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Hip-Hop Percussionist Pushes The Envelope


I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Hip-hop, maybe more than any other kind of music, is a melding of genres. Soul, funk, R&B, all laid over a hard beat and a rhyming verse. For years, artists have tried to expand the reach of hip-hop sound by including Latin percussion. Enter Eric Bobo. He's the son of Latin jazz legend Willie Bobo. Eric was one of the people responsible for first bringing Latin sounds into the hip-hop mainstream with his collaborations with groups like the Beastie Boys and Cyprus Hill. And now, he is presenting his first solo album. It is called "Meeting of the Minds," and he is with us now from NPR West in Culver City, California. Welcome. Nice to talk to you.

Mr. ERIC BOBO (Latin Hip-hop Percussionist): Good to talk to you, too. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: This album just has a lot of variety on it. I want to get a little bit from one of my favorite tracks, "Fiesta." And I want to play a little bit, and then we'll talk about it.

(Soundbite of song "Fiesta" featuring Cultura Londres and Kemo the Blaxican)

MARTIN: I may have mentioned I'm from Brooklyn. I may have mentioned I'm from Brooklyn. Yes, Brooklyn East(ph) New York in the house.

Mr. BOBO: I was born in Hollis - Hollis, Queens.

MARTIN: Better luck next time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOBO: Shame on you.

MARTIN: But one of the things I loved about this track is it - I felt like I just kind of wandered, you know, onto a fabulous street party. Just talk to me about how this track came together.

Mr. BOBO: Well, basically, I've been working with one of the groups on there, Cultura Londres, and they're from London. So it was really interesting to have a group from out there doing hip-hop Latin styles and everything. And "Fiesta" was something that just stuck with me. It just had the groove. It just had, you know, the passion, the fire. There's that party vibe.

(Soundbite of song "Fiesta" featuring Cultura Londres and Kemo the Blaxican)

MARTIN: But then the very next track, you go back to your Cyprus Hill roots with "Apocalypse Now," which is featuring B-Real as well as - so let me play a little bit of that, and then you can talk about it.

(Soundbite of song "Apocalypse Now" featuring B-Real, Sick Jaken, and Ill Bill)

MARTIN: So you go from "Fiesta," which is really a great party song, into what a lot of people think of as traditional hip-hop or rap, which is kind of the hard realities. What were you thinking about with this track? Obviously, "Apocalypse Now" is one of the iconic films around the Vietnam War.

Mr. BOBO: Well, to me, it was just a dark kind of thing. I think I made it a little bit more of that with the effects of the fighting and the war - the war effects. But at the same time, it was just a dark song. The feeling was just really like dark and heavy. And I felt that with all the emcees that were on there - Ill Bill, Sick Jacken and B-Real - that it will be a perfect mix, you know, for them.

(Soundbite of song "Apocalypse Now" featuring B-Real, Sick Jacken and Ill Bill)

MARTIN: And also, you'll note that there's some bleeping in our version of this track because we're mindful of our audience.

Mr. BOBO: Yes. Well, that's good.

MARTIN: I appreciate that you appreciate that. But there is a lot of cussing in this CD. I had to be mindful of when and where I played it. Just wondered if you had some thoughts about that.

Mr. BOBO: I'm really not one to tell an emcee or a rapper or a writer what not to write and stifle their creativity. I really don't think that it's - the album is that heavy with that and probably like good six, seven songs, but at the same time...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Oh, I'm sorry. Oh, yeah, that would be half.

Mr. BOBO: Yeah. (Laughing) That will be like so - so just a little bit. But, I mean, I didn't want to have...

MARTIN: I'm sorry because - math isn't my strongest subject but seven is half of fourteen.

Mr. BOBO: I didn't want to have the whole album just be that. You know, I mean, I'm mindful of that, but at the same point, you know, hip-hop is expressive. And I'm not really one to say, you know, censor this or censor that. But as far as what I do and what I personally like, I like that kind of feeling, that expression like that. So you know, it's a part of everyday life and culture now, you know. And it's something that shouldn't be dismissed or considered bad because of some of the things that are mentioned within the lyrics because you have movies and TV shows that depict things that really aren't the best things to show but it's entertainment, yet some of it is real life.

MARTIN: There is a little bit of the wizened(ph) old man in the album, a little bit. Like there's this one track, "Chicken Wing."

Mr. BOBO: Yes.

MARTIN: Which I personally found hilarious.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But it has a lot of cussing.

Mr. BOBO: We'll get you the clean version, OK?

MARTIN: We'll try to get...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I'd be curious to see how that works. Here is it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song "Chicken Wing")

Mr. BOBO: (Rapping) Yo, I'll try the big things though. But it really don't worked. When you walk around with shirts that are long in the skirts That's some feminine (bleep) Call your Grandma, I'm trouble I'm not having that (bleep) Everybody nowadays got a friend, that's OK Do the ladies a favor, man. Don't sing that (bleep)...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: OK. I'm trying to pull it together here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: It just cracked me up. I mean, I'm just wondering where this came from. Was it - you have just a feeling of a bunch of you guys standing around talking to the younger folk saying, look.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOBO: I mean, that song is a fun song. Demigodz, you know, they are great guys. And I think you always have to let people know, you know, where this is really from, or you know, this is how it was done. This is what brought it to this point, and that shouldn't be dismissed, you know. And if you can attack that subject in a funny, comedic way that'll have people listen and then say, oh, my God, wait a minute, you know, they're saying something, I think that's a good thing.

MARTIN: If you are just joining us, we're speaking with Eric Bobo about his debut album, "Meeting of the Minds." That's a good time to talk about a little bit of your history. You've - we mentioned that your father, Willie Bobo, was a legendary jazz musician, and he passed away when you were only 15.

Mr. BOBO: Yes.

MARTIN: And then you took over your father's band. That must have been - I don't know. I'm just - it just seems like a really hard thing for a 15-year-old.

Mr. BOBO: It was because there weren't really any other kids my age that were doing it like that. And to take over his group, which I had committed to for a year after his passing, was very hard because then you get the people that think that, oh, he's not going to make it or he's not that good. You know, they don't give me the respect. They're like, what's he really doing? And you know, I got a little bit of that, but I soldiered through it, and I was able to kind of make my own little niche.

MARTIN: What do you think you learned from that experience, which is not one I would really wish on anybody?

Mr. BOBO: I think the most important thing was to go after what you love and your passion and, you know, what you believe in, to stay true to it. I mean, I love, you know, music and performing so much. You know, how can I really let, you know, a few negative dark clouds tell me I can't do this or I can't do that? I mean, I was young, but I knew what I wanted. I knew what I wanted to be and what I wanted to develop. So I just knew that in order for me to continue to do that, I had to continue. And I think that I've been able to fulfill a lot of those early childhood dreams.

MARTIN: One of the laments of jazz aficionados these days, though, is that it is a dying art form and the only people who listen to it are - I don't know how else to say this - kind of old white folks, older folks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Older white folks. First of all, do you think that that's true? And secondly, do you think that in a way you're bridging the worlds?

Mr. BOBO: Well, in regards to jazz and its kind of downfall here in the States, it's hard because there's not really that genre of music in general taught in the schools, in the younger schools. I mean, you don't really get that. And it is a dying art form as far there being a lot of new music. In Europe, in different places like that, there's more of an appreciation. But out here, it's not like that. To me, I grew up when it was really thriving here in Los Angeles, so I think with my album and some of the tracks and the way that I approached it, kind of was a bridging of a gap.

MARTIN: How did you get into hip-hop? Was it just that that was what was musically happening?

Mr. BOBO: I grew up, you know, I was there at the beginnings of hip-hop, you know, hearing the Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash and African Mambata(ph) and stuff like that. I was young when I was hearing all of that. So when I was playing with my dad and playing Latin jazz, my friends were listening to like the funk and all that stuff and R&B and early hip-hop. So I had always gravitated to that because it was something that was, you know, around me, and I felt that. So I was in it pretty early on.

MARTIN: But I mentioned that before you were with Cypress Hill, you were with the Beastie Boys. And I want to play a sample of your instrumental solo, "Bobo on the Corner," which was on their 1994 album, "Ill Communication."

(Soundbite of song "Bobo in the Corner")

MARTIN: I understand that you had to audition for the Beastie Boys.

Mr. BOBO: Yes.

MARTIN: Was that weird after having - I mean, after having had so much responsibility at such a young age, being a band leader, was that weird auditioning?

Mr. BOBO: It was weird, and I really am not a fan of auditions. You know, I haven't had that many, but all the ones I have had, I just hate that experience. But they were going through, you know, percussionist after percussionist after percussionist, and they had a tour that was coming up, and they said, well, come down to the studio, and I was already a fan. I had listened to everything. I knew whatever song they were going to throw at me, I knew it. So I was well prepared, but it was the fact of, you know, having to go down there and deal with those nerds who said, OK, well, play this and play that, and you know, and try this and what would you do here, and everything like that. I really never had to go through that, so to have that little experience, I could say, OK, well, this is what it feels like, and I really don't like it.

MARTIN: What do you think you bring to an album? What do you think is - that Eric Bobo brings that other people don't?

Mr. BOBO: Well, I really listen to what is before me, you know, musically, and where I can put my little ideas in. And it's not necessarily to have to play all the way through it. I could just maybe play in sections. Just knowing how to get in, you know, get in where you fit in and not be overbearing in your part, you know. Just really make it blend to make it that much sweeter. So I think that when I do sessions, people know that, you know, I work fast. I listen to the track and then, you know, I'm able to lay something down that's going to make sense and add that little groove to it. And it's still my style. I mean, there's people that tell me that I have a certain sound, but at the same point, I just like to get in where I fit in musically, and different genres are going to allow you to try different things.

MARTIN: I don't want to put you in a box musically, but there's a long history of Latin influence in jazz that a lot of people think they can hear, right, that's identifiable. But what about in hip-hop? Do you think that there's like a Latin jazz - a Latin strain to hip-hop that is palpable?

Mr. BOBO: I think even going back to earlier when you have, you know, the "Rappers Delight," you know, the beginning of that is bells and congo drums and stuff like that.

(Soundbite of song "Rappers Delight")

Mr. BOBO: You automatically had that influence. You can hear it in the certain rhythms and certain baselines of certain songs that will go toward that Latin influence. I think with hip-hop producers, especially during the age of sampling, they really just went and explored every avenue that they could. So it's definitely evident in a lot of hip-hop songs.

MARTIN: And just to prove that you're not in a box, we've talked about how you kind of are at level(ph) with genres and jump around across all genres. I have to ask you about "Crawling" featuring Death by Hollywood. I'm going to play a little bit so that people can understand what it is that I'm puzzled about.

Mr. BOBO: What was I thinking? OK.

MARTIN: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Here it is.

(Soundbite of song "Crawling")

DEATH BY HOLLYWOOD: (Singing) Then I feel like I'm falling, falling. I think that I'm wasted, wasted. Can't stop me from crawling, crawling back to you. Back to you. Back to you.

MARTIN: Yes, Eric, it makes me wonder, what...

Mr. BOBO: You have me laughing over here. I'm near in tears right now, thank you.

MARTIN: There's a parental advisory on the CD. I'm thinking, should there be like a melodic advisory on there too?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOBO: Basically, it was another extension of trying to do something different. When I was doing stuff for the Black Rose, I had - that was the first time of me doing something like acoustically, and you know, in a rock alternative kind of format. And upon hearing the song, it kind of took me back to that. And I thought that it would be kind of cool to just maybe add that into the mix. And I put it there, and a lot of people, like, they're hearing the album and it has a certain groove, even though it jumps around genre-wise. And then all of a sudden, "Crawling" comes on. I mean, it's just like it's - it's another extension of, you know, what I've done and a part of me, I guess. I didn't know that it would have been to this effect but...

MARTIN: I salute you.

Mr. BOBO: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: I salute your independence.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOBO: Thank you.

MARTIN: So what's next for you? I understand you're going to be touring.

Mr. BOBO: Yes, we're going to be going out to South America, the top of - on the top of March. We're filling in, you know, more dates. And then we're going to be doing a couple of warmup shows in February. Later on in the month, up in San Francisco, also down South San Diego. And just warming up to touring, and then after that we're just going to go full force in, you know, bring "Meeting of the Minds" to the stage.

MARTIN: Well, good luck to you with everything.

Mr. BOBO: Thank you very, very much.

MARTIN: What song should we go out on?

Mr. BOBO: Wow. Well, since you...

MARTIN: No cussing.

Mr. BOBO: OK, OK. Why don't we do this. Why don't we go out on a nice, smooth note and play something like "Aqui Estoy."

MARTIN: "Aqui Estoy," that sounds good. "Aqui Estoy" from "Meeting of the Minds." It's Eric Bobo's solo debut album. Eric Bobo is also the percussionist for the hip-hop group, Cyprus Hill. His tour in support of the album begins in just a few weeks. We'll have more information about Eric, his music and his story on our Web site, Eric, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BOBO: Thank you very much for having me.

(Soundbite of "Aqui Estoy" featuring Andie)

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.