Robert Glasper: A Unified Field Theory For Black Music

Feb 24, 2012
Originally published on February 25, 2012 5:31 pm

When some of the biggest names in R&B and hip-hop are clamoring to be on a jazz record, you know you're dealing with a special kind of jazz musician.

Pianist Robert Glasper has worked in the traditional jazz-trio format before. But these days, he's incorporating all the sounds he grew up with in Houston: soul, rap, rock ... whatever feels good goes into the mix. He's brought a lot of chart-topping friends with him, including Erykah Badu, Ledisi and Lupe Fiasco. His band is the Robert Glasper Experiment, and its new album is Black Radio.

The liner notes for the record are a kind of manifesto, lamenting the stagnation and "collective dumbing down" of black popular music. That's the sentiment that inspired the title track, a song Glasper co-wrote with Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def).

"The black box is the only thing that survives in a plane crash," Glasper tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "So [Bey] names this song 'Black Radio' — the only thing that survives. It made sense to name the album that. When music is crashing around us, when you hear the same five songs on the radio that aren't really saying much, we can always go back to great music. Great music always lives on."

Black Radio takes as its premise a kind of natural lineage among jazz, hip-hop, R&B and rock music, and explores each style in equal measure.

"This is my lifetime. I can't speak on 1960 or 1964 — that's not my era," Glasper says. "The music is going to die if you don't tap into something that people today can relate to. People say that I'm selling out, but I'm doing what John Coltrane and Miles Davis were doing."

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And you're listening to WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. And it's time now for music.


RAZ: This is the music of jazz pianist Robert Glasper. The thing you need to know about him is firstly, he's a young man in a genre dominated by older ones - Glasper's 33 - and the second thing, he's convinced jazz has hit a wall. It's too safe, even a bit boring. So Glasper's set out to change it. He takes soul, hip-hop, rock, classical - whatever feels interesting - and he throws it right into the mix.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Coming to your mind, live and direct from the (unintelligible). Now it's all in your speakers. Now it's in your speakers.

RAZ: His band is called The Robert Glasper Experiment, and this is off his new record. It's called "Black Radio." The liner notes include what I guess you'd call a manifesto. It says in one place: The collective dumbing down of our music is the greatest tragedy we can impose on generations to follow. And for that, Robert Glasper blames the tastemakers who control pop radio.

ROBERT GLASPER: They just play the same five horrible songs. You know, it's all about what's hot now. And what is hot now, especially when it comes to African-American music, they choose the dumbest stuff to play sometimes. It's like, really, you're going to play that? The guys are talking about the same, and the women are talking about the same things that don't mean anything, you know, degrading each other. It's just bad, and the music's bad. But that sets the bar because now, everybody - since that gets a lot of radio play, everybody wants to get radio play. So now, artists are coming out trying to do that exact same thing. And that's not cool because we're going to lose a lot of great artists because artists think you have to do this certain thing to be heard on the radio.

RAZ: This is the question I have for you, Robert, because when you were a kid, pop music was Prince and Madonna, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, great, great artists. But I think one could argue that pop music today is pretty good. I mean, you've got some amazing singers - Adele, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj - you can go on and on. I mean, some would argue that there's actually a renaissance in pop music today.

GLASPER: There's a renaissance, but I wouldn't say everybody's really good.


GLASPER: I would say the actual great singer is a lost art. There are very famous people. There are people who are characters and people who make it because they're different. But the actual art, like what their actual voice, like a great singer, there aren't as many great singers at that level as there used to be for me. You know, a lot of the people you name - like Nicki Minaj is not a great singer, you know?

RAZ: She's a - but she's a great artist in some ways.

GLASPER: She's - yeah, she's an artist. But - and that's what I'm saying. You know, some people, there's an artist, there's the stylist, you know what I mean, which is great as well. But I'm more speaking to the actual, just art of singing, and I don't think that's the case nowadays because nowadays it's not about how good you can sing. It's about really the song and how you look. So I'm trying to get away from that. That's why everybody on my album, they're known for being great singers as well as stylists at the same time. You know, they don't sound like anyone else.


GLASPER: Like Lalah Hathaway, everybody who sings knows her. It's like she is that person.


LALAH HATHAWAY: (Singing) You're ruling the way that I move, not breathe your air. You only can rescue me, this is my prayer...

GLASPER: I think every artist that I have on there is a jazz musician at heart, even if they never sung a jazz tune in their life. Everybody kind of has a jazz backbone or jazz spine, you know what I mean, and it made it easy to make this record.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) You're rocking, yes, you are rocking with the fresh, you are rocking with the depth, you are rocking with the best, you are rocking with the yes. Now you are rocking with the fresh, you're rocking with the depth. You are rocking with the fresh. I say yes...

RAZ: I'm speaking with jazz pianist and composer Robert Glasper. His new record is called "Black Radio." Probably the two most purely American forms of music, one could argue, are jazz and hip-hop, right, both created by Americans - both created by African-Americans, and yet rarely have those two forms of music met, right?


RAZ: But you do that on this record very deliberately.


RAZ: And yet it's still considered unorthodox and even shunned by some of your fellow jazz artists. Why?

GLASPER: Because they can't do it, and they're jealous.


GLASPER: Well, it's funny because, like, put it like this - it's like a person who's not knowing their dad. That's not how it's supposed to be. Jazz is the father of hip-hop. Without jazz, there would be no hip-hop. Without jazz, there would not be a lot of music. But without jazz, it definitely wouldn't be any hip-hop, so they go hand in hand. It's really - the question is why hasn't it been done as much?

RAZ: But here's the thing I don't get, right? I mean, the history of jazz is about rebels, about people who are experimenting in ways that were pushing the boundaries. Miles Davis was doing things that were so radical, and yet today - I mean, the mainstream jazz community still finds it odd to hear hip-hop and jazz together.

GLASPER: We kind of killed the alive to praise the dead. And I don't think that the jazz community embraces newer artist anymore. We get mad that new audiences don't want to come watch us play, you know? But it's like, you know, we keep sending our grandfather out to the playground.

RAZ: In other words, you keep playing - I mean, you're asked to play standards when...

GLASPER: Yeah, that kind of vibe and that kind of mindset, you know what I mean? Everybody else is sending their kids out to the playground. Let's send new sound, new vibrant life out into the world, and we keep sending our grandfather out and wondering why nobody wants to play with us. We have to embrace our new sound because that's what it's always been doing, you know? That's why jazz kept changing. It always changed, you know what I mean? It's supposed to change.


GLASPER: It's about being relevant and taking from my surroundings now. I know some jazz musicians are like, oh, you're selling out, but when you think about it, I'm not selling out. I'm doing what Trane and Miles were doing. I'm doing what Herbie does. Herbie's still doing it, you know? That's not selling out. He's selling out venues.


GLASPER: That's - if that's what it means, then cool. And my thing is, if Trane came back to life right now, you know, he'd be mad as hell if people were still doing the exact same thing he was doing when he died.

RAZ: Well, Robert Clasper, thank you so much.

GLASPER: Thank you.

RAZ: That's pianist and jazz composer Robert Glasper. His new album with the Robert Glasper Experiment is called "Black Radio." It's out on Tuesday. But right now, you can listen to every track from the record for free at our website,


RAZ: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Remember to check out our podcast. It's called WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You can find it at or on iTunes. We post a new episode every Sunday night. We're back on the radio tomorrow with more news, stories, features and music. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.