For nearly two decades, Eric Roberson has reigned as the king of the independent soul music movement. Even so, he remains to be one of the industrys best-kept secrets, since his fan base and reputation have been largely built upon word-of-mouth stemming from his spectacular live performances. In fact, as an esteemed alumnus of Howard University, Robersons name is spoken in Chocolate City with a level of reverence that is generally reserved for his musical forebears Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Luther Vandross. Such glowing respect is well-deserved, however.
In 2010, with the release of Music Fan First, Eric Roberson received his first GRAMMY nomination Best Urban/Alternative Performance for A Tale of Two along with Ben O’Neill and Michelle Thompson. In celebration of this historic milestone, Erro managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule to settle down for an interview with Clayton Perryreflecting on sixteen years of resilience, the influence of DJ Jazzy Jeff, and Sol Village, his monthly showcase at SOBs in New York City.
AllHipHop.com: Congratulations on your 2010 Grammy Award nomination! To be perfectly frank, my friends and I often wondered what took the Recording Academy so long to recognize your work! But now that you officially have the industrys highest stamp of approval, how does it feel?
Eric Roberson: Man, Im still numb from the whole situation. I dont know if its really sunk in yet, but what I will say is that its very reassuring because the last nine, ten years, I have just been stepping out on faith and following my heart, you know? And a lot of times it may not have been the best decision or my peers may not have thought it was wise. But with a nomination like this, its like saying what youre doing is right and keep going. Im completely honored. I feel like its even more responsibility, a good responsibility, because I think its going to slowly but surely open the door for a lot of other people to get recognized. To me, its a sign that the playing field is getting leveled and a show of appreciation for making good music, and not focusing on what label it belongs to, or how many records it sold compared to some big artist, or whatever.
AllHipHop.com: I hope that the tide is changing! This year, a few other independent soul artists received nominations as well. What do you think has caused this sudden change?
Eric Roberson: This is a crazy thought as a comparison, but I dont know if President Obama could have won the election a couple of years ago just because of the people that were in play. Race is definitely a factor in American life, but as more and more white people became exposed to different black personalities, they also were reeducated on who we are as a people. Now, the government looks different, from the Supreme Court to the Congress looks different. When I look at the Recording Academy, I kind of feel like its almost the same thing, because my peers are now in a voting situation. People that know my story are in the movement, which is slowly but surely helping. Its not all the way where it needs to be at yet, but its getting there. Case in point Robert Glasper and Bilal received nominations in my category, too. And then you have Foreign Exchange. And these guys are pretty much part of the independent movement. Robert Glasper plays for Maxwell, but puts out his own album. And Foreign Exchange has several different groups and collaborated with so many different artists. Weve circled the wagon. Sure were independent artists. But you know what? We work with major artists. Well write and produce for them, but well do our own stuff as well. So were just covering the music business in general. When it comes down to it, if a Robert Glasper song comes across a desk, it has a better chance of being recognized for what it is now, because they see his work, all across the board, who he is and what his story is about. And it probably goes the same for me, as well as a lot of other independent artists. We just have to make sure that we keep it pushing ahead, so that the next people that are coming around behind us can benefit from that. And I think they can. I think they will.
AllHipHop.com: As I hear you talk about pushing ahead, I immediately thought of a couple key moments in your life that are certainly the by-products of divine intervention. Sometimes, you never know how one thing can lead to another. When you were sixteen years old, for example, you were in the Mr. Black Teenage World pageant. Had it not been for that, you would not have received your scholarship to Howard University. When you look at your career, how did your Howard experience shape your future life as an independent artist?
Eric Roberson: Man, thats a great, great question, because there are no accidents. My father always says that. But at the same time, its amazing how a small change can have a tremendous impact. My mother put my sister in pageants, and me being the younger brother, I pretty much did everything that my sister did. But while at her Hal Jackson pageant, she met someone who said, If your son has talent, theres competitions for him, as well. And just being an active mom, trying to keep me out of trouble, anything she could put me in, she pretty much put me in. In addition, when I won the national Mr. Black Teenage World competition, to realize that I had a scholarship to Howard University I can reassure you that I would not have been able to go to Howard if there was not that scholarship. My whole life course would have been totally different. I probably would have gone to school locally in New Jersey and tried to get a football scholarship. Even my focus in that regard would have been totally different. So to go to Howard, which has a great amount of musical history, and to be surrounded by such amazing talent, it was definitely a chin-check. It was made for me, man. I was in heaven in those years. And it made me not only the man that I am today, but it a better artist, a better student, a better everything. And I wont say that it was always easy. That was definitely hard. But that was probably the start, right there, of where everything started coming together. Without that one scholarship, right there alone, I dont know what I would have done. I knew Shai who were good friends of mine at Howard and when they got signed, I gave them my demo tape and said, Hey, if you could pass it on to somebody If they hadnt done that, where would I be at? In some form or fashion, maybe I would have still gotten to this point. But Im appreciative of all the rare opportunities Ive had that actually led me to getting to some place such as this.
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AllHipHop.com: The one thing I always respected about you is your level of determination and always pushing ahead — no matter what. During the early part of your career, after a few setbacks with Warner Bros. and Island, some people would have just given up. Where did you get the strength to continue? And looking back, how was being dropped a blessing in disguise?
Eric Roberson: Its several different things. Aside from just having a good supporting cast parents who were just very encouraging, my sister everybody was encouraging through those tough times. It was humbling. I probably spent more time on the eye-opening facts of the whole thing, because up to that point, everything vocally always worked for me. Music and singing solved all my problems. If I broke up with a girl, then opened my mouth and starting singing, I could find another girl. I thought the world would be paved out for me easily because I could sing. I naively thought that up to that point. To see the business come in and punch me clean in the face, that was just an eye-opener especially the Island situation. A new President came in, he had his people, and he didnt care who was there. Im like, Well, you can at least listen to what I have. He goes, No, Im good. Were good. Weve got a male vocalist that weve been working on, that were bringing in. It is what it is. I couldnt understand that. I was like, What do you mean? If I at least open my mouth for you, I think I can keep my spot if I can at least sing for you. They were like, We dont even need to hear what you want to sing, like it doesnt matter. So that was eye-opening to know youre really going to have to develop other aspects of who you are. That might have been the sole reason why I went back to school which was a great, great decision, overall, when I look back in my life. Im so happy that I went back to school. Im so happy for the opportunity. Even though the embarrassment and pain that it may have caused going back, it was still the best decision I ever made. And it made me the better artist because if I stayed on that label and put out more music, I dont think I had the talent level at the time to put out consistent music that I do now. Theres a lot I learned in that moment of being able to step back. Ive seen a lot of artists from the writing and production side that get signed, and because now theyre out there, they dont have the opportunity to really develop certain parts. Its almost like a kid that skips college and goes back to the pros. And if he had not skipped college, he would have had a little more time, maybe, to work on that outside jumper a little more. But now hes got eighty-two games a year, he doesnt have the time to really step back because so much time is looked at like, Okay, youre a Laker today. Youve got to study this. Youve got to study how to guard it. Okay, tomorrow you have to Theres no room to step back and go, Okay, how can I better myself? Those years going back to Howard were more about me saying, Okay, let me figure out how I want to do music and how I hear music.
AllHipHop.com: Luckily, you have your own label, Blue Erro Soul, as well as a personal studio the Blue Room where you record all your music. At what point did these elements become vital and necessary for fostering your artistic expression?
Eric Roberson: One of the big steps for me was meeting Jazzy Jeff and the producers at a Touch of Jazz in Philadelphia. I spent years in those basement studios in Philadelphia honing my craft and worked with some amazing people. That was when my songwriting and my artistry all went to another place. That was the first time I really went into a studio and didnt have to worry about a time. We were sneaking in at nighttime and off-hours, or I was going in paying for time. So we were going in and Jazzy Jeff just wanted us to work. He just wanted us to vibe out. So those hours of spending time to figure out what worked for me and what didnt work for me, what worked to better a song and what didnt work to better production or whatever, really opened up that drive to say, Man, theres so much creativity that can open up if were given the time of finding that next layer. And that was what really started me buying my own equipment. I realized no one could stop me from doing what I love if I own what I love. So bit by bit, one by one, when I made a little bit of money, it went to equipment. And before you knew it, I had so much equipment, that it was like, Okay, let me try to put this equipment into an actual studio room. And thats what came to building the Blue Room and the rest was history. Once I got my own equipment, I could sit in there and work for days. Thats when I was able to let go of a lot more. If you have to make self- discoveries in public, you may not be able to realize a lot of your mistakes or a lot of your shortcomings or a lot of your accomplishments, because youre still presenting it. But when you can really reflect over things in private, theres another level, another wall that opens up for you. And that was what happened for me, artistry-wise. I still love the fact that I have my own studio. And when I have a little idea, I can go right downstairs and click the equipment on and try to hammer that idea out. I wouldnt trade that for the world. Its extremely important to todays artists, in my opinion. If you really want to find who you are musically, thats a step up that you must take.
AllHipHop.com: When you look at yourself artistically, what skill do you think you have improved upon the most?
Eric Roberson: Mainly to show who I am. Its funny. I have a show at SOBs that I do called Sol Village. Every month we do it. Ive spent so much time on stage now, and that has helped me so much, because there are certain times where, say the drummer broke the kick-drum, or lets say the guitar amp isnt working between acts. And I had to problem-solve while on stage, while performing. Thats like the main part of my job. As the host of that show, I have to hold everyones attention while still stage managing and navigating the night. And being on stage so much becomes second nature. Im able to be on stage and be myself and still be in the moment of performing and be able to give you the talent that you paid to come see, but yet can still be going, Okay, wheres the next act at? Let me flag down the assistant so he can go track that person down. And let me sing another song while the keyboard player is still trying to get the sound on his second keyboard, or whatever. Its funny, because at Howard, I was a musical theatre major and those acting classes that I had during that time helped shaped how I perform so much. I just cant really express that enough. That was one of the main sparks that helped my writing, how much it helped my stage presence. As individuals we all see things differently. We all carry things differently. We all have something special. So the moment that I can see you for your work, its special, whoever it is. And if we all just show who we are, well all have something different to say. Im just all about trying to show me, but more importantly, Im trying to not get in the way of myself while showing myself. And thats what we all do. We go, Im the show. Oh my God! I need this crazy outfit. Im just not doing something so I have to make myself look cool. And you already cool. You already cool. If you just get up there and have your talent together, and present yourself or present you, and not be so occupied with all the craziness, everything will be cool. I loved to dress. Im going to be on stage looking fresh, but at no point am I going to allow what I do on stage to hurt my performance. Lets say the shoes are uncomfortable or the outfit makes me feel too tight, or whatever. The most important thing is the connection. And Ive learned that. Ive learned to say, you know, Thats a dope jacket, but Im not going to wear it because I feel comfortable on stage here, among other things.
AllHipHop.com: Sol Village is a commitment that you have held yourself to for quite some time. How did that opportunity first come about, and why is it so important to you?
Eric Roberson: Well, I remember at one point, I had become a pretty successful songwriter. And I would walk into meetings with my songs. I would be told, Oh, thats nice, man. I can hear this for such-and-such. I can hear this for such-and-such. Id go, But, thats my song. I kind of thought I would sing this one. And theyre like, No, man. Youre a songwriter, man. Im singing my face off. Theres still artist mode on the song. A song about my own life. I remember I wanted to make steps, bold steps to separate myself from the usual songwriting title that I had built for myself, to be honest. So, I started trying to do some shows. And I remember trying to do shows in New York. And I remember trying to get in SOB and not being able to perform there. I remember it. I remember calling and not being able to perform. And I remember the way we got into SOBs was we said, Well, how much does it cost to just rent your club? How much does this cost? And he said, Well, okay, it costs this, and whatever, whatever. I said, Well, I want to rent your club out. I want to rent your club out. And I bought the club out for a night. And I did a free concert for all the industry and all my friends. That event was so successful, that SOBs was like, Wow. We were really impressed with your talent and we really like what you are doing. From that point on, when I called and wanted to do a show there, it gave me the opportunity to do a show. Now, mind you, if I didnt buy that club out, I dont know when I would have ever got a chance to perform there. But it built years of me being able to do shows there. I did shows; probably every five or six months, I would do another show just to perform. So it made sense. And one of the managers at the time her name was Erica Elliott she said, Im sure theres other talent like you who would love to perform on this stage that just doesnt get a chance to. What do you think if we did a monthly show called Sol Village where people could perform? And I jumped at that. I said, I would love to host it. I would love to do it, because I remember being that person. So now, to give acts an opportunity once a month to perform on a stage such as SOBs where industry people can come and see you and youre guaranteed a good crowd each and every month, its been beautiful. I mean, sure, its a dedication to make sure Im available every third Wednesday of the month, but it isnt that hard. It isnt that hard. That, to me, is all worth it, because I remember when I was that person. Ive been in this business now for over sixteen years now
AllHipHop.com: It is crazy to hear you say that.
Eric Roberson: Its really crazy. And let me side-step for a second. I performed on Sunday at Lincoln Theatre in D.C. and I had not been on that stage since I was probably nineteen or twenty years old. The last time I performed there, I was performing The Moon and other songs I had at the time of the Warner Bros. deal. And here I am now, revisiting this stage with this huge amazing gap in-between it. I remember seeing things had changed. I remember when The Roots or Jill Scott or Erykah Badu and DAngelo could do SOB, but an independent artist couldnt set foot on that stage. I remember it. I was one of the people who was trying to get on that stage. Now, four or five acts get that opportunity every month. Its a launching pad for these artists, and because they do so well and build their following through Sol Village, theyre even doing their own nights at SOBs, as well as all around New York. Its just part of it, man. Im just happy to be a part of the foundation of a lot of things. By no means am I taking credit for launching anything. But Im just happy to be a part of a lot of stuff that has helped, including myself.
AllHipHop.com: A couple of days ago, I was going back through my CDs and I came across the live DVD that you recorded in D.C. When I look at the product, I am very impressed by the quality of work you present, in general, because there are not that many artists, especially independent artists, who come out with a DVD of their show, as well as a CD of the audio. You are definitely an inspiration to aspiring artist everywhere. And with the industry in the current state that it is in, a lot of people can definitely look to you in terms of a blueprint for what they need to be doing. I know that might be a lot of weight on your shoulders, but I see you getting more love now. Sadly, it took sixteen years, but Im happy that you are doing what you love and stayed with it for so long.
Eric Roberson: I appreciate that. Its all about organized growth, man. You may hear me say that a million times, but what my family has instilled in me is always trying to build, but never overshooting, just a steady growth. And for me, Ive always had a year plan. Ive always had a five-year plan. And Ive succeeded way beyond what my five-year plan was five years ago. I still have a year plan right now, and I have a five-year plan from now. And Im fine with each time theyre growing. I think its only a matter of time. With a Grammy nomination now and us being able to professionally tour throughout Europe and not just doing London and coming home or whatever, it really means a lot. So I can only imagine what it will be like in five years. Im excited about it, man. Im excited and patient to see.
For more information on Eric Roberson, visit his official website: http://blueerrosoul.blogspot.com/