he is incredible! Did a little more research on his music and we stayed in touch. He reached out to me to do a collabo and sent the file. I heard that and it just inspired me to play those rhythms. He's an incredible artist. Very talented. I'm looking forward to doing more work and we've been talking about doing some projects together so...

OKP: Stop it.

KR: Yeah I dig that dude.

OKP: So I don't know if you're aware, but Ahmir (Questlove) recently posted a video of you in the studio with The Roots working on their new project. How does it feel to be back in Electric Lady? What's the vibe like?

KR: It's super crazy. The Roots, that's one of my favorites man. Like hands down. Ahmir is just like one of my favorite drummers. I put him in the top tier. And his knowledge of music and choices of where to place the beat and everything is just phenomenal. Working with's classic man. They had the whole Electric Lady building locked down. All the studios in the building. There was a lot of love in there you know?

OKP: When you get the call from an artist, are you shuffling through your hard dive or putting something together on the spot? How do you know which approach to take?

KR It really depends on the artist. I like to do as much custom work as I can.When I pull some things from the hard drive, I like to deconstruct those tracks and tailor them to the artist.

OKP: How do you know when to chop something up on the MPC versus when to do the live drum take?

KR: I usually start with a record. Sometimes recreating a record is impossible, but sometimes it's a good thing, trying to weigh those things out depending on who the artist is. Especially in hip hop, man. Sometimes it's hard to cop that raw feel.

OKP: Gotta know when to let the sample do the work.

KR: Exactly. Unless you're The Roots. (laughs)

OKP: Do you ever sample yourself?

KR: Oh, definitely. A lot of this new album that I worked on for my Stones Throw project is is me chopping.

OKP: Seems like the the perfect segue to my next question -- Alone Together is an absolute triumph. 1 to 10 scale, what are the chances we see another solo record?

KR: Oh, man. I have another record coming out within the next few months It's called The Headnod Suite. Coming out on Stones Throw. Very beat-driven album.

OKP: You just made me a very happy man. But while we're on the Stones Throw page, what's it like working with another crazy ass jazz-minded do-it-all like Madlib? The Supreme Team material is top-shelf.

KR: Oh, man. It's great working with Madlib. The way we work is definitely different. We pass each other's CDs almost the way a rapper gives a producer vocals, except I give him drums and he'll put all the music to it. For the project we did- we have an instrumental project that has 9 albums done called Jahari Massamba Unit. We just got to time it and put it out. It' much, but hopefully we can get to that soon. Maybe we can put out some double albums. There's really enough music to make it a creative project.

OKP: Wait...what?! AND you've got this Blend series going at Nublu?

KR: Yeah, it's this monthly party I'm doing New York that's a big project of mine right now. Basically trying to blend everything, man: live music, party, DJ, atmosphere. Each Blend will be different. This one that's coming up Friday is more a record release party with Common. I'll be playing a lot of unreleased beats and Lonnie'll freestyle over them and maybe performing some of the songs from the album. I've also got DJ Spinna and DJ Dummy. Should be a nice one.

OKP: Are you going to stick with Nublu, or are you going to travel it around?

KR: Definitely sticking with Nublu. It's a great club and the owner's an old friend of mine from when I lived in NYC in the '90s. It's the perfect home for this event and we're going to running it every month.

OKP: So you'll be in the city for a while then?

KR: Yeah, man. I want to get a spot here. New York is an important place for music.

OKP: So a solo record within the next couple months, 9 albums with Madlib as Jahari Massamba Unit and a monthly event series. What else you got up that sleeve?

KR: I have this record with Nick Grant called "Get Up" that just came out. And I'm working on a new album with Common. Just started on the new project.

OKP: Another one?

KR: Yeah. DJ Khaled, another one. [Laughs] We're trying to hit them, man. I got a call to send a lot of beats to Nas, too. He already has one on the new album, but hopefully that sees the light of day. I'm just chopping up a lot of beats, and just trying to stay creative and pushing my music out. I just built my studio in Van Nuys, California. It's different when your place of work is away from home.

OKP: You don't sleep much huh?

KR: Nah, man. I got to keep it going.

Check out Karriem Riggins' production on Common's Black America Again, which is available for purchase and streaming now.