Malcolm-Jamal Warner embodies what an artist is all about. The Emmy award-winning actor and Grammy award-winning musician has worn many hats in his career—which spans almost four decades—and he's showing no signs of slowing down.
Coming to prominence by playing Theodore Huxtable on The Cosby Show, Warner went on to direct several episodes of the iconic show. He directed music videos including New Edition's "N.E. Heart Break" (1989), Special Ed's "I'm the Magnificent" (1989) as well as episodes of All That and Kenan and Kel. From 1996-2000, he co-starred in the hit comedy Malcolm and Eddie. Currently, he is a part of the stellar cast of Fox’s The Resident and also Hulu's new crime anthology series, Accused.
As a musician, Warner is an accomplished bassist and band leader. He has released four critically-acclaimed albums and appeared on several other projects. In 2015, he won a Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Performance for his song “Jesus Children of America" with Robert Glasper Experiment featuring Lalah Hathaway. His latest project, Hiding In Plain View, is nominated for Best Spoken Word Album at the 2023 Grammys.
EBONY caught up with Warner and spoke to him about what makes a good audition, his passion for music, and what inspires him as a creative.
EBONY- You’ve made the transition from being a child star on the Cosby Show into a successful, full-fledged artist in the entertainment industry. When you were younger, did you always have aspirations to be a musician?
Malcolm-Jamal Warner: Back then I was trying to be a rapper. I used to have a Tascam 4-Track, my keyboard with a drum machine in it; and, I was always writing. My dad went to Lincoln University with Gil Scott Heron and Brian Jackson. He was their RA so poetry was important even before I was an actor. I came out of the womb listening to Gil and one of my favorite books as a kid was Poems On the Life and Death of Malcolm X. I would take the book to school every day. So poetry has always been my thing. As hip hop was growing when I was a teenager, I started writing raps. Long story short, I was a better poet than a rapper [Laughs]. But hip hop has influenced my poetry.
Speaking of hip hop, how did you become involved with The Jazz of A Tribe Called Quest?
My dad was a jazz head so a lot of samples used rap music I recognized from my dad’s records. I've always had a love-hate relationship with hip hop from the very beginning. So the whole Native Tongue movement was right up my alley. I always appreciated that side of hip hop that combatted the NWA gangsta rap motif.
I wasn't originally part of that show. My wife and I were just going to the shows and the music director was one of my buddies. They invited me to come and sit in at one of the shows on two tunes. I did vocals on “Check the Rhyme” and played bass on “Bonita Applebaum.” So each time we did a show, I just started doing more and more songs. So for half the set, I do vocals, and for the other half, I play bass. Back when I was listening to them, I didn’t catch a lot of what they were doing. But now being a musician, I have an even greater respect for what Q-TIp and Ali Shaheed Muhammad were doing. Their work is amazing.
What drew you to bass and who are some bassists that have influenced you?
The funny thing is that I picked the bass because I thought it was gonna be easy. I was 26 when I first started playing, thinking it was the easiest instrument to play. When I was doing Malcolm and Eddie, it was stressing me out so much that I needed a hobby. I wanted to do something that I would never turn into a career [Laughs]. I figured with piano and guitar, you have to know chords and all that stuff so if I just played the bass, I'll be cool. Of course, as I really studied it, the bass player has to know chords and chord progressions. The chord is not officially a chord until the bass player makes it a chord.
One of the first records I stole from my mother's record collection was Graham Central Station, so Larry Graham was always one of my favorites. Also, Leon “Hub” Hubbard. I used to go see The Roots in San Diego in the early days. When I was a kid, I would clean my room to Luther Vandross' Never Too Much. As I got older and realize who Marcus Miller was, I looked at his catalog and realized that I'd been listening to this dude my whole life. He is a big influence on me.
Your latest project, Hiding In Plain View, was released to rave reviews including a Grammy nomination for Best Spoken Word album. What was your creative process for the album?
Well, the album started out as my quarantine locked-down project. I wanted to see what it would sound like if I did record all the production. I just wanted to see what that would sound like and I knew it would give me a certain level of confidence when I'm dealing with other producers. When I began working on it, it was going to be a five-song EP. Then, I got to the five songs and I wanted to add two more songs. I got cold feet and started self-sabotaging the process because the other two songs never got done. I justified it by saying I couldn't get it done because I'm a very present husband and father. The real reason was that life distracted me. But when the Grammys opened up the poetry category, I was like, "Let me finish this and throw my hat in the ring."
How was it working with Robert Glasper and Lalah Hathaway on “Jesus Children of America?”
I was in the studio hanging with my music director who had a space in Westlake studio and Robert was doing his record there. I heard they were doing a version of “Jesus Children of America" and Lalah did that joint in one take. Rob was playing the track and he was like, "Yo, my boy is a poet and he's going to do some spoken word on this interlude" and I told him that was a dope idea. A couple of weeks later, he came back to town to mix the song and he told me that his boy was unable to do the poem because he was the father of a girl who was killed in the Sandy Hook shooting. He asked me if I have a poem about Sandy Hook and I said, "No, I don't but give me the track, and I'll go upstairs and write." An hour and some change later, he came upstairs and I spit it for him and he loved it. So I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. That was also a time in my life when I was writing a lot and it was as easy for the stuff to come out because I was in such a flow at that time. We got a Grammy for that!
Recently, you were cast in Hulu's Accused. What resonated with you about the role and the series?
The script immediately spoke to me. I'm a father and we fathers often talk about what we'd do if someone touches our daughter, but we never see how that plays out. Mind you, this is just one scenario, but it certainly spoke to me.
Lastly, with all the experience you’ve gained in the industry as an actor and musician, what advice would you give to up-and-coming artists who are trying to make their mark?
Be true to yourself. In music, artists are not making a lot of money because of streaming so this is a really good time to be an artist for art’s sake. I think a lot of times what happens with art is once you get in the business and you start making money from your work, you start to compromise a little bit. So the most important thing is to be true to yourself.
On my last album Selfless, I had a song I wrote with Wayman Tisdale that I found on an old hard drive that I wanted to record. I had Chris Dave play the drums and I played the bass. A couple of weeks later, he said, “I got a surprise for you. I got Pino Palladino to play on the song.” If you don’t know, he’s one of the best bassists on the scene. I said, “But I've already played the bass on it.” I knew I would kick myself in a-- every time I played that song if I used Pino’s version. I lived with that song for years and as much as I would have loved to have Pino and Chris Dave on my record, which would have made sense commercially and business-wise, I had to be true to my heart and I had to be true to what it is I'm doing. I would say that being true to yourself and your art should be the most important thing to any artist.