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Derrick Hodge: In the Moment


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I try to get out of my own way and allow my art to reflect what I’m feeling in the moment and what makes sense with the times.
—Derrick Hodge
Bassist, musician, producer, composer Derrick Hodge is a man full of soul, compassion and creativity. You may not know him by name but if you are a fan of music you have more than likely vibed out to some of his music and not even realized it. Hodge has released two albums of his own on Blue Note, LIve Today (2013) and The Second (2016), has partnered on albums with Robert Glasper, while his bass lines have set the tone for artists such as Jill Scott, Maxwell, Lupe Fiasco, Common and well—you get the point. But Hodge is much more than a bassist; he is also a writer, producer and composer fully aware of who he is. We got together before his set at The Blue Note in New York City for a brief conversation.

AAJ: Lately people seem to be becoming more familiar with you and your work as a multi-faceted musician; what's that been like for you?

Derrick Hodge: I'm one of those people who lives in the moment of creating and when I'm doing that I'm going 100%. I do that with all aspects of my life. I try to have that balance whether I'm composing or performing, or if I'm collaborating with other artists. The other side of that is that you become so focused that you kind of put the blinders on and don't realize what's going on around you. Recently, I've been having more conversations with my manager and focusing on making sure that my story is told. I'm always in the moment of just creating and making music and not really worried about getting attention and all of that stuff but as I'm sitting here, I'm realizing that so many people identify with my journey and with the music that I've created. Whether it's my own music or music that I've created with other artists or projects that I've been on so I'm like "if that's helping tell other people pursue their journeys just go with it, just let it be."

The people have kind of enlightened me lately by saying, "oh wow, I read this interview" or "I saw this article" so there seems to be some interest with people wanting to know more about me and my music. It's really just opened my eyes and so I'm riding this wave and going with it. With me it was never about the attention or like "it's about time people recognized" that's not the way that I'm conditioned to think. I just know the moment of now and the way that people have been showing love here recently is just a sign for me to just make sure that my story is told.

AAJ: So many great musicians have come out of Philadelphia. What type of influence has Philly had on you and your music?

DH: Being from Philadelphia I definitely feel like I'm a product of that hotbed of talent. When I was young my mother was in the choir at church and I always sat right up by the front pew. While I was up there I would always sit back and focus in on the bassist. The choir at the church was amazing! A lot of talented artists including Patti Labelle sang in the choir but I wanted to be just like that bassist. He just seemed so cool to me and it was just something about the sound of the bass that hit me. I just remember the spirit and feeling of that sound; it stayed with me and I knew I wanted to be just like him. That feeling and energy stuck with me for a whole year and then when I got big enough to handle a bass it was on.

That same energy traveled with me when we moved to Willingboro, New Jersey. I feel really fortunate because Willingboro was a hotbed of talent as well. My best friend Thaddaeus Tribebett, a bassist, Adam Blackstone, another amazing bassist, Wayne Moore and so many other great artists were right there in Jersey. 

I was fortunate to get on some of my earliest records when I was 14/15 years old thanks to James Poyser who at the time was super respected but still growing into the James Poyser that everyone knows now, so I look in hindsight like "wow, I was fortunate to be schooled by one of the best in the game at a very young age." I'm blessed that people like James and Jeffrey Townes (Jazzy Jeff) gave me those type of opportunities when I was coming up. I feel really fortunate because I was doing records and going to college to study jazz and classical music all while being in Philly where you're kind of forced to be influenced by a bunch of different things because everybody is living on top of each other. In Philly you can't be like "I'm just into this or that type of music" and I really feel like that's an advantage. Even to this day I try not to pigeonhole myself into just one style of music, I try to be honest to what I'm feeling in the moment.

AAJ: What has being a part of a legendary label like Blue Note been like so far?

DH: Being a part of the Blue Note family is something that was really unexpected. Aside from a few of my friends like Robert Glasper and Terence Blanchard jazz music wasn't necessarily something that I identified with in terms of the sound and ascetics of it. I didn't grow up listening to jazz. The cool thing about Blue Note is when Don Was came on he just had a certain spirit about him that I related to. Within literally two minutes of our conversation he told me that I needed to be a part of the Blue Note family and because I liked his energy so much I was like "if I want to create music and put something out under a label I want it to be connected to somebody that's that open and that rocks with who I am" and its been a beautiful relationship every since. Lately Blue Note has been getting a lot of love and acknowledgment and one of the common denominators in all of it is the spirit of acceptance. All of the artists on Blue Note are pretty much unapologetically themselves and that's dope and refreshing to see and be a part of. Once I got on the Blue Note label I started going back through their history and realized that this spirit isn't anything new for them. They've always supported artists by letting them express themselves creatively so I'm definitely happy and honored to be championing that forward.

AAJ: Do you ever just grab a bass and vibe out for yourself?

DH: Man I often grab a bass and just vibe out for myself. I feel like muscle memory has no respect of person and because I compose and write that's a lot of focus time working on other things. Fortunately we are in a position where people are paying to hear us tell our story so I try to honor that by just taking time out and shedding when I'm home, even if I'm not even hooked up. I'll make time to go over mechanics and keeping up with my reading so I can be on point when it's time. I jump between acoustic and electric a lot so it's kind of easy for all that stuff to get exposed if I stay away from it for too long. It's tough but I try to balance it.

AAJ: When it's time to pick up a bass and play how do you determine which one you want to vibe with?

DH: Man, often times I don't even think about which bass I'm going to play. I know a lot of people see me playing a certain type of bass and assume that that's the only one I play but I'm so open minded and have always enjoyed different sounds and just reacting in the moment. Sometimes just for the fun of it I'll go grab a bass that I haven't played in forever and play it. There's been times when I've been recording a record and just grabbed a studio bass that's sitting in the corner with dirty strings and all and if I like the sound of it that will set the vibe. I just love being in the moment and getting out of my own way. I'm never like "oh, they're going to love this!" I don't want that, I'd rather they just feel that I was living in the moment and going with the vibe and whatever album comes out I feel like I could never redo it or recreate it because it was specifically created in that moment. Every decision, from the mic placement to trusting the first take of everything, that's all in trusting the process so I'm really like water in that way.

I try to get out of my own way and allow my art to reflect what I'm feeling in the moment and what makes sense with the times. That helps me eliminate the critique of surface things. You look at artists like Ryan Porter, Kamasi Washington and a lot of other musicians and there's a mutual respect with the honesty and passion of us just relating and wanting to document what's truly "us" and what we feel.

AAJ: You mentioned composing, how did you get into that?

DH: Composing has been a dream come true. Even though there was so much talent around me in Philly and Jersey my mother had the biggest influence on me. She always told me to just go after the things that I wanted in life. Going through school I was in the orchestra and enjoyed that sound. I couldn't read music that well but I loved it and was also fascinated by the music in movies. When I got to college I decided to make my weaknesses a strength so I went hardcore in trying to get that together. I studied hard so that I could start writing and there was really no particular class that did it for me; it was more so things like just chilling in the library or grabbing a steak and just writing, hoping it would be good. A lot of the stuff that I wrote I had never heard. Even to this day there's some that I still haven't heard. I was just writing to put in the work and develop those skills.

Fortunately after word of mouth got out about my writing I got connected to a few people like Terence Blanchard that said "hey man, I believe in you" and they gave me a shot. Composing and writing for films just kind of opened up from there. I always put in work and pursue things with a leap of faith from my end before the attention comes and it all just kind of works out for me in an interesting way.

AAJ: What was it like working with Nas and the National Orchestra at the Kennedy Center?

DH: Working with Nas was so special to me because when I was in college I was listening to Illmatic (Columbia, 1994) and StillMatic (Columbia, 2001), which actually doesn't get as much praise as it should, pretty much daily. I remember the feeling that I got listening to those albums. Nas was/is such a dope poet to me and I just looked forward to the day to vibe with him. And with this shout out to Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) when the doors to Carnegie Hall opened up to him he decided to add some strings at the last minute and so I got some string players together and my friend Rob (Robert Glasper) was like "yo, Derrick writes" and so just on that whim I wrote for the string section right there in the moment at Carnegie Hall. Fast forward from there to when the Kennedy Center opportunity came along -they referenced and remembered what I did with Yasiin at Carnegie Hall and so the pathway to that opportunity is all due to my peer group. When that opportunity came along I was like "out of respect for Nas and Yasiin let me take this serious." The cool thing was they were like "man do whatever you wanna do." Nas didn't even know how I had arranged things until a few weeks before. I sent it to him and we just went out there and rocked and that's what I love!

A lot of opportunities have come my way since then but I just remember the beginning of it. Nas hadn't done anything like this before either and for him to have the trust in me and be like "I want someone that looks like us to help me tell our stories in our own narrative" I hold that in high regards and that's why I try to make sure even to this day that anything that I'm doing is accessible to other people that want to do the things that I'm doing so they can have the same opportunities.

AAJ: Can you tell us a little about your brotherhood with Robert Glasper, Chris "Daddy" Dave and some of the other guys that you rock with and how you guys come together on projects?

DH: We create music together and apart but because we all know that underlying thing is trust. We all know that we all have each other's best interest at heart. The feeling always comes across the same and that's the cool thing. It kind of feeds off of who we are so anytime we get together and document things together it comes out super dope and the music comes out by us just being in the moment. When you listen to albums like Black Radio (BLue Note, 2012) or even the mixtape that just came out [F**k Yo Feelings (LOma Vista Recordings, 2019)] that's us just reacting to each other in the moment. People are hearing our first and only time playing it. People are actually hearing us react to each other in the moment and the cool thing is that people can hear that natural camaraderie in the music and that adaptation to each other's story without it feeling forced and I feel like that's what people need now. Something honest and unapologetic; not something that's pristine and polished with multiple take versions of who you think they want you to be and when you're doing something together with like minded people that are just as bold as you are that makes it easy. This is the way that we've always been. We've never been any other way other than documenting things in the moment. I can't even remember any time when we weren't just vibing and cracking jokes or arguing about James Harden versus Steph Curry or whatever and then just going in and vibing out followed by going out to eat some Thai food or something. That's been us from the beginning and I'd be shocked if that ever changed because that's just the trust and respect that we have in each other as artists and brothers so we just try to get out of each other's way.

AAJ: What's the last album you listened to all the way through?

DH: That's an easy one, Lupe Fiasco's Drogas Wave (Thirty Tigers, 2018). I played acoustic bass on a song on that album called "Manilla" and the album just rolled up on it's one year anniversary and I know how much that album meant to Lupe so I wanted to go back and revisit it and experience that album all over again so I've been listening to Drogas Wave pretty much nonstop lately.

AAJ: When you listen to music are you able to sit back and enjoy it for what it is or does the musician in you kick in? 

DH: I'm a weirdo! (laughs) When I listen to music I listen to it and enjoy it for what it is whether I'm a part of it or not. I do have to be conscious of which lens I want to experience it in because the producer in me will be like "okay, maybe if I could go back I would have done this or that" and if it was produced by someone else I might be like "if they would have mixed it this way or done certain things differently" so I have to force myself to stop thinking like that but at the same time there's a certain naiveness that I feel fortunate to still have that to this day -I don't really listen to music with a critical ear and I hope that never changes. I want to listen to and experience music for what it is because at the end of the day people put hours of their lives into their craft and eventually get into rooms with other people that have been doing the same thing and I don't want to judge them. Everybody has a story to tell and we all tell them differently.

AAJ: If you had to choose one song to introduce people to your work which song would it be?

DH: Ahh man! Can I pick three? (laughs) It's weird because I feel like kind of what defines me is the abstract of it and the contrasts that take place in the moments. I would have people listen to "Doxology" which is me playing acoustic bass high registered and features my bro Travis Sayles on organ. It kind of represents me paying homage to a certain spirit and sound that I was familiar with growing up that I wanted to make sure that I documented so definitely "Doxology."

In terms of what people speak on of my personality I think "Message of Hope" off of my Live Today album is a song that represents me in that form so I'd tell people to check that out. And then there's that abstract -other side of my personality that shows that I'm willing to jump into other things. In that respect I'd say checkout "Underground Rhapsody." If people check these songs out they will pretty much get a hybrid of what goes on in my mind.

AAJ: What's next for you? Do you have any projects in the works?

DH: I can't speak too much on it right now but I'm excited! I've been working on some new ideas for the Blue Note label and it's really cool because it's kind of a hybrid of my different experiences. So it's fun putting all of these different elements together. Kind of how we just talked about documenting and feeding off of each other; this next project is in that spirit and I'm writing for it now and I'm excited. I should be getting in the studio in a couple of months and tracking that out and I'm super hyped so look out for that on the Blue Note label! Photo credit: Aaron Paschal




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