Scott Lenz: Let’s just dive in! I’ll just reel off some questions, the first one being about your childhood and your interests in music, and when you figured you were going to be a performer.
Eric Roberson: I just had a fortunate opportunity of being in a musical, artistic household. In some form or fashion, everybody was doing something creative. My father sang and played guitar, I mean there was a guitar in every single room. There was a guitar in the bathroom, a guitar in the kitchen, everywhere you went there was a guitar. He would walk into the room and start playing guitar. That was the soundtrack of the house when the records weren’t on. My mother pretty much left a corporate job to work in fashion, and still works in fashion to this day. I guess the rebellious “I’m gonna follow music!” kind of bug, we got from her. I had an older sister who was just extremely talented, man. With her having to watch me, we were drawing, making things and doing music, and just everything you can think of, we were pretty much doing, or shall I say she was doing, and I was just trying to follow in her footsteps, which meant I was doing it as well. That’s really how it all came about. I was doing skateboarding and freestyle bicycles, and all kinds of stuff, designing clothes and doing music, and I think when my parents got me my first keyboard, I was about 11 or 12 years old. There was really no turning back then. That’s when I almost started getting tunnel vision with music. It really kind of took over.
SL: What exactly did your father do for a living?
ER: My father worked in a factory, with a company distributing food to grocery stores. He worked in a factory, nights until early mornings, and then he retired. Now, he works with me. He handles all the shipping of all my CDs. If you have a hard copy of my CD, 9 times out of 10, my father shipped it to you. It’s been a blessing, because that has helped out a whole lot. He was the anchor, man. He held it down with a regular 9-5. My mother is a personal shopper, my sister is an interior decorator and floral designer, and Pops was a regular 9-5’er, but now he works with my company.
SL: So, they passed that work ethic on to you?
ER: Definitely, definitely.
SL: Tell me what kind of music you were hearing in the house back then, and what you liked particularly, and what pushed you to be the performer that you wanted to be?
ER: We had a foundation of Soul music and Gospel music, but there was everything in the house. My father, like all parents, had an extensive collection of vinyl and 8-tracks and all kinds of stuff man. We had everything from Jackson 5 to Stevie Wonder, to Donny Hathaway to Chicago, The Eagles, The Beatles and Joe Cocker. It was everything. We had everything. Growing up in church, I was singing my first solo at age 7 in front of the whole church. Singing was almost second nature. It’s just something that we kind of did. I always enjoyed it, but I think from an early age, I wasn’t really into genres that much. I was just into good music. I remember my father coming in and playing the first hip hop music for me. He brought in a Kurtis Blow record, and my uncle played me Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five. I remember those days. I remember my cousins playing Slick Rick for me the first time. I remember being a kid and being cool, trying to act like I knew what it was already, and I was really only hearing it for the first time and was pretty blown away by it. I was picking up all different forms and styles of music. My sister played in a live band when I was little, so I was watching her in her rehearsals and watching them do their shows, like these Battle of the Bands. They were a funk band, like Rick James, and they would be the only Black band in the Battle of the Bands. Everybody was like Heavy Metal bands, and they would get up there and they’d be hitting these funky songs and stuff, just trying to take on whatever, man. If it felt good and sounded good, I was all into it.
SL: Why don’t you talk about the Male Pageant and how you achieved your scholarship to Howard, how it was for you there, and how you became aware of its history involving musicians?
ER: I can’t speak enough for how supportive my parents have been in everything I’ve wanted to do, and everything I’ve aspired to tackle in my life. I remember my mother heard of this Male Pageant called ‘Mr Black Teenage World’ and she entered me when I was 16 years old. It was a great opportunity. I actually won the State, and then won the National! When I won that, it granted me a full scholarship to Howard University, and it was amazing. I remember in High School, hearing about Howard, and wanting to go there. Not even knowing the full spectrum of how amazing the school was and all that I would be getting into, but to get a full scholarship there was a blessing; my parents didn’t have to pay for me to go to school, you know what I mean? It also was the thing that made me really focus on music, because I said, “Wow! Me getting up here and singing pretty much gave me this opportunity to go to school for free.” I needed to at least take a good look at it. It was a real helpful program, and unfortunately the founder of it passed away, and they’re no longer doing it, but it was a great opportunity for a teenage kid to get scholarships.
SL: While you were there, I guess you were able to become aware of the history of the people who had gone there and performed there.
ER: Yeah. To find out that Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack both went there, I mean the amazing thing was to be walking down the hallways, humming notes to music, knowing that possibly Donny Hathaway walked down the same hallway humming notes. Actually, I had the same English teacher as he did. I remember coming into class and just picking her brain so much. I probably learned more about Donny Hathaway from her than I learned English. It was really good, man. It was just a lot to learn and take in, and I was really appreciative of the time I had at Howard. It taught me so much. Then there’s the musical history. Even right before I got there, P Diddy was there, and his whole production circle who had produced those amazing Biggie records, a lot of those were Howard students that went to school with him. That was really cool. There was a lot to learn there, and I was just trying to be a sponge, taking it all up.
SL: Why don’t you tell us how it was that you were able to secure your deal with a major label while you were there, and how that came about, and what that early experience taught you about the business of making music, good bad or ugly?
ER: Great question. It was a good time for me. One thing that it really taught me was the power of networking, and for me, I was real good friends with Shai, who got signed while they were at Howard, and really when they got signed and went off to LA, I just gave them my demo tape and said, “Can you hand this to somebody when you get out there?” and eventually the phone started ringing, I got a manger, and before long I was flying to LA to audition and record. In the process of doing that, I eventually landed a deal with Warner Brothers, and I released a song called ‘The Moon’ that did very well for me and taught me a whole lot. It was a big learning experience, but unfortunately the deal didn’t fully work out. Eventually I lost the deal, and went to Island Records for a brief stint, and interestingly enough, I ended up getting dropped there as well. It was really crazy, and after walking in circles for a while, I eventually went back to school and graduated. When I went back to school I got into songwriting and was actually landing songs while I was still at Howard. I did a song with a girl group called Faja, and right after I graduated, I landed a song with 112 when I ran into them at a studio. Once I graduated, I went back full time to music and eventually that led to the long process of getting to where we are now. It was a major learning experience when I went back to Howard. It was a humbling experience, and probably to this day, the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I don’t think a lot of people understood it. I don’t know if I really understood it at the time, but we had a real good time doing it, and it was a learning experience. I became a better singer, better artist, better student, better everything because of taking those steps backwards.
SL: Or sideways, not backwards. You kind of took off that hat of performer for a spell, and put on that other hat of songwriter/producer. Tell us if you can, what you feel are the differences and the similarities between those two hats, and did they ever come to be at odds for you, or did you ever have that hard shell complex, where “I did this, so there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to do this as good as I can.”
ER: There’s a big difference. First of all, there are so many hats you have to wear in this business. Even if you have a big time manager or a great producer, you still have to, at some levels, produce yourself, manage yourself and do all those different things, but the two hats that I mainly have worn in my career have been that as an artist, and that as a songwriter. I really dove into songwriting, and trying to take over that industry, or really be a big part of that industry after I graduated. Interesting for me, the conflict became more so, because I started writing songs that were a little too personal for me to sell. I was writing all the time, and did a lot of work on a lot of different artists, and I don’t regret doing any song for any artist. If I didn’t want them to do the song, they didn’t do it. They probably wouldn’t even hear it.
I worked on a lot of different acts and wrote a lot of different songs for people, but the conflict eventually became that if you wrote a song about a personal breakup, when you literally just open up your chest and put it right onto the paper, sometimes it’s hard to sell that song. That one is a little hard to let go of, because you’re putting a little more into it, and that was really how I started getting back into being an artist, because I had these certain messages that no one’s going to hear unless I get it out, because I can’t let it go like that. As far as working with another artist, I learned a lot to do with production, and production is all about getting someone to do something without realizing that you made them do it. When you put someone in that vocal booth, that’s a very quiet and lonely place, in a way. The whole time you’re trying to get them to be comfortable, but at the same time you’re trying to get them to give you something energy-wise and performance-wise that they naturally just wouldn’t give. “We want more out of you. Give me more.”
I’ve always been able to separate the two; when I’m doing production or just doing songwriting for someone, I realize the song is not mine. That’s probably helped me as an artist, because once I finish a record, and once I get it out there, I look at it as if it’s not mine anymore. The compliments are great, the criticisms come, but it’s not my job to judge music; it’s more my job to create it. Once we hand it to people, it’s your job to react to it and judge it, and things of that nature. I think that wearing those different hats helped me right across the board.
SL: I think I mentioned that I had interviewed a lot of those older songwriters from the 50’s and 60’s, who for them it might as well have been like making a sandwich at a deli. You give it to the person to eat, and it’s their sandwich now. They had no concept of the fact that they’d be making sandwiches that people would be eating for 30 years. Alluding to what you mentioned about Shai taking your demo tape, with your operation at The Blue Room, are you able to take those same risks on unknown talent to give them the same kind of chance that you were given?
ER: Very much so. I learned at an early age that you never can overlook anyone, and a lot of my success came from working with friends. I’ve worked with Jill Scott, I’ve worked with Musiq Soulchild, Vivian Green, and at the time when we did those records, those were just my buddies. We were all broke and couldn’t order a pizza together. We were putting our pennies together to get cheese steaks and all that. It was really just a fellowship and a working circle, and eventually deals came and things of that nature. Even with Viv, case in point, I think I met her when she was singing backups for somebody, and I just thought she was an incredible talent. I took her under my wing, and she’s been like a little sister ever since. You always got to keep your eye open. It would be great to work with Erykah Badu or Lenny Kravitz and all the big names, but at the same time, you never know who the next Lenny Kravitz is going to be. It’s important to keep your eye open and keep your nose to the ground to see what’s going on around you as well, because there’s always so much to learn around you.
SL: Absolutely. Let’s switch gears slightly, and talk about something that I picked up on many of the tracks on the record, this very ethereal, jazz-tinged, Rufus, Norman Connors, Michael Henderson fusion vibe on a lot of the tracks, and we talked about the music that your parents introduced you to, but there comes a time when you get your own music. I think you told me you were born in 1973, which was a high water mark year for R&B-crossover-Soul. What became your music, and what moved you to eventually have those kinds of sounds on the tracks?
ER: For me, it’s always been a combination, my crazy combination of music. There were 3 major moments, growing up:
Stevie Wonder is a strong foundation in what I do. To me, he was the first time I recognized that this music was being written, and someone was designing the sound, someone was producing. Horn players were coming into the studio, and somehow this was being recorded somewhere. I remember getting ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’ and just going, “He really put this together!” Before, I just heard it from an entertainment standpoint, but with Stevie Wonder, I really started recognizing that someone is sitting down and writing these lyrics, someone is sitting down and creating this music, and it got me intrigued to look further. Then, I looked at Michael Jackson differently, I looked at Prince differently, I looked at Bill Withers differently, and Stevie Wonder was the one who really opened that eye for me.
There’s a Gospel group out of Detroit named Commissioned, and as a kid, I can’t even express the impact that this group had on me. My father had one of their tapes, and I remember I was ironing clothes, getting ready for school, and I was a little kid, I might have been 11, and I remember ironing clothes and listening to the music and just realizing that tears were coming down my face. The music and lyrics were literally just punching me in the chest with every song, and it just blew me away. It reached in and grabbed me and body-slammed me. I remember telling myself, I said, “Whatever that’s doing, I want to be that. I want to be able to touch people with my music. I want to be able to uplift people. I want to be able to write something, and create something, and make someone react the way that this group made me react.” They were a big impact on my sound and how I make music.
The third one was A Tribe Called Quest. I’m a big hip hop head. I love all forms of music, but I love hip hop as well. Growing up hearing Run DMC and Houdini, and UTFO, and all these amazing groups, I had this idea in my head, I had this sound in my head. I loved Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson and Prince, I loved hip hop, and I just had this weird concoction of music in my brain, but at that time, I didn’t know how to create it or verbalize it or anything. When I heard Tribe, I felt like they took music out of my head and made it tangible. That was the first time it gave me confidence to say, “I can follow my dream and my vision. I can make this happen.” From that point on, I’ve probably been chasing the sound out of my head, and to this day I’m still chasing it.
Those are the main ones. There are so many people I can add into that, but those are the main foundation for the music that I do.
SL: I like that image, of taking the sound out of your head and making it tangible, like making it something you can roll around in your hands and touch, and smell and feel. It’s amazing how someone else’s sentiment can move us so much and become so personal. There’s a song by Booker T and the MG’s, and of course 99% of their songs are instrumentals, but there’s a song they have called ‘Meditation’, and I was driving with the kids in the car listening to it, and my son who sits in the front now, because he’s bigger, he could see the tears coming down behind my glasses, and he’s like, “Daddy, what are you crying for? There’s no words!” It’s just so moving, you know the horns, and the organ is so lush, and on a deeper level, you hear Al Jackson Jr. who is such a perfect drummer, and you think about his tragic story, and all of it together just moves you, even without words. I gotta say, you were the perfect age, you were a teenager in that real golden age of hip hop. Brand Nubian, and Poor Righteous Teachers and Black Sheep and all that. We still listen to that Brand Nubian record today, 20 years later.
ER: That’s a great record.
SL: It’s crazy stuff, and it makes you a little melancholy, but that leads me to my next question. As we spoke of before, you have a sample there of a friend of mine, Leon Ware, and you have some Minnie Riperton on there, and Layla, and Leroy Hutson and all these kind of next-generation folks, and you’re obviously a student of the genre, and I’m wondering, with all due respect, if you feel like that might be something that’s missing from some of your contemporaries who are also in the business now.
ER: One thing to piggy-back on, just to add on to the great things you said before, is live instrumentation is amazing, first and foremost. Even without lyrics, there are still so many stories that can be said within songs. One of my favourite albums is a jazz album by The Brian Blade Fellowship, and there’s so much story that can be said in live instrumentation, because there’s still a story. In live instrumentation, there’s a story in the bassline, because it’s live. There’s a story inside the keys, there’s a story throughout so much of this, and I try to feed off that. Even with the song where we sampled Minnie Riperton and Leon Ware, there’s still live elements in there; there’s live bass, and just a mixture of the genres and that nature. The creativity that Leon Ware approached in making so much music for all of us is a lost art. It’s something that I pray we get back, and try to prioritize; prioritizing creativity over business. It’s fine to be in business, but all the different directions, the different styles that he was able to tell his stories through, I could go on and on about it. The guy was just absolutely amazing. When we walk into the studio, that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to pay respect to those who taught us, as well as thank them for everything they gave to us, by doing it with our music.
SL: I will admit, I’m getting a little up in years, and when I heard your record, I could get with that, because I could tell that the sincerity is there and the authenticity is there, but it’s a destination now, trying to find that kind of effort and earnestness, and I just keep trying to come up with suggestions. My kids listen to music, and they’re doing the jerk, and they’re doing all this stuff, and I try to bite my lip, because I don’t want to be like, not my parents because they are like your parents, grew up in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, so they were blessed with having almost the same music we did, whereas our grandparents had Frank Sinatra and Glenn Miller, which is great, but I’m trying to keep from saying, “That music is not where it’s at.” You don’t want to be a hypocrite. It’s a tough balance to strike, I gotta tell you.
ER: It is a tough balance, and I think the good thing is that there’s energy, and at the same time, when Rock & Roll was created, or even when we think of certain levels of Blues, I’m sure there were families and churches who were like, “What is that crap?” so at the same time, it’s a different generation of music. You won’t find me out there doing the jerk, but at the same time, if it creates a certain kind of energy, it’s good for them. I just think we should continue to uplift and promote balance, and at the same time still try to educate them with music of the past, and different genres and different styles, just make it second nature that it’s around. That was kind of the way my parents did it. They didn’t really bolt too much to Run DMC when they came out, and my parents being church folk, one of the first albums I ever bought was ‘Raising Hell’. I remember buying the album and not actually telling them what the album was called. They saw it and were like, “Okay!” As a parent, they listened to it and made sure they weren’t actually raising hell in the songs, but they were all about letting me check out different kinds of energies in music and stuff like that. I think it’s important, but I think the art of cultivating music the way Ohio Players did, the way Leon Ware did, the approach that Minnie Riperton made, even with Rotary Connection, that stuff was incredible! We’ve kind of distanced ourselves unfortunately from it.
SL: I can’t complain too much, because they listen to Soulja Boy and Flo Rida, but my son knows who Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong are. I can’t complain too much. When they hear A Tribe Called Quest, they know it’s a Lou Reed sample, or they know it’s an Eric Dolphy sample, so I can take the good with the bad. They’re right there in the middle, so they can appreciate what they have, but I think the key is knowing where it comes from. When they hear a cover, they’re amazed when they hear that was a Marvin Gaye song, or that was a BJ Thomas song, or whatever. They know it.
So the last midterm exam question I’ve got here for you is just another kind of reflection question, because it’s been a good decade and a half since ‘The Moon’ came out, and again alluding to what you were saying about Shai and the demo, and the comradery you had at Howard, I don’t know if you’d find that kind of loyalty or willingness to stick one’s neck out nowadays. Can you compare your experience in the industry then and now, and through the perspective of “We have 1,000 outlets we can be heard on, but there’s 1,000 more trying to be heard.” Really, is it harder or easier to be a successful recording act in 2009?
ER: Great question. The one beautiful thing is that I still work with people, the musicians and the producers, that I pretty much met at Howard. All of us were in there trying to create and design things. We’re still friends, and a lot of them work on my albums. On this particular album right here, Jermaine Mobley, who I’ve been friends with since my days at Howard, and he and I did a track for Musiq Soulchild, as well as a lot of records on my albums, we still work together. It’s important to network. I have a song called ‘Howard Girls’ on the new album, and it’s featuring 3 artists: a young man who graduated with me named Geno Young, another guy who graduated in ’04 named Aaron Abernathy, and a young man named Brandon Hines who graduated last year.
The funny thing is, in my times at visiting back at Howard, going back to speak or just paying attention to what’s going on, I noticed that it kind of repeats. These young guys that are going to Howard now, they have their cool circles of doing music, and hopefully they can stay together as well, and bond and create and build success with each other. It’s important. I always tell everybody that it’s important for us to be students and teachers at the same time, so that we can share what we’ve learned and give that to someone but at the same time, you’ve got to be open to learn from someone else. The cat that you’re actually giving advice to may actually say something that will inspire you and help you navigate your next path.
As far as the question you asked on “Is it easier now?” you know all of it takes a lot of work, whether you are a major artist or an independent artist, it’s an uphill battle, a lot of sacrifice and a lot of time. The difference is that it’s easier in that you have more outlets now. We have Twitter, and Myspace and Facebook and all these different things where you can get your music heard, and you can have somebody in Japan or in Dubai or Rotterdam buying your music, or listening to your music, or communicating to you while you’re sitting in your house in New Jersey.
The difficulty comes in that unfortunately, you’re not allowed that much, from a major standpoint, to do the music that you want to do. I think there was a little more artistic freedom, a little more variety and camradery in the past that doesn’t necessarily exist now. That’s the part where to me, it kind of gets a little difficult now, where unless you’re an independent artist, and you have the freedom to be able to open up and do different things, for the most part, if you sign to a major, it’s like an assembly line. Once you make a certain song, they want you to stay with that song, and that’s why so many Soul acts have run into so many problems, why Erykah Badu doesn’t put out that much work now, or why it took 8 years for Maxwell to put another album out, and the issues we’re dealing with in waiting for D’Angelo to come out with more stuff. It’s an interesting place, because they kind of rebel against artists creating on what they feel. That’s how we do it. If I go to Japan, when I come home, I’m not the same person. I felt something in Japan. It’s a different place and a different world, so if I see something there, I’ll probably showcase that in my music. It’s just how we do. I would say it has its easy points and its difficulties. For what I’m doing, I would say maybe it’s easier, but it’s still hard work. You’ve got to put a lot of work in to let it get out there and let it be heard, to let your voice and music be seen and heard.
SL: Going on that a little bit, I’m just going to ask you, what’s the next step for you? It seems creatively, you kind of just hit it where you don’t have to think about “Do I have to cut this down to 4 minutes, or do I have to take that one track out of there?” so creatively, it seems like you kind of set creative peace of mind. What’s the next step, career-wise and what’s coming up?
ER: Just to constantly grow. I have an uncle that’s given me a lot of advice, and one of his main things he says as a business is organized growth. I hope that in the future we can continue to build this career, continue to build my label, and just stay creative. I feel really good about how we were able to create this album, and I feel like we’re getting into an area where I can create music and challenge myself for the rest of my life. I want to grow old doing music. That’s my main goal, to grow old doing music, and be able to share the gift that God gave me with people who are like-minded with what I like to listen to, and also be able to balance it with my family. I see that you are a family man, and I take notes on that kind of stuff and I admire that. I have strong desires to be like you, where I can balance the artistic side with my social life as well. That’s very important for me as well.
SL: I’m not gonna say it’s easy, that’s for sure.
ER: I agree.
SL: You’re much busier, quite honestly, than I am, but on the other hand, I think you have inherently a lot of creative people that are sincere and authentic; they have a good heart and they have a good mind, and you want to give. Musicians want to give, and a lot of musicians fortunately can give in that way too. It sounds like you’ll have that. There’s never any right or wrong time, unless you’re like 13, that’s a wrong time, but once you get to be an adult, the light bulb goes off one day. I was with my wife for 6 or 7 years before we had children, and then one day it was like “Okay, we’re on a pretty good track here, so why not now?” That was 12 years ago, so it worked out. Again, I can’t tell you enough how much I appreciate this. The last conversation we had was so right on that I didn’t want to let it float away. I knew we could get it again, and now we got it.
ER: The last one was a good conversation, whether you recorded it or not.
SL: You know what I’d like to do for you? Maybe I’ll get with Elsa about it, but I want to make you a little CD of some of these tracks that I was telling you about. I was telling you about the Donny Hathaway track that Leon Ware wrote. Like you say, students and teachers.
ER: I would love it. Definitely, please.
SL: So I’m going to put that together for you by the end of the week, and maybe there will be some stuff on it that you will dig.
ER: Okay. I appreciate it. Thanks a lot.
SL: No problem. Best of luck to you, Eric.
ER: Thank you. Same to you.
Original transcription by Nathan Stafford - You can e-mail Nathan here for transcription service info
Edited transcription by Scott Lenz