Earlier this year, pianist and producer Robert Glasper turned both jazz and hip-hop on their heads with his genre-busting fourth release Black Radio, which is now – finally – on the shelves in UAE record stores. Jazz purists may not like it, but everyone else (who will significantly outnumber jazz purists) will love it. Glasper is addressing jazz’s bad name head-on, recruiting a horde of big hip-hop and R&B names to collaborate on a deliberately accessible, but no less credible, record intended to hook a new generation of fans on jazz.
Glasper is uniquely placed for this feat: his collaborators – such as Mos Def, Erykah Badu and Lupe Fiasco – are friends with whom he regularly tours. Plus it helps that Glasper is a genius and his drummer, Chris Dave, is possibly the most creative percussionist since that cave guy with the two rocks and a natural sense of rhythm.
And that’s why this is an important record. We found out more from the 34-year-old musical chameleon.
The album starts out soulful and poppy, and gets progressively dirtier and more difficult – guiding non-jazz fans by the hand. ‘It’s like a little ninja, just sneaking in there. We walked a fine line of jazz and mainstream – good mainstream. We tried to walk that tightrope to where people who don’t listen to jazz can grasp it and understand it. It wasn’t to gain jazz fans, because I have jazz fans, so this was more to gain people from the other side of the spectrum.’
The LP was a deliberate attempt to get on the radio. ‘I’m hearing it on the radio now, which is what I want. It’s a whole different audience that’s not going to tune into the jazz stations. When people hear it they’re like, “What is this?” Then they go to download it and look at the rest of the record and see who’s on it, then they can’t wait to buy it.’
Glasper planned his assault on the mainstream carefully. ‘I wanted to do it in a timely fashion, so I could solidify myself as a credible jazz pianist. That was the purpose, so no one feels that they have to call me “the hip-hop pianist” or some junk like that. I’ve made my mark in what people will call traditional jazz. Now I’m just keeping it moving. I want to give something that young people like. I like chicken and I like beef, you know? Some people just want to eat chicken their whole life.’
But he still believes he’s true to the soul of the music. ‘In the beginning, jazz was all souful. But now there’s less and less black people playing it, so then it takes a different route. Some are good and some are strange – ha ha! – but that’s jazz. It’s supposed to change and move.’
Yet he doesn’t expect everyone to ‘get it’. ‘Some people may not like it, and I’m okay with that. But some of them will like it. Which will bring them more and more into my world, which brings them more and more into the jazz world. As of now, we’re not even ignored. People don’t even know we exist. Some people don’t even realise there are young cats playing this music. As far as they know, jazz sounds like John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. When they hear me, they’re like, “I’ve never heard anything like this – I don’t even like jazz but I love this.” And I’m like, You do like jazz! You just like relevant jazz!’ Black Radio is in Virgin Megastores now.