Get to know the supergroup revitalizing both jazz and hip hop
A stark reality that every music fan must eventually grapple with is the notion that the greatest era of their favorite genre of music has passed. It’s a stereotype that runs prominently through every legion of listeners—jazz fans will yearn for the Cool Era and the sounds of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Hip hop heads will cite the rugged sounds of the ‘90s as the golden era of rap.
But we aren’t living after. We’re living in a moment of musical possibilities, where genre has largely become irrelevant and musicians are able to more freely create without boundaries.
Dinner Party, the new supergroup formed by jazz and hip hop legends Terrace Martin, Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, and 9th Wonder, is a prominent reminder that music can be boundless and truly new. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the world, wildfires are actively burning miles of nature and homes in the Western United States, and racial inequity runs prevalent from the state to federal government. Dinner Party’s eponymous debut album is a fusion project that disguises a cavernous pain with beautiful melody; it doesn’t just beckon change, it demands it.
The four members of Dinner Party, each an undeniable powerhouse in their own field, work exceptionally well together. North Carolina hip hop producer 9th Wonder, who has worked with everyone from Kendrick Lamar to Erykah Badu, provides the foundation for the album—thick, soulful drums function as the backdrop for the others’ playing. The horns of Kamasi Washington and Terrace Martin pummel through the songs, while Robert Glasper’s piano—along with the voice of Phoelix, who’s prominent throughout the album—whispers at the top notes of the music.
It’s in part a protest album, masked as a palatable jazz fusion project. Though the album was conceived before Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were killed by police, the music grapples at times with dealing with officers as a Black American. “First Responders” is an ode to Taylor, her experience working as an EMT, and her plans to pursue a lifelong career in health.
But this album doesn’t sound like a traditional protest album. There are no calls for change, and no pointed fingers. Instead, it presents a Black experience and everything that comes with it. Joy, success, pain, hope, grief, and pride.
I spoke to Terrace, Kamasi, 9th, and Robert about the new album, love, and the power of music in challenging times.
David: I just got off the phone with Kamasi and Robert, and we talked a bit about how this album is a protest album that shifts the narrative a bit and focuses a lot more on love. I was wondering where you draw that strength from—to be able to, in the midst of so much chaos, really still think about love.
Terrace: Well, love is thought about every day, even through the chaos. That’s why it’s chaos, because people have been [shown] that they’re not loved from a certain class or another person. Love is important. Love is through the chaos, love is even through the dark times in your life. That’s why hate is so strong, too. I personally believe that hate is the closest thing to love. You can’t have one without understanding the other and you kind of gotta rep them both, to a certain extent in your life. I just believe that the hate and the darkness, if you don’t manage those things, could turn into evil. Evil is the action caused by hate. My only option is to preach love, to always teach love, to always give love.
David: I just read a profile of you in the LA Times, and I hope I’m not butchering your words, but you talked a bit about how Black artists have a responsibility to stand for Black voices across the country. I was wondering if that responsibility feels like a burden?
Terrace: Well, no. Taking care of my family is not a burden, taking care of others is not a burden, taking care of my friends is not a burden. Loving people is not a burden. Spreading your voice and [using your] platform, because you have a bigger platform, is not a burden. It’s not a burden because it’s in everything that I do.
David: Has that always been the case? Have there ever been times where it’s been almost too difficult?
Terrace: Yeah, when I was younger I used to sell drugs and do credit card fraud. I went to jail when I was 17, and I got lost in the system. I was supposed to be out of jail in a couple of days, but in LA County they lost me in the system and I was in jail for a few months. All of the real gangstas…I will never forget, man. I was in jail with the Hoovers, the East Coast Crips, I was in jail with every Crip gang in LA, and all the OGs would look at me and be like, ‘Man, get your ass outta here, man.’ You gotta be who you are. You can’t play tough to a gangster. You can’t play tough in jail, bro. You gotta be honest. Luckily, they didn’t hurt me, they taught me, they was like, ‘Don’t ever walk into the belly of the beast and you know you not with it [but] play like you with it.’ I looked up in the sky, and was like, ‘Okay, when I get out of jail, I gotta just stick with the horn and the keyboard.’ When I committed to the art, about three months later I met Snoop. Changed my whole life.
David: How do you continue to learn?
Terrace: [Laughs]. Every day I live I realize how much I don’t know. Every time I talk I realize how much I don’t know. I believe that a decent portion of people know in their head what they should be learning and they just run from it. I’m conscious of what I need to learn. I need to learn about how to be more compassionate. I need to learn how to be more honest with myself. I need to learn how to be a better father. A better lover. A better musician. A better cook. I got to learn some other sex positions. I gotta learn how to keep the weed fresh like you just picked it. It’s so many things I need to learn that it’s no way I could ever not have something to learn. I’m not good at so much shit. I need to learn to get better. I’m just trying to get better before I fuckin’ die. No day is promised. I think life is an ongoing lesson.
David: What are some of the challenges of making an album that speaks about politics?
Robert: Some of the challenges are that kind of music won’t be played in most places. When you have music, you want your music to be played. You want the DJ to play your music at the club, in the lounge, you want to be on streaming platforms with other songs. If the subject matter you’re talking about is very political, it’s not gonna match with the other songs in that particular playlist. Or the DJ doesn’t want to make people sad at the party. Or, it makes people angry at the party. If you have white and Black people at the party, you don’t want to put on white cops killing Black people. You know what I mean? You might start a riot. It’s a very touchy subject, and it’s been like that since the beginning of time.
David: When did you first meet Terrace and what were your first impressions of him?
Robert: I met Terrace in high school. There was a jazz camp, this national jazz camp in Vail, Colorado. We were both, like, 15 years old. Juniors in high school. Terrace was from South Central [Los Angeles] and I’m from Houston, Texas. Terrace grew up around gang culture and shit. I never met anyone that grew up around that, so just the way he talked and his vibe—I’ve never been around nobody like that. And then he was playing jazz, like, what, wait. At that point we became cool.
David: Something I thought a lot about when I was listening to this project is this moment in a Kendrick Lamar and Rick Rubin interview that came out right after To Pimp A Butterfly. Kendrick talks about the moment he realized how much hip hop is inspired by jazz. It’s this revelatory moment. I think projects like Dinner Party and a lot of your other music are so exciting because they’ve introduced jazz to an audience that hasn’t really considered how contemporary jazz can feel so fresh. Do you ever get that sense, that a younger audience is finally reckoning with the history and power of jazz?
Robert: Of course. When I was in high school, every jazz person that I saw looked like my school principal. They all had on suits, they all were older, and they weren’t cool [laughs]. Other than that, you just saw jazz musicians on TV. When you see jazz on TV, they’re showing you 1950, 1960, 1940. I have no connection to that. When I was in 11th grade, Roy Hargrove came to my school, and he had on overalls, Timberlands, and a baseball cap. His whole band looked like us and looked young and he was talking like me. That was my ‘aha!’ moment. I saw myself in him. That’s the same thing with now. We’re putting it on a plate where [people] can digest it and understand it.
David: When was it that you began playing jazz seriously and began thinking about it as a possible career?
Kamasi: When I was in 9th grade I joined a band called the Multi School Jazz Band. Terrace Martin was in that band, Thundercat, a lot of really great musicians. We were playing the Playboy Jazz Festival and at that point I wasn’t really one of the soloists in the band, I didn’t think I had a solo. We got there in front of 17,000 people or something like that, Reggie just pointed at me to take a solo, randomly, on a song I had no idea that I was supposed to solo on. It was my first moment in music feeling like I wasn’t ready. I would never have that feeling again. The beauty of music is that the better you get the better it feels. That summer I really started practicing. My mom thought it was something wrong with me. She called a psychologist because she thought I was depressed. I wouldn’t leave my room.
David: Your music can sound so grandiose at times, and it seems like you’re constructing a new world like a novelist would do. Is your music for this world or another one?
Kamasi: Both. I think music comes from another world but helps within this one. It can transport our psyches to another plane that connects us all, but I think it’s both. I think music is such a human activity and it’s so grounded in Earth, and that’s the beautiful aspect of it. But I think that it has a mythical quality to it that feels like it’s from somewhere beyond all of this.
David: Another one of my favorite parts of your music, especially on the Dinner Party project, is how your playing echoes and talks back to the vocals. What can instrumentation do that a voice can’t?
Kamasi: When you’re singing, you can use words. That allows you to express yourself [with] more exact ideas. But instrumental music, it does a similar thing. You can express an idea, you’re expressing an emotion. What you do gain in that is that you are able to convey an idea that will reach the person almost beyond their comprehension. You can convey these emotions, experiences, feelings, that will lead a person to come to these thoughts on their own.
David: I just got off the phone with Robert and he was talking about how, in a way, this album is a protest album but almost disguised in a more digestible way. I was thinking about the fact that a lot of the album, especially “Freeze Tag,” was written before this most recent round of protests began, which is a pretty haunting fact, and highlights the need for change even more so. As protests continue to endure, I’m wondering what you feel about the state of this movement and where it’s headed.
Kamasi: We’re protesting realities that have been prominently in our society since way before any of us were born. I feel like you can’t live under the reality that you’re considered inherently less, without that affecting every aspect of who you are. For this album, when we were making it, it was a different side of [protest], the brotherhood, the fellowship, the coming together. People use these trigger words like ‘systematic racism’—what does that really mean? That’s just a want to place one group of people inherently above another group of people. In simple terms it’s greed. It’s a reality, the thought that I can’t have more unless you have less. We definitely haven’t fixed it, but at least it appears that the masses of people, in their hearts, are against it.
David: When you’re creating music for Dinner Party, do you have a different mindset than when you’re producing hip hop tracks?
9th: No. I think that’s the thing about it. Here’s the problem: I think that hip hop has been stripped down so much it’s devoid of musicality. People think, okay, jazz is a high-level kind of music. When we say ‘hip hop’ now, it’s been stripped down so much that it sounds a-musical. The way that the Pete Rocks of the world and the Dillas of the world, the Madlibs of the world—Q-Tip, Diamond D, Erick Sermon—changed samples and chose the melody from an R&B side. I think a majority of those guys, just like me, were classically trained. I played instruments in high school and middle school. It’s just the fact that we decided to put down the instruments and start sampling. I don’t look at it any different. I make music that Terrace Martin can play over, MOP can rap over and you’d never know the difference.
David: It’s hard to separate hip hop culture from the larger pop culture. It’s been the definitive music of at least the last decade. I’m wondering, going forward, will that continue to be the case?
9th: I think so. It’s one of those cultures where it outlasted everything. It is that minimalism of a microphone and a beat, bruh. Usually, you get to the point where we come up with a new artform or new genre. It ain’t none. It’s all just derivatives of somebody turning on a beat machine and somebody chanting some words, whether you understand them or not. That’s what it is, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. It’s going to be different forms of it, but we’re now in the 47th year of the culture. This ain’t going nowhere for a long time I don’t think.