afropunk interview: 22 year old blues prodigy christone kingfish ingram talks the legacy of the blues, red dead redemption, and his new album 662
By Ian Freeman
July 22, 2021
When you think of Blues guitar players, you might think Muddy Waters, BB King, etc.… But the image is typically of an older person. Someone who has seen some things, lived a bit, has a story to tell, and it has weighed so heavy on their soul that they just have to sing it to you, be it a warning, confession, or lament. So when Christone Kingfish Ingram burst on the scene as a 19-year-old Blues guitar prodigy it was hard not to make the Crossroads comparisons. Not the Britney Spears girl trip flic, but the Ralph Macchio guitarist sells his soul movie inspired by Robert Johnson. Like Macchio’s character, Kingfish’s talent is almost otherworldly for his age. Seeing him play is almost a bewitching thing as his fingers fly across the strings of a guitar as deftly as Dr. Strange conjures a spell. And he has entranced the music world. His first album earning him a Grammy Nomination as well as several Blues Music Awards, including Blues Album of the Year. And he was tapped to appear twice in Netflix’s Marvel series Luke Cage.
Kingfish is still working on his craft and staying busy. He recently was included in the video game Red Dead Redemption DLC as a character and as part of the soundtrack. He is releasing a new album, 662. And he has been popping up in guitar brand Fender videos. As part of Fender’s guitar learning program Fender Play, Kingfish, along with other notable artists like H.E.R., have taken part in an upcoming promotion where learning songs from noted musicians can score you the chance to win their signature guitar, we got the chance to talk to him about his working with Fender, his career, music and shared stories of nicknames, and southern life.
I guess I want to start out with the typical question, how did you get into music?
Kingfish: On my mom’s side of the family, all of my cousins and uncles are pretty much musically inclined. Like my mom, she was a singer. She sang gospel and lead in one of the quartet groups that side of the family made up. So she would always take me around them when I was a toddler. So just going to churches and quartet programs, seeing my aunts and uncles in the choirs, they’re playing and singing and preaching and what not.
When I found out I lived in a Blues city like Clarksdale, Mississippi, I was eight. I lived right next to a Blues band, and my dad took me to The Blues Museum and got me enrolled in their arts education program. Before that, he showed me a PBS documentary on Muddy Waters and not only that, the BB King cameo in Sanford & Son, so that was my little introduction to the Blues.
If I remember correctly, I’ve read that you played drums at five, then you went to the bass, and then you started guitar.
Kingfish: Yes, pretty much. I got into drums at church hanging out with my cousins. Funny story, when I went into the Delta Blues Museum Arts Education program to learn how to play, I started on guitar, but I felt like my fingers were too big for the neck, so I went to the bass. I was enjoying the bass. So the bass had become my primary instrument. I had started to get good and started playing with different local bands. Then guitar came around 12, 14-ish. Now we here pretty much.
What drew you to the guitar? What made you like, “All right, no, I’m going to stick with this?”
Kingfish: Man, I wanted to start doing my own thing, but there’s sometimes when I see those bands, when the bass player is the frontman, it looks weird. So I was like, “Hey man, let me take a stab at the guitar thing,” so I picked it back up. My dad bought me a guitar for Christmas, so I started to tinker around with it. I’m still learning as I go, but I learned just enough, and I got some practice fronting the band with this other local band that I was working with.
You said your dad bought you your first guitar. What was it?
Kingfish: The first one he bought when I was a toddler, I destroyed because I was a very destructive child- was a one of those little old Harmonys you see in Sears. What he bought me when I got serious was an Epiphone 335.
I know you come from a blues town, but 12, 14, that’s hip-hop, rock maybe. So how did you get to the blues from there? Most young people aren’t blues– heck, most old people aren’t blues, so what made you decide, “Yes, blues. That’s what I want to play?”
Kingfish: To be honest, it even haunts me now. Just because of how I grew up, blues and gospel were the two primary genres that I heard growing up. But I heard an assortment of music growing up, like funk, soul, and pop. It’s just I had to listen to everything, but there’s something about the blues. Blues and gospel are relative, so with me being a gospel lover before that, I think it’s just hearing that similar sound, “Oh, wow, okay. This is nice.”
Just being drawn to it, it just got me from the first time hearing Muddy Waters’ piercing slide sound. It was just a sound that captivated me. It made me say, “I got to do something like this.” Then, when I got into The Blues Museum and when I really started to learn more about the genre, how it was formed, how it was born, and just different political aspects of it. Finding out about that just made me drawn to it even more. Plus, it’s our culture and our history, and I think more people that are my age should be more accepting and grasping of it.
You’re very much an ambassador for the blues. You have so much appreciation for the culture and its history. Why is that? Why is that so important to you?
Kingfish: If it wasn’t for those guys and women back then, there wouldn’t be hip-hop or jazz or anything else, and it wouldn’t be me or anybody that you see out here doing it. Before we can even talk about taking something forward, I feel like that you need to be in appreciation of what came before because you wouldn’t even be thinking about what you want to do if it wasn’t for those guys. All the things that other blues players go through today is nothing compared to what Son House, Lightning Hopkins, BB King, and all they had to go through back then.
They really had to go through excuse the terminology bullshit to get where they are, so I feel like that’s something that we should really be appreciative of for sure.
How did you get the name Kingfish?
Kingfish: [chuckles] Okay, so when I was in Delta Blues Museum Arts Education program, one of my mentors, I had two Bill Howl-N-Madd Perry and Richard Crisman, but his blues name was Danny Rich. They both were local bluesmen in the northern Mississippi delta. Mr. Perry would give all of the kids in the class nicknames, but we thought of them as stage names. My name was Kingfish because apparently, I reminded him of the Kingfish character on The Amos and Andy Show. Yes, he was joking with it but still, that kind of hurt a little bit. I didn’t know what it meant then. When I watched the show and then researched the character, I’m like, “Hold on man, that ain’t no compliment, come on. What type of stuff is this mess?” I didn’t like it at first, obviously, but I kept it. King, it’s a reference to BB King, and of course, the three King’s of Blues and Fish is a relation to Muddy Waters and Mississippi or something. That’s why I kept the name. And it’s become part of my identity because neighbors who see me don’t call my real name. It’s like, “What’s up Kingfish?” Same when I see people in Walmart. It got stuck.
In an interview, you said you can’t be kid wonder forever. What did you mean by that, and how do you want to be remembered?
Kingfish: Well, for one, there are a lot of younger players that are in my position. I’ve been on the scene, so to speak, for a long time, but my first record didn’t really come out until two or three years ago. When you’re young and you are a good player, you get wrapped up into the “Oh you so cute,” and no one’s really paying attention. After a certain age, that goes away, and you need to have something out there that’s going to give you longevity and where people can see your identity such as original music and stuff like that, because that whole, “Oh man that’s amazing.” That’s going to wear off. How do I want to be remembered? That one I really never gave much thought to, but I think at the end of the day, I just want to be remembered as one of the people who show that the stereotype of young black kids only liking hip-hop was ending.
You appeared in Season 2 of Marvel’s Luke Cage. How did that come about?
Kingfish: Man, it’s a funny but spooky story. What happened was, we were on our way to a show in Jacksonville, and my mom was talking about this new show that she liked, and it was Luke Cage. And she was like, “I think you will like it because they got these club scenes on there and they got different artists. You’re into like Faith Evans, Raphael Sadiq, et cetera.” I made a joke. All I said was, “What if they got us for that second season?” Bro, I kid you not; two nights later, I get this message saying I’m so and so producer for Luke Cage, the executive producer, they even wrote you in the script, and we want you to come by. At first, I didn’t think it was going to happen, but we got it hooked up.
My first time in LA was when we were going to record, and we were not at a studio because Adrian and Muhammad got a lit home studio setup. We went in, and that was my first time working with producers and having my voice being pushed and he got a professional with a record. Raphael was in there. He was cool people. We got both tracks done and shortly after that we flew to New York, recorded it and that was my first time lip-synching, which was hard because I can’t play what I did on record. It’s not the same every time. There ain’t no charts or nothing like that.
You did something with Red Dead Redemption too right?
Kingfish: Yes, man. That was a big surprise because I didn’t see that one coming. I had never done voice-over before. Through a mutual friend, we were told we were on standby for the role and they had a bigger artist for it. The thing was, if the bigger artist doesn’t take it, we’ll go with you. So obviously, the person, whoever it was, didn’t take it, so it came to me and I got a chance to do voice-over work and it was a really cool thing.
They wanted a character based on Robert Johnson. So that’s why they came to us. So we came and wrote the song and they gave us some future points of the game that they want to talk about because I play Red Dead Redemption anyway.
So wait, you play Red Dead too?
Kingfish: Yes, man. Video games and wrestling are the only two things outside of music that I pretty much enjoy and Red Dead is one of my top-tier games, man. I like to hunt, fish, everything on there man.
How did you get started working with Fender? How’d that connect? I know you’ve done a few things with them.
Kingfish: Man, through Adrian and Ali. The first time I went to Adrian’s studio, his Rep, Jason, came over there and stayed with us and we were friendly. We got linked up and as time progressed, Jason reached out to me and my manager and said we got these opportunities that we want him to be a part of. So I got some other stuff, like interviews and commercials and endorsement deals.
How has that been going? So tell me more about the Fender Play thing that they’ve got going on with you.
Kingfish: Fender Play, I think they take songs from me. I want to say H.E.R. and a couple of more artists that you just sit there and learn how to play. I actually did one thing with them in person for giving different lessons on different scales and stuff, but yes, you can learn different songs like Outside This town and Fresh Out. Everybody asks for the tabs for a song, right? It’s like fender got it themselves and just take some of their artists’ songs and tabbed them out for people who want to learn them to play.
So the new album, 662, tell me about it.
Kingfish: It’s been two years since the first one came out, and we wanted to showcase the growth, share my personal experiences, just growing up and the loss of my mom and living more, you know how that is. I wanted to write about all of my different experiences. 662 was the area code of north Mississippi, that was the area that I’m from, and that’s why we put it on there because obviously, when COVID happened, all of us was given time to utilize. I utilized my time by playing on tracks and stuff like that. But the most important part is me, Buddy Guy, and Tom Hambridge. We’ll do Zoom sessions every Thursday from May up to September, just writing songs. So we felt since I wrote the songs here in the 662 why not just name the album 662. It’s been a chapter of my life or something like that. Yes, here’s chapter 662,
These are just quick, easy questions now. Favorite guitar.
Kingfish: Favorite guitar, anything with humbuckers. Yes, but it is like humbuckers, anything with a humbucker.
Dream guitar? Is that the same thing, anything with humbuckers?
Kingfish: Pretty much, man, pretty much.
What’s so special to you about humbuckers.
Kingfish: I’ll tell you this, Fender has– I have the more modernized version that they did, but they had this guitar called the Star Caster that came out in the seventies. It was that answer to– I’m not going to say company name, but to another company that was doing the hollowbody thing. Their guitar was so rare to buy, but it’s actually one of my dream Fender guitars. The Fender Starcaster from the 70s.
So I caught a video of you a couple of years back. I think it was with Premier Guitar when you were talking about your rig. What is your rig looking like now? Because I know back then it was literally guitar, Sugar Drive and amp.
Kingfish: Yes, it’s pretty much the same. I’m still using the Peavy amps. The Peavy does the blues along with my Fender Twin. I alternate between those two. But as far as my pedal setup, it’s still the same tone. I do alternate pretty much storage. I do alternate the MXR sugar drive along with the image, not, even so, talk about our Way Huge Conspiracy Theory, which I have on my board now. Yes, and the wireless system.
Who are some of the people that you’re listening to?
Kingfish: Man, everybody, man. Not only different blues guys that are playing in like Toronto, Canada. I love all types of music. Like Douja Cat, Kamasi Washington, a big fan of H.E.R, really love what she does and everything. Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Robert Glasper, different musicians. It’s just– I love music, man. I’m always on the hunt for something new. I’m always looking at stuff. Lennox. The list goes on and on.
I know on your last project there was, it wasn’t just blues. Some of it was more of a fusion. Is there some of that in 662 as well?
Kingfish: Most definitely. That’s heavy because we went hard on the first record, but I think we went a little bit harder on this one. I wanted to go that route as far as the music, get wackier and everything. This one, we put different chord progressions, different grooves, different R&B like bluesy mashups. That is definitely prevailing on this one.
What advice would you give a young guitar player coming out now?
Kingfish: Nothing wrong with being diverse. You can learn from it all. I ain’t even going to use myself, like Prince. Prince is that big example, man. Prince knew how to do everything, from classical to jazz to blues, to rock. I feel like there’s nothing wrong with other genres in music borrowing from it and just mastering it to which you already played and see if you can create something new. There’s nothing wrong with experimenting. I feel like you’ll learn from it all. I feel like being diverse is the big thing for sure. You want the big things.
If you want to test your guitar skills or have more incentive to stick with guitar the link for Fender Play Artist Giveaway is below.
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