Private Playlist: Karriem Riggins embraces the infinite possibilities in creating

Karriem Riggins. Photo by Darren Clark

Private Playlist is a listening session with Southern California’s most notable musical figures in their private creative environments.

With a resume that ranges from Talib Kweli to Paul McCartney, L.A.-based drummer Karriem Riggins has assembled his kit in a borderless zone that encompasses modern jazz, hip-hop, classic singer-songwriters, and whatever else tickles his fancy. Riggins studied with legendary bassist Roy Brown and quickly became the go-to rhythmatist for Ron Carter, Donald Byrd, Oscar Peterson, and other jazz icons. Honoring his own upbringing among the nascent rap and hip-hop scenes, Riggins became an in-demand beatmaker for Common, J Dilla, and Erykah Badu, among others. His expansive credits also include Elvis Costello and the Roots, Kaytranada, Norah Jones, Diana Krall, and Esperanza Spalding. In late 2020, he released "Pardon My French," a long-mooted collaboration with Madlib, as The Jahari Massamba Unit.

For this edition of Private Playlist, Karriem Riggins takes a tour of the music that’s shaped his own playing, from J Dilla’s earliest productions to the rhythmic innovation of Elvin Jones.

KARRIEM RIGGINS: I've been working on a lot of music, tracking drums daily and producing a few different projects. Being able to make music now has been more therapy than anything for me, with the climate of what's going on. It feels good to be able to create and work with like-minded people. It's actually beautiful not being on the road, being close to home and having a home life, which I've never experienced throughout my whole career. So it's given me time to be in my solitude, to hear my thoughts, and to be more creative than I've ever been. It's inspiring to be in the room that I created to make this music, instead of making beats on the airplane or in a hotel room.


"I Love To Dance" grabbed me immediately when I heard it. I was about 13 years old when I heard someone playing it on a boombox on a street corner. We were coming out of a Rite-Aid or something. I heard it and I was like, "What is that?" I was on a search for that record forever, and I didn't hear it again until I bought the record. You know, when you heard a song back then, you would listen to the radio every day to try to hopefully catch it, but I never caught it until I bought the vinyl maybe a year [later]. I looked for it for a long time, and that was one of my early buys.


"Nefertiti" is a daily soundtrack for me. I discovered it when I was in middle school. My dad didn't have any of these records; the Miles he had was "Relaxin'" and "Steamin'" and a lot of the bop stuff. So when I heard this, it was a surprise to hear something so experimental. It was like [there were] no rules to what they were doing, and it took the band to a new place. It makes me feel like there are so many infinite possibilities in creating, because they did it. Every second of what they did was something new and innovative, and that let me know. I set the bar to the highest level.


"The Nurturer" is one of my favorite records. I've been listening to it a lot over the last couple of months. Geri Allen is a great pianist/composer from Detroit who passed away in 2017. She made some great music over the years, and it's been a great inspiration. This record is incredible, and I think everybody should have it in their collection.


The first Slum Village cassette was something that I discovered in a record store in Detroit called Street Corner Music. I would shop there almost every day. They had it at the counter, and I walked by it a few times.  And finally, I just couldn't walk by it the last time. I'm like, "What is this? I got to check it out." So I bought the tape, and at the time I had a Pontiac Grand Am with two 12-inch speakers in the back. I popped the tape in, and from the four clicks of the MPC metronome into the intro, I was hooked from beat one. The way it sounded on that 12-inch speaker was incredible; it sounded so huge. 

That was a big J Dilla discovery, hearing all his production. He's one of my favorite engineers as well as beatmakers, and that record is important to my development as a producer, musician, and music lover. He would dig for incredible records, and the way he would use these loops was different than anyone. Some of them [were using] the same samples, but in a different way. His perspective was innovative. "The Look of Love" is one of my favorites: the way he used the sample from "The Look of Love" as the motif for the rap and the chords. It's something that hadn't been done in hip hop, someone who really interprets a song they sampled and makes it into a hip-hop song. It's like a cover, but the way they did it was so original.


"Tenors of our Time" is an incredible record with Gregory Hutchinson on drums, who's one of my favorites, and who's done a lot for me and my career. This is one record that's close to my heart, because it’s one of the records I had to study before joining Roy Hargrove's quintet. They came to Detroit in 1992 for the Montreux-Detroit Jazz Festival; that was the first time I heard them. It was incredible. We attended a late-night jam session afterwards. Gregory played and I played right after him. He gave me his number and said, "If you need anything, just give me a call." He wanted to recommend me to Betty Carter. He put me on a lot of gigs while I was in New York. Finally, he was leaving Roy Hargrove's band, and he asked me to join. That was a lifelong dream for me, especially coming from my favorite drummer at the time.


"Live at the Lighthouse" is another one of those daily soundtracks. Elvin Jones is one of my favorite drummers, or close to my favorite. He recorded "Live at the Lighthouse" in 1972, and man: no piano, no guitar, no chords, just straight horns, bass and drums, and it gives you so much energy. One of my favorites is "Taurus People." It's a really special song. The way he plays the intro, he plays a lot of the melodies on the drums with the horn players. It's almost like somebody rapping, just following rhythmically. When I play with Common, if you were to follow the rhythms, that's coming straight from Elvin.

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