wax Poetics

Karriem Riggins

The Detroit drummer/producer lets his beats do the talking.

published online
Originally published in Issue 53
By Marisa Aveling

Photo by Gerard Victor.
Photo by Gerard Victor.

    Jazz drummer and hip-hop producer Karriem Riggins recently moved from L.A. back to his hometown Detroit, the city where his heart beats. Despite its appearance being more necropolis than metropolis these days, the spirit of Motown still lingers, and the D continues to churn out exceptional artists. If you think everything is still colored by a ruthless Berry Gordy streak though, well, according to Riggins, you’d be wrong.

    “Oh—it’s all love. No competition. Not on my end,” he laughs.

    The sentiment largely marks the essence of the softly spoken thirty-seven-year-old. For years, Riggins has humbly worked on making other artists sound better; be it through percussion and arrangements for jazz artists like Ray Brown and Diana Krall (with whom he currently tours), or hip-hop production for Common, Erykah, and the Roots. Most famously, Riggins was entrusted the heartbreaking and daunting task of completing his friend Dilla’s The Shining by the lady that knew him best—Ma Dukes. 

    This year, Riggins is due to get his own with the release of his debut solo album. Stones Throw gave the producer almost free rein to collate beats and assemble Alone Together, an instrumental hip-hop album also released as two vinyl halves, Alone and Together.

    The majority of the album’s thirty-four tracks were literally made on the run during a tour around Eastern Europe two years ago. Riggins recorded miscellaneous bits and pieces from sound checks and created beats on planes, buses, and in hotel rooms. The final track list also pulls together material from different periods throughout Riggins’s career, in order to tell the story of the musical path he’s traced over the years.

    “I just wanted people to know there’s no boundary to what I listen to, or what I create,” Riggins says.

    With an expert ear, the producer unpacks elements ranging from African and Brazilian sounds to undercuts of electro and soul, and pours them all into Alone Together. He deconstructs samples and constructs tracks armed with a superior understanding of rhythm and timing that comes from being a lifelong student of jazz. 

    As Riggins uses his jazz chops to inform the hip-hop material that appears on the album, his place in both camps acts as two sides of the same story. What ties them together inside his music is the feeling, or as Riggins says, “the things that you can feel in your heart.”