Lenny Kravitz is growing back his dreads. Throughout much of the ’90s, those long dreadlocks accompanied his run as one of the most successful single artist rock stars of the modern age. That is, however, until he cut them in the early 2000s, explicitly revealed on the cover of his sixth LP Lenny. But after spending much of the new millennium coasting between making nominally decent full-lengths and sharpening his acting chops with supporting roles in such acclaimed work as Precious, The Butler and The Hunger Games series, Kravitz is back with an excellent new album.
Raise Vibration, his 11th overall, recalls the earthiness of the singer’s first two LPs, his 1989 debut Let Love Rule and its Slash-assisted 1991 follow-up Mama Said, with more conviction than just about anything he’s done since 5 (which turned 20 this past May by the way). These days those dreads on Lenny’s head are about as long as they were on the cover of Let Love Rule, an image that adds credence to the idea of Raise Vibration being its cosmic counterpart in Kravitz’s catalog.
The scion of network television royalty took some time out during a recent press junket to speak with Billboard about both his past and present at a moment when the future looks bright for this underrated icon of rock radio.
That GQ video of you showing your memorabilia collection is great. It’s amazing to learn how you acquired all that stuff.
They didn’t even show like a third of it, but they showed some cool stuff, absolutely.
Your Prince collection is amazing, in particular, and led me to wonder what your rapport was like with him back when you first emerged in the late ’80s. There’s always been this rap about how you were “too black for rock radio and too white for black radio” or whatever. But when Let Love Rule came out, you emerged in the midst of a great renaissance in both R&B and rock with the success of acts like Living Colour, Fine Young Cannibals and Terence Trent D’Arby, all of whom seemed to pave the way for your arrival in many ways.
I didn’t know Roland [Gift of Fine Young Cannibals] at the time, but I knew Terence. He came out a couple of years before I did, and actually when Let Love Rule came out he called me. I don’t remember how he got my number, but he called me to say how much he loved the record and was paying his respects and I, in turn, paid my respects to him because he is such an amazing artist. But it was really cool, because he then said to me, “You know, they’re going to want to put us against each other, but we are together.” Prince did the same thing. Prince called me after Let Love Rule came out, and that’s when I met him as well. People who were like-minded artists reached out, so it was cool. When I went to London for the first time to do press for Let Love Rule, Soul II Soul were huge. And them and Neneh Cherry and all these people would come out and say hello. I used to go eat at Neneh Cherry’s house; she’d cook dinner and have me over all the time and take care of me when I was in London. Jazzy B would take me around.
Listening back to records in that period, especially up against the modern sounds of R&B, time has indeed been good to that material…
Before, I wasn’t sure about certain things in the ’80s. But in the last couple of years I’ve been listening to a lot of stuff from back then and God it was so creative. And technology was changing, and it was just so creative, it was amazing. I remember Prince telling me how hard it was during the ’80s because the competition was so incredible in terms of the music that was coming out and the hit records. But he said to love the time you are living in, and not be like, you know, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and always looking back saying before was a golden era and now is just boring. And you know what, when I was living in the ’80s and ’90s, I was looking back to the ’60s. But when I think of it now, both decades had some phenomenal music that deserves to be looked at in the same light as music from the ’60s and ’70s in terms of production and studio creativity.
1989, in particular, was quite a year for rock music with new albums by the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, Tom Petty, Lou Reed and Rush all hitting stores around the time you emerged with LLR.
David Bowie was doing great stuff back then too with Tin Machine. Dude, I went and saw them at The World and it was amazing shit.
You’ve always had such a great live band yourself, but it seems in the studio it’s usually just you and your longtime guitarist Craig Ross that does most of the work on an album. Has that duality always been by design?
When I did the first record, I never intended on playing all the instruments and doing all that. I couldn’t afford to pay anybody. I was trying to get these guys I knew to come play and it wasn’t sounding right, and I didn’t have the money to get the real guys that I wanted. So my engineer at the time was like, “I heard you play the drums, the guitar, keyboards and percussion. You know how to play all this stuff, so why don’t you do it yourself?” And I kept thinking, yeah but that’s no fun. I envisioned a recording session like the stuff I watched as a teenager, like watching the Rolling Stones in the studio with Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil. That’s what I wanted to be doing. I wanted to be hanging out and then partying in the studio. But that didn’t happen, and I wound up doing most of the work myself and it just became my thing. From Let Love Rule to Raise Vibration, it’s been the way I operate, and I love it.
In many ways, the vibe one gets from Raise Vibration is as a bookend to Let Love Rule in the earthiness of your approach to this music. What made you hark back to those earlier days and procure the vibe of Let Love Rule and even Mama Said for Raise Vibration?
Well, everyone stepped up to give their opinion, like you should do this or you should do that. And it got to the point where I was really confused about who I was at that moment after Strut. So I just had to stop all the noise and I got really quiet, and just stopped. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Then all of a sudden, a few weeks later, I started dreaming, and the music started coming out in my dreams. It was beautiful, and I prefer that. I never really sit down to write. I always wait until I hear something, and it’s usually come to me in dreams. But I never really dreamt a whole album. But these tunes just started pouring out, and I just followed instructions, man. It was all about getting what was in my head, what I was hearing in my dreams, recorded as authentically as possible to what I was hearing subconsciously. There was no plan, no design. I had no idea how I was going to do it. And when you listen to the record, you can hear a lot of different textures, from rock to soul to reggae.
The first single, “It’s Enough,” is an incredible song, but also a very tough video to watch.
It is, and it doesn’t help that the song is seven minutes long either.
How has the reaction been to it on Vevo and YouTube from your perspective?
Some people can’t handle it. They don’t want to see the truth in this age. But a lot of people have responded really well.
Were you trying to go for a “What’s Going On” moment with the single?
It just came out like that. It definitely has a Marvin Gaye influence, but it just organically happened. What’s funny is that when I first wrote the song, it was a punk rock song, believe it or not. It came out like The Ramones, and it was very angry. Same lyrics, though. Then my daughter heard it; I played it for her. And she was like, “I don’t really dig it.” And I was like, “You don’t dig it?” She said, “Nah, I don’t really like the punk rock thing.” She thought it was cliche somewhat, I don’t want to put words in her mouth. So I thought about it, and it got reimagined doing it with this funky groove and driving bassline but me singing the lyrics very softly. I feel it made the message even more powerful. So Zoë was 100 percent right. It was cool. I took advice from my kid and she pointed me in the right direction.
How did the concept come about for the album’s second video for “Low”?
Actually, I can’t take any credit for that one, bro. That was my friend Jean-Baptiste Mondino, who is a legendary filmmaker. He was one of those MTV champions. So he came to my house in Paris a few weeks ago and I played him the record and started with “Low.” And he said to me, “Play it again!” He did that maybe ten times in a row. “Low” has got a lot of production on it; it’s got horns, it’s got two guitars, it’s got an orchestra on it. But he kept honing in on the beat and he said, “I just want to see you play the drums, and that’s it. Just drums, in a black room, a black drum set and you are wearing black.” He had the whole concept visualized. Then we talked about having a female counterpart and having that dialogue. I loved the idea, so we went with it.
Raise Vibration is your second release on your own Roxie Records label, which you named after your mom, the late actress Roxie Roker. It must have been a trip growing up on the set of The Jeffersons. Who was the music fan in that cast?
Sherman Hemsley was very much a music head. I used to go in his dressing room to listen to music. And what’s interesting was that his favorite group was Yes. I remember he had a silver Cadillac Seville with a driver and he’d be sitting in the back. And he’d come into work and Yes would be blasting out of his dressing room. He was really into progressive rock. You would think he’d be listening to soul or R&B, but he was a progressive rock fan. He was a hippie.
In addition to Raise Vibration and the fall tour accompanying its release, on Sept. 21 Virgin/UMe will give four classic Kravitz albums their long overdue debuts on vinyl. 1991’s Mama Said, 1993’s Are You Gonna Go My Way, 1995’s Circus and the aforementioned 5 all reemerge on 2LP 180-gram black vinyl in addition to individualized limited-edition, color variants and bonus tracks. Meanwhile, the 30th anniversary of Let Love Rule kicks off a year early on Nov. 30 with its reappearance on wax, and for the very first time in the United States to boot.