Malcolm-Jamal Warner on His Grammy Nom, Next Album & 'Love-Hate Relationship With Hip-Hop'

Malcolm-Jamal Warner
3 Cubed Studios

Malcolm-Jamal Warner 

He may remain best known for playing Theo Huxtable on The Cosby Show, but Malcolm-Jamal Warner is hardly living in the past.

Grammy Awards 2015: All Our Coverage

Fresh off a Grammy nomination for his spoken-word contribution to Robert Glasper's Black Radio 2, Warner spoke with Billboard about his first Grammy nod, what to expect with his upcoming album, his love-hate relationship with hip-hop and, yes, the Bill Cosby allegations.

Congratulations on the Grammy nomination. So you, Robert Glasper and Lalah Hathaway are up for best traditional R&B performance this year for "Jesus Children," a re-imagining of the Stevie Wonder classic. How did you feel when you got the news?

It was a pleasant surprise. I expected Robert's CD to get nominated, because the first Black Radio got a Grammy, so I was expecting some nominations, but I was not expecting our song [to get singled out]. That was great. I'm excited about the song being nominated, and I'm excited that it gives a nice light on spoken word as well.

Are you going to the Feb. 8 ceremony?

I'll be there. This will be my first time. It's funny, I've been going to awards shows all my life. I tend not to go unless I'm working. This is nice to go because I'm up for something -- and it's cool since it's the Grammys.

The first Black Radio was such a great album. How did you get involved with the follow-up?

I was at Westlake Studios hanging out. One of my production partners works there, and when he was recording that song with Lalah, he was playing me the song and telling me about his buddy who was going to do a poem about the kids in the Sandy Hook massacre [on the song]. One of his buddy's daughters was one of the girls. Two weeks later he was cutting "Calls" with Jill Scott, and he was telling me his buddy couldn't do the piece because it was too close. He asked me if I had any poems about Sandy Hook. I said, "No, but give me the track and I'll go upstairs and write a piece." And I literally wrote it there.

Was it difficult to write?

That piece is a tribute to the kids who were gunned down in the Sandy Hook massacre. I was listening to the music and thinking, "They were so young." And thinking about spirituality and angels and how we tend to judge things as good or bad, but it's often said that spirits come to this plane for a reason. I felt these kids, their spirits were here for a reason, and they were here for the period of time they were supposed to be here.

What about your own material? Are you releasing anything soon?

I'm finishing up my third CD now, so I'm totally in that headspace. I haven't figured out the title yet, and I'm still living through some of the songs. But the first single I did with Stokley Williams from Mint Condition, and I finished recording a piece with Lalah on Sunday. So it's coming together and I'm going to put the first single out pretty soon.

Will the album be similar to what we heard on Black Radio 2?

My band, Miles Long, is a jazz-funk spoken word band. There's jazz sensibilities, but I'm a bass player, so I'm very much into the head-bobbing vibe with sophisticated lyrics.

Sophisticated is a good word -- your music isn't lightweight. How did you get into making music?

I've always been a poet. My dad went to Lincoln University with Gil-Scott Heron, so I came out of the womb listening to Gil-Scott Heron. I've been writing all my life and playing bass came later on, when I was about 26. What I recognized with poetry and music that I had a different voice -- there were things I wanted to express that I could not as an actor or even as a director. It was another avenue of expression that my soul needs.

Is it more satisfying?

It's different. It's probably closest to my heart because as an actor, and often as a director, you're interpreting someone else's work. On the music side, you're writing what's on your heart and performing it. And when you find that people can relate to what you're expressing, that's a whole different gratification.

When do you think the album will be ready?

The first thing we'll put out is an EP. The first records I've done are strictly independently, and I don't have the record companies behind me. So I want to put this EP out -- I'm looking to have it done end of March and out by April -- and then start looking to labels. Not for production, but to have a machine behind me in terms of distribution and promotion. While I'm working on the full length, I'll talk to labels and figure out a home that I would be comfortable having my music handled by. My music doesn't necessarily fit into one genre, so I need to be at a company that understands that and the vibe and importance of what I'm doing. Though my music audience is cross-generational, like my television audience, my core demographic is people like myself. People who have grown up on hip-hop, but hip-hop doesn't necessarily speak to us any longer. We're not the target demographic.

What do you mean by that?

We're not in our twenties anymore. A lot of hip-hop is made by kids and directed to that younger generation. A lot of the content in hip-hop doesn't speak to those of us who are older, but we still want music we can bob our heads to -- music with an edge to it. For a lot of people in my generation, straight-ahead jazz can be too heady and not accessible enough. So what I do with Miles Long is give you a little bit of both. It's got jazz sensibilities and definitely got the funk, but also a hip-hop edge.

Are there any rappers who do grab you?

Yeah, J. Cole is crazy with it. I'm still big on the Roots, I'm still big on the old school cats, KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane -- those are the guys that still move me. I've been pleasantly surprised by and happy for Childish Gambino. To watch his journey has been great.

You're obviously interested in social-political issues. Will the album be very political?

Like my second album, Love & Other Social Issues, it encompasses all of that. I think my strongest suit is the love songs and the problems dealing with love. My journey has been about love: relationship love, self-love, and my love-hate relationship with hip-hop. There's definitely a social-political side to it, because that's part of my life. The EP, like the last album, will encompass that as well.

As you probably guessed, I'm going to ask about the recent news with Bill Cosby. Did the slew of claims surprise you?

He's one of my mentors, and he's been very influential and played a big role in my life as a friend and mentor. Just as it's painful to hear any woman talk about sexual assault, whether true or not, it's just as painful to watch my friend and mentor go through this. I can't really speak on any of the allegations because obviously, I was not there. The Bill Cosby I know has been great to me and great for a lot of people. What he's done for comedy and television has been legendary and history-making. What he's done for the black community and education has been invaluable. That's the Bill Cosby I know. I can't speak on the other stuff.

As far as your acting work, you were on American Horror Story this season. What was that like?

I'm playing opposite Angela Bassett, and I'm in the finale. What's funny is the set is surprisingly lighthearted. Considering what the storylines are and how much darkness is in the show, everyone on the set is so full of life and fun. You're expecting a somber vibe, but everyone is the exact opposite.

You also played the lead in a theatrical production of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Did you find that the story seems just as applicable today?

We had a big advantage doing that story on stage from 2013-2014. Just dramatically, there were a lot of places we could go that they could not in 1967. It was banned in theaters across the south. The racial and political climate was different back then. Even though we kept the storyline in 1967, there were emotional journeys that the characters were able to take that they did not get to do in the movie. We found the subject matter is surprisingly and unfortunately relevant from a racial perspective. And also that people came away from the play recognizing how the issues transcended race. You can take the same story and make it a same sex couple and see how that works. Or a Muslim bringing home a Catholic. You still have the same story. It was interesting how people saw the universality of the message.