Originally published by Real Detroit Weekly September 1, 2009
Karriem Riggins may very well be a living, breathing reincarnation of the musical work ethic ancient Detroit was built upon; an ancient Detroit that many of us still dream. But while we dream of the past and applaud the brief glimpses that local musicians still grant us today, Riggins is off living within the dream, expanding and retracting the decibel fantasy as he sees fit.
Born in Detroit in 1975, the Riggins household was one of musical advantage. His father, Emmanuel, performed regularly in the city, most notably with former Blue Note recording artist Grant Green. Riggins was instantly attracted to the drums, often jamming and performing with his father. By the age of 17, Riggins had locked down some experience with Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead. By 19, New York’s bright light appeal brought Riggins to the Big Apple … but he would never forget his Detroit roots.
Since the beginning of Riggins career, he has embodied the same soulful (and hardworking) spirit that many in Motown filled before him — constantly collaborating with the greats of both jazz and hip-hop genres, bringing his “less is more” drumming philosophy into the studio with him. Sure, Riggins is neither a household name nor the face to a particular movement, but like the Motown studio performers before him, he has made his mark on many. In the jazz world, Herbie Hancock and Hank Jones come to mind. In the hip-hop world, many are familiar with Riggins’ work with socially conscious Common and Talib Kweli, as well as the Detroit-born Slum Village and J Dilla.
Riggins' performance at the Detroit International Jazz Festival this year will mark his first under his own name in the city of Detroit, and the musician is accompanied by some top-notch notables including the legendary hip-hop pioneer Pete Rock and 2008 Guggenheim recipient Geri Allen (along with Robert Hurst and Warren Wolfe, who collectively make up Karriem Riggins Virtuoso Experience). Real Detroit caught up with Riggins as he relaxed in the luxurious SLS Hotel in Los Angeles before hitting up some of his favorite record shops on the West Coast.
There seems to be a maturity and progression that happens to musicians who initially learn about music through jazz, venture into hip-hop and then find themselves returning to jazz. What first really grabbed you about music and what moved you so swiftly from the world of hip-hop back into jazz?
My dad was a jazz musician, and played with Grant Green and a lot of those guys. Being around him inspired me to play drums and try to learn a lot of that style — straight-ahead jazz, funk and a lot of different genres. When I was around eleven, that’s when I started buying hip-hop records and 45’s. That’s when hip-hop inspired me.
What grabbed you about the sound and vibe of hip-hop?
It’s what was in me. When I heard it, I knew it was me, you know? It was fun, innovative, full of rhythm and funky. It was a way for us to express ourselves in a different way. It’s challenging. People think hip-hop is easy, but you’ve got to dig deep to find a style and that’s the challenge.
Did you feel like you were bringing something to the table after coming up as a jazz musician?
It’s the same. Everybody is influenced by some sound. To really take that and develop your own thing, that’s just a part of life, you know what I mean? I feel like jazz is the same thing. Developing that sound and that style is really important. [But] I see what you’re saying … everything stems from [jazz]. That’s the blueprint right there.
As a modern-day performer collaborating with all of these various musicians, how do you see your personality mesh with various musicians and how do you see those very strong, very individual personalities clash?
Man, I’ve been blessed with [working with] a lot of people that I truly admire. I really haven’t had a moment where personalities clashed, you know? It’s been a blessing to work with people who have an eagerness to create something, you know? I’m in a group [Karriem Riggins’ Virtuoso Experience] and on the last tour [we] did, I had Mulgrew Miller, Warren Wolf, Joe Sanders and DJ Pete Rock. Some of these guys had never performed with a DJ before, but when we got to the rehearsal, it was just wide-open, man. Everyone was really into experimenting and trying to take it to another level. It’s important to have an open mind when you go into a situation to collaborate with somebody. That’s where positive creativity comes from.
What do you think is your particular personality trait that you bring to the table that other musicians might notice about you?
I just try to keep it funky — keep it fresh and new. Just having that soul is important in every genre. Everything has to be soulful, rhythmic and very musical. Playing the drums, a lot of drummers like to play like they have a lot of chops and go crazy on the kit … but it’s really important to be musical, and to know when to do something and when not to do it.
Are you aware of lessons, new styles and traits that you’ve picked up after a session? Is the art of collaboration something you can categorize inside yourself as a skill set, or is it more of a general, primitive vibe that you walk away with?
I mean, I learn a lot of the time from working with older musicians … like when I performed with Herbie Hancock. He is so complex and his music is so deep, but at the same time, less is more. It’s a simplicity thing and knowing when to do it, which is what I’m really big on. I learn a lot from playing with younger musicians as well. It’s a blessing to be able to play, perform and produce and all the different things I do. I’m just glad I have an outlet where I can give people my perspective on music. | Ryan Patrick Hooper
Karriem Riggins Virtuoso Experience • 9/5 • 6 p.m. on the Chase Main Stage at the Detroit International Jazz Festival in downtown Detroit