“As an artist, you stifle yourself if you don’t show all sides of you,” says New Jersey drummer Otis Brown III. Drawing on varying influences from hip-hop to jazz to soul, Brown stays true to himself on his debut record The Thought Of You. The result is one of the smoothest, most soulful, and cohesive sets of the year, with Brown’s precisely placed drums setting the tone.
“On this record, there’s something for everybody but it all ties in together,” he says. “That’s a byproduct of being true to who I am. It’s better to come out the gate, like ‘Ok, this is who I fully am. If you like it, cool. If you don’t, that’s cool, too.’ The people that do like it will be curious of what to expect next time, like, ‘Wow, what part of him is going to come out on this next record? What message is he gonna bring on this next album?’ I want to be that same kind of artist that travels in different lanes but people are willing to come along on the ride with me and see what’s coming out next.”
Life+Times got a chance to talk with Brown about The Thought Of You, how hip-hop influences his playing and more.
Life+Times: One of the things that makes the album stand out is that it’s a concept record and there’s a constant theme throughout. Talk about what that theme is and where it came from.
Otis Brown III: I guess I had a concept in mind when we were recording it. The song “The Thought Of You”, the title track, is kind of like the main thread throughout the whole thing. I wanted it to reflect not only the kind of musician I am, but the people I grew up in music [with]. We grew up in the hip-hop era, we listened to jazz, a lot of us started playing in church, so I wanted to make a record that was true to all of those things. I tried to make an album to tie them in and show that they were all related. The people who were on the record were a big part of making that possible.
L+T: Where did the title come from and what is the story you’re trying to tell with that idea?
OBIII: “The Thought Of You” is actually a song Bilal wrote. We used to play in an ensemble in college with Robert [Glasper] and a couple other musicians on the album. When I was coming up with the concept for the record, the “You” in that is kind of interchangeable. It’s my thoughts on music, my family, God, my musical influences whatever have you. It reflected all of that and that’s one of the reasons why that song comes in and out throughout the whole record. “The Thought Of You” is the main thought, and then it goes off to thoughts about my musical influences which in one part might be jazz; then we come back to the main thought of the record – “The Thought Of You” – and then there might be some stuff that alludes to Dilla; then we come back and there’s thoughts about my wife and my family. [The song] was the main thread that was the launching pad for getting a lot of the stuff on the record done and tying it all together. I came up with that early as a common thread that could weave through everything on the album.
L+T: Robert Glasper and Bilal are both on the album and Derrick Hodge is one of the producers. You’ve know each of them for a long time. How is it playing with people that you’re familiar with and how simple does that make it when it comes to the creative process in the studio?
OBIII: It makes a huge difference. A lot of times people are like, “Oh, Robert Glasper Experiment is really dope they won a Grammy, they’re really hot,” or “Bilal is well known, I want to get him on my record.” I never wanted to do an album like that. I wanted to do a record with people I had relationships with that would be able to convey the messages I was trying to convey. It just so happened that a lot of my closest friends are those kinds of people. I worked a lot in Gretchen Parlato’s band; Robert and I are like brothers since the day we met at the New School in New York; same with Bilal, he sang at my wedding. It was a lot of my people and they’re also some of my favorite musicians. I felt like I couldn’t do this record without them and they were super-receptive to doing it. It makes a huge difference in the studio. Derrick, as well. Aside from music, all of those guys are really good friends. It made a difference because it was a family atmosphere in the studio. Everybody felt equally invested, it wasn’t like it was my project and a bunch of sidemen, they wanted to make sure my first album [was dope]. All of those people have amazing ears. Derrick was at the helm guiding everybody, but everybody had input and amazing ideas. You can kind of feel the spirit of that on the record. You can tell everybody was fully invested and present, that makes a difference when you’re recording an album.
L+T: What made now a good time for you to step forward and put out your solo record?
OBIII: That’s a good question. I had wanted to do it for awhile. There were a couple factors: coming up with the concept, having the material and then having a window of time to focus on it. All were contributing factors in feeling like it was time to do it. I always heard from people, “When are you going to do a record? You should do it,” from Derrick, Robert and most of the people who are on this album. I felt like I had time and everything lined up amazingly. The people on this record, for all of them to be in town at the same time and available for four-and-a-half days of recording was miraculous. It was amazing how everybody made themselves available, even if they weren’t. Everything lined up and it was further proof that this was the right time to do it.
L+T: There are several times you can hear a hip-hop influenced rhythm that you’re playing. As a drummer, how has hip-hop influenced your musical approach?
OBIII: I grew up in Newark in the ‘90s. I ended up studying jazz, both of my parents are musicians so I was exposed to a lot of different music, but there was a lot of hip-hop in what a lot of people would call the golden era. I grew up not far from where Naughty By Nature was from, Queen Latifah and Flavor Unit. That era of hip-hop was just so amazing to me, from Tribe to Redman. There’s so many people I could name, but all of that stuff is what I was listening to. I didn’t really care on this album – I’ve never really cared anyway – what the “jazz police” say. I never pay attention to that. My dad is a drummer, he played with James Brown in college and Al Green, so I always heard that kind of funk. When I was growing up, I could always hear the connections with hip-hop and older soul – Black music – that I heard growing up. Still to this day – a lot of it is garbage to me now – I listen to a lot of hip-hop. I still listen to a lot of JAY Z, I just went to the On The Run Tour. I don’t consider myself a jazz musician – I’m a musician. Playing the drums, you aren’t true to the history of the drums if you don’t listen to some of that stuff. The drums come all the way from Africa and covers a lot of things in Black music, and hip-hop is definitely one of them. I don’t feel like I could call myself a drummer and not listen to hip-hop.
L+T: There seems to be a platform now where there are a lot of younger, Black musicians who aren’t constrained by anything, but playing music that pulls from a lot of different places.
OBIII: Right. I think now, the way the music industry has changed, and the way the times are now, people are just being true to who they are. A lot of times they were trying to conform to one thing or another, like, “Oh, this is gonna be a jazz album or whatever,” but I don’t know anybody that only listens to, or is only influenced by, one thing. To me, that’s not life; and music is supposed to reflect life. Nobody does one thing all time, so I think musicians now are just being true to who they are. I played with Esperanza Spalding for a long time and we used to hear the same thing: “Why are you playing an arrangement of a Michael Jackson song?” Because we like Michael Jackson. People like her, Glasper, Gretchen Parlato, Nicholas Payton have opened the door and made people’s ears receptive. Fans expect for people to be themselves now.
The Thought Of You is available now.