In part one of EBONY.com's Black Music Month series; we sat down with living legends Narada Michael Walden, Teddy Riley, and Larry Dunn. In part two of the series, EBONY was able to sit down with current producing stalwarts Salaam Remi, Bryan Michael Cox, and 9th Wonder. We were able to continue the discussion of the state of Black music today and what needs to be done to progress our music and culture in the future.
EBONY: How did you first fall in love with music and why did you want to pursue it as a career?
Salaam Remi: Well, it’s in my blood. They’re musicians on both sides of my family. My dad was a musician and his brothers were musicians. On my mom’s side, her sisters sang and her brothers were musicians as well. It was there from birth that this could happen. I played instruments when I was young. As I got older, it remained as an element in my surroundings. When I was coming into adulthood, my father was still a musician and a producer so I felt like it could become a profession for me. I can’t even say I fell in love with music. I feel like I was born of music.
9th Wonder: I grew up around music and I know that’s cliché to say, but I think even for those of us who aren’t musicians in the Black community you grew up around music. You would clean up on Saturday’s around music. Soul Train would be on your television. On Sunday, you would go to church and be surrounded by music there too. Music is a big staple in our community. A lot of us grew up around some type of soul music in the 1970s and 1980s. Growing up around that music, it hits people differently. Some people become fans of the music and others want to become more knowledgeable and understand the inner workings of the music. Some of us end up joining the band or chorus in middle school. I didn’t really want to make a career out of music or be a part of it until I saw Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s “They Reminisce Over You” video because that’s the video where I saw Pete Rock and thought to myself he looks like a regular type of dude. It wasn’t like the 1980s where cats had on big gold chains and rap looked like it was out of reach, especially, coming from the South. Here’s a guy that looked like he just made the beats for the group and it seemed like a more realistic goal for me than to become Big Daddy Kane. A Tribe Called Quest was the group that made me feel like I could be a part of hip-hop. Those two groups made me feel like hip-hop and rap could be for the common man.
Bryan Michael Cox: I’ve always been in love with music. I can remember being attracted to the piano at four years old. My grandmother, mother, and most of my family were all musicians. I grew up around music and it was something that came naturally to me. I just don’t remember my life without it. I’m only 34 years old, but my music knowledge is so deep. I remember my mother being a big Kashif fan. I remember hearing Howard Johnson’s record, “So Fine” and Evelyn Champagne King’s Get Loose album. My mother was really into funk music so I was able at a young age to learn that style of music. Once I started growing up, I gravitated to the hip-hop culture. I really gravitated to Teddy Riley’s sound. When I was 9 or 10, I first started hearing Teddy’s music. I could absolutely relate to what he was doing with the merging of the music because I was listening to hip-hop music and I played music in church as well. It wasn’t cool playing piano at the age of 9 in the hood, but it was always something that I wanted to do. Teddy Riley was the producer who opened up my mind to the concept of being able to merge hip-hop music and gospel music in an R&B perspective. I’m a music producer today because of Quincy Jones and Teddy Riley.
EBONY: Do artists and producers have an obligation to progress the genre of music they represent?
9th Wonder: I live by this quote from Curtis Mayfield, ‘You must educate as well as entertain.’ I’m a firm believer in those words. Sometimes it is hard for great musicians to receive their just due and make a worldly impact let alone in the United States until they’re dead and gone because mainstream media chooses to only play a couple of things. A lot of people don’t get to hear the brilliance of J. Dilla and how he pushed the envelope on production because mainstream media won’t allow it. Some of us get discouraged and say ‘Why should I keep pushing on if no one is going to appreciate it?’ I think there’s a responsibility of musicians to push the envelope whether it’d be inside of the music or taking the music to higher education like I’m trying to do. I think those are some of the ways you can push the envelope besides selling a million records. You have to do more than sell a million records. Selling a million records is one thing, but to get music to become a study in an institution is another thing.
BMC: Yes, but I also believe in evolution. I believe as an artist you have to evolve. From producers to songwriters to artists, we’re all artists in our own right. We have to be in that place where we’re willing to evolve. We have to not be stuck in the past, but use the past as a blueprint to create something new. We have to be willing to become trailblazers or things will become stagnant. Once you’re creativity become stagnated, you might as well quit. I believe it is our duties to keep pushing the boundaries of our respective genres. It’s also our duty to not only push the boundaries, but share the boundaries. I feel like that only happens when you accept and embrace to concepts of evolution and not live in the past.
EBONY: Why is there a perceived lack of authenticity in artists of today and a lack of artists who can master an instrument?
SR: There’s not a lack of talent, but there is a lack of talented executives who know what to do when they get the talent. I see talent all of the time. There is talent everywhere. I don’t feel like there’s a lack of people who know how to do it, but they need some guidance and need some machine to allow them to progress and be who they are. There needs to be places available for them to market these acts to make it work. It takes a little bit more time to get this in motion, but it needs to happen as soon as possible because at the end of the day that’s what going to still live regardless of marketability.
Right now a lot of people performing aren’t artists realistically. They need more training in being an artist or to become an artist or singer. Only certain people know how to inspire an artist. When you have a robot, you can program them. When you look at labels, they’re full of robots. Their robots go out and do the shows and they bring the money back, but they also have interchangeable music and not a real point of view. There are many artists who have sold ten million singles, but you don’t recognize them without an entourage. There are certain people who are artists who aren’t exposed and may not be getting the most from their artistry. For me, I try to blend art and commerce, but I realize I have a unique perspective because I come from a different time when there was artist development.
EBONY: How can we recapture the essence of Black music for generations to come?
BMC: I think it starts with our culture and our people. The problem with Black music right now is that Black folks don’t buy records anymore. We’re so used to have something tangible in our hands. Once they started shutting down the mom and pop record stores and the major chains, it’s no secret why Black music started flopping in sales. With our culture we like to see things and go to the store and pick them up. We’re consumers through and through when it comes to music. A lot of Black people don’t like buying records off of the computer. When I was home for Christmas, many of my friends that I grew up with in Houston, Texas went out to breakfast and they asked me the same question, ‘What’s going on with Black music? How can we get back to the way it was?’ I told them that we’re not going out and buying our records. I told them you can go online and buy records. You can visit I-Tunes, Amazon, and different sites to buy our records. Their response was ‘I’m not giving the computer my credit card number.’ As a culture, we’re just coming into our own when it comes to finances. We’re really first generation millionaires or hell even thousandaires. There are trust issues because once you make your money, you don’t want anyone stealing it. We’re really particular with our money and I think that’s a major problem. I still have a problem with giving I-Tunes my credit card number and I’m in the music business. I think there’s a fundamental disconnect when it comes to our culture and technology. It’s not that we don’t want to have the technology we just have trust issues with the system itself. I think, once we get over our trust issues with technology, Black music will be back. I don’t think the music is wack. There are artists who are making good music, but I think our lack of trust with technology is a real problem.
9th Wonder: We have to do it. We have to put the onus on ourselves. We wait for other people to do it. There is a disconnect between hip-hop and the older generation. I’ve heard a lot of folks from the Civil Rights generation say that they didn’t properly pass down the torch to the next generation. I think that there can’t continue to be that same type of disconnect between different generations. Technology now has us split into three categories. You have the sixty year olds then the thirty to forty year olds and the twenty year olds. These are three generations that don’t communicate with one another. You have the Tom Joyner generation who throws their own parties then you have our generation who like Tribe, Biggie, Mary J. Blige, Jodeci and Boyz II Men and then you have the generation below us who like Drake, Lil’ Wayne, and Nicki Minaj. To be honest with you, these generations don’t communicate with each other. We’re always saying, ‘That music ain’t saying nothing.’ Instead of trying to find the common ground between it all, we won’t talk to each other at all. That’s the best way we can preserve black music for generations to come. If we can begin to understand the connection between a 60 year old man and a 30 year old man, a connection can be made between Bobby Blue Bland and Jay-Z and the song ‘Heart of the City.’ If we can understand and embrace that two generations is coming to that song from two different directions and liking it because of the Soul, then we would be better off, but we refuse to take the time. It is the downfall of us.
EBONY: What are you doing to continue the musical traditions established by the legends who came before you?
SR: That’s a good question. I can’t really say I’ve set out to do anything that’s on a certain level, but when I look back on my career it’s always been a situation where I’ve found different things that actually kept it going without me intentionally trying to do so. I don’t go into any creative pocket saying ‘Hey, I’m going to accept the standard for whatever it has been.’ I’ve been blessed to be in the position to push artists forward and in return they’ve pushed the music forward. My work with the Fugees was allowing them to unlock their talents and helping them get the leverage to inspire them to go on and inspire their entire generation. They inspired artists who bounced back to me in the next decade such as Amy [Winehouse] or Jasmine [Sullivan] or any of the other people I’ve worked with because they were inspired by them in 2003. So in 2013, there will be someone who was inspired by the artists I worked with 20 and 10 years ago. My whole game right now is inspiration. How many people can I touch without ever seeing them? I’m trying to be as forward thinking as I can be creatively, and hopefully, it will inspire someone else to become better.
9th Wonder: Educating the youth is very important to me. I’ve been at Duke University for three years and I’ll be at Harvard University this fall to teach. Some may say you’re at Duke and you’re at Harvard but that doesn’t mean outside of those walls I won’t continue to educate the youth on where we came from. I don’t teach from the perspective of the ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about kind of way,’ but more of an ‘OK, I understand what you mean, but check this out.’ There’s a way you can open the youth’s eyes without brick and mortaring them to death. There’s a way you can get them to listen. You have to invent and find more creative ways to reach the youth as opposed to sitting in a classroom with a blackboard. That’s not going to get it especially when they have so many distractions. I choose to teach music through the music that taught me more black history when my teachers didn’t and that music is hip-hop.
BMC: All we can do is to continue to make quality product and continue to evolve as this business evolves. We have to continue to find acts that can make a difference. We have to find artists that inspire people. I’m proud of some of our artists who have come out recently, but it’s up to us to keep this proud legacy alive and ours. The music isn’t dead. R&B and hip-hop isn’t dead. There are people making it, but we’re not getting the looks we need as a culture. It’s up to us to continue to invest in these new Black acts and break them into the industry. We have to keep hip-hop and R&B ours. We can talk about how they stole Rock & Roll. We can talk about how Jazz is predominantly White. Jazz and Rock & Roll is our music. Led Zeppelin got sued so many times for stealing Blues records. We let them take our music. We can’t let them take R&B and hip-hop. I don’t even what to sound like that because everything is so connected. They’re White kids who are more hip-hop than I am. I don’t want it to sound like it’s a race thing. We grew up in a culture that color is becoming less and less of an issue, but we have to make our foundation solid. You can’t forget that Rock & Roll was once Black music. You can’t forget Chuck Berry. You can’t forget Rock & Roll was Blues. You can’t forget John Lee Hooker. You can’t forget Jazz was Black music. You can’t forget Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. You can’t forget that. It’s our duty to keep producing quality music and developing these young, Black artists.
Chris Williams is an internationally published journalist that has written feature articles covering the topics of politics, race, culture, entertainment, and world events. His work has been seen in 200 different newspapers and various magazines. You can follow him on Twitter @CWmsWrites