Robert Glasper on ‘Black Radio III’ and the Impact of His Trilogy Spanning 10 Years

Ahead of his March 4 show, the legendary jazz pianist says of his music: ”I literally had no idea it was going to do what it did.”

When Robert Glasper unveiled his fourth studio album, Black Radio, to the world in 2012, the pioneering jazz pianist had no idea that the genre-bending record would make an indelible impact on the music industry. The Houston-born musician and songwriter had spent the early years of his career releasing traditional jazz albums—though his sensibilities for hip-hop were apparent—to solidify himself in the high brow jazz world.

By the time he released Black Radio—a breathtaking celebration of not only Black music, but also Black culture through R&B, neo-soul, hip-hop, and of course, jazz—Glasper was eager to showcase his musical range.

“I thought it was going to be the cool, underground album that people heard, but I literally had no idea it was going to do what it did and it went pretty mainstream to my surprise as well,” Glasper told Los Angeles. The album also earned Glasper his first Grammy award under the category for Best R&B album.

Ten years later—almost to the exact date—Glasper has shared the third installment of the award winning album. Black Radio lll is filled with thoughtful duet performances from artists like Q-Tip, Jennifer Hudson, Common, India.Arie, and H.E.R, along with some of Glasper’s original collaborators including Musiq Soulchild, Lalah Hathaway, and Ledisi.

In addition to performing the new album, Glasper will be celebrating a decade of Black Radio during a special live show on March 4 at The Vermont Hollywood.

Ahead of the show, we caught up with the multi-Grammy-winner to discuss the impact of Black Radio, the challenges he faced while creating Black Radio III during the pandemic, and other projects he’s worked on, including the score for Bel-Air, Peacock’s reboot of the classic, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, as well as HBO’s upcoming series, Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, which premieres on March 6.

This conversation has been edited for clarity.

In January, you performed a Duke Ellington tribute at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Since this was your first time performing there, what was the experience like for you?

It was amazing because I’ve heard so much about it. I’ve always heard about how good, how nice and prestigious it was and great a sound it had. And how no seat is a bad seat, and all that stuff. So when I got there, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’

Congrats on Black Radio lll. It’s been 10 years since you released the first installment of the trilogy, Black Radio, which earned you your first Grammy. Can you take me back to that moment when you shared that first album with the world? Did you know at the time while you were creating it that it would have such a big impact?

I had no idea when I first created it that it was going to have that kind of impact. I thought it was going to be the cool, underground album that people heard, but I literally had no idea it was going to do what it did and it went pretty mainstream to my surprise as well. And then, to top it off, getting nominated for an R&B Grammy, is one thing. I was done with that. I didn’t think we were going to win at all because we were going up against established R&B artists who people love [and] had great albums at the time. So I was just happy to be in the number. Then when we won, I was like, ‘Wait, what?’ Then when they called my name, it took me a minute to stand up because I was like, ‘Did they just say my name?’ (Laughs) It took me a second to realize like, ‘Oh my gosh. We actually won this.’

And it was like, when I won that I felt like—and all my friends say this too—I won it for all of us. When Black Radio won that, it kind of changed the weather in the Grammy situation. It made them open their doors a little wider to artists who don’t strictly do a certain kind of R&B, which is why now they have all these extra categories. Not just R&B, but also progressive R&B. It gives those really creative people a place to live, so it’s amazing.

People have been wanting a third installment of Black Radio for several years, and I’m sure you’ve heard a mouthful. (Hence the interlude from your father on the track “Everybody Love”). When was the moment that you actually decided you wanted to do it?

I’ve been asked for like eight years and I wasn’t going to do one. But the pivotal moment really was when I did the song called “Better Than I Imagined” with H.E.R. and Meshell Ndegeocello. H.E.R and I just went to the studio on the fly just to create. It wasn’t for anything specific. We were at a movie premiere because I scored The Photograph, and H.E.R. was there because she did the final song in the movie. So after the movie, she was sitting in front of me, and she turned around and said ‘I’m so inspired by the score. Let’s go to the studio now.’ So I was like, ‘Let’s go.’ So we went to the studio at like 1 a.m. and created “Better Than I Imagined” and that kind of kicked off my thoughts of ‘I might as well do a Black Radio lll now.’ Then a month later, COVID happened. So during COVID, I had time to think about it and I was like I’m going to do a Black Radio during COVID because it’s a pandemic, which makes it a very special time and I felt like people needed it. I felt like I had an obligation to give people Black Radio lll at this time.

That’s so interesting that “Better Than I Imagined” was the song that kicked it all off because that song had already earned a Grammy before the record even came out. What was your mindset going into the creation of Black Radio lll?

My mindset was like there’s so much going on in the world. We had the Trump situation, we had George Floyd, and all the things around it, and there was no touring. So it was a good project for me to do and keep me busy and keep me creating. And also, people needed new music because everybody was just home. I was like you know what, let me do my job. People can’t see my life. They can’t see me play, so let me create a record during this time period. Also, it just marks the time period we’re in. Part of our job as artists is to mark the time.

The album is filled with guest appearances from stars like Q-Tip, Jennifer Hudson, Common and Killer Mike. You’ve talked about this before—everyone wants to be on a Black Radio album. I’d love to hear about how you narrowed down the guests on this record?

I just made a list of people that I wanted to be on the album. Because, the way it works, there’s some people who I wanted to be on the first album that couldn’t do it, and now they’re on Black Radio lll. Like, Common was supposed to be on the first album, but his schedule got messed up and he couldn’t do it, so he was on Black Radio ll. So I made a list. I always make a list of too many people on purpose because I know some people aren’t going to be able to do it for whatever reason. But especially during this pandemic, you got to realize, musicians weren’t touring. They were just home. They’d never been home like that before. People were depressed. People were not feeling creative. So there were a lot of artists that I wanted to be on here, but they were real with me. They were like, ‘Bro. I’m not feeling it today. I can’t write. I can’t sing.’ So it kind of whittled itself down. Some people were trying and couldn’t do it, and then there were some people who were happy to do it because it gave them something to do during the pandemic. It was challenging a little bit because instead of being in the studio with people, I had to send them files because we couldn’t do it in person.

Speaking of the recording process, aside from H.E.R., were there any other artists that you were actually able to record with in person?

Yeah, there’s a few. I was able to do Gregory Porter and Ledisi together. We even did social distancing in the studio. There were in two different sides of the studio. And then I was able to do Lalah Hathaway in the studio, and also B.J. The Chicago Kid. Matter of fact, the crazy thing is, he was one of the first ones after [“Better Than I Imagined”]. Because I built my own studio here [in Los Angeles] during the pandemic, so I did all of Black Radio lll except “Better Than I Imagined” in my home studio, and then I would send files to everybody else.

Given that your recording process had to shift significantly due to the pandemic, what was that experience like?

It was stressful because you just sit around and wait on people’s vocals. I didn’t necessarily have a deadline. I just wanted to do this thing and I knew that people were going to take a long [time] to get their mojo back. Some people had a track and I thought they were going to send me back vocals, but instead they sent me back a message saying, ‘Sorry, I tried but I can’t.’ It was hard, but it ended up coming out great. The whole point was I was trying to make it where you don’t realize that people were not in the same room, for the most part. But that was the saving grace though, when my landlord moved out of her apartment and I changed that into a studio, that changed everything for me. I was able to have my own space.

The first Black Radio is composed of mostly covers and it was your first time delving head first into R&B after doing traditional jazz albums. Then with Black Radio ll, which came out a year later, you strove to make more original songs and focus on composition. In what ways does Black Radio lll differ from the previous installments?

Well, this one is full of duets. I didn’t even do it on purpose. It just kind of came about like that. I could’ve done a whole Black Radio duets album, really, if I put my mind to it. There’s that and there is the fact that there’s obviously a whole different cast of people, except I brought back Lalah Hathaway, Musiq Soulchild, and Ledisi—kind of reminiscent. And also, the way we even mixed this record [was different]. We mixed it more pop. It’s a little more shiny. The vocals are a little bit more in-your-face because everything has changed since 2012/2013. Music has changed. The systems have changed. Like everything is about playlists, so you kind of have to mix your music differently than back then so it makes sense when it’s on a playlist, or coming from another song. So just from a technical standpoint, it’s definitely different. And obviously, making this one is different too because I couldn’t be in the same room so even the way I came up with the songs is a little bit different in how I wrote them.

Leading up to the release of the album, you performed on The Daily Show, The Tonight Show, and the day after Valentine’s Day, you joined Musiq Soulchild to perform “Ah Yeah” from Black Radio during his Verzuz battle, which was a special moment. You’ve worked with both Musiq and his competitor, Anthony Hamilton, over the years. Not to say that you chose sides—but kind of. How was that experience?

What’s really funny is Anthony teases me all the time because he always tells me I took his Grammy because when we won for Black Radio, I went up against Anthony Hamilton. “Ah Yeah” [featuring Chrisette Michele] from Black Radio was the song that the radio stations picked up to really push the album. So it was kind of like we were against Anthony, but then he was on Black Radio ll and he was cool when I saw him.

[The Verzuz performance] happened by chance. Musiq and I were just talking on the phone two days before and he was telling me that he was coming to town, and we were going to go grab some food and maybe go to the studio and maybe mess around with some ideas. And I was like, ‘What are you in town for?’ and he was like, ‘I’m doing this Verzuz thing.’ I was like ‘Oh yeah, with Anthony right? OK, bet. I’m going to pull up the spot. Where’s the spot at?’ And he was like, ‘Wait a minute, I have an idea.’ That’s how it literally came about. It was like last minute.

You worked on the soundtrack for Peacock’s Bel-Air, along with your longtime friend and collaborator. Why did you want to work on this project? 

It’s amazing. Of course I said yeah. It’s a cultural thing. I grew up on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and I’ve become friends with some of the cast from the original show. Jazzy Jeff is one of my friends. Tatyana [Ali] is one of the homies. So through music, I’ve gained friendship from some of the original cast, and the second mom from Fresh Prince is my cruise ship mom. I host a jazz cruise ship every year, and she comes on it every year. So it’s kind of a part of my life, so once I got that call, I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? I am super down.’ And to do it with Terrace—that’s my guy from jazz camp from when we were 15 years old. So, musically, him and I just match so well, and the fact that Bel-Air is based in California… Terrace is from L.A., so his input on it is really priceless.

Speaking of Terrace Martin, I’d love to hear more about why you and him started the company, Glasper/Martin, and what you hope to accomplish?

It started off with Dinner Party, really. Terrace and I had the idea to do Dinner Party two years ago. We were in London, actually, and we were backstage and we talked about this idea for Dinner Party. Then when the pandemic hit, we just put the idea into fruition. Then we always collaborated on each other’s projects and we just have such a great rapport, and we both bring some into each other musically and just in general. So he’s somebody I musically trust and I trust him as a person because I’ve known him since—like I said—since we were 15 years old. So we definitely formed the Glasper/Martin brand. We’ve got more movies and series. We want to jump into all kinds of situations with the Glasper/Martin brand for sure. We’re just getting started.

Shortly after the release of Black Radio lll, you kicked off your tour and you’ll be performing at The Vermont in Hollywood on March 4. What can fans expect from the live show?

The live show in L.A. is going to be crazy. I do have some special guests lined up. It’s going to be insane. I’m really excited about that cause that’s like literally a 10-year celebration. The other shows, I’m still putting it together (laughs). It’s going to be fun. I think [fans] are going to enjoy it because I’m going to definitely incorporate songs from all the Black Radios in the show. It’s more about the anniversary of it all, so there will be Black Radio 1, 2, and 3 throughout the show so I’m definitely excited.

I know Black Radio lll just dropped, but are you working on any other projects that you’re excited about right now?

I actually was one of the co-scores with my friend Nick Patel for the series about the 80s L.A. Lakers called Winning Time. It’s going to be on HBO and premieres on Sunday, March 6.

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