By// Quinn Peterson
Urban radio has been heavily criticized in recent years, most notably for its content, which detractors say has descended into repetitive displays of materialism and misogyny. In his article “Why Is Black Radio So Damn Bad,” industry insider and former BET programming director Paul Porter argues: The youth in America get a steady diet of b****, h** and bling.” Moreover, he asserts that Blacks are 75 times more likely to hear the same song than Whites.
Getting in on the discourse, jazz pianist Robert Glasper does much more than just talk about it. He’s spearheading a movement to get things back on track with his latest project, Black Radio, which hit stores a couple weeks back.
His previous album, Double Booked, earned him a Grammy nomination, so he’s not short on accolades or critical praise. It hasn’t come at a mass level, however, which is his quest with Black Radio, and his beef with the urban airwaves. He touches on the latter halfway through the album at the end of Gonna Be Alright in a conversation with fellow Robert Glasper Experiment members Chris Dave (drums), Derrick Hodge (bass) and Casey Benjamin (saxophone).
“We were talking about how, unfortunately, at a lot of the radio stations, you have to kind of abide by a certain playlist,” he tells JETmag.com. “You can’t just play what you like or play good music. You gotta play what they tell you to play, ’cause that’s what’s hot.”
As a result, radio audiences are fed an unhealthy dose of homogenous musical content filled with watered-down craftsmanship. Thus, Glasper’s Black Radio is offered as the antidote and it’s a poignant one to be sure. The album title comes from the main track, which features Yasiin Bey (nee Mos Def), who’s responsible for planting the concept in Glasper’s head.
“He used to joke and say, ‘when the plane crashes the only thing to survive is the black radio (the black box they call it). That’s what tells you what happened to the plane, it holds all of the information.
“When music is crashing around us all this bad music gets all this press and that’s what sets the bar, real music will survive among all of that,” says Glasper. “If there’s real, honest music out there, it will always be around and survive, so I called this album Black Radio because I have all of those kinds of artists on here.”
In addition to Mos Def, Glasper’s fourth album brings in highly acclaimed artists from across the board, including Musiq Soulchild, Chrisette Michelle, Bilal and Ledisi. Lupe Fiasco and Erykah Badu are on board, as well.
“Those are two of the biggest names on the record,” he says. “I’m glad to have them on the record, I think that was a big accomplishment, because they have the biggest audiences, and the young audience.” Adds the 33-year-old, “It was very important to me that young people get this record and check it out because that helps the movement.”
The addition of popular artists and search for some spins doesn’t hinder the virtuosity, but instead raises it to a new level. In accordance with its diverse guest list, Black Radio combines sundry sounds, seamlessly weaving them all together.
“Black music covers so many areas… It’s jazz, gospel, hip-hop, rock, R&B, soul, so many things,” says the Texas native. “I wanted to find a way to put all of that in one album. That’s why I have the musicians I have, because they came up like me. They’re all amazing jazz players, but they’ve all recorded with a vast amount of R&B and hip-hop cats.
“I purposely made some songs radio friendly,” he admits. “Even still, we’re not playing like it’s a track. There’s conversation going on between the voices, the piano, the drums and the bass. It’s still in there.”
With distinctive renditions of Sade’s Cherish The Day, Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit and the classic Afro-Blue, in addition to stellar original compositions, Glasper and company walk the walk on Black Radio from beginning to end, as he argues for artists to be honest with themselves, and not succumb to the pressures of playing what is “hot.”
As stations continuously broadcast sub-par pabulum and fail to promote quality art, Black Radio offers a powerful alternative. If the general lack of appreciation for deft musicianship persists, it won’t be because Glasper didn’t fight the good fight.//