“Miles would have done this in ’95,” says pianist Robert Glasper of his current album, the crossover smash, Black Radio. Much like the late, brazen jazz icon, Glasper’s own visionary compositions challenge contemporary notions of genre and connect with fans far removed from jazz’s preordained establishment.
The album, its title a reference to the fail-safe recording devices found on sea and aircrafts, speaks volumes about the indestructible nature of jazz. Glasper and his band, the Experiment, summon the illusive spirit of the art form as they synthesize the sounds of modern hip-hop, soul and R&B in a cross-collaboration with 13 of today’s most sought-after singers and MCs. The roster is deep and includes Erykah Badu, Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def), Lupe Fiasco and Ledisi, and the results revive the sleeping genre’s urban roots.
Following its February release, the album rose to the top of Billboard’s Jazz chart, to number four on both its R&B/Hip-Hop and Digital Album charts, and to number 15 on the Top 200 Chart.
OffBeat caught up Glasper, whose summer circuit includes a show on Saturday, July 7 in the Essence Music Festival’s Verizon Wireless Superlounge.
How was Japan? It’s got to feel pretty good to be touring the world with your own band and landing big festival gigs like Essence all over the globe.
It feels really great. For the most part, the average jazz musician is used to playing in small clubs in front of other jazz musicians or a little bit nicer venue in front of old people.
When you start filling in the gaps, it’s amazing. I love it when people come up to me and say, “I’ve never listened to anything like that.” I’ve even had people flat-out say, “I hate jazz, but I love your stuff.” That’s what I want. I want regular people at my shows.
Tell me about Black Radio. Was the idea something that you had been working on for a while?
I’ve had the idea since 2005. When I first signed to Blue Note, they already knew that I was doing all kinds of stuff on the side—working with Mos Def and Bilal, stuff like that.
I didn’t want to jump right into a project like Black Radio. I definitely wanted to put the jazz side of Robert out there first, and I really wanted to wait for the right time to put my ideas out there. If I had come out too early mixing jazz with R&B and hip-hop, I wouldn’t have really gotten the proper accolades or respect I needed as a pianist in the jazz world to make something like this later.
Today, with musicians like yourself, Esperanza Spalding and Trombone Shorty landing on the mainstream radar, do you feel that culturally, jazz is connecting with a new generation of listeners?
I think that music has gotten so bad. As far as what the mainstream puts out there for you to accidentally hear, it’s just horrible. I think people are hungry for good music nowadays.
The whole notion of a really good band featuring a really good artist, let alone eleven good artists, was something that I didn’t hear happening today. I wanted to do that, especially in this time period when music is in a strange place.
About these guest artists on your record, I know you go way back with a lot of them, but how did you manage to get all of them on the same project?
Once I had the ideas for the music down, I just started texting everyone: “Yo, I’m putting together this project. Give me a holler, let me know what’s up.”
Without fail everybody hit me back: “Let’s do it.” The only hard part was scheduling. It kept being put on and put off for three months.
How long did the whole recording process take?
Honestly, 90 percent of the album was done in four days. We found four days in July  when eight of the eleven artists were available to fly to Los Angeles to record. I was actually in the middle of a tour then, and I had to cancel a week to go to L.A. to get the recordings done.
Erykah [Badu] couldn’t make it to the studio. She was on the “Rock the Bells” tour, so I ended up waiting like a month for her to be free.
I’m sure it’s not really that big of a wait when you have someone like Erykah Badu coming to sing on your record.
Nah, it was definitely worth the wait, without a doubt. She was gracious enough to do it, and we made time to get it done.
Going into these collaborations, did you have ideas for lyrics already in mind, or did the songwriting evolve organically in the studio?
Most of that evolved organically. With some songs, I would send an idea to the artist and let them write into it. Then, once we got into the studio we would work it out.
Most of the process happened in the studio, though, sometimes as close as 20 minutes before the session. A lot was made up on the spot. Some ideas, mainly with the cover songs, we knew what we wanted to do.
Where did the cover choices come from? That’s a really interesting cross-section of songs.
Those are songs that I love. I wanted to do an R&B, hip-hop, soul, jazz record, but at the same time I didn’t want the repertoire to seem like that. There’s an odd David Bowie song. That Sade joint is a song that most people know, and the Nirvana song, too. Both of those songs crossed over. No matter what color you are, no matter where you live, you’ve heard those songs before.
“Afro Blue” is a song jazz fans will recognize. But your cover with Erykah Badu is so subtle that you can’t tell if the first set of lyrics is just a nod to “Afro Blue” or if it’s going to unfold into the song you know.
Correct, that’s actually the standard “Afro Blue.” We just flipped it up, blast-o-rized it.
How do you feel Black Radio is relevant to society today?
I feel that Black Radio represents the coming together of modern, urban music on one album: jazz, hip-hop, R&B and soul. Those elements came through to the point where it was on four different Billboard charts.
Just while we were recording the record, I was tweeting, “Yo, I’m in the studio with Erykah Badu.” People starting following along with the play-by-play, and it built up a sense of anticipation.
That’s how I first heard about it—tweets coming from a lot of younger, local jazz musicians.
To be honest, I was floored that things have happened the way they have. At best, I thought that this record could be a really dope, underground thing.
I hope it opens the door for people to be more receptive to this kind of music, even if it’s just a little bit. Or for radio stations and radio personalities to be more accepting of it in the day-to-day. Or for the machine as a wholeto be more open to musicians doing their thing—crossing and mixing things up so that you don’t have to be Chris Brown to make it to the top of the hip-hop and R&B charts.
Hearing you explain the way you worked with the lyricists, it seems truer to the improvisational spirit of jazz than a lot of the “jazz” albums today. Was it a struggle for you to put out an album like Black Radio in the face of dominant ideas of what jazz should sound like?
I think having any kind of idea of what jazz is supposed to be is what holds people back. The cats back then didn’t think about that shit. They didn’t care; they were just playing music. They weren’t trying to figure out “What is jazz, and if I add this is it still jazz?” They were just playing what they felt from what had influenced them.
I’m sure people have asked you about the views you expressed in the documentary Icons Among Us. One thing that struck me was a scene where Wynton Marsalis was talking about how our society is the only society in history that has sought to undermine its greatest artistic achievements.
If Wynton’s ideas today would have been strong enough to shape artistic decisions back in 1950, our music would not have grown. Everybody making music then that wasn’t in line with a previous era would have been stopped.
Great music is always going to be around. Why should I aspire to create something that’s already been created? Why should I have to play this person’s thoughts?
There was no hip-hop back in 1960. R&B wasn’t the same as the stuff that’s out now.
There are just different sounds now, different vibes now. We have what them cats had, and we have hundreds of genres more.
This is the thing that people forget: jazz lived on the edge of the music of its day. It wasn’t old music that people were looking back on. It was hip music that was relevant to the society of its time.
Sometimes it takes people to say, “Fuck it! Fuck you and your thoughts!”