5 Grammys and one Emmy in… Robert Glasper deserves all his flowers. Born in Houston, Texas, the songwriter, producer, pianist, and musical arranger is the true definition of someone who lives, breathes, and sleeps music — most notably known for his endless contributions to the genres of jazz and Hip-Hop, bridging that gap and making history while doing it.
Now, Glasper gets to celebrate the fruits of his labor. To piggyback off the announcement of his new residency with the Blue Note Jazz Club and “Robtober” in New York City, Glasper recently wrapped his second annual Blue Note Jazz Festival in Napa, California — with an amazing turnout.
The highly-anticipated three-day event truly celebrated jazz’s legacy during Hip-Hop’s 50th year anniversary, reeling in an all-star lineup of some of music’s biggest names including Nas, Mary J. Blige, Chance The Rapper, De La Soul, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Rakim, Talib Kweli, Anderson .Paak, and many more.
Of course, when you’re Robert Glasper, you have a lot of pull. This year’s festival saw Dave Chapelle hosting once again, someone Glasper has been friends with for over 15 years. He also appointed NBA player Dwayane Wade as the festival’s Director of Culture and Vibes, given his recent venture into wine entrepreneurship.
The Source spoke with Robert Glasper via Zoom, who was staying cool inside in Austin, Texas where the thermometer read 100 degrees. Read below as we discuss his love for Hip-Hop, how jazz contributes to the genre, the success of the Blue Note Jazz Festival, love for Cordae and Dave Chapelle, connecting Sir to Alex Isley, wanting a Peabody, and more!
Who the fuck is Robert Glasper?[laughs] Who am I? I’m a musician. I’m a composer. I’m a producer. I’m a curator, for the culture. I like the way it sounds, I’ll throw it in there.
Hip-Hop celebrates 50 years this year. What was the moment you fell in love with Hip-Hop?
I don’t remember the moment, but I do remember the first Hip-Hop song I fell in love with. Once I heard it, I was totally floored by it. Still to this day, it’s my favorite Hip-Hop track of all time. It’s a Busta Rhymes track called “Still Shining,” that J Dilla produced. As a musician, when you hear the track, what is happening here? Because it doesn’t repeat like normal Hip-Hop.
Normal Hip-Hop tracks repeat a two bar or four bar loop. It’s a loop. This song is not a loop. It’s called through composed when it literally changes, it never repeats. It keeps changing these sections and keeps changing. The musicality of the track is amazing, and how Busta rhymes over is amazing as well. I was in high school when I heard it, in 11th grade.
Does Busta know that was your first…?
Oh, absolutely. For sure. I remember talking to Busta, I asked him about it. I was on a Rock The Bells tour. I was playing with Q-Tip. A Tribe Called Quest closed it out, but Q-Tip was on before doing his own set. Busta was a surprise guest. It was in New York, everybody had surprise guests. When Rock the Bells was in New York, everybody brings out their special surprise guest. Tribe was bringing out Busta.
Right before “Scenario” came on, I was talking to him about “Still Shining.” I said “yo, what came first? The beat or you rhyming? Because the way you rhyming on it is crazy.” He’s like, “The beat came first, blah, blah, blah. Hold on, I’ll be back.” He went by the side of the stage and got ready for “Scenario,” then ran out. Did his verse for “Scenario,” then came back. He’s like, “But yeah, it was crazy how the beat was.” [laughs] It was dope.
What are your thoughts on Hip-Hop sampling in today’s age?
I love it. It makes people not forget about the past, makes people understand influence and what influence means. How something can be timeless and why it’s timeless. It’s great learning for education purposes. It’s great. Young people listen to Hip-Hop and samples. It makes them have to reach back, because young people don’t normally reach back. That’s not something we young people do, reach back normally. That gives you a reason to reach back. Oh, what’s that sample? Oh, that’s that? Oh okay. It’s the glue, from the past to the future, for everything. It’s great. As long as the legal stuff is straight, people who are getting sampled are finally getting what they deserve, then I think it’s fine.
How important is jazz to the genre of Hip-Hop?
Jazz is the mother of Hip-Hop. Jazz and Hip-Hop, they’re both freedom fighter music. They were both made out of necessity. It gave black people a voice to speak out against things that were happening socially, economically. Police brutality. Speaking about growing up in the ghetto, growing up here. It gave us an outlet to speak on our problems.
Jazz taught Hip Hop so much. From the swag of Hip-Hop, a lot of that comes from jazz. A lot of the swagger you see, especially the cats that were wearing the suits, that comes from jazz cats. The whole thing of using music to impress the ladies, that’s from jazz. There’s so many corners that they meet, that you can tell oh okay, this is influenced from that. Rakim talks about how he’s so inspired by John Coltrane, how he used to transcribe John Coltrane solos. The rhythms of it, and try to put his rhymes to it. That helped him with his rhyme scheme and patterns. It’s really great.
Biggie Smalls was basically taking lessons from Donald Harrison, an amazing jazz saxophone player. Was going over to his house in Brooklyn, Donald Harrison would play him videos of different drummers. Biggie was trying to mock the drum solos with his rhymes. All kinds of stuff like that. They have a marriage thing there. There’s things like Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, John Coltrane, Nina Simone, so many people in the jazz world that was using their platform to make music for social justice.
Then you have Hip-Hop, that’s basically doing the same things. They definitely have that in common, and the fact that a lot of that stuff is born off the dome. A lot of rap is freestyling. When you’re first coming out with something, you’re freestyling at first. Regular freestyles are off the dome, but even when people write, most of them freestyle first. Until they get a body, then they go back in and write and correct things. But most MCs, they freestyle onto the beat. And that’s what you do in jazz. You go in with the moment, go in with the flow of the music in real time.
Second Annual Blue Note Jazz Festival, congratulations. What is the reality of curating such a big festival?
Thank you. The reality of it, curating is hard because you have to try to make things make sense in a way. The things that you thought will make sense, sometimes they don’t come together because you’re dealing with artists and people got stuff to do. There’s other festivals they’re on. They got tours to do, all kinds of things. When you deal with people’s schedules, that’s another thing. You gotta deal with what you got, then you gotta try to make that make sense.
All in all, we try to have artists there that I feel are speaking honestly and have something real to say. I’m not into trendy things. I’m not into the artists that are just trendy. They’re another one of this. In three years, 10 years, you’re not going to see them. I like artists that are true to the core actual artists, in any genre of music. Doesn’t matter how old you are. You can be 50 years old and be a trend chaser, so it doesn’t matter the age.
That’s why I had Cordae there. I love Cordae, that’s my bro. I’ve known him since he was making his first real album. I’m so proud of him. He’s such an old head, at the same time he’s young. He really knows Hip-Hop and loves Hip-Hop for real, we’ve had many conversations.
We try to make the festival feel like a family reunion. People coming together that know each other, that don’t know each other but know of each other. Or maybe some people that’s new that you didn’t know at all. But wanted to provide a space where people feel safe and free to be themselves and hang out. It makes you want to hang there, not feel like a festival. Most festivals I go to when I play, I’m in and I’m out. I made my set, now I’m out. I did my time, boom boom boom. It’s rarely a festival where I want to stay another day, go and hang. Those are very, very rare. The whole point was to really try to make this festival feel like that.
I remember Cordae did his album release at the Peppermint Club, it was hosted by Dave Chappelle. What’s your relationship with Dave? It’s his birthday today.
Yeah, I’m going to see him tomorrow. I’m flying to New York. He’s at Madison Square Garden this week, his last night is tomorrow. I’ve known Dave for Jesus, how long? I’ve known him… in the realm of 15 years.
How did you guys link initially?
We met with The Roots. We met backstage, I was playing with The Roots at Radio City Music Hall for a few nights. Dave was there one night. There was a piano backstage and he asked me for a lesson, so I sat down at the piano with him. He loves Thelonious Monk. I was sitting there helping him play “Round Midnight.” From there, we developed a relationship. I’d see him every now and then, just on the scene here and there.
Fast forward, I have these residencies at the Blue Note Jazz Club every year in October. They’re called Robtober. Dave started coming to those, he’d pop up on me and jump on stage. We would do our banter, do our thing. It became a thing. He came every year. After the third year, that’s when Blue Note said “Hey, you want to try to turn this residency into a festival? A three-day festival?” I said sure, because that’s what I do. I curate the whole month of October, with different guests coming through. We literally made that a three-day festival.
They said “you want to try to get Dave to be a part of it?” I said yeah, so hit up Dave and he was down. That’s how this whole thing started.
Did he catch onto the piano lessons?
Yeah, he can play! He can play “Round Midnight, that’s not an easy song to play. He can play it.
Five Grammys in, one Emmy. What else would you like to accomplish?
Five Grammys, an Emmy, and a Peabody. A Peabody award, it’s a big deal. It’s a super nerdy award, but there are some people who are PGOTs. There are 17 or 18 EGOTs in the world, there are only five PGOTs. That means you have a Peabody or a Pulitzer Prize. Pulitzer Prize and Peabody are like this. [twists fingers] If you win a Pulitzer or Peabody, that’s the P. If you have an EGOT, if you get one of those and an EGOT, you’re a PGOT. There’s only five in the history of the world.
So you want that PGOT?
If the universe goes that way, if it allows me to, I’d love it. [laughs] Absolutely.
Anything else you’re excited for?
I’m excited about exploring. Keeping my options open, my life open. Meeting other artists and keep making art. I’m not in the box, I’m pretty open with so many things. Doing these festivals and residencies, if I keep an open mind and open heart, things will happen that I didn’t even know would be possible. That’s the mindset I’m going to keep, just let what’s out there come to me.