Karriem Riggins: Stepping out of the shadows

Words: Jamie Groovement

Karriem Riggins is stepping out of the shadows.

Instrumental in many works without his name on the cover over the years, most recently he’s produced the whole of Common’s album Black America Again and has just released his sophomore full length for Stones Throw Records, Headnod Suite, a sequel to 2012’s Alone Together. Mostly a beats-only statement of intent, it’s far from just a beat tape – more of a 29-track journey to lose yourself in, hitting a variety of emotions along the way.

“I think it’s beat driven but there’s so many different elements that it’s kind of like its own thing,” reflects Karriem. “Beat tapes are like roughs, sketches. This is more… it flows, that’s why I call it a suite.” The album kicks off with what would be Karriem’s ring-entering theme if he was a professional wrestler rather than producer: 49 seconds of 1970s-evoking brass showered with J Rocc cuts. Did Karriem envision this as kicking off the LP? “I did not! Actually, I made that for Common, he was supposed to rap to that, and it just turned into the intro. J Rocc laid the cuts through and made it very grand, with the ‘Ladies and gentlemen…’ and all of that, made it super dope. J Rocc is the man; he did all of the cuts on that album. We actually have a duo, a drum/DJ duo that we’ve been doing, we did a tour in Japan recently. He plays a lot of breaks and stuff, and I play along with it and we make songs. It’s kind of crazy.”

There seems to be a definite narrative running both within tracks and over the album as a whole, substantiating the suite approach. “That was important to bring the album together, especially with the interludes. The interludes were the kind of finish, the seasoning of the whole project.” Then we get Suite Poetry right in the middle, a beautiful and lyrically reflective joint featuring Detroit-based poet Jessica Care Moore which acts as a transition point that pulls you into a lamenting piano loop. “I have not known her that long, but I have known of her and I’ve always thought she was incredible. And then the placement, I wanted the music to lead up to that… it’s an abstract poem but it makes sense, it brings some type of theme, it’s very thematic. I’m grateful that she was able to do it too. We’ve been talking about it a while.”

Even before its release, the cover art to Headnod Suite, an 8-bit stylised version of Karriem’s head, was fast becoming iconic. “That’s definitely what it is, that’s definitely an old school graphic. Strictly all the genius of Jeff Jank who works at Stones Throw. He’s responsible for a lot of classic artwork there, like Quasimoto. He’s just done incredible things. He sent me seven different choices, maybe a little less, that one I saw and it just caught my eye, I just knew that that was the cover.”

The video game influence rears its head surprisingly little over the course of the album, with the exception of the wistful Crystal Stairs, which recalls the 8 and 16 bit eras with aplomb and obviously comes from the mind of a games head. “I was, but making that track I was so far from even thinking about that. Afterwards, when I started to add effects like the 8 bit sound on the actual sample, it started to sound like that, it was crazy. Then I made the drums sound like that as well. It’s kind of reminiscent of that era. I played a lot of those games back then, like Metroid, The Secret Of Mana, The Legend Of Zelda, a lot of those games had hip music, man. Zillion was cool.”

Precluding Headnod Suite’s release was Common’s Black America Again, completely produced by Karriem and featuring significant contributions from jazz man Robert Glasper. One imagines Karriem and Common’s relationship is a particularly unique one given the years they’ve known each other. “I’ve learned a lot from him over the years, learned what emcees need to hear to be able to write to a song, or make it something special. Those things that I learned from him I incorporated into music, then the fact that I got to collab with Robert Glasper on a lot of that album was a different feel from everything I do, that collaboration was super dope. I would have ideas and have them ready so that when Robert came to the studio we would have stuff already in place, so he’d add on to what I produced. The ones that we co-produced together, like Black America, the actual song (also featuring Stevie Wonder), and Pyramids, I had those drums already done. He came in, and he’d add a piano part, and a keyboard part.”

Thematically, it was important to Common that Black America Again was released in election year. Does Karriem think enough artists are coming forward and making relevant statements in the current political climate? “I don’t, not as much as when I was young, in the 70s. Everyone didn’t use their voice then either, but you had your Marvin Gayes, and Donny Hathaways and people, speaking about what was going on. But sometimes, music is a getaway too. Some people want to get away from what’s going on and be in a beautiful place, you know? I think for the ones that do use their voice, it’s needed and it’s important, but it’s also important to have the freedom in music to feel free. Just like movies. People go to movies to get away from reality. Some music is that way as well.”

Karriem’s first album, Alone Together, was released back in 2012. How does releasing the follow up compare? Are all the ideas fresh or are some pulled from his archives? “Some of these ideas… well, I tend to store ideas. Sometimes, I’ll sit on an idea for years before I embellish it, and some of those have been sitting around for a while. I feel like music is timeless, that it’s kind of progressive and doesn’t have a trendy thing of that time, it’s been sitting around but it’s still relevant. I just tried to put the musical knowledge that I have now, and include that with some of those ideas. From Alone Together, yeah, you can hear the growth. I feel like this one is more beat driven because I played more instruments and a lot of live drums, it’s more drum driven than the last one.”

He’s been elated by the response so far. “Man, the label has been sending me information on the reviews and they’ve all been great. I really stay away from all of that, I really don’t pay too much attention to that, I put all my heart and soul into the music and I just give it to the world. Some will receive it, some won’t. Some will like it, some won’t. I feel like I’m trying to contribute to the art form and music from my perspective, you know.”

“I put all my heart and soul into the music and I just give it to the world.”

As is the case with an integral label such as Stones Throw, a vinyl version of the album has been released. Was cutting the album to wax a consideration in deciding a track order? “Yeah, we had to pick the songs for each side on the double vinyl, and it had to make sense. The A and B, the second vinyl first song had to be a certain song… so definitely, it played a big part, the vinyl.”

Much is often made of Karriem’s musical lineage, as he learnt the drums from his father Emmanuel, who spent time performing with jazz guitarist Grant Green. What lessons has he carried with him from his dad? “The lessons were just like, try to be the best at what we do, and never miss a chance to pay attention, to learn from the greats. I’ve been around a lot of great musicians like Ray Brown, and a lot of those guys. The best thing to do is just be silent, and enjoy the time and try to be a sponge. I learned that, as well as listening to as much music as we can, we’re sponges and that music, you internalise all of that stuff when you hear it. The more you hear it the more information you’ll have under your belt. Those are the lessons. And practice. Practice is the most important thing, practising whatever craft. My days are full of practice. I practice the drums, I practice DJ-ing, and I practice chopping beats, playing keyboard synths, all kinds of stuff man. It’s almost like a never-ending story, it keeps going. We never master it, we get good at certain things, but it’s a never-ending thing, we just got to keep going. I learned those things.”

“I’m still a student, I always will be a student. One thing I really want to do is inspire the youth, there’s a whole other generation now with incredible ideas and different perspectives, I wanna’ be able to feed them what they need to get their thing going. That’s important right now. My son, he’s making beats now, he’s playing the drums. He’s ahead of me, what I was when I was his age. I was nowhere near that level of talent. I feel like we have to feed them what they need to grow, musically. And as far as the art form in general.”

“My son, he’s making beats now, he’s playing the drums. He’s ahead of me, what I was when I was his age.”

“My son listens to everything, and he makes his decision on what he likes and what he doesn’t. I try not to be, even if I don’t like something, I won’t say I don’t like that, because I want to give him a chance to be an individual and make that decision on his own. Or even people that just look up to you, they wanna’ form their opinion around what you like, so I just try to keep it neutral.”

One of my favourite Karriem facts is that he was behind the Slum Village remix of Daft Punk’s Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger, when many mistakenly believe it was a J Dilla production. His musical history is intertwined with Dilla’s, a close friend of his, and he oversaw the final production of the 2006 album The Shining. “I did the remix. Dilla was the first guy that sampled Daft Punk (actually one half of that act, Thomas Bangalter’s 1998 track Extra Dry). And that was on Raise It Up, on Fantastic Volume II. The sample wasn’t cleared, so when Daft Punk’s people heard it, they loved it. But they said this cat didn’t create the sample; so instead of a lawsuit let’s just get a remix from him. At the time, I don’t think Dilla was available to do it so he reached out to me, and that’s how that came about and I ended up doing it.”

Karriem worked with Slum Village on their third album, following Dilla’s departure to concentrate on his solo career. “I worked on the album Trinity with them, I did three songs on the album including the single that came out (Tainted, featuring Dwele).”

What does Karriem miss most about his friend’s contributions to music? “Man, Dilla brought something that is missing right now. Especially, he didn’t have any boundaries in the studio. He made whatever I did sound great. I know some of the drums I would play, I would do another take, say let’s have a couple options. He’s like: ‘Uhh, nah, let me mess with this one minute.’ I’d leave the room and come back, and it would sound incredible. I’m like, ‘what the hell…’ I think that that is what’s missing, and that was just one of the things that really inspired me from him. I just… I just miss being around that brother, and he was just a great person to know. An inspiring person. He’s definitely missed.”

The repercussions of Dilla’s legacy included not only plenty of inspired music but also a lot of attempts at emulation. Where’s the innovation right now? “There’s some people doing great things everywhere. I went to Japan, I heard incredible music there. The producers that are killing it now, like Kaytranada and 14KT, of course Madlib who is one of my big inspirations, his work ethic is inspiring. Being around him is crazy man, so I definitely got people that I really dig that are inspiring. I think the music is growing, there’s still great music being made, and sometimes you gotta’ dig for it, you gotta’ dig for the good stuff. It’s not in your face.”

Riding the crest of Headnod Suite with his name front and centre, Karriem isn’t about to rest up anytime soon. “I’m working on this new Common EP with Glasper, should be out in mid-spring. Working with Esperanza Spalding, on her new album. And just trying to create new music every day. In fact I’m on my way to the studio now, gotta’ keep the practice going!”

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