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Makaya McCraven: In The Moment to In These Times

Makaya McCraven: In The Moment to In These Times

Courtesy Cora Wagoner (Big Ears)

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The idea that you're the drummer–you don't know anything about music, you don't have a certain contribution to the band discussion–I've always wanted to be more than that.
—Makaya McCraven
Makaya McCraven needs a coffee—fast. It's 4pm and he's crashing. It will be his third of the day. His first caffeine hit, consumed on stage six hours earlier, was a chemical necessity; McCraven was drinking at a nearby Irish pub until the early hours and nearly missed his early morning panel talk appearance alongside fellow percussion luminaries Antonio Sanchez and Nate Smith. Something tells me it won't be his last cup before bedtime—at 10:30 tonight the multi-hyphenate musician will present a redolent 10-piece band through a live performance of his latest release In These Times (2020, Nonesuch/International Anthem/XL Recordings), a towering achievement hailed among 2022's greatest albums by NPR, Pitchfork and numerous other outlets.

Fresh from the gym, the 39-year-old drummer, producer, songwriter and bandleader is all smiles and nervous energy, wiping beads of sweat from his forehead while we wait for our supersized medium roasts. He's clad unfortunately in a thick black leather biker jacket—paired with his uniform of black tee and a huge gold medallion—which he quickly rips off to reveal bulging biceps that even 34 years behind a drum kit can't account for.

Before our coffee is even ready for pick-up, we've casually covered his college career (he dropped out of University of Massachusetts Amherst, "as Wikipedia notes"), his marriage (to academic Nitasha Tamar Sharma a professor at Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences who "has the degrees for both of us"), the birth of his 12-year-old daughter—and Knoxville's hottest party spots. Because we're in the twee Tennessee town for Big Ears festival, which McCraven returns to for a second consecutive year (last year, all four of McCraven's nights ended in said Irish bar).

It's a warm whirlwind of an introduction to a figure one might have expected more steely resolve from. In music circles, McCraven is among the hippest names to drop—a self-described "beat scientist" who straddles between the worlds of live drummer and studio beat-maker. A totemic talent that was called on to "reimagine" the final works of proto-rap godfather Gil Scott-Heron, and offered the keys to the entire Blue Note Records vault, after heralding a brave new method of hip-hop schooled instrumental music.

"I really didn't want to center myself around being a drummer—this is something as an artist my whole career I've thought about, it's kind of a chip on my shoulder," says McCraven, now seated contently with half a litre of steaming coffee between fingers more used to narrow sticks. "The idea that you're the drummer—you don't know anything about music, you don't have a certain contribution to the band discussion. You may be one of the most important members in the band for a functionality, but then you're the guy in the back—I've always wanted to be more than that, I've wanted to be a great musician, a composer."

McCraven's first influence was his dad, Stephen McCraven, a little-known jazz drummer who played with legends like Sam Rivers, Yusef Lateef, and Archie Shepp. "I have all of his records as a drummer bandleader with his pictures on the front, so for me from the moment I was really starting a professional career, I was like, I want to be able to do that." And he did—from an unusually early age.  Born in Paris and raised in Northampton, Massachusetts, he backed his mother, a Hungarian folk singer, in middle school, and by high school was touring regionally with jazz-infused hip-hop band Cold Duck Complex—an experience of "grassroots indie grind" that he credits with instilling his early DIY aesthetic, as well as shaping his genre-blurring approach.

However McCraven's name was made in 2015 with the release of In The Moment (International Anthem, 2015), a record which redefined his career, and helped put the Chicago scene on the map. It was the second release on the then-brand new International Anthem imprint, arguably the hippest label in jazz right now. It wasn't his first release, but it was the first that was noticed. McCraven was 31 at the time, and In the Moment carries the weight of being his big-career-making statement. The result of all his personal growth in performance, composition and production to date, it announced the singular, backwards production concept that would define his artistry. Using live recordings of his own band as a blueprint, McCraven sliced up and recast these improvised tracks, adding fresh beats and instrumentation, to create fresh productions—effectively turning the methodology of the remix on its head, employing the philosophy of hip-hop sampling, only backwards. 

The record was a sleeper hit, chiming with a young, beat-friendly audience new to improvised music. It may be no coincidence  it was released in the same year as Kamasi Washington's scene-making The Epic, (Brainfeeder, 2015) widely heralded for bringing a new generation of listeners to jazz. As we talk in the buzzing, busy, restaurant, it dawns on me the initial raw recordings that In The Moment was based on were now turning 10—laid down around from gigs staged between between March 2013 and January 2014. Back then, as he embarked on a weekly underground improvised night, he had no idea what lay ahead. "We were playing in front of 20 people or something, some of them were there to listen—some were not," he remembers fondly.

So that's where we dig into the conversation, and from there, we worked through discography to date in chronological order (I mentioned mixtape Highly Rare more than once—but he didn't bite). Here, then, are excerpts from our hour-long conversation, one windy day in Tennessee. 

In the Moment (2015)

Over the space of a year, McCraven presented a revolving cast of musicians at a small Chicago bar in a performance series entitled "Spontaneous Composition." Some 28 of those shows were recorded, resulting in some 48 hours of music—which, over a period of years McCraven mixed, edited, cut, spliced, overdubbed, sped up, slowed down and reconfigured into 19 tracks, spread over two sides of vinyl. Later, nine more tracks emerged on the standalone E&F Sides, also incorporated into the definitive Deluxe Edition.

"We had a year in the club, a year of Wednesdays, two 45-minute to hour-long sets. It was loose, and it was a very Chicago kind of thing. There are a lot of venues [there] that aren't really venues, a lot of creating space for community and the music to exist. So I met Scottie McNiece, the future founder of International Anthem, and Scottie was working at a restaurant, bussing tables or something. It was a nice restaurant and he started doing playlists for them—he was into music and used to play drums in a punk band. Then he started at other restaurants in the group, and eventually started a business doing playlists and hi-fi audio.

"This was his idea, he started putting on concert series at restaurants he had connections with. He was like, 'Man, I love what you're doing—I'm gonna start another series at another spot. I want to start a record label. Would you want to record every week and see what happens?' That was the impetus to this. I was a very busy working drummer. At the same time I've been producing records since I was in high school, and got into beat-making. I love hip-hop and I always wanted to make music that crossed [over]. Every night, even when I was working seven nights a week, I'd come home late at night and start trying to make beats, irrespective of the gigs I have, just as my own personal study and wanting to grow and learn.  So when I came from my jazz gigs, or playing with an African band, reggae band, rock band, whoever I was working with, I'd be back in my studio making beats, trying to sample stuff. I used to go to all these beat performance shows and I would meet beatmakers, talk to them—'How do you do this, what programme? Come by my crib, I'm a drummer'—so I made all these relationships with beatmakers and DJs. I was dying to learn.

"So when I had that series I'd go home and listen to all these improvised recordings—the first thing I'd do is throw them into [recording software] Ableton, throw a little compression on it or some reverb to make it sound cool. I'd listen to it and start to mess with the editing, beat looping things, and when I started—[clicks fingers loudly]—'Oh! That sounds really cool.' Then I played it for some of the musicians and they were like, 'Duuuuuude, I think you're onto something.' That whole year, every week I got sent the recordings, which were rough mixes—always like, 'Hey, if you like anything, I'll mix it for you,'—but I just took all the rough mixes and started cutting them up. 

"When you start out trying to sample shit, you're young and you don't know how the industry works, legal stuff and licences and shit. So this [process] was like a lightbulb—I can sample me and my collaborators, and that makes that conversation easy. There was a lot of stuff I really wanted to do with that record consciously. I wanted people to know it was edited and I was making beats out of it—that's part of the narrative. 

"They were all rough mixes of us playing in a little lounge to a few people. Half the time there's maybe a small audience that would come to see us that we would try and goad to come out, but there were also people on dates and eating or whatever, and we're playing this weirdo music. It was only when I made a record out of it when it became what it was. 

"The idea was we're trying to do this creative record and we're doing everything we can to fill this little room with our people, and there's world class music happening in Chicago with all these musicians, and we're pulling teeth to get people to come out and make it happen... people [now] are like, 'I wish I was there, I love that record'—so next time you see a local band playing someplace, sit down, pay attention, give them some money, treat them just like somebody after the fact. 'If I knew what you were doing, I woulda been there every week'—no, you wouldn't. That's part of the narrative of that record, to cross that boundary and expose this thing, and I definitely think the playing field feels different now than it did in 2015."

 

Where We Come From: Chicago X London Mixtape (2018)

A fruitful few days visiting London in autumn 2017 resulted in two recordings. A one-off gig with local musicians at the storied Total Refreshment Centre was remixed by McCraven as the mix-tape Where We Come From: Chicago X London Mixtape (International Anthem/Total Refreshment Centre, 2018)—a one-off spontaneous encounter while in town to record the "London side" of Universal Beings (2018, International Anthem) (see below). 

"The whole thing with London—I started to travel internationally under my own name after In the Moment [in autumn 2017], it was my first European tour as a bandleader. The first time I played in London, Ronnie Scott's sold out weeks in advance, and I was like, what's going on?   We had a great show there, I don't think I'd ever sold anything out like that before. The excitement when I got there was like, 'Wow, people really want to fuck with me'—it was cool. That was an immediate thing, then I started to get privy to the scene and realised there was a market.

"One of the great things about London as a music scene is the audience and the support of the people there to go and check out musicians—at the time more [than in Chicago]—and you see all those young musicians thriving in London, really being supported by their community. I was like, wow, there is an audience. When I was in college, in the early 2000s, there was this idea, you wanna go play jazz? There ain't nobody to play for. Audiences are ageing out, audiences are quote-unquote, dying. Nobody likes it—it's old white people music. All this stuff, that really hurt a lot of black jazz musicians. There was this idea—what am I gonna do? Where are the gigs gonna come from? How am I gonna make music that I wanna make, that interfaces with the young kinda stuff that I like? And so going over to London and seeing there's a whole scene of people really interested in this, touring around and meeting people like Shabaka Hutchings and Sons of Kemet"

Universal Beings (2018)

In a deliberate attempt to both recreate and expand the scope of In The Moment, the Universal Beings double LP was split into four sides, each drawn from sessions recorded in, and using musicians drawn from the scene of, four key cities: New York, LA, Chicago and London. 

"So again there's this narrative that was happening after In The Moment where we're getting a lot of media hype, 'The new jazz hype—Chicago is the thing," there was this light being shone on Chicago. And then there was [Los Angeles'] West Coast Get Down, Kamasi was having his moment—Kamasi just kind of blew up, his record came out close to In The Moment, and I got a lot of talk about it, making comparisons.

"So when everyone in the media was saying, "West Coast is the new face," "Chicago is the new center," it was like no, London is the epicentre of the young jazz mind. I really wanted to highlight with the record Universal Beings that all these places are having a moment and maybe it's not about the Chicago water or the London thing, but this music is alive and vibrant, and when everybody's saying jazz is dead and young people aren't into it, Universal Beings is kinda saying categorically that is incorrect and this is why. I'm going to show you that even though we come from different cities there's this whole thing that's international—globally there is a movement for this music, it's not dying, and young people are doing it. That was the point.   "A lot of things came together in London—let's go over, do a show, let's record it, let's connect with these musicians we're building a relationship with, and do the same thing I do with people I know in New York. That moment [visit] turned into two different records. 

Where We Come From was a live show—two nights at Total Refreshment Centre. Those recordings I cut up to make the album and a series of videos for Apple Music. Then we did a session upstairs the next day. A lot of things were going on—I also recorded for Ashley Henry's record that day. So we did two or three days of sessions [the recordings are all credited to a single day, October 19, 2017)—Ashley [on Rhodes piano] came in and recorded along with [bassist] Daniel Casimir and Nubya Garcia. Ashley and Ben LaMar Gay also did stuff for their record—we had just a day to do all this stuff—International Anthem invaded Total Refreshment.

"It's funny, I knew Shabaka and some guys but I didn't have a ton of relationships—I met all those people [on the records] on that day, everybody was very warm and welcoming. Actually Nubiya wasn't supposed to be on the session for Universal Beings, but she played the show downstairs the night before, and I really liked Nubiya's playing so I asked her up. Other than that, I knew I wanted to work with Soweto Kinch—I had found him on Twitter. He's a really talented guy who sometimes he gets written out of London thing right now because he's not of same generation."

We're New Again (2020)

To mark the 10th anniversary of Gil Scott-Heron's final album I'm New Here (XL Recordings, 2010), McCraven was invited to remix the album. Instead, he ended up recording fresh music to frame Heron's final verses, a meta "reimagining" of a storied swansong, released as We're New Again: A Reimagining by Makaya McCraven (XL Recordings, 2020). 

"For whatever reason, things have really been connected with me in the UK, and particularity in London, so I think my records have been well received there. Somewhere along the line Richard Russell—founder of XL records, producer, DJ, all the stuff he's done throughout the years—he had produced the original I'm New Here. He also tapped Jamie XX to do the remix project [We're New Here, XL, 2011], and 10 years later he found me through I don't know what channels, and said, 'We think you'd be perfect to do this.' The first thing I thought was, 'Wow, really?.' I did not know the original record, so I was like, 'OK,  let me think about it,' knowing in my head i'm probably not going to turn this down, because it's a great opportunity—but it kind of feels like like I'm touching something sacred—that means, should I do this? 

"I didn't know the original until I got the project, but I think the one thing I wanted to do was contrast it. One of the criticisms of the first record, and one of the reasons the record was acclaimed at that time, it really put Gil's voice... with a stripped down electronic industrial type of sound that was a major contrast to anything he's done, and I think to a lot of people familiar with his work, it was maybe jarring and didn't feel like the same thing. Because of that I wanted to take an organic approach to bring it back to that.

"Over time I've realised I don't love the remixing process as much as I like reworking unfinished music—that's how I work with my own stuff, I'm not really remixing the music so much—it's more like taking ideas and completing them. So to do just a remix was, 'Oh, OK, what does that even mean?.' I had to even think about that. Ultimately it ended up being more of a 'reimagining'—I never said anything, I just did my thing, and after I brought it back to the label they were like,' This is more than a remix record, let's think about how we want to talk about it.'

"That was in a way the hardest record for me to finish, that I've done. It was really difficult because it wasn't completely mine, it's Gil's work, and there's a lot of powerful moments. It's gut wrenching in so many ways. The voice is so strong and the words are so strong, so true, it just took a while in the decision making—it's not taking me forever to make the track, but to live with it.

"My wife has this saying for her graduate students: what's the hardest part about writing your dissertation? Finishing it. Passing it in. I found that really difficult at that moment with the Gil record, and contrary to most anything I've done, this had an important deadline. This had to be finished when it's supposed to, and that felt like a lot of pressure. I took it up a day or two past my deadline."

Deciphering the Message (2021)

A year later, McCraven audaciously performed the same trick on the holy grail of jazz—granted permission to remix, re-record and reimagine any material he liked from the Blue Note vaults, released amid the storied label's vinyl-revival boom as Deciphering the Message (Blue Note, 2021).

"That was my idea. I had an opportunity to start a connection with [label president] Don Was—his old manager of 20 years is my current manager, he introduced us. I always had this idea—the whole thing with Blue Note, I always wanted to sample records and make records like this, and you don't get the [legal] rights easily. I had this idea—one of these days I'd love to be able to get into some classic records and do that. I wasn't really inspired to do that for Blue Note per se, I just wanted to do that and have the opportunity, so when I got a chance to sit down with Don to pitch my idea casually, he was like, 'That sounds cool, let's do it.' 

"It was a nice conversation, but I definitely felt a lot of pressure in some ways. But it was my idea and it did not feel nearly as personal [precious] a thing to do as working with Gil's final words—getting consent from his family and all. This [Blue Note music] was instrumental music, which carries a different kind of weight to someone's words. Were there detractors? I kinda felt like I may have seen a comment or two on social media or something, but that was my fear the whole time, I feel that way a little bit myself. 

"But then again, it's not unprecedented, there was a lot of talk about how innovative [the concept] was, but I don't really see it that way—if Pete Rock or DJ Premier can sample something, why can't I? They add drums, they add basslines, they re-record—listen to certain classic beats, some of this stuff it's not even a sample, they make the track with the sample and then they get it played live. As I've learned more about production I've been trying to dissect tracks and understand all the different ways that people make the music I love. But also I'm a player so I want to be able to do both those things, and incorporate both those things together.

"The biggest secret I've learned from working with Richard Russell and Don Was... I'm like, 'Hey, legendary producer guy, give me a nugget, give me some words of wisdom, what's the secret?,' and they go, 'Oh that all sounds great, yeah, man, I can't wait to hear what you do.' So, I'm like, wait, where's the secret sauce? The secret sauce is that they trusted me as an artist—they don't want to tell you what to do. That was the brilliant thing, they don't want to get in my head or influence your thing. So the reason why I pick a Joel Ross or a Jeff Parker for my records, is because I want to play with that person, and if I'm gonna sit around and tell them what to play the whole time, then I'm not going to be surprised, I'm not going to get their brilliance. The whole point of having someone else do it is that they can bring something to the table that you cannot."

In These Times (2022)

McCraven's seventh International Anthem release marked an abrupt and critically acclaimed artistic left-turn, which promotions claimed were the fruits of more than eight years labour: In These Times is a fully composed, beat-driven suite of original compositions arranged for a large ensemble including strings, harp and vibes, and featured regular collaborators Jeff Parker, Junius Paul, Brandee Younger, Joel Ross, and Marquis Hill.

  "The eight year thing is not exactly true, I actually think it took longer—to me it's longer. Eight years was the first time we recorded anything towards the project—that's when we started doing something with the idea. When I moved to Chicago around 2007, I already had a pretty robust career back home—I was music director of a studio, I'd done a few records with different people, I was getting into editing—and I was starting to work on my own projects. I had an idea I wanted to make a band that interfaced with all these cool time signatures and all the things I love—beats interfaced with hip-hop, Dave Holland and all the odd-metre stuff. My mum makes a lot of odd-meter stuff, that was kinda beat science, rhythm science. I had ideas to do "Makaya McCraven and the Time Machine," whatever stupid name it was gonna be, so I started writing music like that. All the tunes, like "This Place That Place," I wrote before 2015. So when we went on the road for the first time after In The Moment we would play some of that album—but honestly the music off that wasn't penned music, it was made in the studio in a creative way, so I had to figure out a way to arrange that. The other tunes I played with my band were the stuff that made it to In These Times—half of the show or more would be my [composed] music.

"I came home from the tour and I was like, 'Scottie, we were playing in front of all these people and playing all this music that's not like this stuff, and people are really digging it, and that's really exciting to me, I want to record my band.' We started trying to record it live in the studio, but during that process the opportunity to make Highly Rare (2017, International Anthem) came up—'Yo, you should chop this one...' 'Oh, we're gonna go to London, let's do this...' 'We've got budget to do this...' and then XL calls me, and I make record after record, and every time we can we keep on going in the studio and recording more. Next thing you know I've got these shows with bigger bands and that starts taking itself into the recording studio. The concept just kept ballooning—we've got this commission to present my work and a string quartet. And then it's like, 'Oh, maybe this record's meant to me more orchestral,' so I started to lean into that. So it just evolved—from the tunes I played with my trio out on the road into this thing with strings and this elaborate production.

"But ultimately that narrative that we pushed out—that it took eight years, that this was a record I always wanted to make, that I've been working on it since before any of these other records—that's all true. That's the story—I've been working on this music as my music, and I happened to make six or seven records in between.

"By this point I wanted this record to really encapsulate what I've done, so I'm also doing creative beat making on it. I didn't intend it to have no reference to In The Moment and all the things I've done in between that have become part of my voice and how I make records, how I like to produce. I wanted to include that, but ultimately the idea was this is a record of my compositions—not an orchestral record, not a this or that—a record of my compositions that feature odd time signatures and different types of rhythms in a way that I feel is translatable to broader audiences. At the crux of my concept since I started writing and playing drums is that I like to play complex rhythms and things in a way you can feel, 'in these times '—it's in the title. That's the whole record—this is my times, my sound... and I also make other types of records."

And what's next?

"There's a lot of things I'm working on right now. Part of me is—I  have more tunes, I'm writing more music, I have stuff that I didn't record and new stuff I wanna introduce to this band. I do like the threadline through what—when I got to In These Times I didn't want it to not have any reference to my earlier stuff. For me, one of the things that's really exciting is getting to bring a larger ensemble together. We have 8-10 shows together this year, going into 2024. I want to use as a unit, a vehicle to write a lot of whole other music, turning from just a record—and then playing that record—to being a band. This is my large ensemble thing, and I can kind of write music with this in mind, as well as getting back into another beat tape and just experimenting. Because that's where it all started for me—a love of experimenting and just trying different things. International Anthem and I will always be connected, no matter what we do. There's no signed [contract]—we work record to record. On In These Times they partnered [with XL] which is also something really cool and exciting, and in a way unique. I love that spirit of collaboration that they were able to bring, instead of the labels being in competition they're in cahoots. So yeah that's a really great relationship, and how it develops and where it goes I don't know."

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