Jazz drummer and producer Makaya McCraven is hanging out at Big Alice Brewing’s taproom in Brooklyn’s Industry City complex, sipping on a Queensbridge IPA ahead of a show that evening. The beer is named after the once notorious housing projects where a royal run of rappers including Nas, Mobb Deep, and Marley Marl’s Juice Crew grew up. Fittingly, the influence of hip-hop bubbles through the Chicago-based McCraven’s adventurous brand of jazz: He records improvised sessions with an ensemble cast of musicians, then deftly chops, loops, and edits the material together in the same fashion as a hip-hop producer mining samples from dusty vinyl. It’s a process showcased on his critically-acclaimed Universal Beings album, which was recorded in four cities—Chicago, London, Los Angeles and New York—and features riffs and melodies from guitarist Jeff Parker, saxophonist Nubya Garcia, and rising harp player Brandee Younger.
Over early evening brews, I spoke to McCraven about the influence of Madlib’s approach to sampling jazz, obsessing over Wu-Tang Clan tape cassettes at summer camp, and the sweet spot for number of beers consumed before a live gig.
How’s the Queensbridge IPA?
It's delicious. I'd say it's quite hoppy with notes of pine. There’s a bitter taste—almost like the skin of a cranberry—and I like beers that have that kind of tartness. But it's quite refreshing and not overly sweet like a double IPA or something that would be a little more intense to drink. I find it refreshing and tart. In general, I like IPAs—I’ve become quite the cliched American IPA drinker.
Why do you think IPAs are so popular?
I think the snobbery of it helped it to rise. It's kinda like with the strong bitters and everybody trying to out-bitter everybody. At least in my experience, a lot of it came around the same time the American craft brewing thing started to pop off and IPAs are a part of that. It's hops! We're talking about what's the hoppiest!
When did you start to develop a taste for beer?
I probably started drinking beer in college, a little bit after I was 21. I remember my 21st birthday wasn't like the novelty of being 21, because I'd been playing in bars so much. But then I started playing in places that specialized in craft brews in the early 2000s. In the Pioneer Valley in Western Mass, where I was around, there was a beer-drinking culture there and little breweries and people had been home brewing out there for a long time.
What do you remember about playing those early shows?
Starting in high school, I was playing with this band, Cold Duck Complex. The band was a collective and we were creating music together—it was a live hip-hop trio with keyboard, drums, and bass and then an MC. We were doing something creative that didn't really have a clear place it existed at the time. But we opened for real big fish like The Pharcyde and Rahzel, so I was kinda in this popular local band through high school and college, while also doing side gigs at bars and clubs. My band was doing weekend warrior stuff like driving to play some show at a college in upstate New York or in the city, then try and make it back to class the next day. We did some incredible stuff and I learned a lot of the principles of how to be an artist in a way. We were running our own career and doing our own thing. That was a huge part of my life.
Did it seem surreal to be opening for some of those bigger acts at a young age?
I was a little different 'cause I grew up around some pretty legendary jazz musicians through my dad [jazz drummer Stephen McCraven], so I had an idea of people are people, even though they are this big or however you want to talk about somebody's stature and accomplishments and how we perceive those accomplishments. Having some relationship with that, I felt pretty comfortable. But there's been a number of performances, gigs, and meetings that I think you have those moments where it’s like, ‘Wow, that's wild, I'm here now, this was a goal of mine that's been accomplished and I've made progress in some way.’ So, yeah, those moments can be surreal but you just kinda go with it. I feel in the music industry, there's never a dull moment.
You mentioned your father, who was also a drummer. Have you ever considered sampling his music?
That's definitely something I've experimented with. I usually cover some of his music in my sets. It's great. I have an intimacy with the music already, because I've been listening to it since I was so young. Growing up in such a musical household, there's so much music I encounter in life and it conjures a memory of hearing it in my house or realizing my dad played that jazz standard. It's seared into my memory. I feel the same about the improvised sessions I play on and sample—when I listen back it's like, ‘Oh, yeah, I remember that moment and what I was feeling.’ Listening to it through those ears and then sampling it, there's an intimacy going on that I feel in a different way to music I'm being introduced to for the first time. It's not as connected to me.
You know, you don't want to drink too much before you play, to make sure it's not sloppy, but being loose is alright.”
Which hip-hop producer would you be most honored to hear sample some of your own music?
Madlib 'cause he's one of my biggest influences, just how he’s creative sampling and manipulating audio. It opened up the idea to how you can make music using this studio and the tools and the creative recording techniques and sampling techniques. I was always inspired by how influenced he was by jazz and that really spoke to me as a musician: The side of me that's into hip-hop was shunned by the side that’s engaged with jazz and sometimes vice versa, but I felt it was a clear connection. So hearing Madlib, he was one of the first people [to do that]. A Tribe Called Quest was one of the first hip-hop groups I got into years before I heard of Madlib, but Madlib took it to another place where there was a level of open experimentation and avant-garde-ness and it’s strong and powerful. So I'd be honored and have a special affinity for hearing something of mine Madlib would sample.
When do you remember hip-hop coming into your life?
It remember it being on the TV and my dad listening to Miles Davis’s Doo-Bop record, but I kinda got into it on my own through cassette tapes, like Tribe’s Midnight Marauders was the first cassette tape that was mine. Then I got into it deeper with Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, like 1993, when I was in an all black camp and I remember somebody was bumping that thing and it took over—it was an anthem. I came home and it was Wu-Tang forever!
If someone’s not familiar with the way you record music, how do you explain the process?
I basically make music by taking spontaneous composition sessions where we play and improvise together in kind of an acoustic setting in a non-traditional format. Then I take that music and use it as source material to sample, chop, re-contextualize and edit to form to create new songs and narratives out of those audio moments. Then I take my band and we'll learn those pieces of music and we'll improvise over those structures that we wrote through this process, just like any band will interpret any other song. I'm editing improv into composition: I might change the pitches or do some layering or flip some parts around or map it to pads, manipulating actual audio to create new music.
Which songs on Universal Beings are most drastically different from the initial improv recordings?
“Inner Flight” is pretty pieced together, and some of the stuff on “Atlantic Black," but it sounds like what it was. That's the thing: What I'm trying to do is find a balance and integrity about what happened. Yeah, some of it sounds way different, because moments are frozen in time and there's form and new ideas, but at the same time you can kinda hear where it came from. The stuff that sounds a little more electronic probably has more work in it. But there are some moments on the record where if the band are playing really loopy—it sounds like it's a loop—or there could be a lot of things changing in the music and it sounds like we're playing, but I might have just chopped it that way. I really like the music to be somewhat deceptive and fit in the cracks of what the person on the other side perceives, so they really come to the conclusion does it really matter or do I just enjoy this?
Going back to beer, you’re having an IPA before you perform. What’s the limit on beers before a show?
Ha, that could be a trick question! It depends on the alcohol content of said beers, especially when drinking a fine IPA. You know, you don't want to drink too much before you play, to make sure it's not sloppy, but being loose is alright. [Pauses] I don't know, just kinda keep it cool—that’s the diplomatic answer!