With two feet planted firmly in the jazz world, as well as tentacles reaching into hip-hop, R&B, ambient, world music, and experimental genres, Grammy-nominated producer, composer, and trumpeter Theo Croker makes his voice heard far and wide. His latest release BLK2LIFE // A FUTURE PAST is a sonic melting pot “inspired by the forgotten hero’s journey towards self-actualization within the universal origins of blackness.” With pandemic time on his hands, Theo produced and constructed this latest release in a non-traditional way, creating a musical environment for himself and his collaborators to bring this celebration of Afro-origin and reclamation of culture to life.
What got you interested in the recording aspect of making records?
I’m coming out of an instrumental world, where we’re expected to come in the studio, perform, and leave. To me, that was pointless, because it’s like, “Man, we’re not using all of this gear. We’re not doing the most we can do and figuring out the coolest thing we can with all of this studio equipment.” It started back with my album Escape Velocity. I wanted to start taking advantage of all we can do in the studio. When it came time to make this newer record, I had an unusual amount of time on my hands to sit down and shape out every song before I even entered the studio. I did that using Ableton [Live] and [Avid] Pro Tools. At the crib, I have a Fender Rhodes I bought during the pandemic as well as a little MIDI keyboard. Having every song already shaped out and creating a sonic palette, most of that was already done at the crib before we came into the studio. When I did inject the band members into it, they were playing into these already prefabricated little universes for each song. That was me wanting to really produce it. I wanted to do exactly what one would do on a hip-hop record, where they gotta do hella shit because there can’t just be a beat and somebody talking. They’ve got to have all this weird shit going on. A lot of those samples [on this record] are coming out of the ‘70s, from Gary Bartz and Donald Byrd. I was thinking, “We should revert this back to being about the instruments and everything again. Seeing how much of a universe we can create for each song.
That’s a very different process than say an early-’50s Charlie Parker record or a Miles Davis album. They came in, had lead sheets, and guys would just blow. You’ve made records both ways.
Yeah, I have. Those cats were masters, in general. They would go in the studio for half a day and play a whole bunch of shit that they’d never played before – songs that they’re handed – and they would make them work. People in that genre try so hard to do such “perfect” albums, when all those old Blue Note recordings are not perfect at all. A lot of the cool things that happened had been by chance. It was what they did while they were trying to learn the song. It wasn’t so purposefully, “Oh, we’re going to make this the ‘next level’ album.” No. Miles was like, “Herbie, sit on your left hand and just play one-handed.” It’s not next level. That’s just searching for something next level. Because I had pre-fabricated so much of the landscape and soundscape [of this record], the band was able to do full takes instead of overdubs. I would say 90 percent of this record is us playing something from start to finish, or playing a song – the same song – over and over again for 20 minutes without stopping, but restarting it. After we’d play it, we’d play it again. We’re trying to capture that energy of playing live. The energy of “We can’t stop the train once it leaves the station.” Any musical thing or obstacle that came up, we’d have to find a creative, in-the-moment solution for it. I wanted that element inside of it, and that comes from the whole jazz aesthetic of going in the studio and recording a take. It was trying to put the two worlds together in a way that came out with something unique.
That sounds like [Miles Davis’] Bitches Brew in reverse. That was constructed after the band had been in the studio playing, and the sonic universes were created after the fact. You created a sonic atmosphere, and let people come into it and be affected by that.
Right. It’s different to have a group of jazz musicians and say, “Okay, this song is going to be exactly this long, and at these points these types of things need to happen. Here’s this little universe I want you to play inside of.” Basically, we would loop the universe. The Ari Lennox song [“Every Part of Me”], was a 20 minute loop that we would play from start to finish. Every time it would go back to the top, we would start over again. I had count-offs into the track, and we would hear it. That kept the energy of it. It can be very hard in the studio to start a take and have that energy, like a show, because we’re not doing that. That’s how we did that. It was the opposite of Bitches Brew. Of course, there are things we did afterward. It was important to me and the engineer [Todd Carder] that when we did this record, I knew I wanted the drums to sound a certain way on a certain song. Also that we were going to get as close to that sound while we were tracking, instead of, “Record clean drums and we’ll start over when we mix it.” It was like, “No, I’m leaving here with the vibe.” That way, when we did go to mix, we were able to spread out on a board, go analog, and add all these little live elements.
Did you compile takes out of these 20 minute loops, and pull the best parts from each section? Were you moving sections around?
Nah, it wouldn’t be for each section. I picked the best take. We didn’t stop between takes. Like the Iman Omari song, “No More Maybe,” we played that four or five times in a row because we had his vocals. The fifth one was super high energy. It came with that energy, so when we get to track seven, I want it to feel like the seventh song of a live show. Where’s the intensity? What’s happening? What do I want the audience to experience now? Instead each song is its own thing. When I play a show, I want to ease the listener into this, and then I want to shock them with this and hit them with this. It was that same format. There was very little moving around of anything. If we played a three minute song for 20 minutes, there would definitely be one version that was start-to-finish “the shit.” That’s what we were looking for. That’s what is hard to get on an, “Okay, 1, 2, 3, go, just beat it.” That’s so unnatural to us. It had to be the other way around.
That makes sense. Regarding the drum sounds, what are specific examples of sounds you were going for?
We had a lot of references. At one point, Outkast’s Aquemini was a good reference for drum sounds. We’d sit there with Spotify; I’d pull something up and say, “Oh, okay. The way this kick sounds.” We’d spend hours doing that, finding a good reference. I also had already come in with drums sounding a certain way. There’s a certain way I do drums on my laptop. Everybody, musically, has their own thing, whether it’s intentional or not. I like drums really heavy. I don’t like the drum set to sound like it’s “over there.” I want the drums to feel like you’re at a show, you’re in the third row, and you wish the drummer would stop playing so loud. I want the drums to enclose the listener. We had a huge drum kit, six or seven toms, and two or three different bass drums. We even had different bass drum pedal heads. For “Where Will You Go,” we used a big round tennis ball-sized fluffy kick [beater] to make the kick go, “Boom.” He’s [Shekwoaga Ode] playing really soft on that song, but we turned all the gain up high on the mics. If he were playing loud, it would be distorted. But because he was playing so soft, the kick sounded like a [Roland TR-]808. Because the sensitivity was really high, he had to play super soft and precise. It was shit like that in every song. I’m very hands-on, so I would do a lot on the board. I would pull up the EQs, move it, and trust it. We would record it that way and not worry about, “Oh, what if we’ve gotta go back?” Fuck that! This shit sounds popping now. It’s going to sound crazy when we start over with a flat mix. We also used a program that analyzes the snare drum; that way we could add a sample to it. There was a lot of that. I’d tune the snare a certain way and we’d sample that and then put that in. So, we did a lot of resampling.
You’re using a lot of singers/guest vocalists. As a trumpet player, you’re the “front man.” What’s your calculation on bringing in other voices?
Well, that kind of is the problem. “You’re a trumpet player, so you go in this box.” It’s the idiocracy of the industry’s complete disregard for instrumentalists being artists, producers being artists, and composers being artists. It’s like, “You’re only an artist if you’re shaking your ass and singing in Auto-Tune.” There’s more to it than that. If you take my trumpet off of this record, anybody who knows my music will still know it was me. I wanted to get out of the way of that and make people realize that’s me. With voices, I wanted to have some lyrics to help tell the story – so that it could have a little more of a story format. I wanted the vocals to interact with me and not be the main thing. I also wanted to take each of those vocalists and put them in a situation they’re not normally in. Ari Lennox doesn’t usually sing songs with that type of literature, those types of melodies, or those types of progressions. Even that type of structure. That was intentional. Or Iman Omari singing over a cadenza of drums that are going fucking free jazz crazy. I wanted to reach the listener another way. Once you involve words and a voice, people tend to receive what comes with it with less resistance. The vocals are there to enhance what I’m playing, honestly. Every vocalist involved knew that ahead of time. The trumpet is still the main character. It’s just not in your face all the time. On this record, I’m not playing in a way that’s like, “Look how good I am as a trumpet player.” That doesn’t interest me anymore. That’s not the point. It’s an album concept. I still make albums. I don’t know if I’ll ever not be able to do that. I grew up like that: Hearing albums, buying a CD, and listening to the whole thing. I can’t break out of that. Michael Jackson, Queen, Prince, and Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. Why are we not doing this?
Drummer Nate Smith [Tape Op #143] talks about the musical references that we have as musicians and producers being our “hard drives.” If everybody has a good reference library in their head of music listening, that communication is so much easier.
Yeah, definitely. Everybody in my band who made this record has similar music tastes. What we like jazz-wise and what we like outside of that is similar. We all like the same kind of trap music. That helps a lot. We’re rarely referencing anything jazz. It’s more throwing on a Björk record or something obscure that I found on Spotify. We all have the common vocabulary from having studied jazz so intensely, and all the people we’ve studied with. What we know how to do as a jazz band translates into any genre we want. We’re always coming at it with an understanding that we can, at any point in time, change something for the better. We can reach behind what we’ve established we’re going to do, and that will be received well and supported. If we say we’re going to play in this type of groove, we can do it; but if that groove starts to evolve into something else, we go with it. We’re not saying, “Oh, no! Wait; come back. It needs to stay this way.” It’s more, “Yeah, keep going! Let’s do another take. Let’s push that even further.” Always trying to find that edgy thing.
It’s a service to the greater listening community to provide access points to music that they normally might not hear. Having Wyclef Jean on a track opens up a whole new audience.
That’s why Wyclef did it. He wants to get people opened up to it. We were talking about your expectation that it was a trumpet player’s record. It very much is a trumpet player’s record, but the connotation that comes along with what somebody would expect from that would probably cause 70 or 80 percent of people to not even listen to it. It’s establishing a way for people to realize, “Oh, this cat’s a composer and an artist.” Many people come to our shows having no idea, or assuming they’re not going to like it. Then later they’re like, “I had no idea that I rocked with this until I was here in front of it.” That’s my goal and mission. Nate Smith does the same thing. You think you’re listening to a drummer’s record. But when you put it on; it’s so lush and full of so many elements that give you something to hold on to. I think of Michael Jackson’s HIStory[: Past, Present & Future, Book 1], and also of Outkast’s Aquemini, and how those records gave us so much material and told a grand story. But every song had its own palette that went along with the other songs and had as much integrity instrumentally and acoustically as it did in the lyrics. They were always working with each other. It’s the only way that I want to do it.
You spent some time in China. How did you end up there, and what it was like working in studios?
The studios were a nightmare. They have all the dopest gear leftover from the Communists, but they just don’t know how to use it. It might be different now. This was 15 years ago. It gave me a window to start to learn how to use some of it, because I’d have to figure it out myself.
Yeah. They’re old; Communist broadcast TV and music studios. You could put an orchestra in it. They’ve got Coles ribbon mics, SSL boards, and all of that. But they were not getting the juice out of it. I’m sure it’s better now. It was kind of like, “You can’t come over here and tell us how to do this.” There was a lot of that. I went over there because I was offered a gig that was three shows a night, six nights a week, for three months. It got extended into six and a half months. That chance to go play every night in a jazz club, with me and my band, that’s how all the greats – Thelonious Monk and Miles and all that – did that so regularly in the States throughout the history of the music. They would hold a residency for big chunks of time. The music would elevate to a whole other level because of that.
Yeah. There’s no substitute for that, right?
None whatsoever. That’s it. It was great for me, because I was playing instrumental music. I didn’t want to work with singers. I was well-known as a trumpet player and a musician, and people would come to hear me play every night. For me, I got away with the songs. Because there are no words, it wouldn’t get flagged. But the vibration of it could be super positive and spiritual and all of that. We were getting away with doing some shit that maybe doesn’t go in line with some of the cultural norms. I’m even scared to talk about it, the way I’m saying it now! The culture there, you can’t get on stage and sing certain songs about certain subjects that might invoke people to think a certain way. But you can play a song about that, and leave it open to peoples’ interpretations on how they may think. That was the very thin line there all the time. We know we’re affecting people spiritually and with their critical thinking. But because we’re not telling them the words, we’re not breaking any rules. But vibrationally, it’s all right there.
Did somebody say, “Here are the rules”?
Oh, yeah. China will tell you the rules. When you perform shows there, you’re supposed to turn in lyric sheets and everything, and the government has to approve the lyrics before they give the license to do the show. If you stray from that, you get banned forever, like Björk. She can never perform in China because she got on stage and said, “Free Tibet.” That’s dope of her to do that in her own way, to speak up for something she believes in. But, at the same time, the majority of people living in China don’t know what the fuck is going on in China, so they don’t know what the hell she’s talking about. But with us, we skirted away from that by not using words.
Pick a couple of tunes on the record that had especially interesting production methods and walk me through.
I think the song “Anthem” probably got the most time spent on it, because the drums just weren’t working. The drum sound was two drummers playing together. Those drums ended up getting pitched down and moved off the beat. We spent a whole day trying to get those drums to feel good. There was something awful about it for the longest time. But when we finally got it, it worked.
How about “Hero Stomp?”
“Hero Stomp” was cool, because that is a tribe sample. I had that and the percussion already arranged out. Where that sample comes in the song, we recorded to it. We did three takes and we used the second one. The click was starting; it had that intro and we would play. Then every 16 bars the sample would come back in, and we’d play like we were playing with the sample. The whole goal of that was, “Let’s make it feel like the tribe is in the room with us on every take.” It was laid out ahead of time. “Okay, it’s going to be this long. In these sections I’m going to fill in piano solos, the sample’s going to come back in, and we’re going to ride it – like the head – out.” Again, because the unit is so rooted in improvisation, we were seeing how far we could stretch it between the tribe coming in. That was unique how we did that. Something also unique about that song is that there are no effects on the trumpet at all. There’s no reverb, no delay, no EQ, nothing. It’s flat and raw. The whole story’s a hero’s journey, but this is the part where the hero is exposed completely and left at his very own element.
That’s some intense music.
The pianist and I both play percussion. Sometimes we’ll be in the middle of whatever take we’re doing; I’ll pick up some shit and start playing it, then throw it down and go back to trumpet. It wasn’t like, “Okay, now let’s do the percussion.” If I picked up the drums or the cowbell, it’s on the take on the piano mic! It was very cool. I don’t know if it’s on this one, or on some of the tracks that ended up getting put on the next record. But one cool thing I did was we would have the drums all mic’d up, but we’d open some doors up and then the sound from the piano mic or the sound of the drums from the trumpet mic that’s far away would give it this delay and down-sampled vibe.
Even putting that together sometimes gave the drums this whole element. It’s just that microphone over there, but because it’s 20 feet away there’s a millisecond delay on it. When you’re in the studio and the track needs something, and you pull up a plug-in or power up a machine, you turn the knobs to the extreme and get this sound all of a sudden. You’re like, “Yo! Right there.” Keep that instead of dialing it down to tame it. A lot of the reverbs and delays are on alternate microphones, especially with the trumpet. There’s always a clean trumpet in the middle, and any reverb or delay or effects surrounding that are “around it,” not dead into it. We’re still hearing the rawness of all the acoustic instruments, but there’s this element around it. All of the reverbs and delays; we wouldn’t just turn them on and leave them, because that doesn’t work in the whole song. Adjust it as the song is going in an analog way, so that it shapes and moves with the song.
That’s a great technique.
I think mixing always comes down to what sounds good in a section of the song. It may need to change later. That whole “setting it and moving on” is like, “Nah.” It’s a three minute song. What is the reverb going to do for this entire three minutes? It’s not like it has to do one thing the whole time. Having the trumpets stripped raw was like the part in Black Panther where the throne gets challenged and he has to fight without the sacred flower. He’s stripped to his raw shit; no armor, or weapons, or anything. That was the vibe on that one. Expose the hero.