Karriem Riggins Hears God In The Mix With Madlib

The Dilla-connected drummer talks Jahari Massamba Unit and more. w/ reviews of YL & Starker + Remy Banks.

Karriem Riggins Hears God In The Mix With Madlib
Karriem Riggins & Madlib. Photo credit: Jimel Primm

In the best possible way, the lines between hip-hop and jazz seem blurrier than ever these days. Artists like Butcher Brown, Kassa Overall, Cisco Swank, and Moor Mother, among others, put out music that doesn't straddle the two genres so much as genetically modify them into something audaciously new. Going beyond the dope if oftentimes illicit sample-based fusions of old, contemporary producers are working in official capacities with legends and their catalogs, as beatmaker Oh No did last year with a pair of records culled from vibraphonist Roy Ayers' early work. Even André 3000, whose fans clamored for a new album for well over a decade, managed to transition successfully from avant-rapper to far-out flautist with his late 2023 full-length New Blue Sun. His Billboard Hot 100 charting hit "I Swear, I Really Wanted to Make a 'Rap' Album But This Is Literally the Way the Wind Blew Me This Time" sums things up well.

With respect to all of the above, Karriem Riggins has been occupying this liminal sonic space for a long time. Well-positioned to be there, the Detroit-born drummer spent the 1990s playing with jazz greats Roy Hargrove and Betty Carter as well as making beats for a then-rising Common, the latter relationship proving one of his lengthiest and most fruitful. His credits as both instrumentalist and producer on albums by Erykah Badu, The Roots, and Slum Village earned him credibility in certain circles, while his work with Diana Krall, Norah Jones, and Paul McCartney found him in rooms that few hip-hop artists ever touch. In recent years, his collaborative alchemy has only proven more magical and unpredictable, yielding records by August Greene, a short-lived trio with kindred spirit Robert Glasper and Common, as well as Jahari Massamba Unit, a dynamic duo with Madlib.

"I just have such admiration for what he does and how prolific he is," Riggins says of the illustrious Oxnard, CA native. "I don't know anyone like that other than Dilla, who I got a chance to work with a lot."

Even before Jahari Massamba Unit, whose latest album YHWH is LOVE dropped earlier this month, the pair have linked numerous times in various forms. Stones Throw heads will no doubt recall their Supreme Team appearances, while Madlib completists have heard Riggins' contributions to their tracks with Freddie Gibbs or on projects like WLIB AM: King Of The Wigflip and High Jazz. (Both have production/writing credits on Kanye West's The Life Of Pablo as well, albeit for different songs.)

Though the JMU moniker dates back well over a decade and a half, it took until 2020 for the duo's first full-length under that name to appear. A jazz-fueled display of oenophilia, Pardon My French parlayed their shared affinity for wine into a startlingly full-bodied album that plays out like an intimate session in a private cellar. Its follow-up, however, looks more towards the divine than the earthy or unctuous. "I feel like I hear God being present in the music and that is why we call the album YHWH is LOVE," Riggins says. "It's like you hear the healing in the music; it's therapeutic."

Indicative of our pandemic-era times, the process behind this latest collaborative effort happened entirely remotely, beginning with Riggins sending files of his drumming and percussion playing over to Madlib. A testament to the way they musically jibe with one another, this source material ranged from sequenced song ideas to simply recordings of him practicing downstairs in his home studio. What comes in return is essentially the finished product, reliant on the rhythms but fleshed out with instrumentation, sound techniques, and Madlib's own percussion flourishes that reveal strange and appealing new forms.

"Man, once he sends me back that copy from what he's added, we're mixing and mastering," Riggins says, citing a self-described head nod factor as more prominent on YHWH is LOVE than the free jazz nature of its predecessor. "It is just a blessing to be able to give my favorite artist to work with drums, and get back a whole repertoire of greatness."

A noted difference between the two Jahari Massamba Unit albums is a change in record labels, shifting from the long-running Madlib Invazion to Riggins' own proprietary imprint Law Of Rhythm. Set up with music executive Jae Barber, it will serve as an outlet primarily, though not necessarily exclusively, for his own projects. "I have so many releases that I'm just holding onto," he says, explaining there's some five albums of his instrumentals and collaborations on deck. "I wanted my own label to be able to control the output of what's going out and put the right amount of energy and respect towards how it's released and supported."

Not content to operate in any one genre, Riggins strongly suggests that his Law Of Rhythm releases will touch on several sounds. Hip-hop heads specifically should note at least one other artist he's building with there, erstwhile Roc-A-Fella / State Property rapper Peedi Crakk. "I wanted to keep the diversity alive," he says of the label's ethos and approach. "We're musical chameleons, man. We've got to be able to touch everybody."

That said, Riggins still maintains his connection to Madlib Invazion. Just last month, he dropped an album there called To The Jungle for the label's Music Library series. Drawn from studio time while concurrently working on the soundtrack to the Netflix series Mo, these 26 tracks are entirely percussion-based and intended for use by others for film, TV, or sampling work in the tradition of library labels like MP2000 and DeWolfe. "A lot of those drums come from the sessions I was recording during the pandemic at Sunset Sound," he says, proudly boasting that it happened in the very same space where Prince made music in for years. "That room is so special, with the chamber and all the outboard gear."

Karriem Riggins & Madlib. Photo credit: Jimel Primm

YL & Starker, Diamond Collection (buy it / stream it)

Forgive my awards season rotted brain, but there's no shortage for competition for the unofficial title of Best Rap Duo Operating In New York City Today. Strong contenders YL and Starker keep advancing their cause with every project, moving from their dope Lo.Caesar beginnings into something even more special with their Diamond Collection. This half-hour of fast and furious rhyming finds both artists in their respective, yet complementary pockets, breathlessly battling all comers over beats by familiars like Argov and Zoomo. The chemistry ignites within seconds on "All-Star Weekend," YL's smooth opening verse getting a speedy rewind that links rap's baller past and present. Incapable of resting on his laurels, the comparatively raspier Starker turns his side of "XXXL" into a referential blizzard, dropping perfectly crafted bars about everything from Spawn comic villain Violator to Nelly's 2004 country rap single with Tim McGraw. Happy Madison fans will assuredly adore submerged soul opener "Most Valuable Players" and "O'Doyle Rules," the latter a DRIVEBY production whose methodically slow pace and haunted aesthetic surges and subsides under the rappers' distinct flows.

Remy Banks, champ hoody music. ep. 3 (buy it / stream it)

More than three years have passed since this World's Fair rapper dropped his last album, the phantom of paradise. But, to borrow the cliche, absence makes the heart grow fonder, which makes Remy Banks' return with this mixtape series installment all the more worth celebrating. (On a personal note, it doesn't hurt that the album cover replicates the slice joint and candy store corner I used to frequent as a fellow Queens kid.) From the positive flexes of "sunrays" and "game winners." with Odd Future alum Domo Genesis to the R&B glide of "time&energy." with Gvvaan and "one.," he reminds why he's long been one of the borough's finest emcees. He simply shines on this rhyme showcase, favoring a confidently measured display over any needlessly showy mode for the Rockwilder (!!!!) produced "place i rep."

Three new tracks for you to snack on...

Sule, "Courtesy Inn"

Goldwood & Elijah Who, "Camp Lazlo"

Ahk Sair & Child Actor, "Honeycomb"

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