Makaya McCraven on the origins and impacts of his jazz revolution
The records of Makaya McCraven find inspiration in transcontinental collaboration. On both Universal Beings and Where We Come From, two of 2018’s most profound musical declarations, McCraven recruited a murderers’ row of his generation’s jazz leaders—Nubya Garcia, Shabaka Hutchings, Tomeka Reid, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, and Jeff Parker, just to sample—and asked them to improvise with him, to explore the limits of their shared language. He then edited and chopped those zealous sessions into seamless sequences, the results feeling out the boundaries of jazz and hip-hop and, in their best moments, ignoring that those terms carry the weight of expectation at all.
Just after the New Year, we caught up with McCraven, a force of Chicago, in Hawaii, where he was spending time with his family. We talked about how he came into music, how he came to a broader understanding of the possibilities of a drummer, and how he hopes his work can help imagine a better future. McCraven plays at Big Ears 2019.
Your sound and approach have certainly stretched far beyond basic drums in recent years, but how did you start playing music?
Both of my parents are musicians, and my father is a drummer. He always sat me down on his lap to teach me drums, really before I was old enough to even hold the sticks. I think of myself as a musician—I just happen to be the most developed technically as a drummer, because that opportunity I had to learn from a young age.
At the same time, my mother is a singer and plays recorder and mandolin, piano and guitar. She came up doing Eastern European folk music in Hungary, traditional music. I had access to odd-metered stuff from a young age, different flutes and different string instruments, too. We would try piano, and I was encouraged to play. I was given a bass by a friend of my father’s, when I was maybe 10. Instruments in our house were on-limits, because we had a collection. That’s how I do it with my kids—instruments are on-limits. I got in the habit of loving having instruments around and collecting instruments. I studied those instruments less formally than I did the drums.
Though there have long been drummers who did a lot more than keep a beat and drummers who have seen their kit as a compositional tool, there seems to have been a real explosion of that in recent years, thanks in part to electronics. At what point did you realize that being a drummer wasn’t some arbitrary limitation?
Always. In terms of drummers being leaders, drummers having a voice, I’ve always felt that. My father is a non-conventional drummer and musician. He’s been self-producing records of his own my whole life. I saw him writing music, coming up with a bass line on his own using whatever skills he had on an instrument. He was always very confident and encouraged me to be my own musician and have my own sound. There’s a long history of drummer bandleaders, even if that’s not the narrative, from Buddy Rich and Elvin Jones and Tony Williams to all the drum battles that used to happen on variety shows. Drummers were celebrities in a sense. It wasn’t only the guitar player, saxophonist, or the trumpet player.
How did that evolve into an avenue of active exploration for you?
When I started to play hip-hop a lot in high school, I’d say, “How do we cover this hip-hop song? How do we make this beat come together like the record?” It would be very difficult on a drumset. There is something different when you implement a drum machine. Then we get into a place where you have drummers trying to emulate the drum machines. I saw the Roots play when I was in high school in Northampton, Mass., at Smith College in a small theater. I remember hearing Questlove, and saying, “Oh, wow, this guy’s consistency, it reminds me of a drum machine.” It made me feel like I could compete with a drum machine. I was always inspired that J Dilla would play some of his own drums, recording drums and sampling them. Same with Mad Lib. Now you’ve got Chris Dave, doing a really interesting job in bringing that J Dilla sound to the drum set.
As a drummer, there was a point in college where I felt a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. People look at the drummer as someone who’s going to be less skilled or knowledgeable on the bandstand. That really encouraged me to start to dig deeper into music theory, to take playing other instruments more seriously, and to think of myself as a composer. I got interested in making beats and implementing DJ techniques: “Oh, if I have a sampler, I could actually play with these samples and play the drums at the same time.”
When and why did drummers get relegated to the background?
There’s a genre side here, a difference between what we’re talking about as instrumental music and vocal music that’s more in the popular space. If you are the drummer for a popular rock ’n’ roll band that is just focused on the frontman, the drummer is going to be in the back in a strong, supportive role. In that sense, the drummer can very much be the workhorse. Not only do you have to play in the pocket, but at least once during the night, you’re expected to play some sort of exciting solo, because people love the drums. The supportive role of the drummers is really important to note; in some cases, that can be thankless. Also, you’re not necessarily directly engaged with harmony or melody. The drummer can allude to melody or outline melody, use rhythm and pitch on the kick, but it’s hard to play a distinctive 12-tone row, say, or something that’s very densely melodic.
So in different genres, different drummers are going to have more or less of an upfront presence. Where it gets complicated, or more interesting, is with artists such as Anderson .Paak, who is not only the drummer but also the lead singer and the lead man of his group that is quite popular. That’s phenomenal, and that’s not unprecedented, either. We do get into narratives that things are one way or the other, but there are a lot of great drummer leaders right now. It is exciting.
When you think about all the instruments you own, what would surprise people the most?
I’ve got so much stuff. My instrument collection is very dear to me, but a lot of it really revolves around relationships. If I took you around my studio, I’d be like, “I got my Rhodes from so-and-so when he moved out of town and gave it to me for a good deal,” or “This organ belongs to my friend in New York who didn’t have room for it in his apartment,” or “I found this drum in an alley,” or, “When I did a trip to India, I picked up these bells and a pair of tabla.” I could go on and on. I’ve got a whole bunch of percussion from different regions of the world—parts of South America, different regions of Africa. I’ve got some North African bagpipes made out of the skin of different animals.
I love vintage keyboards. Some of my closest musical friends have always been keyboardists—real vintage, electro-acoustic instrument connoisseurs. I got into Rhodes. I’ve got a Whirly, a Hammond A-100, a Juno synthesizer, a Moog. I’ve got a variety of drums, mostly that have been hand-me-downs from my dad and my brother. I’ve got some basses, some stuff people gave me on permanent loan, and a bunch of different stuff that’s half-broken. I’ve never really done too much purchasing of new instruments. To me, someone’s like, “Oh, man, I’ve got this flute, you know anybody?” And I’m like, “Well, I’ll buy it!” Then I’ll have a flute, and maybe I’ll sample myself playing it.
Where did that mindset of exploration through other instruments come from?
I didn’t go to college for music education, though my mother did. If you go to a music ed program, they require you to learn a little of all the band instruments. When you are teaching a student ensemble, you can help the different students. In a writing sense, when you’re composing, you understand the range of the instruments. I find if I can only play an instrument very remedially and am searching for any sort of riff, that’s a really nice way of composing, using the limitations of being an amateur on an instrument. It’s like, “Let me use that as inspiration, record it, chop it up, make a beat around it, get somebody who can really play it, elaborate on that idea.”
It’s part of my study to be a broadly, thoroughly trained-and-thoughtful musician—not just in a classical sense, but in my own personal research and practice, whether I’m trying to learn an instrument by ear, if I pick up a method book, if I try to sample something, if I’m chopping up a record, or if I want to improvise with the greatest musicians. I try to think of it as a whole; this is my journey of trying to be a great musician and achieve mastery, which is fleeting, and painfully not an arrive-able place. That’s one of the things that really drives me to the arts in general, something where we can constantly be looking for growth or reaching for something you can’t arrive at.
When you talk about music, and even on records like Universal Beings or In the Moment, you seem to treat music as a source of relationships, not as something at which one needs to be merely technical proficient. Is that how you think of it?
Absolutely. I feel like I have had the opportunity to see the power of music in action. I’ve eaten and slept off of music my whole life. I’ve seen, through my childhood, how music can change people’s lives, even if it’s my father having a student who didn’t have anywhere to go and us opening our doors to him and him becoming my brother and him being part of my family and having opportunities to have his own life in music when he could have had a much more difficult path.
You see everybody wearing these “Dilla saved my life” shirts—that’s real. That’s real on a personal level, whether you give a kid music lessons or you give them an opportunity to be inspired. There are people who are fans of music who use that music as a way for them to deal with their own issues. On a greater level, musicians collaborate across borders. I can play with musicians without speaking the same language.
On a larger scale, music can be the voice of a movement or a revolution or define peoples’ ideas of self and community. In the most important times of our life, music is there to enhance that experience, whether you’re getting married or somebody has passed away. To me, the thing that is most important in music is not being innovative, being cutting-edge, taking part in the right tradition or preserving it. It’s about people. We can communicate in terms that are hard to describe with literal language. I’ve been there. I’ve been in the audience where my arms have goosebumps, and there are people crying. I’ve had the same experience being onstage. It gives me hope that whatever I’m doing has some meaning on a greater societal level, and it’s not just art for art’s sake. It’s also something we can just do, and we don’t have to overthink it.
You want the music to matter.
I’ve always wanted to be able to do something impactful with whatever I’m doing in life, whether I was teaching or being an activist, or if I wanted to become a doctor or whatever. To follow a life in the arts, it’s like, “What is it that I’m doing here on a broader scale, in a bigger picture, and how can I use all the time and effort and the talents and the opportunities and the privileges I have had to do something as great as I can with whatever I’m involved in?” It is just fun and entertainment, and it is about forgetting the ills of the world. But it’s not either-or; it’s and-and. I want to connect with people, I want to connect with audiences, I want to connect with artists. I want to project something that shows a world that can come together.
Some of that is directly through my music, and some of it is through who I am and where I’ve been—the fact that I come from an interracial family, an international family. I don’t think that’s particularly unique, but in my case, if I can do that and connect with other people, hopefully that pushes some sort of energy in the world that projects a better future.
Universal Beings moves across scenes and international borders so fluidly, and that’s such a point of contention across the globe now. It feels, in some ways, implicitly political. Did you intend that?
I absolutely think it’s political. We just played in Beijing, and they want to know what you’re going to say on stage. They want to know your song lyrics. It’s political, because the music and art is powerful. That, to me, is undeniable.
We’ve had a lot of experiences overseas where we’ve had crazy situations trying to get from Point A to Point B and narrowly missing terrorist attacks, all sorts of things. It’s not that simple to just travel somewhere and make music. It may seem that simple, but it is inherently political. You have to put yourself in harm’s way and put your body through a lot of situations just to go and play a 75-minute concert. The impact can be really great if you allow it to be, if you’re open to it.
Photos by Kristie Kahns