DAVID NATHAN: I’m sitting here in London, England; my native land, my native home, with one of the most illustrious eminences in the music industry; someone who has such an incredible history and has worked in so many actual eras of music.
I think that one of the things that George Duke has, that very few people have, is the ability to work in multi-genres. I was thinking before I came here today, about the funk period, I was thinking about smooth jazz, straight-up jazz. I don’t know, is there any area of music that you haven’t worked in, George?
GEORGE DUKE: I haven’t done too much country (laughs).
DN: Okay, and you don’t have any plans in that area, I assume.
GD: I have worked with Lyle Lovett a few times, but that was a lot of fun too!
DN: Well, one of the things we want to talk about right away is the brand new album. Is this a brand new album? This is about a year old?
GD: Yes, it’s about a year old now.
DN: Okay, and it’s called ‘Dukey Treats’?
DN: So tell us a little bit about the idea, the concept behind ‘Dukey Treats’.
GD: Well, my name is Duke, and this album is kind of like Dukey Treats. I treat each song kind of like a morsel of chocolate. You know, it’s a treat. Each one tastes a little different. Each one has a little different flavour, and I think that’s what life and music should be about, opening a CD, is to have different tastes. Some you may like and some you may not, but the conceptual idea musically, was to take music that I love from the 60’s and 70’s such as Sly & The Family Stone, James Brown, the R&B stuff, Earth Wind & Fire, Parliament Funkadelic, take those styles, bring them into today using the tools of today, and create some songs similar to what they might have done back in the day, using the lyrical content that some of the stuff would be silly, some of the stuff would be relevant and uplifting, some of the songs would have lyrics which are relevant to certain social problems which we have today such as Sudan, which I think is a serious subject. So there’s a balance but hopefully at the end of the day, the idea is that this is a positive album.
I listened to R&B and there just was nobody laughing anymore, so I’m gonna make something funny. I love to laugh! So that’s why I did ‘A Fonk Tail’ and stuff like that, but there’s a balance with songs like ‘Somebody Laid It On Us’ and ‘Sudan’, so that’s what the concept of the album is.
DN: Do you know what number album this is in your career?
GD: I have no idea (laughs). Thirty-plus. Thirty-eight? Thirty-nine?
DN: Wow. What motivates you to keep making records?
GD: I just love music. I mean, for me David, I know you’ve known me for a long time man, and style is almost irrelevant. I just love making music. If it’s Funk, if it’s Straight-Ahead Jazz, if it’s Latin, I love it, and I do it because I have to do it. What keeps me motivated is people smiling when I play in front of them. Music is the first wireless medium, it’s getting there without a wire actually being connected to them, and it touches them in a deep place. It’s a wonderful thing, and that keeps me going.
DN: Obviously we both know that the music industry has changed very dramatically, particularly in the last ten years, probably since the advent of CDs as a benchmark we can say it’s changed significantly, but for sure in the last decade and the last 5 years. How have the changes in the music industry affected your ability to even make a record?
GD: First David, let me say that I never thought in my lifetime I would see the music business undergo the tremendous change, or changes, that it has gone through. I never thought I’d see the day where, if I didn’t have a record contract, I’d feel that something is wrong. I thought that once I got a record deal, I’d made it, for the rest of my life, and I’m done. Well, that’s not the case. The entire industry has changed. I don’t know when the dust is gonna settle.
For me, I think it’s interesting. I look at the glass being half-full, not half-empty, because I think this gives an opportunity for artists to take control of their music and get it out there without a middleman. You may not sell the numbers that you used to sell, because you don’t have that kind of support, but on the other hand, you can create the music you feel led to do, and musicians should take this opportunity to really make the music that they are led to make and not let external forces come in and say ‘You have to make a record like this person so everybody sounds the same’. So it becomes an artist-driven medium again, as opposed to a producer or record company-driven medium.
DN: When was the last time you had a “Major Record Contract”?
GD: I guess the last one was with Warner Brothers, back in 1999. I left the label in 2000 and started my own label BPM (Big Piano Music) and that was it. The reason I did that was freedom. To be able to make the kind of records I want to make without some 20-year-old telling me I needed to make a record like Jay-Z. Not that there’s anything wrong with Jay-Z, it’s just that I want to do what I want to do. I’m selfish (laughs).
DN: I think the point you make is very relevant and it’s certainly true to say that the de-centralization of the music industry has led to people having that freedom, which is very precious for anyone who is a true artist. For someone who is just a manufactured product, it’s probably not so great, but certainly for someone of your caliber who has worked for so long and so prolifically in the music industry, I would say it’s a real boon that you now have the complete freedom to do what you wish musically.
How many albums have you had out since that time, on your own label?
GD: Let’s see. Probably about 5, including a DVD, and I put out a Dexter Gordon record. As well some archival things, including some Al Jerome material, which I did back in the 60’s, which I want to release maybe two or three albums of that, and some things I did with Billy Cobham in the original 1976 band that we had. So I have some catalog material along with other things I want to do which I talked with Dave Love at Heads Up about, who is no longer there, but including a Big Band record and a Fusion record. There are a lot of diverse things that I want to do, and that would be difficult to do at a major label.
DN: So since 2000, I assume you’ve continued to work, tour, and perform. Have you found that having that freedom has really made a difference for you in terms of how your audiences react and deal with you?
GD: That’s an interesting question. Essentially, I think it’s allowed me to be able to go out and tour more, first of all, because I’m not producing as much. Many artists, especially in the United States, can’t afford a producer anymore, or at least the ones that would call me, so I’m usually doing them a favour by producing a track or an album.
Now I’ve begun to do many more international projects in terms of production, such as Russian artists, I’m doing an artist from Africa, and I just worked with an artist from Sweden. Most of the artists I do in the States now are friends, so they get deals.
CD sales, which I do quite a bit at live concerts, have become more of a promotional tool, and the live playing is where the rubber meets the road. I’m lovin’ it because I haven’t been touring as much in the last 20 years as I have in the last 5.
DN: Really? So how often are you on the road now?
GD: More than I’d like to admit, probably (laughs). Well, you know it’s immediate money, you get the immediate response from the audience, and I think it’s a wonderful thing. It is quite a bit. I think it’s pretty evenly split now. I spend half a year on the road, and half a year in the studio.
DN: My knowing you goes back to sometime in the 90’s, and of course I’ve been to your studio on Outpost in Los Angeles, and of course at that time, I think how I would have related to you was, and please forgive this term, as a studio rat; someone who spent most of their time in the studio. I guess you’ve probably found from going out there and being on the road and being with the people who have been listening to your music for a long time, a real sense of gratification from that connection, and being with the people who have supported you and responded to your music.
GD: Absolutely. I’ve met some amazing people here in Europe who have not seen me, some ever, and some that say ‘we’ve been waiting 20-25 years to see you in concert’. In my concert, I’m playing music not only from my new album. I’m playing music from the other periods as well including the Frank Zappa tribute. I’m doing all of that. So I’ve got the Zappa guys, and this really creative and interesting dynamic at my shows. Age groups from the young kinds to the older guys, and it’s really been wonderful. It’s almost like meeting old friends that I never met. You know?
DN: One thing I wanted to ask you, I picked up on it when you said you produced international artists, is how, in any way is that different? Is it in any way different once you’re in the studio?
GD: Well, the language barrier is always something. I produced a Russian artist, Larisa Dolina, who is a very big artist in Russia and some countries in the East Bloc, and she did an album of all my music. I wrote, produced arranged, everything. The record has been very successful. I heard it’s been platinum over there, whatever that means, and it was a wonderful experience, but she doesn’t speak a lot of English, so that’s the hardest part to get over. Of course there are some cultural things as well, but it was kind of a combination of let’s say, my feeling about music and the whole Russian dynamic. It’s very, very interesting. She’s a great jazz singer as well!
DN: I have to ask this: did you ever predict that at this particular juncture in your life, that’ you’d be doing exactly what it is you’re doing now, which is performing, being in Europe, producing international artists, making your own records, that sort of thing? Did you have any expectation that at this point that’s what you would be doing?
GD: Well, I actually thought I’d be doing more movie scores. I didn’t wind up doing that as much as I thought I would, and I didn’t think that I’d be on the road as much as I am now. I thought I’d be still producing and all that, but with the turn in the economy in terms of the record labels not looking for producers like me to produce these artists, it’s forced me to do some other things. Fortunately I can.
I think it’s great. Artists nowadays have to begin to look into being more diverse in what they do.
DN: I know the last album I saw your name as a credit on wasn’t that long ago. It was Chanté Moore. You may have done some things since that I’m not aware of, or maybe they haven’t come out yet, so obviously you still keep your hand in, in terms of producing. Other than Chanté, who are some people you’ve worked with in recent months?
GD: Well, I’ve worked with Jill Scott, I’ve worked with Ledisi, who is a great artist. We did a Christmas record, and actually I’ll be working on her new album. She wants me to write and produce a couple of tracks. I also worked with Tower of Power. I just did some things with them. So out of the American artists, those are the ones I’ve worked with recently.
Of course I’ll be working with Everette Harp, who is a good friend of mine. We’ll be doing something as soon as I get back to L.A. , and then some more things, like I’m going to work with Larisa Dolina again, I’ve got an artist that I just worked with out of Cameroon. Her name is Grace Decca, and also an artist I just met out of Slovakia, which could be very interesting; kind of the Slovakian Frank Sinatra. Very interesting. And he speaks good English.
DN: I just want to go back for a moment to your album, and I’m particularly intrigued about this song you mentioned, ‘Sudan’. For those who haven’t yet heard it, can you tell us a little bit about what it references lyrically, and a little bit about what the song is about?
GD: Well, obviously Sudan for me represents a problem area in our society, where we can kind of sit by and let that situation exist. I realize that it’s a political situation, there’s oil involved and a lot of things, but for me, it’s not a political situation. I’m approaching the song from a human standpoint. It’s a human tragedy, and I think as I said before that it’s incumbent on us as artists to not just write music about booty calls and Bling Bling and ‘I Love You I Love You’. There are other levels of love that need to be investigated, and so I’d like to keep, as an artist, people aware of the situation and say ‘okay, let’s put it out there and just keep it kind of in the forefront of people’s minds.
I wanted some help. Teena Marie is on the track, I have Jonathan Butler and myself singing. Originally, Jill Scott was supposed to be a part of it, but she was cutting a movie, an HBO movie in Africa, so she was not available, but Jonathan Butler and Teena Marie, they brought it home, I’m tellin’ ya. The lyrics are very relevant to what’s going on in that part of the world.
DN: You’re in Europe, as am I right now, so how do you find European audiences differ from your American audiences?
GD: Well, overall, I think they’re into more diverse kinds of music. I mean I’ve played everything from the Ultimate Funk, to the Ultimate Jazz, the Ultimate Fusion and the Ultimate Latin. Even comedy music, with the Frank Zappa tributes and all of that, and they have just been wonderful. From the beginning of the show it’s like the end of the show; they’re into it. Some are very quiet but they explode at the end, others are boisterous from the very beginning. It’s been a really wonderful experience and we’ve gained a lot of friends over here. I’ll be back soon, I’m telling you.
DN: Are you often surprised by some of the things you get asked to perform? Any particular tracks that you didn’t expect to be asked for?
GD: Well, the guys who have known me for a long time and may not have seen me for a while, besides ‘Brazillian Love Affair’ and those kind of things that everybody who knows my career knows, they ask for some obscure songs that, I mean, I have not performed those songs ever.
DN: What is the most obscure thing you’ve been asked to perform?
GD: Well one thing, before I did the Frank Zappa tribute, it was kind of interesting that people were asking me for ‘Inca Roads’, which was a song that I sang on, back on the Apostrophe album with Frank Zappa. But now I’m ready for them, because I’ve been doing ‘Inca Roads’. But, there are some other songs like ‘Say That You Will’ which is really too high for me to sing anymore. Some things from the early days, let’s say the middle-80’s period with that band, which are songs that I generally don’t do anymore.
DN: Is that from the time period of being on Epic?
GD: Yes. Absolutely.
DN: And I’m sure you still have to do ‘Reach For It’ and ‘Dukey Stick’ right?
GD: Well, I haven’t been doing ‘Dukey Stick’ over here. I’ve been doing ‘Reach For It’ and we do kind of an Old School retrospective where I do ‘Mothership Connection’ and a few James Brown things, and Sly & The Family Stone at the end of the show. It’s kind of like a party. Everybody’s been diggin’ it. It’s been kind of interesting seeing them sing along. There’s some Earth Wind & Fire material, in a medley, not the whole song, just kind of one thing to the next, like a Do You Remember kind of thing.
DN: So as we conclude, when will you start working on own your next album project, and do you actually know what it is yet?
GD: Well, I may do two things at once. I haven’t decided yet. I do want to do a Big Band album. I did a Big Band date while I was over here in Budapest, which was wonderful, with a Big Band there. I’m playing with the Metropole Orchestra in October, and we’re going to record it. I want to record in L.A. I’ve got some ideas for a Big Band that’s a little different from what I’ve heard; incorporating me on a lead synthesizer as opposed to playing piano. So I’m looking forward to doing a Big Band record, and I want to do a Fusion record. I may do both at the same time and decide which one to put out first.
DN: Well, you certainly don’t seem to have run out of ideas. Obviously the one thing that is very apparent, and it’s always been apparent to me, and I’m sure it gets conveyed in what you’re saying now, is that you have not lost an ounce of your passion for music, and making music.
GD: Oh man, I may be more passionate now than I was before! Even though I’m tired, when I get up there, hopefully the tiredness will go away. I can’t speak for my voice, but no, I just love music. If I couldn’t do it, I don’t know what I would do; I might as well check out.
DN: Right, well we know you’re not going to do that, and we know you’re going to keep on making great music. It truly is really great to see you, to catch up with you, and I’m just really elated that you do keep making records. A lot of people unfortunately, because of the economy, because of the way their careers have been structured, don’t have the opportunity to keep doing what they love doing. So that you’re still doing it is a tribute to your perseverance, tenacity, and obviously to your talent, so it’s just really a pleasure to see you and talk to you.
GD: Well, thank you. It’s a blessing. It’s great seeing you too, David. This was a surprise!
DN: Well, for most of the people who know me, it is, when they come to London. Recently in fact, I mentioned Chanté Moore. She was here with Kenny Lattimore, and they did a show at the Jazz Café, and they knew ahead of time that I was here, but it’s a whole different experience when they see me in London. It’s a different experience for me. One of the things I love is actually seeing all my soulful friends performing, because it is different. It’s a different energy, and it’s just different. I love the difference. It was great to see you.
GD: Great to see you too!
DN: Alright, George. Thanks!
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.