Originally published in East Bay Express
Karriem Riggins oscillates between two worlds. Born and raised in Detroit, he's a jazz drummer with an exalted musical pedigree: His father Emmanuel is a respected pianist who played with guitar legend Grant Green. His sister Tanisha is a phenomenal singer. Riggins has the makings of a traditionalist, but he grew up listening to Fat Boys 45s and beatboxing in the school bathroom. Now 34, he is one of the most versatile musicians in the world, having backed Betty Carter, Roy Hargrove, and Diana Krall, but also made beats for Common, Madlib, Erykah Badu, and Kanye West. He's got a straight-ahead album in the works. He's also making his name as a rapper.
While it's not unusual for jazz musicians to be omnivorous in their tastes, it is remarkable for someone of Riggins' stature to be so firmly grounded in an older scene that's obsessed with tradition, and a younger scene that's wary of interlopers. Having it both ways is tricky. Other artists of Riggins' ilk — the Kev Choices, Robert Glaspers, and Chris "Daddy" Daves of the world — tend to lean in one direction or the other, as a way of finding and sustaining a niche market. But Riggins is at the point in his career where he can dabble freely, and remain conversant in multiple genres. He has no real antecedent or analogue. He's a member of two elite circles that seldom overlap.
"I don't know how I do it," he confessed. "It's pretty much who I am."
Jazz was his first love, and he can trace it back to when he was three years old, listening to his parents' record collection. "I was listening to Trane," he said. "My favorite records in elementary school were Relaxin with Miles, Philly Joe Jones, Kind of Blue." He practiced assiduously, playing along with classic records and trying to emulate heavyweights like Art Blakey and Tony Williams. After learning the rudiments Riggins started developing his own sound. He made up rhythms, put accents in weird places, and altered the pitch of his cymbal. An abortive stint with trumpet lessons taught him the major and minor scales, and, more importantly, how to approach the drums as both a percussive and a melodic instrument. By the time he graduated from Michigan's Southfield High School, Riggins was a veritable "young lion" — which is jazz-speak for a hot-star du jour. He went on to join Betty Carter's Jazz Ahead band (a residency program for up-and-coming musicians), then spent three years backing trumpeter Roy Hargrove. Riggins rose precipitously because he had something that other young lions don't: a concept.
He also had a closet interest in hip-hop. Riggins got into hip-hop as early as second grade, when he first heard the Fat Boys' 1984 single "Stick 'Em." Sparse and dryly orchestrated, the song features one-man-rhythm-section Darren Robinson (aka Buff Love) beatboxing through two voice-modulating machines, a phaser, and a flanger. Riggins was hooked. "I remember thinking that was the hippest innovation ever," Riggins said. From the Fat Boys he ventured into early, drum-oriented hip-hop by groups like Run DMC. Some of it was scraped clean of melody entirely. "I was more into the rhythmic aspect of it," Riggins said. "If you listen to Run DMC's 'Rock the Bells,' that was just straight drums." Later, he got into groups like Stesasonic and A Tribe Called Quest, who incorporated a lot of jazz samples in their work. In high school he started making beats on the sly, and cadging them away. He wrote rhymes but wouldn't show them to anyone.
Riggins didn't become a bona fide rap artist until years after he'd made it in the jazz world. He met the rapper Common in 1996, while playing a show with Hargrove's quintet in Chicago. "Common is a big jazz fan," Riggins explained. "He comes in, and I was like, 'Wow, that dude looks like Common.'" As it turned out, Riggins had just purchased Common's 1994 album Resurrection. The two of them hit it off. That same year Riggins bought an MPC sampler and began making beats in earnest. He cultivated a unique production style that reflected his approach to drumming. Riggins is known for chopping up samples to give his beats a syncopated rhythm or weird meter, almost like a jazz musician with a penchant for playing "outside" the form. He began collaborating with Common, who later introduced him to famed Detroit producer J Dilla, New York rapper Marley Marl, and DJ Pete Rock. Riggins quickly became hip-hop's new "it" guy.
Though he's always appreciated hip-hop groups that use real melodies and chord changes, what Riggins really looks for is the visceral quality of the boombap. In that sense, he's not any more cerebral than the average hip-hop listener. "My favorite rappers like Dilla, Black Thought, and Busta Rhymes … the way they phrase the rhythms makes people really feel it. There's some rappers that hit you with that syncopation, you're like, 'Wow that's funky.'" Riggins incorporated a lot of those rhythmic ideas into his own career. He's currently working with Stones Throw producer Madlib on an project called Jahari Masamba Unit, which blends funk, jazz, Brazilian music (one of Riggins' latest obsessions), and avant-garde forms. If features Riggins on drums and Madlib on a variety of instruments, including a bass with one string on it. The two of them also have a duo called the Supreme Team, which is basically them rhyming over each others' beats. It's a much rawer form, said Riggins: "straight courses with cuts and scratches."
In the midst of all these hip-hop ventures, Riggins also is making a jazz album — his first as a leader — with a quartet that features Warren Wolf vibes, the legendary Mulgrew Miller on piano and Rhodes, and Robert Hurst on bass. (They'll all perform at Oakland Yoshi's this week with the exception of Hurst, who will be replaced by bassist Joe Sanders.) It's about 75 percent complete, and features some not-so-obvious standards by avant gardists like Joe Henderson and Woody Shaw, plus some Brazilian artists who recently piqued Riggins' interest. The choice of material is unorthodox, but the personnel show how connected Riggins is in the jazz world.
Granted, he's not completely immune to the limitations of genre. Riggins usually collaborates with older hip-hop artists who grew up listening to the same records he did, and who are more concerned with musicianship than with selling a persona. As a producer, he's got staying power; as a rapper, he's more of a flash in the pan. Still, Riggins came up at a very opportune moment for people with his hybrid sensibility: Jazz is constantly updating itself in order to stave off death; hip-hop's audience is aging. Thus, the hip-hop-jazz artist is becoming less of a novelty and more of a standard. Riggins was one of the first to do it. He's still one of the best.