“Maybe My Music Will Do What Donny Hathaway's Music Does to People”: A Chat with Robert Glasper
As a true Renaissance man and king of crossover, Robert Glasper has smashed the fixed notions of jazz artists. Within the last couple of decades, the four-time Grammy and Emmy-winning pianist, composer, songwriter, and record producer has accumulated an extensive list of records that honor jazz roots while combining the vibey feel of R&B and embracing the rawness of hip-hop. Glasper has partnered with A-lists artists such as H.E.R., Stevie Wonder, and Kendrick Lamar, just to name a few.
Today, he’s released Black Radio III. Much like the prior two Black Radio albums, this fresh batch of songs has a synergistic flow made perfect with beat-heavy rhythms and blissful, melodic keys – a masterpiece signature to Glasper’s distinct musical stylings. EDITION had the privilege of catching up with Glasper via Zoom to discuss the layers of his music, Black Radio III, and the legacy he hopes to leave behind for future generations.
See more: Robert Glasper to Appear on 'The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon' for Special MLK Day Performance
You have a lot of exciting things in the pipeline. It's been ten years since Black Radio, and now you're about to drop Black Radio III. So, how would you say your approach this time around creatively is different than the past two albums?
First of all, I had to do it during COVID. So, that in itself can change everything. I wasn't even going to do Black Radio III, honestly. After we did the first one, I wasn’t expecting to do another one, but the first one did better than I thought. I ended up saying, ‘Okay, well, damn. Got to do a second one.’ The second one, people were like, “Where’s the third one?” After eight years of people saying, “Hey, where’s the third one?” and then being in a pandemic, I felt people needed this, and I felt like I needed a project to do during the pandemic.
I was at home. Me and my friend built a studio, the studio we're in right now, and this is where I did Black Radio III – in the back of my house. It’s different because I didn't have the artists here with me. Normally, on Black Radio, all the artists are in the studio with me to go back and forth come up with a little musical snack with each other. But here, it’s like, ‘Hey, get in the studio when you can,’ which is hard because artists don't like to go to the studio when they don't feel like recording. During the pandemic, a lot of artists did not feel like recording. They were depressed, people were depressed, and people didn't feel creative. So, it was definitely a process, but luckily, I had time. So, there wasn’t, ‘You're in the studio, now you got to hurry up.’ It was, ‘You got a few months to deal with this. I'll check back in with you to see if you feel up to it.’ So, that was the main difference not being able to be in the room with the artist.
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So, you weren't planning to do a trilogy?
I really wasn't planning on doing it. What started Black Radio III honestly was H.E.R. I scored this movie The Photograph, and H.E.R did the very last song in the movie. So, we were both at the premiere in February 2020. We went to the premiere, and when it was done, she turned around. She was sitting in front of me. She turned around and said, “Oh my gosh, I'm so inspired by the score. What are you doing right now?” Mind you; it's like 11 o'clock. She was like, “Let’s go to the studio.”
I had to go to the after-party. I had to perform some of the songs from the movie at the after-party. So, then I was like, ‘I can go, but I have to do this first, and then I can be there at like one o'clock.’ She's like, “Cool.” We got to the studio at 1 am. The first thing I sat down to play was that progression from “Better Than I Imagined.” It just came to me at that moment. But she was like, “What's that?” ‘I don't know.’ She's like, “Keep going,” and then she starts the writing. And we did that song. It wasn't supposed to be for anything. We’d been meaning to get the studio, but we never had the chance to, and she just seized the moment. Then then I was like, “Well, shoot. I think Black Radio just started.” That's literally how it happened.
That is amazing! The jam session turned into an actual project.
Oh, yeah, and I went ahead and got Meshell Ndegeocello. I wouldn’t have put it out, but once that came out, it was like, ‘Hey, this is Black Radio III.’
So, do you feel like this will complete the series, and you'll start something else, or will there be a Black Radio IV, maybe?
Since Black Radio is a brand now. So, I think I'm going to do different things under the brand. I think after three, things get corny. I might do other things under the umbrella—no more numbers for sure. I want to do a Black Radio gospel for sure. I grew up in church, and that's one of my first loves. I think I could do something really cool with it. That's a project I want to do.
So, with the industry constantly changing and fans can be fickle, what do you feel helps you stay true to your values as a musician?
When people tell me their personal stories about what my music has done for them, that's literally what keeps me going. Even before Instagram, when I travel, people just come up to me and tell me, “Your music stopped me from killing myself.” “We've given birth to your music.” “We made our baby to your music.” “I proposed to my wife to your music.” Just all these things that my music has been in different people's lives. That's all that matters. I don't care about nothing else, and I have enough people that have told me things over the years. I know it's important for people, and it literally can change your life. Music changed my life. There have been artists that have done things that have changed my life. I know that I'm that for other people. So, that's it right there.
Even from here, I can feel your authenticity as an artist. I'm sure there are artists you admire because of their authenticity, which keeps them fueled.
Because when I didn’t see my fans for two years during COVID, it was weird. I needed to feel them. I was doing all these streaming shows, but there's no audience, and it was weird. I didn't feel the energy. You realize your music is different without the people who really love it to be there.
Yeah, I've missed live shows so much. You’re about to tour with this album, correct?
I'm going on a short tour on February 25th for a few days. Then, I'm doing the Blue Note in mid-March for a week. So yeah, it's kind of like this album. I had those dates before anyway. I wasn't sure when the hell I was going to put out this record. So, they'll get some Black Radio III.
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So, tapping into the album, two songs stood out to me the most. First, I like “Forever” because of the drums and the piano, just the synergy between the two. I love a good combination. And then I love “Over.” The keys in that are euphoric! So, are there any songs that you particularly look forward to performing live with this album?
I got to see what I can pull off live. As far as this record goes, there are songs from Black Radio, songs from Black Radio II, and Black Radio III. I have to figure out what makes sense and what I can pull off because I don't even touch some songs unless the artist is sitting there with me. I still have to figure it out because I hadn't played any of those songs live yet, except the stuff I did on the TV shows, like when I did Fallon. Before that, I had never played “Black Superhero.” I just played it in the studio when I came up with it. We hit ‘record,’ and that was it. When I come up with something, I do it, and then the engineer records it. And then a lot of times, sometimes it's a loop, and sometimes it's not a loop. “Black Superhero,” I did it two times through, and we looped it. “Over,” I played the piano all the way through. It’s not the same—some things I want to play all the way through. There are certain things I want to be more hip-hop, where it feels like a sample.
Well, within this past decade – with it being the anniversary of Black Radio – how do you feel like you've evolved as an artist?
Well, aside from Black Radio, just in the past ten years, Robert Glasper has evolved as an artist. I've tapped into different areas that people have told me I should tap into. They said my music reminds them of that cinematic kind of vibe. So, I really tapped into cinema stuff like around 2015. I've scored a few documentaries like The Apollo on HBO now. I’ve scored the series Run The World that’s on Starz. I scored this super dope documentary called Mr. Soul! that’s on HBO Max. I just finished scoring the first season of Bel-Air that’s out right now on Peacock. That part of me has evolved. That's another part of my artistry I've never tapped into. Especially over COVID time, that's when all those series and things started coming. I'm even co-scoring this series about the LA Lakers. It's called Winning Time. That's one way artistically that I've come into a whole other world. I mean, partly because of COVID, that kind of sped it up because I'm at home and not on tour.
A lot of times, when you're a touring musician, you don't sit down. You put everything on the back burner because you've got to go on the road. And those are checks, checks, checks because that's how we make the bulk of our money. So, it was cool to make yourself sit down and figure things out and have time to do other things because then you have time to evolve. A lot of musicians, or people in general, don't have time to evolve because they're too busy doing other stuff. So, when God said, “Sit down,” then you're able to. It was a blessing and a curse.
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I've heard that from other artists, too. They've been forced to center themselves and take a step back because, as you mentioned, touring wasn’t happening for over a year.
Yeah, and musicians don't do that. We don't sit down. We don’t know how to do that. I think it was good health-wise, too – like your body needed it. Have you seen that documentary The Year Earth Changed? There were so many things that I didn't even think that the earth needed by us sitting down.
Yes, that's super interesting and true. And with this trilogy, I know we aren't talking numbers, but Black Radio is a brand. How are you hoping the legacy you leave behind will connect with your fans in the future?
I never thought about that. I just want to be as honest as possible and put on as much content as possible. Maybe my music will do what Donny Hathaway's music does to people. It stands the test of time. I'll play Donny Hathaway ‘til I’m gone. I would love to be that kind of artist where people’s kids love what I'm doing and find something in there that's interesting or hits them a certain way. It’s the most I can ask.
Black Radio lll is available now on all formats- digital, CD, and 2xLP vinyl (exclusive to Glasper’s webstore) via Loma Vista Recordings.