The Underscore: Robert Glasper

The Underscore: Behind the custom music of ESPN

This month on The Underscore, we had the privilege of speaking with multi Grammy-award winning pianist, composer, arranger, and producer, Robert Glasper. Robert is no stranger to ESPN with his recent work featured in the current NBA75 season along with many other placements. With albums consistently debuting at the top of the charts across four genres, you don’t want to miss his newest album, Black Radio III, featuring amazing complementary artists. Black Radio III is available now on most music streaming platforms. Read on to learn more about Robert, his music, and his collaboration with ESPN.

Tell us about your musical upbringing, influences, and how you describe your music.

I started off playing in church with my mother, but she also was an artist who sang in all kinds of clubs during the week; R&B clubs, jazz clubs, she did Broadway gigs, country gigs, all kinds of music. In the house, she would play many different kinds of music so I was influenced by many different kinds of music. So, I played in church and I played a lot of a wedding gigs with my mom and my aunt. I was very familiar with the pop and R&B songbook. I auditioned for the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and from there, I started really studying jazz and that's kind of where that took off immediately. Then, I went to college in New York City, The New School, so that's where I continued my jazz education and then with being in New York, that's kind of how everything unfolds.

In a lot of your interviews, you talk about working with friends/people you met early in life in jazz camp and things like that. What is it like collaborating with people you met on the come up?

It is amazing because that is really the thing. When you meet people young and you do the same things, you click that early in high school and you are still working and getting each other gigs and playing with each other and traveling the world with each other. That is what is amazing because those are the people you can really trust since you have been with them your whole life. That’s how I got onto To Pimp a Butterfly with Kendrick Lamar because of Terrace Martin who I met in jazz camp when I was in 11th grade. We’ve been friends ever since. It's good to have friends that can take you places. Not just friends that you can go have a drink with, but people you can actually make money with. That is the goal. It is awesome.

You are a busy person with all sorts of different groups, projects, and collectives. Do you find that different collaborators bring out different styles or musical elements? If so, can you tell us about a time that was truly evident?

I mean, since I dibble and dabble in many different genres like hip-hop, R&B, jazz, gospel, sometimes rock pop, I ended up being in the room with all kinds of different vocalists and artists. When you're in those rooms, you have to kind of tap into what they're tapped into. Everybody's not versed in seven different things, but when you're in the room with somebody that's primarily versed in one thing, then you kind of got to move toward what they're comfortable with. I have played for Carly Simon, Cyndi Lauper, Aretha Franklin, I have literally played for so many different kinds of artists. Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder and then the hip hop stuff, Q- Tip and Common and then Yasiin Bey. I've even played for Jay-Z. I just tap into what they're already in. It is easy for me because those are spaces that I have lived in for so long.

You had mentioned that in your October 2021 residency at Blue Note, you are working with different bands every night. What are the challenges that come up and what excites you about it?

The challenge is really just rehearsing music. For that particular residency, Tuesday and Wednesday is one band, and then Thursday through Sunday is a whole other band so I have to add a whole other band with a completely different special guest. There's not much rehearsal time and it's just the beginning of that week. We have a rehearsal on Tuesday with that artists and that band, and then you have a rehearsal on Thursday with another artist and another band for the show that night. However, luckily the bands, I am already versed with because those are my bands that I’ve played with for years so we meld very quickly and understand each other musically. Sometimes it's just a special guests who I may not have had much time working with and that takes a little more because of the unfamiliarity of working with certain artist. For the most part, it is always smooth even without much rehearsal. They know going in that a lot of stuff is going to be kind of made up on the spot and you kind of go with the flow.

You’re known to be a student of life and music. With your experiences, what advice do you have for fellow young, ambitious people?

I always tell people to understand that the universe is always going to co-produce whatever you're doing. So if I was going to co-produce a show, or I was going to co-produce your album, nothing you want 100% to happen, will happen 100% exactly like you want it to happen all the time. So I would say know that going in and trust the universe even when things look like it's going to be bad. Many times that can be the door opening for something good. So, just understand that things are going to happen. That's part of it. A lot of times it works out for your good.

You’ve called jazz a “male-dominated sport.” What can we do in the sports entertainment and music industries to advocate for gender equality and representation?

Well for starters, I see ESPN doing a great job to open those doors in sports world. I'm seeing a lot more women on the sports shows broadcasting, covering games and that's a great first step. And there's still more work we can do. As far as the music industry and as far as jazz in particular, don't just hire more female bands, more women should get more opportunities the way men do. The more we can make women visible and the more women see other women in high ranking positions, it shines light on those opportunities for all women to aspire to. So we have to do our best to demand those opportunities for them. Because it isn’t that the women aren't out there, they're there, they need to be let in.

Tell us about your heroes. Who do you look up to and who inspires you to grind?

I mean, my first hero, I will say was my mother. She was relentless in doing gigs and trying to make money to feed me. She worked every night at someone's club while also working during the day as a secretary or this or that. She was always grinding but always doing music and I watched her love music so much. That's where I got my love of music. So I would definitely say my mother is my biggest inspiration when it comes to that, for sure. She definitely is the one that always was in my corner and always made sure that I had what I needed to blossom and become whatever I wanted to be.

How do you approach live performances like a residency at a jazz club versus an original score?

I think an original score, which is doing music to a picture, you have to be more specific in what someone else wants. It is not necessarily what I’m feeling all the time, it is what the director wants. So I try to make sure that I do what I can to tell their story. When I'm doing a show, I'm telling my story, and I'm doing what I want. That's the main thing.

Speaking of original music, what was your creative process for the NBA 75th anniversary celebration? Did you watch a ton of old games?

No, I didn't have to watch a ton of old games. I've been a fan of the NBA since I was a little kid. I wanted to play basketball. That's the reason why I did not go to my performing arts high school my freshman year of high school. I got accepted my freshman year but I didn't go until my 10th grade year because I wanted to play basketball. I was playing basketball sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth grade. Ninth grade I found that I wasn't as good as I wanted to be so that's what made me go to the High School for Performing Visual Arts after that, but I love basketball. I love the game. So I didn't have to reference anything. It was all in my head really, honestly. So that's what it is.

Are you a sports fan? If so, what are your favorite sports and who are your teams?

Yeah, I'm a sports fan. I'm a big basketball fan. Unfortunately due to my schedule and having a baby girl and all these other things, I haven't been a chance to watch and really, really follow like I normally would, but I'm from Houston, Texas so I've been a Rockets fan all my life. I don't know what's happening with us right now, but when we got so close, I was on the floor at the game. Game seven against against Steph Curry and the boys but yeah, I think that was the closest we've gotten in a long time. I remember when we won the NBA championship in ’94-‘95. But I still have hope. I think in the few years we can put the team together. See what happens.

Can you tell us about what you have going on now/in the future? Where can our readers find you?

Yeah, I'm on IG just my name. And Twitter, stuff like that. Right now, I've been doing a lot of film scoring. I've just recently I'm wrapping up the first season of the new, Fresh Prince of Bel Air. And I'm actually a co-composer with Nick Britell for the new Lakers series called The Winning Time. So that's really, really exciting and we're smack dab in the middle of that right now. I have a record coming out February 25 called “Black Radio III.” It's my new album. I just dropped two singles. So everything's falling into place.

A huge thank you to Robert and his team for the incredible music and all the great insight. You can find Robert on Instagram, Twitter, or in person at a live show!

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