J.D. Meachem’s music is a rich marriage of hip –hop and jazz. With the elegance and precision of an elder jazz musician, youthful tempos and a pen that’ll make you ponder. Meachem is a true musical phenomenon. His music has been heard nationally as part of the score for the critically acclaimed documentary, “Revolution ‘67”, which aired on PBS last summer. Read on and see what inspires him and his thoughts on lyrical censorship and the use of the word Nigger in music.
Clutch: What has inspired you to write and play music?
J.D. Meachem: You know I’ve been playing drums since I was maybe seven. In my family you had to play something, it was just a rule there. I started out on the piano and uh I took about four lessons. At the fourth piano lesson, I started crying and just throwing a fit and stuff, so that was the end of piano. Since I had to play something else, I played the drums. So that’s when I started doing that, now when I started getting serious about music was at the end of high school. Basically it was because I had to do something. It hit me that I actually had to get a job. (he laughs) And uh, I didn’t want to work behind a desk. So I was like alright ‘let me do this, I like playing music.’ So that’s pretty much how it started.
Clutch: As a teenager do you think music was instrumental in keeping you focused and out of trouble?
J.D. Meachem: Ah…No. Not really. I really wasn’t big into music at all during those years. I was playing sports. I played football, baseball and track. Sports take a whole lot of your time, gives you something to do. I think that’s what kept me out of trouble.
Clutch: How would you describe your musical style?
J.D. Meachem: I do so many different kinds of music, um my focus is actually kind of jazz -instrumental music kind of stuff and I compose. A lot of stuff I’ve been doing lately is integrating hip-hop into jazz and jazz into hip-hop. Which I think a lot of people are doing now days, but a lot of people don’t actually do hip hop and jazz. I think that’s what’s cool about it is that I can actually do both and do them very often. I play a whole lot of instruments, that’s one thing. And I think what’s different about my music is the sheer diversity of it. I had one commission last year from a Jewish studies program at Northeastern University, out here in Boston. To write some new jazz music based on Holocaust music and one of the things I had to do was sing in Yiddish. One of the funniest things you’ll see is a black man singing in Yiddish and playing bass on a jazz song. (he laughs)
Clutch: Your approach to jazz, the intricacy and maturity is quite refreshing -reminiscent of the rich and noble sounds of the past, yet resonating youthfulness. Speak to your approach to making jazz music.
J.D. Meahcem: All I can say about that is that, as far as jazz goes, everybody is getting jazz education, even going to college to learn jazz music. Everybody wants to swing and play like Miles Davis and stuff. Because I play drums, people always want me to play the swing. I hate doing it because the beat was made up for people to dance to. Swing music was not music you’d go to a jazz club, sit down and listen to. Which is what all the shit is based on, nobody even knows how to do the dance anymore and it was supposed to be dance music. So why are we still playing this music like this? It kind of confuses me, my friends don’t like when I say it, but I say it all the time. That’s why I am integrating hip-hop into jazz, because you can dance to that. You know, you can play it in the club, you can play it at your place –if you’re having a party. I mean it’s relevant. A lot of jazz nowadays isn’t even relevant. I mean, I love people like Wynton Marsalas, who are keeping up the tradition. It’s not cool to try new things for the sake of just trying new things. There comes a point where, if it’s dance music, but nobody can dance to it you’re just abstracting things –it’s just kind of pointless to me. That’s one of the reasons I integrate hip –hop and especially blues into jazz. Jazz has fallen so much into white, black, white establishment hands or whatever. I mean this was a music that was the people’s music. People used to take out their horns and play them on the streets. I’d like to bring a little of that back. More of the people’s music instead of the rich people’s music.
Clutch: Who has inspired you in music?
J.D. Meachem: Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of J.Dilla, Brian Blade and a lot of classical music. Chicago underground rap has really inspired me through the years because that’s what I listened to coming up. Like Psychodrama and Qualo. A lot of people say they listen to everything, but they mean everything that’s top 40. They’re not getting into Indonesian or Brazilian music. I learned a lot about and listen to many types of music.
Clutch: Where do you search for ‘hidden jewels’ in music?
J.D. Meachem: You can’t even hear it on the radio anymore. They don’t play anything good on the radio no more. I actually love MySpace. My friends will hate me for saying that, but I love MySpace. I’ve actually played with musicians I’ve met on MySpace. They’re like ‘hey, hey dude, you play the sax? Wanna play?’ (he laughs) I’ve played in several bands with people I’ve met through MySpace. I’ve met so many people on MySpace. Or like internet radio stations, they normally play really good stuff. And just going to shows wherever you live. You can go to a bar down the street and find someone real good they may not have a record deal or whatever.
Clutch: I understand you play piano, bass, clarinet, trumpet, guitar, vibes and drums. What other instruments do you play?
J.D. Meachem: I play banjo. I play -I bought a viola on the internet yesterday, it hasn’t come yet. (he laughs) One of my friends left his bow over here one day, he plays violin. I used it on my guitar and was like ‘dang, I can learn this’ so I bought a viola. I play clarinet really well. I’m pretty good at the trumpet. The drums, I’m solid at the drums. I don’t play everything else as good as the drums. I usually pick up an instrument for a certain reason. Like I pick up the guitar and can play the shit out of the blues. I just pick up the guitar to play the blues. I play the blues better than anybody you know, but as far as doing a bunch else. I probably wouldn’t be able to do much more than that.
Clutch: How did J.Dilla change your life?
J.D. Meachem: That was a tee shirt movement that they had from a concert. That track that you saw it on, on MySpace is a J.Dilla track that I changed. But J. Dilla did change my life. I mean, I didn’t know about him until maybe several days after he died. I saw an article in a paper up here in Boston, I was like who is this guy? So I checked him out and it was like man. It’s one of those things, you know, I wished I had known about him when he was alive. Him and James Baldwin are two people that I just didn’t know enough about until they died.
Clutch: With the current state of the music industry where do you see your music going?
J.D. Meachem: I’m getting into some big stuff right now, I’m pretty excited. Ropadope records out of Philly is rereleasing some of my stuff. I just have to finish the technical business stuff. I’m always writing and I always play the drums professionally and at bars around town that’s pretty much how I make most of my living.
Clutch: What advice would you offer budding musicians in terms of promoting their music? You mentioned MySpace, obviously, it’s a great platform. What other forms of promotion would you recommend?
J.D. Meachem: I think the first thing you’ve got to do, before you do anything else, is get out and get some experience under your belt. Get out and play, go sit in with a band, if you’re a producer make music and let people listen to it. Give your music to people, people on the street, record labels. You need help, you can try to do the self release, self management thing, but there’s often only so far you can go with it before you just need help. You can’t do that shit by yourself. I mean, get help -it’s as simple as that. Learn your craft and if you’re good, people will listen to you and if you’re not, you have to get a day job. (he laughs) Especially up here in Boston, there are so many musicians and there aren’t enough places to play. It’s good, but it’s so competitive and saturated with bad musicians and good musicians who can’t get a job. The clubs know you’re expendable, so they won’t pay you that well or have all these weird policies about not playing for a month or so if you’re going to play at their venue so they can get the most people. I don’t think it’s that hard. If you’re good, people will list -give your music to people.
Clutch: Are their any particular artists that you’d love to work with J.D.?
J.D. Meachem: It’s hard to say because a lot of times people that you want to work with, it just doesn’t work. I remember reading Miles Davis’ autobiography, he was supposed to do a collaboration with Prince and they recorded the song but it just didn’t sound right. I can’t really say that there is anybody I really, really want to work with.
Clutch: You have a knack for setting great speeches to great music. You’ve referred to the art form as being more challenging than scoring movies. What inspired the concept and why is it so challenging?
J.D. Meachem: Well with movies you have some kind of visual to sort of give you a little direction on how the music should be going. It could be colors on the screen, a facial expression or the aura of the scenes. But with speeches all you have is someone’s voice. You don’t have that many options. You have to work with the texture of the sound.
Clutch: What’s on the radar for you in the near future?
J.D. Meachem: I’m just trying to keep playing, keep writing music. I am applying for a commission to write a full orchestra piece and that’s taking up a lot of my time.
I’ve been trying to find venues in black neighborhoods. There are no venues in black neighborhoods, except for like Baltimore and Atlanta. (he laughs). So often good black artist come to town and play in large snazzy venues and their audience is white. A lot of times black people aren’t even getting to these shows. So I’m trying to find places where the common man can go to see the show, but it’s hard man.
Clutch: How do you feel about lyrical censorship and the use of the word Nigger in music?
J.D. Meachem: I hate it. I come from the south, my parents are from Alabama. It’s almost too hard for me to try to get into this. I don’t understand why black people do it or anybody. I went to a predominately white high school and some of my friends were mad because they couldn’t use the word with me. They’d be like “What’s up my Nigga?? And I’m like ‘you talking to me?’” Now it’s becoming harder to debate it, because it’s in the music. Some people act like the word came from rap music, when it dates back to minstrel shows written by white people in the 1800s. People say “oh it’s not nigger it’s nigga”, it doesn’t matter how you spell it. How do you think Stephen Foster spelled it when he wrote songs for the minstrel shows, he spelled it Nigga. It ain’t no different, a nigger is a nigga.
If my dad heard me calling anybody a nigga…there’d be some trouble. I don’t know what’s up with young people nowadays, it’s like there’s no pride sometime. So that’s my feeling on that, it makes me really unhappy.
Clutch: There is something very special about a man who loves music. Speak to me on your love affair with lady music.
J.D. Meachem: My love affair with lady music. When I first started getting really serious about music, I was ALL about music. All the time, it was intense, my first couple of years of college I didn’t even talk to anybody. I would practice drums six to seven hours a day, writing music, started skipping class and these were music classes. It was really intense at first and I kind of burned out a little bit. I realized you can’t really do well at your art, at being a musician if all you’re doing is music. You have to put things into perspective a little bit. Music really isn’t that important, there are people who don’t listen to music at all. It’s not like water or food, so knowing that it’s been a lot easier for me to get into the bulk of what I think about music and find my own personality in the music, writing and recording. I guess I still get into that now, but it’s at a healthy level. I know that I’m not the only musician in the world who is going to make good music. I guess I subconsciously had in my mind that I was going to save the world from bad music or something.
Clutch: What would you like Clutch magazine readers to know about J.D. Meachem?
J.D. Meachem: That I am trying man. I’m trying to make good music that people can enjoy longer than it takes to change your Soulja Boy ring tone, that’s all I’m doing.