Brenden M. Collins

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PREMIERE: THEO CROKER & CHRONIXX, “UNDERSTAND YOURSELF”

April 11, 2019
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It’s understandable if people of a certain cultural approach hear Star People Nation, the upcoming album from trumpeter/composer/bandleader Theo Croker, as the latest evidence of generational turmoil in the sound of jazz. The electronics! The samples! The voice of Chronixx on the album-closer, “Understand Yourself”! For many, these are the elements of pop, not jazz — even if what comes together is the indisputable product of Black American Music, of which jazz is mother of all wells. (Or the “teacher” as “Blood” Ulmer once famously stated.) And for a living art-form to keep breathing, you need to allow that kind of upheaval take place.     

Croker has been playing his instrument in the jazz tradition since he was 11 — his grandfather is famed trumpeter Doc Cheatham, and his teacher was the mighty Donald Byrd. Yet he’s been headed towards its edges for a while now, at least since 2016’s Escape Velocity, where he first worked extensively with keyboardist Michal King and drummer Kassa Overall. Both are all over Star People Nation, giving the album a layer of contemporary textures which spring from the funk, soul and hip-hop branches of the jazz tree, rather than directly from the trunk. But traditionalists would be hard pressed to get too mad at how Croker attacks the sound.

“I am keeping the ‘old guard’ happy, while bringing in the new blood,” is how Theo put it when AFROPUNK asked him about the birth of his new cool approach, and about working with one of Jamaica’s finest, conscious dancehall voices. His answers provide a great insight. So listen to “Understand Yourself” and read the great interview below.

Talk a little bit about your idea of jazz and improvisational music, and how it interacts with other music and musical concepts. People like to invoke 1970s fusion when discussing the music you and Kassa Overall and Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah are making, but all of it sounds much more contemporary in how each of you are putting different parts together. A post-hip-hop idea of what “jazz” is.

The music I make isn’t trying to invoke the ’70s. People like to attach new things to familiar ideas. The music scene in the ’70s was free and fluid. The experimentation was unfiltered and the audience was wide open. History is cyclical. We are now in an age of music where creativity, experimentation, and pushing of any artificial or commercial barriers is the agenda of most artists.

Most musical genres today are hybrids or have been spawned from jazz (techno, trip-hop, punk, rock and roll, R&B, alternative, electronic, experimental). There’s no coincidence that my contemporaries outside the jazz genre are continuously revisiting Black American music (jazz) and using it as a reference. From J. Cole, Young Fathers, FKA Twigs, Kendrick Lamar, Solange Knowles and Tyler The Creator. Jazz isn’t going anywhere, it’s the blood of this nation, Black music in its purest form.

The components I’m putting together speak to the authenticity of my experience with music. I’m an ’80s baby and grew up in a diverse musical household long before becoming a musician. Black music was the soundtrack to my life. Producing a “post-hip-hop” idea of a jazz album is a default.

Approaching the creation of my record, from carrying the jazz tradition while incorporating sampling, and production techniques used in hip-hop, for example, is staying in the cipher. I am keeping the “old guard” happy, while bringing in the new blood. Feeding the continuation and expanding the tradition is a collective effort.

Your new album is called Star People Nation, which I am gonna take a wild guess is a reference to Miles Davis’ Star People. Talk a little bit about why you are invoking that record — what about it spoke to you and affected your mindset and attack here?

Star People Nation actually doesn’t reference the Miles Davis album in any meaningful way. (Great album though, obviously!) Star People Nation is a reclamation of the creativity, artistry, and sonic sovereignty meant to serve as a catalyst within today’s societal shifts.

We’re creating worlds. What does our future truly look like? How can we peel back these thinly layered, alternate realities we’re all wired into and begin to step into our truest selves? SPN isn’t a coincidence. This came at proper timing. There are ways to honor our ancestors, without extracting from what’s been produced, packaged, and pushed. It’s proven that we’re made of stardust and galactic elements, therefore making us star people. People forget the sun is a star, a black star!

SPN is a completely self-produced, composed, and arranged album. I bankrolled the entire project personally. I pooled all my personal resources and incorporated (Star People Nation, Inc.). I did tours to cover the costs and worked in studios while on the road across the globe (Shanghai, China; Los Angeles, CA; Brooklyn, NY; Vienna, Austria; Kingston, Jamaica; Amsterdam, Holland). I compromised zero aspects of the vision and pushed myself beyond my own limits. I put in calls to young creatives of other disciplines: Gita (Pantheon Projex), Rah Rah Nembhard (Noirwave), Jack Harper (A Cold Wall), Adriano Vannini, and legends like Donna Feratto, and the pioneering producer and sonic guru Bob Power (A Tribe Called Quest, Erykah Badu). Combining them with my pool of musicians to create a nation, Star People Nation. The album is just the beginning of SPN.

This is also a continuum from my previous albums, Escape Velocity and AfroPhysicist. There’s an evolutionary through-line drawing from my own personal and our collective histories and consciousness. So, there’s a great sense of responsibility that comes along with that, along with acknowledging how much my touring and continual performing has really helped me push myself, both as a musician and a composer/producer/creator.

How did you get hooked up with Chronixx? Talk a little bit about how “Understand Yourself” came together? Were you looking to collaborate with him specifically, or was there specific energy that you wanted to bring to the album and Chronixx fit the profile?

I’ve been into Chronixx’s music since I heard “Black Is Beautiful” from Chronology. I had composed and recorded the first half of the demo version of “Understand Yourself” and felt it was missing something overall, especially having sampled Marcus Garvey’s “Know Yourself” speech. It needed a continuation with a powerful, modern voice. A friend, DJommm, was present and mentioned Chronixx. Immediately I was like, “Yeah, that would be amazing, but I don’t know him personally.” She said, “Well, he follows you on Instagram. So, he knows who you are.” Astonished, I reached out and told him my idea, sent him the demo, and a link to the Garvey speech and he was down.

A month later, we were both rehearsing in the same studio in Brooklyn, NY. So, that’s the first time we met in person and peeped each other’s vibe with our bands. A completely organic destiny. After that, I got to work on the final version of the track and ended up composing a second half. We went back and forth with ideas, and, a few months later, recorded trumpet and vocals together in Los Angeles. His artistry is second to none, and is aligned with the meaning of “Understand Yourself” and the album. It was very important that this album ended with this statement. To me, it could have been no one other then Chronixx.

Everyone who collaborated and contributed to this album is part of what’s helped this album transcend what even I could have done on my own. So, even though this is my album, my energy, and effort, it really took an entire “nation” of people to make this happen. There’s an open door and we all stepped through together. In effect, we’re all citizens of the Star People Nation.

Theo Croker’s Star People Nation drops in middle of May on Sony Music Masterworks.

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