afropunk interview: lenny kravitz

October 2, 2018
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By Ericka Blount Danois, for AFROPUNK


Duke Ellington said I want you to be one of the people that helps to de-categorize American music. In order for music to grow the critics must stop categorizing and let the musicians get involved in all different facets of music. We will die if we get stuck in one area of music –Quincy Jones 

Lenny Kravitz can bring out the best, even in the worst people. It’s late September and I’m at The Anthem, the newest venue in gentrified D.C. Though Lenny’s promoting his newest album, Raise Vibration—equal parts love, political outrage, rock and soul— “Let Love Rule” buttons and shirts are still everywhere you turn.

Crowds of people are hanging from balconies and filling every inch of floor space as he opens with “Fly Away.” The audience, on a rainy, miserable Monday evening, goes absolutely ape-shit, singing in unison. Arguments over dance space ensue and tension is palpable. By the time Lenny rambles through “Dig In” and “American Woman,” and gets into the new album with “It’s Enough,” a gutter, funky, hypnotic treatise on police brutality, war, and the destruction of the environment, a truce has been declared, and everyone’s got room to move. Trumpeter Ludovic Louis launches into an epic solo that leaves the 6,000 person, filled-to-capacity crowd in a stupor.

There’s no question Lenny Kravitz has still got it. He continues to meld borders and bend genres like he did when Let Love Rule first dropped in 1989. Not much has changed. At 54, his dreads may be longer, yet he still preaches love and peace, and, based on the muscular frame he shows off through his black mesh top, there are no signs he’s aging anytime soon. 

One reason Kravitz has survived this long is the thing he’s often criticized for on the business side of the music industry, and by some fans: he doesn’t fit into a box. When music writer Michael Gonzales was assigned a story on Lenny for a black-owned publication decades ago, his record company said Lenny wasn’t speaking to “urban magazines.” When Gonzales’s friend Gary Harris talked to Lenny directly, the singer was livid and had Lenny get in touch with Gonzales directly. “He’s a musical chameleon,” says Gonzalez. “You can hear his influences, whether it’s Ernie Isley or Jimmy Page; he’s versatile the way Prince was versatile.”  

“I’m still not sure if Black audiences are as aware of him as they should be,” said Quincy Jones about Lenny when I interviewed Q in 2011. “He reminds me so much of Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley, because they both told me their biggest regret is that their people didn’t know them.”

Bootsy Collins once told me, “To be Black, one of the hardest things to accomplish was to play in different genres and have radio stations play your music. It was pretty much unheard of when we were coming up.”

There’s no question the crowd at the Anthem is mostly of the caucasian variety. But Black people are there too, and love him just as hard. The same stubbornness to be no one but himself that led him to turn down his first deal with A&M Records — when he was still couch-surfing and sleeping in a pea-green Ford Pinto at the time — also still strikes a chord with audiences savvy enough to enjoy a playlist that includes Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder and Con Funk Shun.

This self-defining streak of broad musical independence and inspiration was among the topics of discussion when AFROPUNK talked to Lenny. He also also stories filled with legendary names (Prince, James Brown, Vernon Reid, Slash, Johnny Cash, Michael Jackson), people who Kravitz calls friends and collaborators. There was also the matter of new music, and old music. The honesty was 100 percent Lenny Kravitz.

I know you prefer recording as it happens on the spot. What are your thoughts on the process of recording as an art form itself?

I love making records, I love recording, I love the art of recording. So I’m very particular about the equipment—the mixing desk, the tape machines, the outboard gear, the speakers. I’ve taken the time to collect all this stuff so that I can express myself in all the different colors that I like. In making the music, what always works for me is waiting for the inspiration. I’ve never stuck to schedules just because it was time to make an album—sometimes it’s two years between records, sometimes it’s three or four. I’m not the kind of person that sits down to write. I know people that have a schedule. They work for six hours and have lunch, then they go back and they have dinner. It’s all planned out, like a 9-5. If that works for you that’s great, but I couldn’t be more different. I wait until I hear things. I want to receive something genuine, something pure.  Whether I’m awake or asleep, it doesn’t matter. Like, with this album: the whole record was a dream. I woke up with songs in my head. This record was handed to me, which removes any preconceived thought, removes your ego. The creative spirit is just giving you what it is that you’re supposed to do. And it’s strange because it’s coming from inside of you and from somewhere else as well. 

You said you first learned harmony singing from participating in the California Boys Choir. Talk a little bit about your early music education.

Yes, musical harmony and theory. I learned a lot from records and then I got to this choir. In New York my mother would take me to see classical music at Lincoln Center. I was 11 when we moved to Los Angeles when she got The Jeffersons. She took me to a performance of the choir and I liked it. At the time, The California Boys’ Choir was rated the second best boy’s choir in the world next to the Vienna Boys’ Choir.  I got in and ended up singing with the Metropolitan Opera, recording with great conductors like Zubin Mehta, and singing with the Joffrey Ballet. Being around all of this, I learned how to sight read, as well as musical theory and harmony.

Talk about your first group, Wave, with your former drummer Zoro, at Beverly Hills High School. You’ve said you guys were influenced by Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Gap Band, Jeff Lorber and Earth Wind and Fire.

It had three lead singers because we were very influenced by The Jacksons. We did one infamous show, but then I left to start doing my own material, looking for record deals. That’s when I began being told that my material wasn’t “Black enough,” because at that time when you went to a record label, there was the black A&R and there was the pop A&R, and they would be like, “we think you’re really talented, but this ain’t gonna fly.” (This was right after high school, I was like 18.) You would have thought that someone would have gotten it because Prince was making songs like “Bambi” and songs that were more on the rock side. My stuff was more rock and roll, and that wasn’t going to work.

You refused to do what they wanted even though you were living out of a car at the time.

That’s the weird part. I was 18, 19, scrounging, washing dishes when I had a job, doing whatever. I’m surprised at that age that my integrity was so high. I actually was offered a couple of deals — big money — and I turned it down because they told me I had to change my music. There was an uneasiness in my spirit about it.

Was it foresight?

You wouldn’t be talking to me right now, 30 years later. I think [I would have made] a record or two and that would have been that. Praise God I stuck through my intuition and what was speaking to me. Whenever people ask what advice I would give a young musician, it’s always, “Be yourself, follow what it is you feel and see for yourself. That’s what makes you unique. I did my thing.

Tell me about two performances: One at Roseland Ballroom in 2004 when you played with James Brown and Slash, and another at the Palladium the summer of 1994 with Prince and Vernon Reid where everyone played guitar solos at the same time. 

I remember Prince calling me and telling me to come down. I didn’t know who else was there, but had Vernon come out, jamming on some funk groove and then he kind of went into a “Mary, Don’t You Weep” thing. It was, more or less, a jam session. Whenever Prince and I played together it was so much fun and inspiring and I just remember it being really crazy. The people. The reaction. It was wild and very raw.

With James Brown and Slash, James and I were on the same bill. Slash joined each of us for one song. That was the last time I saw James before he died. James and I had done “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” for the VH1 Fashion Awards. That was the first time he and I ever played together. Slash came out that day at Roseland and jammed with me doing “Always on the Run.” 

Slash had already played on “Fields of Joy” on Mama Said, he played the guitar solo. One day when I was in L.A. I invited him out to the studio. We did it in one take, it was amazing. I wouldn’t let him do it again because he wanted to do it over and over. Then we talked about writing a song together. Guns N’ Roses tour had just finished up in Europe; I was in New York, so Slash jumped on the Concorde from London, which used to come in around 8:30 in the morning, and he got to my loft in East Soho in the morning. [We needed to] jump on the train and go to my studio in Jersey, in Hoboken. He was trying to get himself together and he needed a gallon of vodka and a bag of ice. I’m like, “It’s nine in the morning.” I started banging on my neighbor’s door and the guy upstairs — Michael Goldstein, who actually just died a few months ago, he was a publicist for Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin — he’ll have it. I got the giant bag of vodka and a bag of ice, got on the train, went out to Hoboken, and Slash and I cut the song. I played drums, he played guitar. We started the track, and then I played the bass, and then my guitar part and I sang it and I got the horn players to come in later and that’s how it was done. It happened all in one day. And then he got on the plane and went back to London the next day. Can you can see Slash and I on the PATH train going from Christopher Street to Hoboken, New Jersey, with a couple of guitars and a gallon of vodka and a giant bag of ice?

That’s crazy. You guys were riding the PATH train back then?

I was still taking the PATH train. I’m a New Yorker and you get on the PATH train to go to New Jersey. After Mama Said came out and “It Ain’t Over Till it’s Over” became a massive pop hit, that was the end of my PATH train days. I kept taking the train until I couldn’t.

Slash wasn’t that big at the time?

Yeah, but he didn’t give a shit. He was cool.

What about making the updated “Give Peace a Chance”?

That was great. I called Yoko. The Gulf War was breaking out. I thought we should do “Give Peace a Chance and get all of the big stars of music right then at that point on the track. Yoko said, “Let’s do it, but I think Sean should rewrite the lyrics so they’re relevant to what’s going on now.” Sean wrote them. He was so young and he wrote these great lyrics. And I began to call all these people–Little Richard was on it, Iggy Pop, Tom Petty was on it, Michael McDonald, MC Hammer, Terence Trent D’arby, whoever was hot at that time. We went back out to Hoboken to cut the rhythm track which was Sean, myself and Davey Johnstone, Elton John’s guitar player. The three of us cut the track. Then we went out to LA and I booked a studio. We did one session in NY and one in LA. Then we made a video for it and put it out. We ended up getting banned in Britain and in the States for being unpatriotic for not being for the war.

The new album, Raise Vibration, features every genre of music — soul, gospel, rock, funk — and all kinds of instruments — the Mini Moog, wah wah guitar, tambourines, organ, Glockenspiel and Native American drums. It also includes some odd situations. Tell me about the single, “Low” on the new album which features Michael Jackson’s vocals from the session for “I Can’t Make it Another Day.”

Michael wanted us to get together. John McClain [former manager and executor to Michael’s estate] hooked it all up. We went over to Marvin Gaye’s studio. John called and said Michael wants to do it, he’s ready, he’ll be there in two days. I’m thinking like uh, I don’t have a song. I got quiet and I tried to really channel Michael’s spirit and his vibe and I wrote “I Can’t Make it Another Day” which talks about how amazing his life was and everything he’s done in this world, but at the end of the day there’s nothing that I can do without you. He’s singing to God saying regardless of all that I have done, you are the greatest thing in my life and you are the one that has given me all these blessings.

So I wrote this and Michael came in. I played it for him. Of course you gotta be a little nervous playing something for Michael. I turned it up really loud and played it and he flipped out. He loved it. He was like let’s go, let’s start right now. I wrote out the lyrics on a piece of paper and I gave it to him. We started going over the melody together. We’re singing it together and then he goes in the vocal booth and he says okay now I want to do it exactly how you want it, the second I make a mistake you stop me. He starts the track and the first line that comes in he doesn’t quite do it right and I’m standing there next to the button and I’m like am I really gonna stop Michael Jackson?!.But he told me to so I pushed the button, like, um, Michael stop it goes like this. He’s like okay, got it. First line he messes it up. I’m like damn. It took a few minutes cause he hadn’t sang the song before, so he wasn’t getting all the intervals as it was written and he wanted it as it was written so we worked on it. He got it after a few takes. He sang the lead and I sang the background and it was a great experience. An amazing experience.

Tell me about the soulful song “Johnny Cash,” specifically about its lyrics: “hold me like Johnny Cash when I lost my mother.” Are you talking Johnny Cash literally holding you or his music metaphorically holding you together?

It’s literal. It’s a very strange song. The song is not about my mother dying, it’s about the situation that happened around it. I’m writing to someone that I’m breaking up with, and asking for her comfort and the words that came out were those. What happened was: when my mom [was on her deathbed], when I got the news I was at the hospital all day. I went home to eat some food, take a shower and then return to the hospital; [but] she died while I was in transit. It was unexpected because I knew she was dying, but I thought she had another few days. At the time I was living at the house of Rick Rubin, the producer and Johnny Cash was living in the house because he and Rick were making an album there. (It was like his last great record.) When I got into the house the phone rang and they told me my mom had died. I was getting to the bottom of the stairs and Johnny and his wife June are coming down the stairs and he looked at me and saw something was wrong and I said my mom just died and the two of them rushed down the stairs and surrounded me and grabbed me really tightly and were saying supportive things, consoling me. And it was interesting that the moment that my mother died, I was not with any family, but in the house by myself, and the only people that were there were Johnny Cash and his wife June Carter. It was very surreal. 

Was Johnny a big influence and idol to you?

Exactly. It was a very beautiful human moment. I have not been comforted in that kind of deep way since then, so that’s why — in the lyrics — I was asking this person to hold me like Johnny Cash. It was strange when it was coming out of my mouth and writing it. I didn’t even know I was writing about that situation. It didn’t even hit me until the rest of the words came out.

You are a prolific producer who has worked with a lot of fantastic female vocalists, like Cree Summer and Vanessa Paradis, among others. I know at some point you wanted to produce Aretha Franklin. Did that ever happen?

We worked together, we had done a duet together at this show, and we got friendly. I told her I would love to go in the studio with you, and she was down. Unfortunately, I didn’t make that move fast enough. She was extremely busy and I’m busy. I thought it would happen. My three greatest influences as a child when I first recognized music in a profound way, were The Jackson 5, Aretha Franklin and James Brown. That’s the holy trinity. Her voice is the greatest soul voice. Her title is well deserved. She was such a force. Her music was so inspirational and spiritual and social and political and beautiful. I worked with many people that were my so called idols and she would have really been the one to put the cherry on top.