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Hip-Hop/R&B

Supreme teams

Karriem Riggins' mad skills have led to collaborations with everyone from J. Dilla to Herbie Hancock

MT Photo: Doug Coombe
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Published 3/18/2009

Despite the opinions of naysayers, hip-hop producers often have very expansive musical tastes. Even though many of the lyrics are often spoken or rapped instead of sung, most good producers have always sampled, manipulated and used splices of songs from other genres, including old-school R&B, jazz and rock.

Karriem Riggins, on the other hand, doesn't just sample from various genres. He actually creates his own jazz and R&B music, arguably contributing as much there as he contributes to the hip-hop genre. His varied clientele and associations have included the likes of late rap producer J. Dilla, soul songstress Erykah Badu, and even jazz legend Herbie Hancock. In other words, his musical template exceeds lines of genres.

"The music I do, I want it to be here forever," Riggins says.

His initial interest in music developed as a youngster from watching his father, pianist-organist Emmanuel Riggins, play tunes at home in Detroit. Following those initial roots, the younger Riggins enrolled in middle-school band class, where he learned to read music and started playing drums. Once in high school, Riggins joined Legacy, a group of fellow young musicians who frequently played at different clubs around the city. A year later, in 1992, he hit a jam session during the city's storied Montreux Jazz Festival that featured Roy Hargrove and Gregory Hutchinson. Riggins met Hutchinson, and the pair hit it off.

"Greg gave me some love, gave me his number, and said if I ever wanted to come to New York and if I needed some gigs ... or if I ever needed anything from him to just call him," Riggins remembers. "So I called him."

Hutchinson introduced Riggins to jazz singer Betty Carter, who soon invited Riggins to New York City to perform with her. After accepting the invite, he moved to the Big Apple to pursue music full-time — when he would've been starting his senior year of high school.

"It's what I needed to do," Riggins insists. "I didn't think twice. I didn't originally plan on moving there when I went to do the show [with Carter], but I couldn't leave. It was just one of those things. I'm getting on the plane to come back to Detroit. But I was leaving a city where there were shows every night at different clubs, with all the living musical cats that you've ever wanted to hear. I always felt that being around [Detroit] at that time, the level of music wasn't where I needed it to be. So, going to New York, it was just where I felt like I could relate to everybody."

But after living and performing in the city for a number of years, Higgins moved back to Detroit in the late '90s. When rapper Common — whom Riggins had previously met through Roy Hargrove and collaborated with on his album, One Day It'll All Make Sense — swung through town to get beats from Detroit producer James "J. Dilla" Yancey, he called Riggins. Riggins met Dilla then, exchanged numbers, and kicked off a working relationship whose fruits can be heard on such seminal Detroit rap albums as Slum Village's Fantastic Vol. 2 and Dilla's Welcome 2 Detroit. But what was possibly Riggins' most important work with Dilla came after they'd both moved to Los Angeles and recorded Dilla's swan song, The Shining.

"That album was his baby," Riggins says. "He was really trying to get that record done."

The Shining was years in the making, but Dilla, sadly, ended up bedridden in a hospital with an incurable blood disease and lupus. Most of the disc was finished, but his medical condition — and subsequent death — prevented him from completing it on his own. So he called on old friend Riggins for help.

"The last call I ever got from him, he said, ''Riem, we've got to finish this album. If you need to put your ear to the album, whatever you want to put on the album, just get it done,'" Riggins remembers. "So I felt like it was my job to finish it."

Riggins called upon emcees and singers whom Dilla admired to guest on the album. And he called on engineer Bob Power — who had mixed some of Dilla's work with A Tribe Called Quest — to mix and master whatever songs the Detroit rap superstar couldn't finish on his own.

"[Dilla] was there the whole time, even with him not being there, physically," Riggins says. "I felt his spirit there. So the choices that I made, they just felt natural. We never forced anything. If it wasn't natural, we just moved on to the next."

The California connection didn't stop with Dilla, though. Riggins is also steadily recording with Dilla's former collaborator and labelmate, Madlib, performing as the Supreme Team.

Riggins has yet to work with Madlib in the same room despite the fact they each live in Los Angeles.

"I'll just go to a party and give him a CD of what I've done so far," Riggins says. "Then he'll add on and give the CD back to me. I'll hit him with abundance of drums, and he'll hit me with a CD the next day with music on top of it. And then, it's an album! I work better in my own zone," he continues, "and Madlib works better in his own zone. But we'll probably do something in the studio together sooner or later to take it all to another level."

Riggins insists that within a year of working together, he and Madlib have completed 20 albums' worth of jazz music. They've also recorded two albums as Supreme Team, which sees them producing and rapping (which is similar to Champion Sound, the 2003 album Dilla and Madlib did as Jaylib).

"It's just a fusion of everything," Riggins says.

Riggins digs that he can play drums, bass and piano — in addition to producing and rhyming — on a project. More, this year will find him utilizing those skills in other ventures. In addition to the release of a Supreme Team project, he plans to release his debut jazz album as well as an instrumental beat LP. He's also doing some producing on Erykah Badu's upcoming record and remixing songs from Common's Universal Mind Control. Whew! Riggins also DJs select gigs.

Although firmly entrenched in hip-hop, Riggins says Herbie Hancock's a big inspiration. In fact, he was thrilled to recently play with the jazz legend at the Apollo Theater as part of the new Elvis Costello talk show on the Sundance Channel.

"I have all his records, and I study Herbie," Riggins says. "And being able to play some of those songs I listened to when I was young ... well, I was in awe! That's one bad dude! From the early '60s to now, he went through virtually every style. He can do rock. He can do hip-hop. He did fusion. He did straight-edge jazz. He did pop. He did everything.

"And that's what I want to do."

If 2009 goes the way he's planning it to, Riggins will be doing exactly that.

William E. Ketchum III is a music critic for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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