August Greene - Karriem Riggins on His New Collaborative Album with Robert Glasper and Common

A Chemistry that Clicks

Mar 16, 2018 Web Exclusive
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At this stage, Karriem Riggins can work with anyone. He already has. If you're not already a fan of one of the most dynamic and creative drummers in the business, then you've undoubtedly heard his craft on albums by artists as diverse as Kanye West and Paul McCartney, Diana Krall and J Dilla.

Most recently, he and fellow musical genius Robert Glasper decided to lean into their chemistry with rapper/actor Common after completing his 2016 release, Black America Again. The end result wasn't Common's next album, as expected, but an entire new outlet called August Greene. The trio are creating positive, jazz-influenced hip-hop compositions that defy categorization.

We recently sat down with Karriem to discuss the trio's chemistry, their self-titled debut album, their focus on positivity in a negative world, and how they came together in the first place.

Matt Conner (Under the Radar): You've released a couple singles so far, so how are you feeling about the early response?

Karriem Riggins: So far it's been a great response. The first single was "Optimistic," and there's so much positivity in the song. That's touched the hearts of the listeners. So far, it's been awesome.

You and Common and Robert could easily work with any number of other artists and musicians at this point, so what made this the right assemblage and time to come together?

Well, we worked on the Black America Again album with Common, and we'd talked about collaborating for yearsme and Commonand had a plan to put out a producer/rapper album. The working relationship that we had with Robert, once we'd started working on Black America, and the energy of our connection was just crazy. Once that album came out, it felt like we were missing something not creating, so we wanted to continue to create.

Common booked studio time and the idea was to make another Common album. But we came with the idea like, "Look, we've got this collective. Let's just do this." It's a great machine that we have and we're inspired around each other. We laugh around each other. We're brothers. We also make great music together, so it went without saying.

Have you had such a collaboration in the past not work out chemistry-wise or creatively like you thought it would going in?

Not really. I feel like all of the collaborations I've done were great and were stepping stones to get me to the next level musically, just learning. I've got a chance to collaborate with some great people. One of my favorites was with Madlib. We've got projects that are still in the can. It's just a blessing to work with like-minded people, and I'm a fan of Robert's music and I'm a fan of Common's music. They're at the top of their game, so I feel like we're all inspired to get to the next level.

You mentioned the energy or connection being a highlight, but can you take us into that? What makes it that way? 

It's almost like someone thinking of something at the same time. That's wild to me. I'll do a drum pattern and think, "Man, if Robert laid this rhythm with this chord, that would be crazy." Then he'll sit down without me saying a thing and do exactly that, but it's 100 times better than I thought it would be. So you let everyone do what they do without tampering with it. It's organic and it feels like it's from another place. It's like a superior being has our hands and our best interests in presenting this music. It was definitely crazy, but crazy in the best way. [Laughs]

Do you share common musical touchpoints when you compare notes of what you grew up listening to?

Definitely. Glasper and I are both jazz musicians and our parents were musicians. My dad played the organ and played with Grant Green for a lot of years. Robert's mother played the organ as well. Yeah, we share a similar background listening to music and growing up around music. Also growing up on the jazz scene in an early age, I moved to New York when I was a teenager and Rob did too. So we shared that sentiment of the music.

Common was a lover of the music just from listening to records. I think he discovered jazz through listening and finding the samples that other rappers sampled. That's how he discovered jazz, from what he told me, and that's interesting how it brought us all together.

You said it was supposed to be a Common album. Now you're going by August Greene. I'm assuming that created some complications since there's already a known audience for any of you personally, yet you decide to start something new. 

Well, the music was pushing boundaries for something that a rapper might not necessarily want to do under his own name. It's so next. Some of the stuff that we're doing, Common's fanbase is not familiar with that sound. So to create a new entity is creating a new fan base, but you can also pull all of our different fan based into what we're doing, which was the plan in creating August Greene.

Where did [the name] August Greene come from, by the way?

We came up with that a while ago. It's a play on words and there's so many ways to define what it is. It's more of an abstract play on words that just connected. The music sounds like August Greene. [Laughs]

The music is speaking to a lot of cultural issues and social concerns. When you're bringing that to bear on the music itself, which you want to keep accessible and enjoyable, is that ever a difficult tension? 

The reins are in Common's hands for a lot of that content. Robert and I might have an idea for a chorus, but Common takes that and runs with it. For most of the songs, there's no real direct message or one theme. He touches on so many different themes within one rhyme. He's the poet and knows how to sneak it all in. You ingest it and you've heard about five or seven different subjects in one run, which is dope, because the attention spans of some people are so short. To be able to speak to those things and have it stick is genius. I don't know how he does it.

Is that the typical way you work is that you and Robert put the backdrop together and let Common do this thing over that?

Sometimes I'll go into the studio and do a drum session. I'll bring those drum ideas in and have them on deck. Then we'll set those to the side and we'll just play ideas. It's almost like listening to samples. Common will be in the control room and we're just jamming out. Then we'll hear him in the microphone, "Yo, wait! I need to embellish right here." Then once we're done with the session or finished with those ideas, then I'll put out those drum sessions. That will spark Robert and then we keep stacking ideas. That becomes most of the songs that are on the album.

"Black Kennedy" just dropped as a single.

I started playing one of those drum patterns and Robert came in and played some ideas. We finally got married to the last idea that is the take. While we're doing that Common is freestyling in the control room the whole time. By the time we got into the control, Common was like, "If I was a Kennedy, I'd be a Black Kennedy..." I was like, "Woo, that's crazy!" I asked him what it really means and he said, "You know how the Kennedys were considered royalty?" He was basically saying that we are royalty as well. We can dream and aspire to be the greatest. That's a beautiful thing to touch on, especially now with Black History Month and pride. There's so much positivity in that.

Is that a goal, even an unspoken one, to be that positive? You've mentioned that a couple times.

Definitely and this has always been the content that I wanted to connect to. Jazz music is so positive to just hear the harmonies. It's all positive and makes you feel happy. In hip-hop, R&B, and all music, there's music that can give you the same feeling. That's the music that we all want to create and want people to feel that.

Each of you could be busy with so many projects, so how much time and attention does August Greene receive? 

This is really high priority for everyone. We all have managers who come together as a team and lawyers who come together as a team. We get the availability of everyone on the table so that when things come through, we know that we can do them. We have some shows coming up soon, like the Kennedy Center, and we'll have some promo shows coming up, too. We're looking forward to the tour.

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