Aaron Levinson: Fixing a Musical Salad

Long before your favorite DJ was cutting and scratching, Aaron Levinson was crossing genres with some of contemporary music’s most talented musicians. The music veteran has 16 albums under his belt, along with several Grammys and Billboard Awards. But, trying to describe his music category is difficult, because Levinson has composed and produced music from […]

Long before your favorite DJ was cutting and scratching, Aaron Levinson was crossing genres with some of contemporary music’s most talented musicians. The music veteran has 16 albums under his belt, along with several Grammys and Billboard Awards. But, trying to describe his music category is difficult, because Levinson has composed and produced music from around the globe. So why is this important to Hip Hop? Because Levinson has just released the multi-genre project called The Harlem Experiment, which may be the only place besides 125th Street in Harlem where you can hear a mix of Jazz, Latin, Hip Hop, Funk and even Jewish music. On the heels of his other critically acclaimed projects, The Philadelphia Experiment and The Detroit Experiment, Levinson has once again assembled a stellar team including Queen Esther, Olu Dara, Taj Mahal, Mums, and Larry Legend to tell the story of one of America’s most culturally rich cities.Levinson explains his love for genre blending, and how he misses the times when Hip- Hop took more risks. If you ever wanted to know where to start your Jazz collection, Levinson gives some suggestions, and even hopes that Harlem’s most infamous rap crew The Diplomats, would stop by his studio.AllHipHop.com : Philadelphia and Detroit were the first two cities in your Experiment series.  Why was Harlem chosen next? Aaron Levinson: I lived in Harlem for a number of years, so it’s a place that I had a lot of first hand experience with and a neighborhood that I grew really fond of while living there. Detroit was very interesting, but Harlem to be honest with you, reminded me a lot of Philly. By New York standards, it’s a very accessible neighborhood. It’s not like the rest of Manhattan, where there are giant, towering high-rises. In Harlem, there are a lot more private homes and corner stores. Harlem is a lot more human. That’s how I would describe it. Coming from Philly, there was something about Harlem that felt very much like the world that I knew. And it was comforting, because New York can be a very intimidating place. When I first moved there, I lived downtown, I was on 18th and Broadway. And there were towers everywhere. By the time I moved uptown, I thought that it was much more like where I came from and was familiar with: restaurants, corner stores and barber shops, you know? I was like, OK, I’m home. That was a good feeling, and that feeling of kinship never left me even when I moved out of New York. I always felt like Harlem was a place I have affection for.  When the opportunity came up to do another Experiment, there is not more you can say about Harlem besides the fact that it’s pretty much the center American culture. When you walk down 125 th street, there’s nothing like it. You just get goosebumps. You walk past the Apollo Theater, and it’s like, everything happened here! It’s a place where you feel the ghosts of so many important cultural movements and figures that made their mark there. Harlem’s going through another one of its periodic renaissances. So, I also felt like this was a good time to explore Harlem, because it’s really on such an upswing now.AllHipHop.com: So how do the changes in the Harlem area affect the music and art scene?Levinson: Now there are a lot of people, like Queen Esther, who sings on the record, who moved from Augusta, Georgia to be a New Yorker and to apply her trade as a singer. Harlem is a place that clearly had a great deal of influence on her. She’s fundamentally a jazz singer and she just thought, wouldn’t that be great to be a part of that cultural continuum, even though she’s not from Harlem. So I guess in that way, Harlem is acting like a cultural magnet. That is a very powerful idea. Then you get somebody like Taj Mahal, who sang on the record a song called “Reefer Man,” who is originally from Harlem. He moved away to Massachusetts when he was a teenager. So for him, it was like a return to Harlem. That’s always interesting. I feel like the records would be different if you didn’t bring people back to their hometown. AllHipHop.com: With so many different generations and cultures of people in one small area, like Harlem, how does music play a part in bringing those people together?Levinson: One of the things I was really trying to do with the Harlem Experiment was to tell a tale of one neighborhood, but of a lot of different histories that go to make up the neighborhood. America is a culture that is obsessed with separating things. All too often it’s done at the expense of a story that crosses over lines. You end up with a very one-sided explanation of things. In doing the Harlem Experiment, I knew I wanted to make this record a cultural salad. I didn’t want it to be one thing. I think one of the gratifying results of doing this is that I’m getting response from every single musical and ethnic community that was a part of it. People that are Jazz fans are writing about it, people that are into Latin music are mentioning that. It proves to me that people have much wider ears that the categories would be able to contain.AllHipHop.com: How would you go about introducing Jazz to a strict Hip Hop listener?Levinson: Hip Hop, by nature to me, draws on different types of things. Maybe today, that’s less true. But certainly in The Golden Age of Hip Hop if you think of A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. That whole generation of Hip-Hop was throwing everything into the mix. It’s ironic to me now, with the music that was started with such an eclectic base that the Hip Hop audience is surprisingly conservative today.I would introduce them to Soul Jazz first. Because I think that you stand a better chance of giving those listeners something that has a handle in there. If I played a Roy Ayers record or a Lonnie Liston Smith record or a Dorothy Ashby record, you can feel the beat, the keyboards…the vocals are soulful. I probably wouldn’t start somebody off with Coltrane, or Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis because that may be too much heavy artillery to roll out on a Jazz newbie all at once. AllHipHop.com: Any specific songs?Levinson: One is called “Song For My Father” by Harris Silver, the other one is “Caravan” by Duke Ellington and the last one is “So What” which is by Miles Davis. Basically, you can’t go wrong with those. If you don’t like that, you basically aren’t going to like the rest of Jazz. AllHipHop.com: I actually get a kick out of getting CDs and finding the sample, then the original song. That is a practice that is kind of unique to Hip-Hop.Levinson: That is what I really loved about where Hip-Hop was coming from at that time. There was a direct linkage to the history of American music. Guys like DJ Premier and other really talented DJs that are real crate miners. They were listening to all kinds of music. So you would be listening to Hip-Hop, but you were discovering all these other things. As samples become less a part of Hip Hop and there is more programming, it’s less likely you are going to discover the history in the way that you might have in the past. Obviously there are economic reasons to why that happened. Samples became very expensive and labels couldn’t make albums with a lot of samples in them. Ready To Die, by [Notorious BIG] couldn’t be made today.AllHipHop.com: Are there any Hip Hop songs that you would like to change, maybe add live music or make it a totally different genre?Levinson: That’s the major part of who I am, so I am always thinking of ways to mix things up in a new way. Just because I love to do it. I would like to hear  “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” by A Tribe Called Quest as a country song.AllHipHop.com: That’s definitely a country story line!Levinson: I could hear it with fiddles, it would be great! Someone’s got to do it. Some really hip country artist has got to do it! It would be a smash!AllHipHop.com: What other cities are you considering experimenting with?Levinson: We talked about Kingston, Jamaica. Kingston has a pretty interesting Jazz scene, that I don’t think a lot of people know about, and has for a long time. Paris is the only place that is as good as America when it comes to Hip-Hop. British Hip- Hop sounds rushed and super sped up. Every rapper sounds like Twista. In France, there are a lot of African, Haitian and Caribbean people. So there is a multicultural community. I’m really interested in that, along with the long, proud history of Americans living in Paris, like Josephine Baker. She was a part of a generation that brought Jazz to that nation that embraced it. They probably listen to way more Jazz than Americans.I’d like to experiment with New Orleans, but I’m a little worried because the city has been overexposed. I’ve been there a number of times and it’s a lot like a French city. There are a lot of artists and a lot of young people who play instruments and aren’t considered band nerds. AllHipHop.com: Yeah, I could hear Lil’ Wayne over some Jazz too.Levinson: Lil’ Wayne is very rhythmic. He would be great over Jazz music. People I know who has worked with him say that is constantly coming up with rhythms and is a very creative person. I like that he is always pushing boundaries.AllHipHop.com: Who else in Hip Hop would you like to work with?Levinson: There were two people I wish I would have gotten on the Harlem Experiment. Nas because his dad, Olu Dara was on it. We thought we were going to make that happen. I could see Dipset on the record too. I could see the Diplomats, particularly on the first song, “One For Jackie.” After the album came out, a lot of people asked me why The Diplomats weren’t on it.AllHipHop.com: Maybe they would be down to do a remix.Levinson: Well, I’ll use AllHipHop.com to formally request them. Come on down, guys!