Chilly Gonzalez Explains Why the Classical Music World Should Stop Resisting Rap & Pop Music

Alexandre Isard
Chilly Gonzales photographed in 2015.

Why are pop hits so effective? Last year, the musician Owen Pallett wrote a couple of popular posts about this topic for Slate,where he explained the technical structure underpinning several radio juggernauts (Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" and Daft Punk's "Get Lucky"). His articles suggest these tunes are as satisfying for trained musicians as they are for regular listeners: "the reason "Teenage Dream" went to No. 1 and remains in radio rotation is that it is a textbook example of the excellence and supremacy of the rules of Western music theory."

On YouTube, you can find the next evolution of this line of thinking: the Pop Music Masterclass videos, in which Chilly Gonzales -- who bills himself as "the musical genius" -- sits at a piano and breaks down recent smashes like Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off" or iLoveMakonnen's "Tuesday" to illustrate the smarts behind their construction.

What qualifies him for this job? Well first, he's the only one doing it. More seriously, he's got musical training and a long career as a pianist, both classical and pop, often performing on stage in slippers and a bathrobe. He's also done some work as a rapper and has credits on albums from several musicians you may have heard of -- Feist, Drake, Daft Punk, and Jamie Lidell.

Billboard caught up with Gonzalez to talk about his pop videos, why rap is so exciting, and his new album for piano and string quartet, Chambers, out now.

How did the Pop Masterclass videos come about?

That was a brilliant idea of the radio station here in Cologne. Someone approached me and said, "I've seen you in concert many times, I've seen you talk about major and minor and explain your own music. What about doing a series of videos where you go into our playlist, find a hit song of the moment, and see if you can find those connections?"

So we started on very safe ground -- [songs from] people I've collaborated with like Daft Punk and Drake -- and slowly I got my feet wet and realized it's a way to get people interested and make a connection to show people there are musical tools that have lasted 500 years. Whether people know the names of them or not, they rediscover them time and time again. The human ear craves things like symmetry. It's heartening to me that music will always evolve but can never outrun its actual scientific limits. There will never be a moment where that's all gone and you don't have those musical tools anymore.

Even when people are tempted to complain that music is getting worse somehow, or less sophisticated, it's really not the case. You just have to dig a bit deeper and see it's all the same tools being used in exciting ways. There's more and more tools, and yet the old ones are still there. You never really subtract. People who say we lost something in music I think are wrong. It's such a great musical time! Imagine growing up in the 50s and not knowing that rap could exist. It's unthinkable! What would my life be?

You're about to release a new album, Chambers, which you worked on with a string quartet. When did you start working on that?

We recorded one session in spring 2014 and another in the fall. But for a project like this, an acoustic instrumental project that requires imperfectly perfect takes so to speak, there's a lot of preparation, a lot of rehearsal, a lot of getting the muscle memory down pat so you can be as you're supposed to be -- a purely emotional musical creature when you're finally playing the song with the microphone turned on. Then comes another whole process where you try to become objective again, become your own A&R guy, figure out what songs complement each other, what the order of the album will be, trying to find the perfect 12 or 13 songs out of the 20 or 25 that were recorded.

How did you connect with the quartet that you worked with the album on?

I met them in 2011. A bromance ensued with them. I've played with a lot of quartets -- I did an orchestral rap album called The Unspeakable Chilly Gonzalez -- and when I toured that, I couldn't afford to carry a mini orchestra with me, so every town I went to, I had a [different quartet]. I always told myself, better to use a professional arranger and make demos, because if I ever want to get deep into arranging, that's like another life. I don't have time for that, I'm a pop star -- that's what I tell myself!

When I met the Kaiser quartet, somehow it seemed possible. I thought hopefully by the end of recording we have an album that I'm truly proud of that documents my beginner's luck at this new musical process. Previously I've done that a lot when I rap. I never came out to say that I'm the best rapper, but I knew that from beginner's luck and being an outsider that maybe there would be a few things that I could hit upon that a professional rapper would never dare. Rapping on 6-8 time signature comes to mind, which very few rappers do. I'm always looking for a part of a new project -- one element that will turn me into a kind of child again.

Did this quartet share your worldview? Is it hard to find a string quartet able to mesh with your modern sensibility?

What they shared was a sort of workmanlike attitude. I gradually learned to respect the workmanlike way music progresses in the real world, where people don't give a shit about the intellectual plan behind music -- they just hear it and like it or not. This is what made me want to be a man of my time and reject an academic musical life. I decided I'm going to do this with the piano and my personality and my big mouth, and I'm going to make it: marginally or peripherally, I will be a man of my time. I will exist in the pop universe, even as a mosquito. I'm a mosquito, bordering on a fly maybe one day. When my song was used in an iPad commercial, when I end up getting a Grammy for playing with Daft Punk or doing a song with Drake, it proves to me that it was worth building up something that didn't exist before, no matter how small.

That's what I share with the quartet -- when they were there in the halls of their music colleges, they were like, "This can't be it. We just want something different, we want something more, we want to feel relevant." They really inspired the album, and I couldn't have done it without them. The bromance continues. I finally have a band! I was like Neil Young before but I hadn't found Crazy Horse.

Was there any tension ending Chambers, an instrumental album, with "Myth Me," a song where you're singing?

It kind of felt right to me that the album should have moments where it shrinks down to the piano, or just the piano and cello, and then the palette gets a bit extended, a bit more orchestral with a French horn and flute. I felt showing all of those other chambers -- in the sort of Wu Tang-ian sense of the word chambers -- I decided that one of the chambers should have my voice. I'm such a verbal musician -- I talk a lot, I talk fast. I thought if there was a vocal presence, the album could handle it. A solo piano album is so pure it wouldn't stand having a vocal track on it. Here, there was already a quartet in there -- we were on a different playing field.

What does "man of your time" mean for you?

I want to feel like I'm involved with musicians that are making the cutting edge music of today. I know I probably couldn't make [that] because my allegiances are so much in the music of the past. Despite that, I knew that I had something to offer to musicians of today. I want to include everybody, and what is more inclusive than today's pop music? The moments for classical music and jazz music -- those have passed. And most of the musicians are very defensive who play in those worlds. So often they take the easy road and decide that instead of admitting they have to do a better job at attracting an audience, they blame the audience. How you talk on stage, how you dress, all of this stuff you should respect as much as music making. For me that's what being a pop musician means -- telling a whole story. You actually have to respect the audience if you want to have one. If people don't feel something, it doesn't matter how good your musical tool was -- how dope your key change was, or how silky your melodic change was. The result is what counts.

In an interview you did a couple years ago, you said you only listen to rap: is that still the case?

I'm fascinated by the minutiae of how rap evolves, and how one rapper will bring something as trivial as the new way to pronounce "bitch" -- "bish" -- and that becomes a big deal. It's the one style of music that has never been forced to choose: is it avant-garde or is it pure commercialism? It's both. That's why I'm so inspired by it. I'm really into Lil Herb. He's done something musically that no rapper has ever done. He's taken a triplet flow, which we've heard on and off for years now -- Das EFX started with it "diggity diggity diggity," then it came back with Ace Hood, then last year with Migos and "Versace Versace Versace." But Lil Herb does something different. He takes the triplet flow, which is normally based on words with three syllables, then he divides the triplets into groups of two. He's really flipped the Migos flow much more so than anyone.