Karriem Riggins' Headnod Suite Is a Jazz Drummer's Take on Instrumental Hip-Hop

Karriem RigginsEXPAND
Karriem Riggins
Anneka Bunnag

Jazz drummer and beatmaker Karriem Riggins just had a hell of a year. He produced Kanye West’s “30 Hours,” co-wrote and featured on Kaytranada’s “Bus Ride” and co-produced all of Common’s latest album, Black America Again, with his fellow L.A. jazz/hip-hop artist, keyboardist Robert Glasper.

Following Riggins’ critically acclaimed debut instrumental album, Alone Together (2012), Stones Throw Records released his sophomore effort, Headnod Suite, on Feb. 24. The 29-track record is full of dusty digital joints, with trips through lo-fi terrain and syncopated streams of consciousness weaving throughout.

“I just wanted to take people on a ride through the different styles,” Riggins says. When asked about the complexity of his sound, he said it’s all about “listening to as much music as I can. Not just from one genre but classical, Afro-Cuban, soca music, all kinds of different things, and then just applying that to what I do. As well as the rhythms. There’s so many different ways you can play a rhythm. A new style of music [can be created] just from a rhythm.”

As a multi-instrumentalist, producer, DJ and studio veteran, Riggins' musical DNA has been encoded by the array of artists he’s worked with. “When I’m in the studio, it’s all experiment. There’s no rules to what I do.”

Detroit-raised and L.A.-based, Riggins got his start in the mid-'90s backing jazz singer Betty Carter and playing under jazz bassist Ray Brown (who in turn played with Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie). Though highly regarded by such contemporaries as Madlib and J Dilla, prior to Alone’s release, Riggins was a relatively unknown figure among hip-hop heads.

He’s crafted tracks for J Dilla’s former rap group Slum Village, The Roots and Erykah Badu, but his early accomplishments were playing with jazz luminaries like Oscar Peterson, Milt Jackson and Mulgrew Miller. For years he’s been gigging as a touring drummer and session player, going on the road with fellow Ray Brown protégé Diana Krall and recording with Paul McCartney.

Son of jazz composer and keyboardist Emmanuel Riggins (who played alongside jazz guitarist Grant Green), Karriem got hooked on the drums watching his father’s jam sessions in their garage. Raiding his parents’ record collection was like a portal to crate digging, a prelude to his becoming a brilliant musician and budding beat conductor.

Minus Derrick Hodge and The Roots' James Poyser playing bass and keys, respectively, on Headnod’s last track, “Suite Outro,” the album is analogous to a series of collage paintings. While sampling himself on drums and keys, Riggins stretches fractional bits of records that unfold their hidden potential like bird wings. Minimal loops swing like multiple pendulums that cross to extremities, from warm analog funk to electronic excursions.

“We need to go back to live instrumentation. We need more of that in the music. It’s missing on the radio, in the clubs. There needs to be more of a balance,” Riggins says.

For his “Cheap Suite” beats, Riggins gave them an “8-bit effect,” as if retrofitting 1980s video-game sounds to serve his boom-bap aesthetics. “I wanted to incorporate more of the live drums, but add effects where it will kind of make you feel like it was made by a machine but [with] the feeling of actual drums.” “Yes Yes Y'all” has DJ J Rocc doing scratches while toward the track’s end, Common scats to Riggins’ band playing at the Detroit Jazz Festival.

Featuring renowned Detroit poet, performance artist and activist Jessica Care Moore, “Suite Poetry” is a standout track that pays tribute to her city’s black inhabitants. “Cracked keys somehow finding the beautiful black/White noise and out of space hands/It’s difficult to explain ourselves/I see you,” she says. The minimal production is a looped piano that dances through her ethereal vocals. “I felt like less is more. I didn’t want any drums or too much syncopation in there because her cadence was so powerful,” Riggins explains.

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Fifteen years after first working with Common, Riggins finally released Alone, which added another hue to instrumental hip-hop’s graduated spectrum. The 2013 Yours Truly video of Riggins remaking his beautiful cut “J Dilla the Greatest” marked a moment of his arrival, while paying homage to his longtime collaborator, influential producer, rapper and fellow Detroit native J Dilla. Though his friend’s impact on his production remains a constant, over time Riggins has proven to be a musical chameleon, blending into his own constructed background.

Headnod, as Alone's successor, further unfolds Riggins’ surreal soundscapes. “I am always a student of the music and I feel that I’m at a point now where I can start to contribute to the art form. I feel stronger to be able to articulate what I’m saying musically.”

Karriem Riggins' Headnod Suite is out now on Stones Throw.


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