Back in January at Los Angeles’ Gold Line, a Japanese-inspired vinyl bar run by Stones Throw Records, revered jazz drummer, hip-hop producer, songwriter and DJ Karriem Riggins, 47, is filming an interview for his new mini-documentary, Behind the Sleeves. The Native Instruments-produced mini-doc as well as its new NI Play Series instrument, “Karriem Riggins Drums,” are being released today (Feb. 16).
For three decades, Karriem Riggins has been behind the scenes of many music fans’ favorite hip-hop records. His vast discography includes Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, Earl Sweatshirt’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, J Dilla’s Welcome 2 Detroit and Steve Lacy’s Gemini Rights, the newly minted Grammy winner for best progressive R&B album.
Behind the Sleeves not only dissects Riggins’ life and career through archival footage but also follows him around L.A. as he visits some of music’s most historic sites. Among them: the aforementioned Gold Line and Sunset Sound’s Studio 3 (where Prince lived and recorded). Dilla, who passed away on Feb. 10, 2006, personally requested that Riggins help complete The Shining, the artist’s posthumous album released later that year.
“In my heart, I don’t think he knew that he wasn’t going to be here when we were working on [the project],” says Riggins. “It was big shoes to fill and huge decisions to make when J left me the message [about finishing the album]. But it was a no-brainer because he’s one of my favorite people. I consider him a brother.”
The two initially met through Common in 1996 when Riggins was the bandleader of the Chicago rapper’s band, A Black Girl Named Becky. As fellow Detroit natives, Riggins and Dilla became fast friends and frequent collaborators, teaming up for Dilla’s Welcome 2 Detroit and The Diary in advance of The Shining.
After living on both coasts for a majority of his career, Riggins moved to Atlanta last August to be closer to family and to experience living in the South for the first time. The constant through line for the drummer — who’s also collaborated with Erykah Badu, Denzel Curry and Daft Punk — has been to never stick to one region, one type of artist or one genre. What he cares about most is that whoever he’s working with possesses creative vision, is open-minded and is in tune with their talent — be it voice, musical instrument or digital audio.
“We give suggestions on what we think could be dope,” says Riggins. “But these people that I’ve been blessed to work with make some of the most brilliant decisions. It’s a collective thing.” That’s also something he learned from Dilla. “He told me, ‘You need to use what your talent is and what you can do with [that] to connect the world,’” Riggins recalls. “I feel like I’m now finally becoming the artist that I’m supposed to be.”
Riggins knew he wanted to be a musician by the first grade. The son of keyboardist Emmanuel Riggins, he grew up watching his father perform with jazz greats like guitarist Grant Green and trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, with whom Riggins later studied trumpet and drums before deciding to focus on the latter. Although Riggins got his start producing hip-hop, he subsequently joined bands playing behind such influential jazz artists as Betty Carter, Roy Hargrove and Ray Brown. He’s also released three solo albums of his own: Alone Together, Headnod Suite and Pardon My French (as Jahari Massamba Unit with Madlib).
Riggins still continues to use his craft to teach others. In partnership with Native Instruments’ “Play Series” and painter Jason Jägel (who did the cover for the 2011 reissue of MF DOOM’s album Operation: Doomsday), he created an interactive drum kit to inspire young music lovers.
“I hope this will spark something in people that have the talent and the ear to jump into [producing] music,” he says. “I want [the next generation of musicians] to learn to be open and not stick to one thing. Music is music. Listen to everything; don’t box yourself into one thing.”
As hip-hop celebrates its 50th anniversary, Riggins says that he wants “to keep adding something to the art form; something that people have never heard before. It’s the only genre of music that is still relevant and new, even with the influence of the past. I just want to keep participating in hip-hop’s evolution.”