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Marcus Strickland Debuts 'Drive' Video, Talks Jazz, Hip-Hop & Why He Makes 'Black American Music'

Marcus Strickland
Deneka Peniston

Marcus Strickland

Saxophonist Marcus Strickland can play the standards with the best of them -- just ask Roy Haynes and Ron Carter. But, especially after his April album Nihil Novi -- produced by multi-hypenate Meshell Ndegeocello -- he's far from just another jazz musician. Drawing from the worlds of hip-hop, R&B, and beyond, Strickland is part of a wave of artists applying the flexibility and openness of jazz to other genres, as is demonstrated here in the live video of Novi track "Drive," premiered exclusively on Billboard below.

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The video features Strickland alongside an all-star band, including drummer Chris Dave (Adele, D'Angelo). "He can play in a bar in the hood, and be just as comfortable as he is playing in Carnegie Hall," says Strickland.

Watch the video below, and read on to learn more about Strickland's thoughts on the ever-entwined worlds of hip-hop and jazz.

What are some of the things that influenced you during the making of this album that people might not expect?

Starting around 2004, I was just so excited about beatmakers: J Dilla, DJ Premier, and Madlib. It was basically all I was listening to at that point -- mainly because before that, people didn't really pay that much attention to the producers. They'd listen to A Tribe Called Quest, and be like, "Wow, Tribe is dope" -- but they didn't really understand why. Now, all people talk about is the producer. Once I discovered that it was J Dilla behind the music of Slum Village and later Tribe stuff, I just went on a rampage, listening to anything I could find by Dilla. He turned into this monster of an inspiration. I really loved Madlib too -- one of my favorite beats of his is "Meat Grinder."

The best thing to do to show your appreciation is just to try to do what they're doing, so I learned a lot about what makes those tracks sound so good. It opened me up to a whole other world of production. It's not really about genres anymore at all, and I think jazz artists in particular have been kind of stifled by the genre name. They think, "Oh 'jazz', I guess I have to swing, or I guess I have to take a 50 minute solo." I started to get tired of that.

Most of my records have traces of this, but this is definitely the strongest statement of all the different components of me as an artist. I had this drive to become proficient on my instrument as a saxophonist, but at the same time I'm over here messing with these beats -- sampling things and turning them around and EQing the hi-hat so it sounds just right in the listener's ear. It's great to finally find a natural place for this to all exist in the same habitat -- that's what this record is about.

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It really feels like jazz is coming full circle -- back into the mainstream, a little, as people start to see more that that's where the roots of so much contemporary music lie.

Yeah, it's incredible -- I love the many connections between hip-hop and jazz. When jazz came on the scene, it wasn't seen as "America's classical music." It was seen as devil's music, and it was played in brothels. Jazz was seen as this lowly thing because it wasn't made by the right demographic for it to be considered art made by geniuses. I think the same thing happened with hip-hop: they both had the same kind of curse at the beginning, but it's inevitable that eventually, it will be revered just as highly as jazz is now.

The thing that's very ironic is how many jazz musicians look down on hip-hop. That's just so turned around. I was born in 1979, so most of the music that surrounded me was hip-hop. A lot of hip-hop musicians, I feel, could have been great jazz musicians if they had instruments in their schools -- but they didn't. So they had to make music from other people's music. A lot of genius comes from needing something, and not having the normal means of attaining it.

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Necessity is the mother of invention, right?

But I revere hip-hop. Some jazz musicians and hip-hop musicians might cringe to hear me say that, to hear me use jazz and hip-hop -- but they're really connected. I played with Ron Carter in Brazil, and I was just asking him about all the samples that have used his bass lines. He was like, "Yeah man, I'm cool with all of them." He has all his paperwork done and everything -- no one's taking anything from him -- and he's cool with the music too.

Yeah, I had that conversation with Herbie Hancock a little -- he's really into Kendrick Lamar's latest record, To Pimp A Butterfly.

I've been in so many conversations with fellow jazz musicians who are like, "Why is everybody so hype about Kendrick's record? It's not even jazz!" Like, first of all, it has more swing on it than most jazz records this year. Second of all, why not? He represents what's around us right now -- to try to exist in a vacuum is the opposite of jazz. Jazz is supposed to be the present time. He's more of a jazz musician than these so-called jazz purists, in that respect.

What are you listening to these days?

The thing that's playing most on my iPhone right now is Anderson .Paak. He's been on the radar for a while. The Internet. KING. Ambrose Akinmusire -- these are all my homies, too. Theo Croker. Victor Gould. Those guys are on smaller labels. Marc Cary.

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Anything I missed?

The thing is, with combining these kinds of music...they were never really separate. They just came out of each other. R&B, soul, hip-hop, jazz, funk, rock -- it all came from the blues. It's from the black American experience. It's for everybody, but that's where it came from. A lot of the naming was not done by us, so it's almost like we're finding out the truth about something that's existed for a long time. That's probably the most profound thing for me. The more I learn about music, the more I find out about my culture and my people. 

Do you prefer the term "black American music" to "jazz"?

I mean it's all music to me, at the end of the day -- but yeah, I prefer black American music to jazz because once you say jazz, people have this idea. Like, "Oh, it's gonna be Frank Sinatra tunes." It doesn't really describe what I'm doing -- it's a fuller scope than that. Jazz is part of it, I don't denounce that part -- but it's part of a greater thing. I think to be the most descriptive I can about what I'm doing, I have to call it black American music.