Interview: Jeff Bhasker Talks Grammys, "Uptown Funk," and the Perils of "Retro"

The producer explains his transition from 'Yeezus' to "Uptown Funk."

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Complex Original

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Jeff Bhasker is a jazz pianist. Jeff Bhasker is a beatmaker. Jeff Bhasker is a pop god who, alongside lead artist Mark Ronson, co-produced "Uptown Funk" and the rest of Uptown Special, one of this year's biggest pop records. Just yesterday morning, Uptown Special and its ubiquitous lead single were nominated for four Grammys, including Best Pop Vocal Album and Record of the Year.

In anticipation of those nominations, we spoke with Bhasker last week about his work with Mark Ronson, his career-long hopscotch from jazz to hip-hop to pop, and the retro-futurism that Uptown Special shares with the year's most celebrated rap album, Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly.

Are you an active Grammy voter?
I vote when I can. It’s kind of like voting in an election. You go in there, and there’s all these ballot initiatives. It’s like, damn, I should’ve come prepared.

People say hip-hop is underrepresented. It’s thought that the people who vote are older white dudes. I don’t know exactly who ends up doing the demographic breakdown of the Grammys, and I don’t care that much, but I do think that the racial divide in music is still very strong. It’s kind of the basis of formats of radio: You divide music into different genres so you can market it to different groups. We’re living in a more and more mixed culture, which is a great thing, so it’s a shame that anything should cause divisiveness.

Uptown Special muddles a lot of these genre distinctions. If I say your name to a Complex reader, they’re gonna think of your hip-hop work and your association with Kanye West. But in the past few years since Yeezus, you’ve had an interesting arc. How'd you end up working so extensively with Mark Ronson?
I’d been a big fan of his, and I found out he was a big fan of mine. When we worked on Bruno Mars’ second album, Unorthodox Jukebox, [Mars] kinda brought us together. We just kind of took it from there.

I love, by the way, how you’re bringing up Uptown Special and the whole album because it’s quite a different animal from just “Uptown Funk.” It lives in the shadow of the success of “Uptown Funk,” but all that music on Uptown Special has a really strong theme. It's in a certain vein of classic American rock and soul music of early '70s-type vibe that was really fun to dig into and make work in a very accessible way; to put a lot of those aesthetics in horn arrangements and beautiful seventh chords. It's a lot of harmonic content. It was fun to go back to that world and challenge the listener a bit more.

You're a jazz pianist who first played in a wedding band, and you've gone from that, to making beats for The Documentary, to Yeezus, to this. Do you identify as a pop producer, or are you sort of winging it, genre-wise?
I don’t think of myself as a pop producer. I describe myself as that sometimes, because that’s what ends up coming across, but I kinda don’t believe in genres. You want your music to defy genre and just be great.

Genres are created to market music to different groups of people. Someone reading Complex and knowing the work I do could probably tell I have a really strong sense of what I call black music—or, you know, you could call it American music. To me, coming from a jazz background, you’re taught that jazz is one of the only American art forms. There’s jazz and baseball. Jazz came from slaves adapting European instruments and injecting their sensibility of music, and changing a European sense of music to an African one. I’m always conscious of that in any type of music I do. When you want your music to be popular, I guess you’re a pop producer. But I don’t think of it in the same sense that somebody would think that label meant white music.

The two albums this year that sort of link to experimentation with different types of black music and different years of black music would be Uptown Special and Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly. They’re both contemporary music, for sure, but their respective musical roots are very apparent and loud.
The syncopation, the offbeats, the rhythmic complexity: That’s black music, and that's the way it makes you move. So yeah, I totally agree with you. The type of flows that a lot of young rappers are using today are so in that vein of rhythmic complexity and African polyrhythms. It’s quite sophisticated. I really enjoy like listening to that three-against-two stuff, and I think now is definitely a time in music where it’s coming back.

With Uptown Special and my [general] approach to music, it’s syncopated and makes you dance in a different way. It is the tradition of American music. I wanna be one of those people who’s like, hey, remember when you used to dance really cool, and you had to move your body? When Elvis was taking black dance elements, you forget how divisive that was. People said you can’t move your hips like that; you can’t simulate fucking someone in front of me. Elvis said, yes, I can, and kids went crazy. People should move in a cool way, and they need music to do it.

People should move in a cool way, and they need music to do it.

White pop forgets that you dance with your hips and not your shoulders.
Our culture is a bit white-washed in general. We got a black president, but it was a bit of a smokescreen; then you got Ferguson, and you got all this racial unrest.

I reflexively describe Uptown Special or To Pimp a Butterfly as "retro." Do you think that’s a misguided term?
It’s not misguided. Some things are five retro things put together, so it sounds like something fresh, but really everything owes something to the past. Uptown Special evokes an era, and that’s intentional, but I also think that, all together, it’s quite unique. It’s very difficult to do something retro and have it not be kinda corny.

Why does retro means corny?
I guess because it doesn’t feel as authentic. Amy Winehouse's "Rehab" has a retro element, but it sounded so fresh, in terms of production as well as lyrical content. You got a big hurdle to overcome if your sound relies on another sound. Music is innovation, so you wanna innovate to the next step and not copy something else.

Tell me about this road trip you took with Ronson. Whose idea was that?
It was my idea. I used to play with a few gospel bands in the New York, New Jersey area when I lived there, and I’d done a couple tours in a white van going to churches in Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. There’s a really cool book called Mumbo Jumbo, by Ishmael Reed, that was kind of what we based our road trip on that Mark and I went up the Mississippi River looking for singers. For Uptown Special, I thought, man, we really should go there if we’re gonna try to evoke this and rejuvenate this very American, syncopated sense of music. So we went on this mission to drive from New Orleans to Chicago, up the Mississippi River, auditioning singers. We found this amazing girl Keyone Starr, who’s singing on "I Can’t Lose."

Are you tired of hearing "Uptown Funk"?
It’s cool to hear it on the radio. I did have to shut it off for a while before it came out because we worked on it for so long, but I actually really enjoy listening to it. It’s such a fun song. You can overwork something and run it into the ground; luckily we overworked that song and ran it into the sky. We got it just right.

Are you deliberately breaking away from hip-hop?
I wouldn't say deliberately. I just moved into a new place, and I have an MPC and my turntable set up. I actually thought about making some beats.

As I got more into songwriting, the song itself became the most important part of the record to me. So maybe I’m not as turned on by just making a beat and letting someone just rap over it. It was great when I worked with Kanye; there was such a theme, and he’s such an iconic person as far as his subject matter and social relevance and a sense of history. I really knew where that music was aiming. I think you really need a close relationship with a rapper to make the best hip-hop. The type of beat Pharrell makes for Jay Z, or Timbaland makes for Jay Z, or Kanye makes for Jay Z: There’s a certain vibe that gets created when you know each other.

I've talked to a few rap producers about gospel music and video game soundtracks. I'm realizing that contemporary hip-hop production is somewhat alienated from jazz, at least compared to, say, A Tribe Called Quest. What do you make of that divergence?
I can hear the video game influence in the beats.

The way that rappers are rapping nowadays, it kinda sounds like a jazz soloist. The type of flow and rhythm is quite sophisticated, so maybe there is a link there still, in the different tones of voice. From Future to Big Sean is kinda like from Dexter Gordon to Cannonball Adderley. Horn players used to have a different sound the way they used their voice and the type of rhythmic language. And there is still that kind of language. It’s improvised but a bit more spontaneous than your average calculated pop song. Even though the raps are pre-written, there’s this spontaneous vibe that’s still connected to jazz.

I think of Future, Chief Keef, and Mozzy as dynamic and jazzy with their flows. I’ll listen to some of these guys and re-imagine their voice as a tenor sax.
If you wanna talk about the production, the evolution of the trap hi-hat is super sophisticated. Tonally and texturally, it can sound like video game music, but maybe there’s a lot more sophisticated African rhythm that's the main element. It’s another chapter of black music.

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