Rhythm, Jazz & Remixes: Gregory Porter Talks

“Dance music in the black American community means damned nearly everything”

Rhythm, Jazz & Remixes: Gregory Porter Talks

“Dance music in the black American community means damned nearly everything”

When I found out that Disclosure had collaborated with Gregory Porter, my immediate thought was that it was major coup for the dance-pop crossover duo, not vice versa. Yes, the sibling duo have no doubt brought Porter to a far wider, younger audience than he probably could have imagined. But for a voice with such a strong, syrupy resonance as Gregory’s the dancefloor treatment always seemed inevitable. With a Grammy for best jazz vocal album (Liquid Spirit, 2014) already under his belt, it was just a matter of time before someone like Disclosure took notice and delivered his gospel to the masses.

Before the Lawrence brothers’ intervention, there was the Opolopo Kick & Bass Rerub of 1960 What? which gained traction on the underground circuit. Add a summer remix by Claptone that took Ibiza by storm above ground, and you’ve suddenly got a whole set of unsuspecting ears swooning at the unfamiliar soulful sounds of an ex-American football player. I checked in with Gregory to hear his take on the success of these recent dance collaborations, explore the meaning of ‘dance music’ and talk about his influences.

Hi Gregory, thanks so much for taking the time to chat. Talk me through this dance ‘renaissance’ that’s happening to some of your music at the moment and how it came about.

First of all, it’s not as if I’m going through a dance transition. I’m still definitely a jazz artist. But it was an organic progress with both the tracks that are making some noise right now: the track with Disclosure, ‘Holding On’ and Claptone’s remix of ‘Liquid Spirit’. Both happened naturally and it felt good, felt right.

As long as the message that I’m trying to convey through the music stays intact, then I love it. And if it’s got a rhythm and a feel that carries everything properly, it’s definitely something I like. Anyway, I started off singing dance/house music years ago – I think it was some of the first music I recorded, so yeah…

Oh really? I wasn’t aware, tell me more about that…

This was before I was coming to London and I heard the record was doing pretty well. It was this track I did with these cats called Teflon Dons – the song was called ‘Tomorrow People’. I think I did it maybe 15 years ago. I recall the studio being a garage and they pressed up some records. That was my first foray as a vocalist into dance music.

Very nice, I’ll have to have a dig and listen! So, were Disclosure the ones who approached you over ‘Holding On’?

Yeah, I was familiar with their music. Howard [from Disclosure] checks out Jazz FM from time to time and heard my voice on there a few times. They invited me to jam, but they didn’t have a track ready for me to just flow over. They wanted to produce something organically. So we sat near the piano and Howard started to play some chords, with myself and collaborator Jimmy Napes – then the tune just started to flow. It initially came out as a soul piano ballad, and then Guy [the older of the Disclosure brothers] got hold of it and reworked the sound a little. But I hear they might release the original version of it too, the one we recorded that day. As soon as we came off the piano we went straight into the studio to record it, and put something down. In a way, what you hear on the album is a remix of a song that was never released that will be released.

That’s a good way of putting it. I’m excited to hear the original! What was your first reaction to the collaboration?

Yeah, I thought it was a really cool idea. I’m all about blurring the lines of genre, in a way. I’m a jazz artist, but I’m a product of my listening influences like blues, gospel, soul, R&B and the singer-songwriter style thrown in there too. So, yeah, the opportunity to do some dance music and add to that mix was really cool.

And you already had the Opolopo remix of  1960 What? making waves in the underground…

Exactly, it happened with my first record too. That Opolopo remix really gave me an opportunity to be in a bunch of people’s ears who really didn’t consider jazz before. They checked out the remix and from that, heard the original of 1960 What? and then ran away to the rest of my music!

I think that’s what happened to me actually! I had a bit of an epiphany hearing that your voice on that remix ring out on one of the huge soundsystems at Dimension Festival in Croatia. That song in some ways was the gateway for me to the rest of your music. I then went and bought your album for my mum’s birthday!

Haha, that’s dope! I love that!

Did you listen to any dance music when you were growing up?

When you talk about ‘dance music’, you know, in the black American community that means damned just nearly everything. So speaking just of Chicago and Detroit house and all that, I listened to it, but I wasn’t faithful to names and DJs. But if someone put on something I loved, of course I was gonna get up and do my thang! 

What about disco, any favourite singers?

Everybody who I loved dabbled in disco, like the Isley Brothers and that funky stuff they did in the late 70s, and Donna Summer had one of the best voices in the world. That’s an interesting question, though…

Well, yeah, because disco lends itself more obviously to singers with its verse and chorus structures.

This is one of the things that’s always interesting to me. There is always this thread that is going through soul, R&B, disco, this ‘dance music’ we’re talking about now, even the origins of this music. And the thread is the gospel-tinged vocal, and that’s something I have, that’s where I come from. So wherever I can hear that sound, I gravitate to it. 

When you say have you listened to dance music? The truth is, probably thousands of hours of it. But instead of being attracted to specific names, it was a specific sound. Wherever I heard that sound, if it was in jazz, if it was in blues or if it was in gospel, that’s what I was attracted to. In a way, I play the archetype in ‘Holding On’, this soulful, big – for lack of better phraseology – black voice over a groove. And this thing was developed in Chicago and Detroit. 

I can’t argue with that! Sounds like you’re happy with the results of the dance collaborations?

I love the fact that people will listen to it, backtrack and listen to my other music. For the fact of music, that people can see that a song is a song, a groove is a groove, a voice is a voice, that these lines and these genres in a way are artificial and really unnecessary. And that’s a cool thing about the UK audience in particular, how you guys are open-minded.

How does it compare, getting up in front of thousands at Glastonbury, to singing to a hyped up crowd in Ibiza ravers, to performing a sold out Royal Albert Hall? Describe to me how the energy changes.

For me, even when the crowd changes, the aim remains the same – to communicate the point of a song. You’re trying to create this vibe and lessen the distance between you and the audience, to create this intimacy in large spaces. I’m trying to do that whether it’s at Glastonbury or Ibiza – you guys say ‘I-biza’, I say ‘Ee-biza’ haha – wherever it happens, you’re just trying to create this vibe where the distance between you and the audience is closed. 

I’ve been at some festivals, in a way a jazz singer traditionally isn’t supposed to be. I’m not sure if I’m meant to have these thousands and thousands of people in front of me at Gastonbury, but it happened, you know. I’m not supposed to be hanging out back stage with Sam Smith, but it happened, you know what I mean? And that’s cool, I like that!

As a jazz singer, often around the world I get up in front of stand up audiences. And I say to myself, ok, they’re not going to want to hear a ballad straight away. So I give them a couple of things that allow them to groove and get their dance on, and then they’re totally ready to hear a ballad as well. I like mixing up tempos and vibes and storylines with my music. And it’s been acceptable when people come to see my show. 

Yeah and it’s helped bring you to a much wider audience. What does it mean for you and jazz in a broader sense? Let’s say you’re representing jazz for a lot of its new listeners.

I think it’s something good. When I think of young jazz artists, the idea that they’re completely separate from the world is completely ridiculous. We all listen to Michael Jackson, we all listen to Fresh Prince ‘Summertime’. So we’re all understanding of dance and pop, but also have a love for jazz and would like to be included in the go-to music for everybody around the world. 

The idea that people will group myself or another jazz artist in a group of music they listen to is very positive. I think the way people listen to music now, there is less emphasis on genre. On my iPod it will go from classical to Mahalia Jackson. And when Lady Gaga does a ballad, for me, she’s got a beautiful voice. I don’t discriminate, I really don’t. I think that’s the way I find people listen to music these days. Once given the opportunity… That’s what the lyrics of Liquid Spirit is talking about: ‘Watch what happens when the people catch wind, Of the water hitting banks of that hard dry land’. That’s basically saying, if you give them a chance to listen to it, they’ll like it. Why not? Put me on Radio 1, see what happens, you know?

So what next for you?

I’ve been in the studio recording new material for my next record that will be released at the beginning of next year. 

Are there any tasty collaborations we should know about?

Um, I can’t say at the moment! There may be, there may not be… I may kick them all off! My process is starting with my own personal stories, and if there are other artists available that I want to work with, then they’ll be on there. But yeah the record will be similar to the ones I’ve done starting primarily with me getting all the personal stories off my chest. 

Can you see your music continuing to receive the remix treatment?

The remix collaborations will definitely come, but a little bit after the album release. I can see that continuing in the future for sure, and I also anticipate guesting on some more records, if people will have me!

I’m sure they will Gregory, I certainly would…


Gregory Porter’s special edition album is out now and avilable HERE

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