FEATURES The Chameleonic Jazz of Jahari Massamba Unit By Blake Gillespie · March 01, 2024
Photo by Jimel Primm

The 2020 release of Pardon My French marks the official formation of Madlib and Karriem Riggins’ jazz duo Jahari Massamba Unit, another outpost along the spaceways of Yesterdays Universe, where fictional jazz artists create enigmatic ensembles like Monk Hughes & The Outer Realm and The Big Black Foot Band featuring The Black Spirits. But with follow-up, YHWH Is LOVE, Karriem Riggins confirms unequivocally that Jahari Massamba Unit is a real and ongoing thing.

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“We have such an abundance in our repertoire, we can literally pull together a project and tell the story we want to tell just from being the musical chameleons that we are,” says Riggins.

Their newfound momentum is the latest chapter in a story that started over 20 years ago, when Riggins and Madlib started trading beat CDs at a Los Angeles party known as The Do-Over. Riggins had moved to L.A. ahead of his friends Common and J Dilla to continue drumming for the bebop group Ray Brown trio. He’d met Madlib once before, at the Jaylib Champion Sound release party in 2003, but it wasn’t until those Sundays at The Do-Over, established in 2005, that they regularly crossed paths. The party’s impeccable vibes—warm outdoor nights, sangria aplenty, guest DJ sets from icons like J.Rocc, Biz Markie, and DJ Jazzy Jeff—ensured repeated run-ins.

Their beat CD handoffs led to the formation of their group Supreme Team as possibly the next Jaylib-esque project. That is until Riggins handed Madlib a CD of drum recordings that contained 20–30 ideas of various patterns, with jazz drumming forming the bulk of the grooves. A week later at the Do-Over, Madlib handed him an eight-song disc in response.

“I was like, ‘Whoa, who is this playing on here?’” Riggins says. “And it was all him. I was like ‘Man, this dude is incredible.’”

In some ways, people still might not understand, or overlook, Madlib’s virtuosic abilities as a jazz musician. His presence as a beatmaker collaborating with the likes of MF DOOM, Freddie Gibbs, Erykah Badu, and Black Star overshadows his abundant jazz output. His early jazz work as Yesterdays New Quintet purposely blended sampling and live instrumentation. He was familiarizing himself with the Fender Rhodes while simultaneously hiding in collage production. By the time Riggins handed Madlib his CD of drum recordings, Yesterdays New Quintet existed, but the awareness that it was entirely constructed by Madlib—that Ahmad Miller, Monk Hughes, Malik Flavers, and Joe McDuphrey were all fictional characters—had not been revealed. Only Otis Jackson, Jr., aka Madlib, was real. 

This ruse would expand at an astounding pace as YNQ became Yesterdays Universe and Madlib released full albums as the Joe McDuphrey Experience or invented more bands like Young Jazz Rebels. As band names in the universe kept appearing, the myth of Madlib as the prolific and siloed jazz savant grew. But, Riggins’s presence in Jahari Massamba Unit makes him one of the few who actually exist in Yesterdays Universe externally from Madlib’s expansive brain. (He’s in good company alongside legendary Brazilian drummer Ivan Conti of Azymuth, who also collaborates within Yesterdays Universe as Jackson Conti.)

The first appearance of Jahari Massamba Unit came in 2007 on the YNQ “compilation” Yesterday’s Universe: Prepare For A New Yesterday (Volume 1). Riggins crashes through “Umoja (Unity)” and just keeps tumbling and rolling as Madlib, and possibly Conti, explore progressions on the bass, synthesizer, and piano. In 2010, Jahari Massamba Unit returned with two songs on Madlib’s High Jazz, another fictional compilation of Madlib inventions. There’s a fussiness to the bebop on “Pretty Eyes” that keeps trying to break free from the formula, while the first movement of “Wonderin’/Nightime” rides the vibes like a dedication to Roy Ayers Ubiquity. After High Jazz, a decade would pass before we heard from the group again.

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The next decade for Riggins included solo albums on Stones Throw; collaborations with Robert Glasper, Nora Jones, and Esperanza Spalding; producing Common’s Black America Again, which led to a Tiny Desk Performance at the White House in 2016; drumming in Miguel Atwood-Ferguson’s Timeless: Suite For Ma Dukes symphony; touring and collaborating with Paul McCartney on his vocal jazz album Kisses on the Bottom. But he never stopped trading jazz demos with Madlib.

The beat CD turned into a Dropbox folder. Riggins would send his drum ideas, and Madlib would build out the instrumentation. He recorded drums at Sunset Sound Studios in L.A., using Studio 3—the same room Prince used from 1983 to 1991—because of a feeling he got “as soon as you set the drums up and play without mics.” It didn’t matter if Riggins sent 50 ideas, he got 50 new ideas back. In 2020, those ideas took shape when they announced the Jahari Massamba Unit debut, Pardon My French. Released on Madlib Invazion, Pardon My French is a connoisseur’s homage to pairing French wines with the revolutionary spirit of 1970s free jazz synonymous with Black Jazz Records. The alignment makes the most sense on “Du Morgon au Moulin-à-Vent (Pour Duke)” as the cerebral improvisation over field recordings of a stirring vat elicits a sort of musical accompaniment to the process and patience in winemaking. It’s as though Karriem and Otis are chemists brewing the tannic structures that will erupt in fruity, floral aromas as long as the listener remains present for nine minutes. In wine making, there’s no immediacy, no rush to distribute. The wine names checked by Madlib are vintage and rare; the gestation of Jahari Massamba Unit recordings ensures a similar level of prestige.

When Hua Hsu profiled Madlib for the New Yorker in 2021, he noted that Madlib’s Sound Ancestors album was collaged together by Kieran Hebdan, aka Four Tet, from over 350 pieces of music recorded by Madlib. Riggins goes through a similar herculean process to complete a JMU record. And yet, he describes the task as effortless.

“Going through styles, there’s interludes, there’s street songs, there’s grooves, there’s covers,” he says. “As surprised as I am with what comes back after sending these ideas, it’s about turning these songs into actual songs, not loops. These are sculpted songs that turn corners and change gears. We really wanted to show his skills as a musician and my skills as a musician. Just show the dynamics.”

YHWH is LOVE finds the duo robed in jazz funk spirituals aligned with Madlib’s affinity for the Mizell Brothers’ work with Donald Byrd, Johnny Hammond, and Bobbi Humphrey sampled in his Shades of Blue record. On “Anointed Souls” the duo allow the head nod–factor into the equation, a discernible difference from the debut; for Riggins, the boom bap influences serve a broader end

“All of this music is inspired by God,” he says. “My music-making history has been trying to channel the positive spirit in the music. When I say therapeutic and medicinal, I feel like god heals through the music. When people are sick and they need to be uplifted, they listen to music. The music that we want to create is high vibration music.”

While Riggins says he’s not quite ready, Madlib has suggested reversing roles for the next album, where he plays drums and Riggins will be on instrumentation. Riggins says he’s got piano and bass in his repertoire, so they could achieve it. What’s important for now is that Jahari Massamba Unit keep making records. They created an ensemble for the Detroit Jazz Festival in 2023, and Riggins said it put a battery in his back to possibly record as an ensemble instead of their demo-swapping tradition. In his mind, when it comes to recording this group, there are no wrong answers.

“This music that we’re creating, there’s no boundaries,” says Riggins. “It’s free as far as concept. I’ve been playing with different musicians over the years, and they’re not boxed in, but [they] have a road map for what to do. For us, we’re not fenced-in to any particular thing.”

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