INNER VIEW: Brian “Raydar” Ellis
Rap music continues to surpass what were once limits in pop culture. Although the artists who perform the music have increased their mainstream exposure the fact remains that the art form began as underground medium. Jazz has lent the art of improvisation, swing notes and other style gems to Hip Hop and continues to evolve with advanced concepts and a young generation of musicians. Brian “Raydar” Ellis has produced records for Grammy Award winning jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding and performed with the likes of Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) and Black Moon. He teaches Hip-Hop Ensemble and Turntable Technique at Berklee College of Music. He’s also the creative director at The Revivalist and Revive Da Live. We spoke to him about his ideas on creative expression and his involvement in these two thriving musical languages.
Words by Will Loiseau
Will: How did you become introduced to Jazz? Is there a particular instrument or song that stands out as the one that first captured your attention?
Brian: My parents had a large collection of vinyl. One day when I was a little kid rolling my G.I. Joe figures across the top of the records I said “I wonder what this needle does and what music sounds like.” I started messing around with the stereo and figuring how things were plugged in. After school I started hanging around the crib messing with electronics. When I finally ran into Hip Hop it was on the T.V. with Yo! MTV Raps. I started listening and watching the videos and noticed that they sounded a lot like what my dad had. Oh! It’s a sample.
So jazz was your introduction to music? Yeah, my family listened to everything from jazz, funk, R&B and all that kind of stuff. I was raised in an all-white neighborhood in [New] Jersey in the early nineties so the other side was when I went to school kids were listening to Pearl Jam, Nirvana and The Almond Brothers. I had a healthy dose of everything. The library had records that you could take out so I was checking out The Beatles, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and so much other stuff.
What instrument did you first hear that either made you want to play it or caught your attention to draw you in to listen to more of it?
That’s a really awesome question. The drums were something that I always noticed but I think the minute I started to hear excitement was the synthesizer. Whenever I think of my parents I think of Marvin Gaye’s “After the Dance.” I don’t even think it was the vocal version but the long version with the synthesizer solo. It stuck out because it can be so many different things. It’s futuristic but it’s back then. It’s a footnote like this is what the world could be. The drums I could feel because they were instinctual but the synthesizer made me curious.
Since its origin jazz has always formed new shapes and blended with various sounds (fusions) which have helped grow its popularity. What makes the interaction between jazz and hip-hop so special?
It’s the evolution of the language. You can look at the previous languages of civilization that existed thousands of years ago. In ancient Egypt the hieroglyphics were on the walls telling stories. Through those stories people are able to track history. It’s the same thing with graffiti. Graffiti is a modern day hieroglyphic. Music was used in African villages to tell stories of family history. Hip Hop is like one of the kids in a family and it’s all in the same house. Jazz, Reggae and Rock & Roll might be the parents. The grandparents might be gospel and classical. The twin sibling could be punk rock or an older brother funk and a sister named R&B. When Hip Hop kicks it with jazz it’s just spending quality time with the family. Some people may be big jazz fans and don’t particularly care for Hip Hop and there are Hip Hop fans that don’t listen to much Jazz. The line between them is a fine one. I recently saw a documentary on Cab Calloway and that dude was the ultimate master of slang. The whole thing about being “hip” and calling someone a “cat” or being “cool”. He completely rewrote the slang book. You have groups like Wu-tang repeating terms he once used.
The majority of Hip-Hop enthusiasts are not classically trained musicians. This led many critics to label the genre as a fad that wouldn’t last to see the 1990’s. Would you say there are more similarities or differences between Jazz and Hip-Hop artists in regards to musicianship?
Now there’s this whole thing about live bands on stage. I don’t feel like the barometer of it needs to be so textbook. It’s like when people say a song is more musical because a person studied so much. Reading sheet music is a great skill to have but I have a problem when someone says you’re not a musician because you don’t do this or that. It’s really just about a feeling. James Brown, Miles Davis and all these musicians were composing based off of feeling. They may have used a chart to write down the formula but that doesn’t mean that as a Hip Hop cat because you don’t you’re any less of a scientist. Fortunately, there have been so many great artists who have come out within the last few years who’ve been raised to not see the difference between either of the two worlds. You look at a Robert Glasper Black Radio record or Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music Society or all these other groups that are trying different formulas and they sound natural. There are some cats who’ll get up on stage and play their hearts out on an instrument and then they’ll go home and turn an MPC on, make some beats and cut up some records. It’s totally musicianship.
After the success of The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”, hip-hop seemed to go more mainstream with rock fusions. (Run-DMC, Aerosmith, etc.) Do you see future collaborations between Jazz and Hip-Hop musicians reaching the masses in a similar fashion?
Totally. Taking the music to a bigger stage is part of what makes it last. The thing with Jazz is it takes time to re-introduce the public to something that tends to lean toward non-vocal performance. It may be harder to capture some crowds when there is no voice involved. We’re so used to having shorter hooks being put inside of a few minutes. Those minutes are being pushed on a timeline that you’re watching on your smartphone. I know we’re in this super-fast world but music should be something you can take your time and enjoy in its entirety. Enjoy the buildup of the song. Enjoy the nuances of all the people on stage interacting. When you take good music and get these musicians and you’ll get people who will walk away feeling like they had a full meal. It wasn’t just about showing up and watching. It’s about feeling something. It’s something I can try and capture on my phone but there’s nothing like taking it in. Technology is designing all of these tools for us to get close to each other but then when we come in contact with each other we’re propelled by the tools. People should try and go to shows with the intent of being in the atmosphere. There are times where you have to take calls and all that and you want to get a piece of the history but it’s hard to find concert footage on Youtube that would make it worth missing it in person.
Is there a particular record that stands out in your mind as an example of an uncompromising union that worked? (neither artist sacrifices style or substance)
I’ve seen Black Radio rock a bunch of times with Yasiin Bey (Mos Def). Their experiments can go off into another world with the performance. They may go from a De La Soul record into an Outkast record into a Herbie Hancock record and then right back into De La Soul. They just seem to know it. Yasiin isn’t any less Yasiin and the Experiment isn’t any less of themselves. I’ve seen that a few times. I’ve seen it also with Phonte. They didn’t sacrifice anything…even going back to [GrandMixer] D.ST and Herbie Hancock and “Rockit” or A Tribe Called Quest and Ron Carter. I think it’s going to continue more and lead into other things. Recently, someone told me about the influence of the Ipod. Kids have 50 Cent next to Shania Twain on their Ipods and don’t think anything of it. The future is going to be kids having all of these records in their back pockets. When I grew up it wasn’t as simple as having all this music at the click of a button. If you didn’t get it from the library, the record store or if your friend didn’t have it then you would have to somehow run into that record. The future is going to be beyond Jazz and Hip Hop. It’s gonna be a trail mix of music. There’s no other form of music like Hip Hop so I’m not too worried about it losing its edge. It’s one of the very few spoken genres of music. I see so many possibilities for collaborations in the future.
What’s the best venue you’ve ever witnessed a live show?
Le Poisson Rouge on Bleecker Street, it’s got really nice lighting, it’s real easy to see the show from wherever you stand, it’s got a good VIP section and a knowledgeable staff. The Jazz Gallery on Hudson St. We do a weekly jam session at Zinc Bar and that’s really cool because you never know who’s going to show up. So many different people stop by and let it all out. It’s a nice place to hang out and meet musicians. I tell emcees that if they wanna learn how to rap with a band, meet a band or figure out some of these samples that you’re rhyming over, go to the jam sessions because they’re on another planet. They’ve got the CD’s that you have in your collection too.
Thanks for taking some time out with Rapper’s Delite.