HSPVA's Robert Glasper: Jazz's Newest Hip-Hop Star

If you're looking for homegrown musical success stories of 2012, you could do a lot worse than Robert Glasper. True, technically he lives in New York, where he became such an in-demand session player he called his 2009 album Double Booked, but now the Missouri City native and HSPVA grad is on the verge of becoming a full-fledged star.

In February, he released Black Radio (Blue Note), a dense, collaborator-heavy album that plays more like a mixtape and seamlessly fuses hip-hop, jazz and R&B until Glasper throws one final curveball with a ruminative, seven-minute cover of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Circling Glasper's quartet the Experiment (Casey Benjamin, Derrick Hodge and Mark Colenburg) is a constellation of stars including Erykah Badu, Chrisette Michele, Lupe Fiasco and his old friend Bilal.

Critics immediately adored the record, including in a lengthy Sunday New York Times article, and it was also a hit at the cash register, spending most of the spring lodged near the top of iTunes' Jazz and R&B charts. More recently came the Black Radio Recovered EP, which opens a few Black Radio songs to producers like Pete Rock and the Roots' Questlove, but Glasper concludes it himself by producing a nine-minute tribute to the late J. Dilla that earns a congratulatory voicemail message from Dilla's mom.

Rocks Off spoke with Glasper, who brings the Experiment to a special free HSPVA concert at Discovery Green Friday night, by phone last week as the group was crossing into Canada, dreaming of a vacation.

Rocks Off: It sounds like you've had quite a year. Have you had much time to reflect on it?

Robert Glasper: Not at all (laughs). I'm still waiting on a vacation so I can be like, "Ahhhh.... that was fun." But it's been moving since the day the album dropped. We did a record release the day it dropped. The very next day we did David Letterman, and then the very next day we went out on a three-month tour.

It's been crazy after that, kinda nonstop. Luckily I did have August off, kind of.

RO: How far did you make it? Europe?

RG: Oh yeah. We went everywhere.

RO: I know Black Radio was greeted very well by the critics, and it looks like it did well on iTunes. Do you have any idea how it fared on actual radio?

RG: I know when it was added, it was like No. 7 added to adult-contemporary radio. So far it's been great. It's sold over 100,000 copies. I think we're at 115,000 copies sold now. That's an amazing feat in these days and times.

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RO: Was there always a plan to release this brand-new Recovered EP?

RG: No. Actually this is something we thought of in like June, and then we put it in motion really fast and got it done by July. On Black Radio I have a lot of guest artists, but at the same time I know a lot of producers, so I was like, "Oh, it would be cool to do a remix EP so I can feature some of my favorite producers and a producer or two that maybe not many people know that well." This was a perfect opportunity for that. And people definitely wanted something. After living with Black Radio for five or six months, it's cool to have another take on it.

RO: Listening to both of them, it seems like you either flow seamlessly between hip-hop and jazz, or else that you don't even really differentiate between the two. Do you see much difference between those two things?

RG: Not in the way I play, not for us. Not in the style of jazz we play and the style of hip-hop we play. Jazz has a lot of different styles and eras, but the era we play is so close to hip-hop because it is integrated, because I was born in 1978 - when hip-hop was born. Basically that's how I hear it, so there really is no difference for us, except maybe less solos (laughs).

RO: So is it more of a stylistic thing or a philosophical thing, do you think?

RG: Mmmm... both. A little bit of both in there. It's just a matter of listening and having a great respect for both of those sides of music, and knowing them both. Like I've played with the greatest rappers and MCs, and I've played with some of the greatest jazz musicians in the world at the same time.

So I've studied both sides and I know the music well. A lot of people will hint at hip-hop, but they've never studied it. It's like trying to hint at jazz and never studying it. You know what that's going to sound like (laughs). It's the same thing with people that know hip-hop. When you start playing it, they can tell you don't really play it, or they can tell that it's not sincere.

RO: How involved in the production of your music are you, as opposed to the actual performance? In the studio, are you one of the guys that basically does everything?

RG: I am the producer, but I don't have to do much producing. I pretty much just quarterback things. When it comes to the music, my band is so on point I don't really have to tell them much at all. I just kind of set things up and hit play, and we just go.

I rarely have to say anything to my guys. I trust them so much that whatever they bring to the table, that's cool. Every blue moon I say, "let's not do that" or "let's wait to do that," that kind of thing, little stuff like that, but for the most part I let them do whatever they want.

RO: There's this tribute to J. Dilla on the EP, and I read that he was a big influence on you. As a musician and a producer, what do you think you picked up from him?

RG: Definitely stylistically, a lot of how I play the piano. A lot of how I lay my chords is really the feeling of it, and placement of chords. He had a certain way of doing that when he produced that translated to actual musicians playing. He's the only producer I know that changed the way musicians actually play.

There was a whole movement called neo-soul back in 2000-2001, that all started with J. Dilla, with his hip-hop beats and musicians trying to translate it to a live band. That's where that came from. Luckily I got a chance to hang out with him for two weeks at his crib in Detroit and work with him.

Bilal, a singer from the record, is one of my best friends and when Bilal first got signed they assigned him to work with J. Dilla and Bilal brought me along. So we got a chance to watch him work, I got a chance to work with him, make beats with him. It was a whole different experience being there watching it.

Come back for more with Glasper Friday.

With the HSPVA Jazz Ensemble I, 7 p.m. Friday, October 25 at Discovery Green, 1500 McKinney, www.discoverygreen.com. Free.

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