The month of June has been designated as Black Music Month since 1979. President Jimmy Carter introduced the month as a way to pay homage to all of the Black musicians who have inextricably changed the United States through their numerous musical contributions. Upon coming into office, President Barack Obama has changed the name to African American Music Appreciation Month. The extraordinary impact that Black musicians have made in shaping America’s social and political conscience is immeasurable. In recognition of honoring African American Music Appreciation Month, Ebony.com has tracked down some of the most prolific music producers past and present to get their thoughts on the state of Black music in today’s society. Together these musical stalwarts have amassed multiple Grammy awards and nominations as well as contributing their talents to sell over 200 million records worldwide. EBONY will be featuring six of these producers in a two part series. The first part will feature interviews from living legends Narada Michael Walden, Teddy Riley, and Larry Dunn. The second part will feature interviews from current standouts Salaam Remi, Bryan Michael Cox, and 9th Wonder.
EBONY recently sat down with Walden, Riley, and Dunn to discuss their beginnings in music and the state of Black music today.
EBONY: How did you first fall in love with music and why did you want to pursue it as a career?
Narada Michael Walden: I first fell in love with music when I was a little boy. When I first heard music, I felt the beauty in it. Then, being able to tap along on a table top and box was great, but my favorite thing to do was to watch records spin. I would almost get hypnotized by it. These things are what drew me in initially. I was born into a musical family. On my mom’s side, they all played an instrument and there was always music around. They had a really deep love for music. As far as making a livelihood from it, music is in my soul. I feel like before I came to the planet I asked God for the gift of music. I didn’t want to come here without the gift of music and God granted it to me.
Teddy Riley: I fell in love with music at the age of three. I started playing instruments at the age of three. I was raised right around the corner from the Apollo Theatre on 125th street. I was raised on 129th street in the St. Nicholas projects. I used to go to Harriet Tubman P.S. 154 and in the backyard of the school was the backstage of the Apollo. When I would see artists backstage doing sound checks for their shows, it made me say, ‘I’m going to be there one day.’ It’s crazy how my thoughts back then actually came into fruition. When I was five, I went to the Apollo even though I was under the weather, but I still went because I loved music and Gladys Knight and the Pips. That night I was the lucky kid who was able to go on stage with Gladys Knight. When she picked me up, she was singing ‘Neither One of Us.’ After holding me, she gave me back to my babysitters. My babysitters would always take us to the Apollo because I never wanted to anywhere else. They wanted to take us to Coney Island, the park or the amusement parks to do fun things, but the fun thing for me was going to the Apollo to see the performances. Later on, I had to find my niche because I was trying to play every instrument. I ended up sticking with the keyboards and the piano. It was a complicated thing staying with the piano when I could’ve stayed with the drums. To me, the piano was the beautiful sound of music. I was able to speak my mind through playing the piano.
Larry Dunn: I actually started playing music very young. I remember being two years old and hearing Ray Charles and Bobby Vinton on the radio. I loved the music I was hearing. When I was four years old, I began banging on that old raggedy upright piano in our living room. By the time I was five years old, my father taught me “Blueberry Hill” by Fats Domino. It was on from there. Playing piano and keyboards was my thing. I made an attempt to play other instruments like baritone horn, guitar, bass, trombone, but violin was a disaster. Eventually at the age of 15, I started playing keyboards at nightclubs. Thanks to my mother, she allowed me to play the 21 and over nightclubs seven nights a week because she knew it was in me. I really had a love and respect for the art of music. I