An Interview with Diggs Duke
Less than a few days after his first European show in Amsterdam – en-route back to the US – Duke took a detour via the UK to hook up with Gilles Peterson at the Brownswood house in London for their first meeting. It was initially Gilles’ producer at BBC Radio 6 who passed on Duke’s music to him, but as is usually the case with Peterson’s nous for picking up on talent, he soon enough caught appeal of Dukes’ music: “He’s the guy right?” Diggs says, “I mean for good reason too, he always catches stuff, if not in the very beginning then always closely at the outset of somebody’s development you know. Is cool, It makes you feel good when people like that appreciate your music.”
We spoke to Duke over Skype at his home in Washington D.C – he’d just returned from LA where he’d played a private showcase in a rented loft and where’d he also had an interview with Anthony Valdez of KCRW for NUVOtv. Chatting with the multi-faceted artist about how well-received he is in the US, he tells us that “it all depends on the different cities – different cities can be stubborn” but says that people received him very well in LA: “LA definitely conducive to my style of music.” Los Angeles doesn’t have a dominant sound or theme. Instead, there are many scenes pushing out diverse sounds with a plethora of extremely talented artists seamlessly unrestricted by musical boundaries. Labels like Brainfeeder continue to explore new territories and Duke’s remix of Thundercats Is It Love certainly caught the attention of his peers out there.
Despite modestly playing down what it meant to have the most eclectic selector of our generation support his music – and if being on Brownswood wasn’t sign enough – Duke doesn’t feel that he’s fully recognised as an artist, not yet at least: “I mean I don’t feel like I’ve really gotten a lot of appreciation for my music from a lot of people, I feel like Gilles is the only person at that level who’s picked it up and supported it really.”
Added to that belief his sceptical view of the music industry and you have an artist, unsurprisingly, who feels at odds with the security of the music industry: “I mean I’m hoping I get more opportunities, but this business you never know what’s gonna happen, the music industry is really up and down – all you gotta do is make one mistake, do one album somebody doesn’t like, say one word that someone doesn’t like and your career could be fuckin’ over.”
In the early days, Duke showed a musician willing to try his hand at a variety of different projects: playing drums in jazz bands, rock bands and hip hop bands. He grew up in Gary, Indiana a city about 25 miles south of Chicago right across the Illinois stateline. He lived there until he was around 15 along with his mother, who had a healthy passion for music and his father, who was a musician himself. Music was always prevalent in his house, and going to church, he says, inadvertently influenced his musical taste. Although primarily interested in the competitive nature of sports – he was a keen basketball and American football player – Duke’s dad was a major influence in maintaining his zest in music. He tells us that he dropped out of college “because he hated it” but later attended college to study drums – also taking private classical, jazz and composition lessons – and to major in Music History and Performance with Minor and Ethnomusicology.
Duke plays most of the instruments across his material, and when you listen to his music and reconcile with that fact you not only begin to sit up and listen more tentatively to his raw talent, but you also appreciate his harmonies, arrangements and excellent command of melodies on a whole different level. Many artists will vouch about their struggling beginnings in the industry, or at least remember the difficultly of making long-lasting impacts on their peers. For Duke, when it has come down to relaying his palpable talent into a viable career, it hasn’t always been plain sailing, either: “I’ve never made a living out of music! I’ve had a lot of jobs, my first job was as a painter in Indiana, but I’ve also worked in telemarketing, in a bar and done some other stuff.”
Growing up Diggs listened to a lot of hip hop and RnB – artists like Faith Evans, Twista, Nas and Public enemy. We brought up the fact that for us, the state of popular music in the 90’s was so much more accessible in contrast to today – in particular hip hop, RnB and Garage genres – and the charts were full of highly listenable, soulful and well-crafted pop music; you had acts like Mary J Blige, Aalyiah, Artful Dodger etc – it was fresh, exciting and well produced, but when you compare that to the equivalent of today’s charts, the aesthetic has changed and it’s not nearly comparable. Erykah Badu made the remark that hip hop is turning into ‘Pop techno cornball ass music’ saying that it’s “kinda painful” for her generation to see: “it’s just strange to me…u don’t give up the boom bip and the hump for the payday. I love house and techno as a side dish. But now its served as the main course AND that’s ALL u gone get.”
Is she right? When Badu made that comment earlier in the year it kind of rang true with us – particularly when listening to what was getting played on the radio – so we were interested to hear Duke’s view: “The thing is, it’s not that the music is turning into that, if that’s what’s being played to the children then that’s what sells – the children are buying that music. If you market that music to the kids that’s what it’s gonna be.” While the industry has become more segmented, as Duke rightly points out “people who wana hear music, find the music they want now – if you’re really looking for music you want to listen to, it’s not hard to find.”
Duke’s music can be characterised as a fresh, yet original interpretation that marries elements of Soul, RnB and Jazz music – a refreshing and versatile sound that can be similarly grouped with the likes of Robert Glasper, Jose James, Georgia Anne Muldrew and Fatima. Speaking about the influence of his music though, and without us wanting to pigeonhole his style, Duke explains that it’s “all in the tradition of black music coming from the US and tracing back to Africa and brining stuff in from other cultures outside of that tradition also, and kinda throwing it in there, approaching all of this music with a kind of respect of where it comes from and learning what it is.”
For all its excellence, his earlier releases like Mass Exodus and Gravity perhaps didn’t transcend jazz, soul and RnB like it should: “You have to come to your senses about the reality of what it is you want out the game and why you’re in the game.” That introspective and philosophical approach Duke talks about is reflective in his tracks, and those early beats like Mass Exodus bear all the hallmarks of a producer well versed in the art of producing timeless music.
When his first full LP release on Brownswood dropped – Offering For Anxious – it followed in the footsteps of his previous work, a soulful collection of songs (some of which are as old as 8 years) that transfer his distinct and accomplish palette of sounds. It’s a more complete offering into his foray as an artist, an album that extends the influence of his peers and brings together an array of compelling harmonies and rhythms: “Once I started this project and started presented it in way and going about it in a serious way, you know hitting up people, getting people to pay attention to what was going, then it evolved and started working for me.”
Offering For Anxious dresses up the jazz/soul framework in all sorts of intriguing and fixating ways, and speaking about his productions he said: “it’s difficult writing lyrics, I don’t particularly like writing lyrics I just try and let it happen however it happens. I have no problem coming up with harmonies but the hardest thing is finding where to start – how am I gona start? Different starting points equal different material and different ways to think about it and it influences everything.”
Behind the musical vision of Duke is the influence of Duke Ellington, a pioneering American composer and jazz musician from the early to mid-1900’s. When we ask Duke what it is about Ellington that he reconciles with so much, the energy he responses with makes it clear that something’s permeated on a deeper level: “If you listen to Duke from the 1920s when he’s playing at The Cotton Club or wherever, the music is fucking amazing; even now, it’s difficult to imagine if somebody started playing shit like that now, in that way. There is also really no amplification involved, so you just have to kind of put yourself in that time in your head to listen to that music first of all. His music existing almost a 100 years ago now and it’s just way ahead of its time – its amazing, amazing music.”
He goes on to talk about the inspiration he feels from the necessity to represent the depth of Black America beyond what the politicians and media would like to portray: “It’s hard to find role models of black people with class in America, the media manipulates it and just the aura of it just doesn’t celebrate black people like Duke Ellington. He was one of the first black people I was introduced to who really impressed me as being somebody who was just like wow – a middle class dude growing up, with dignity, he was always looking clean, his music sounds beautiful, and this was in the 20s! People always look at him as a passive personality, but he really wasn’t, he was a really complex dude, he was writing things for like Alvin Ailey, ballets, opera – I was really impressed, he had a band for like 40/50 years with the same format, doing the same thing and managed to keep the same concept going.”
The complexity of Duke Ellington that Diggs talks about is perhaps evident in himself, and his music: “When I think about making music, I think what Duke Ellington might think of my music, what Phyllis Hyman might think, what the people I grew up with might think…I try to put as much as myself – whatever that means – into my music, the way I walk, the way I talk, the way I feel –I feel like that’s the goal when you’re making music.” Something In My Soul – a track which we included in our top picks of last year – serves as a fine indication of that expressionistic philosophy.
Don’t be deceived by his album title: though Diggs says he’s an anxious person, there’s too much organic, free-flowing improvisation coursing through the veins of his productions for them to feel any kind of anxiety. His love for live shows highlights his desire to perform, a yearning to exert his musicality and the platform to truly showcase his talent. And when you see him performing live you get a real sense for his passion of a live show: “Live shows are nerve racking because you never know how people are gona react to you…but I love the rush of playing live, if you do well its more satisfying, when you play a good show to like an intimate room, everybody treats you like you just had sex with them, straight up, its like having sex with 100 people, you get a connection; you cant replicate that in the studio. It’s different when you are playing by yourself in the studio – no body is there to share the energy.”
After steadily honing his craft, Offering For Anxious is a personal triumph, taking him down his own path away from styles or expectations, and coming out with something original and creatively coherent. His first full album is just the start and Duke remains dedicated to bringing out a lot of albums, with number 2 coming out on Brownswood in the summer: “People talk about having 9 albums in a life time I’m talking about putting out 9 albums in a year! it’s just not that hard to come up with songs, it’s the obstacle of just getting into the studio, so every time you get into a studio you can do an album if you have the musicians with you – it’s just an old school method, no body made a big deal out of making albums, albums used to get made quickly all the time.”
With such an accessible and open-minded take on the sounds that defy him as a musician, Duke is on the path to becoming a real figurehead in the modern jazz, RnB and soul scene. Combined with his healthy appetite for releasing a breadth of new music, it’s only so long before this highly gifted talent starts to attract a greater crowd.