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Interview with Ray Angry of The Roots


Anywhere he goes, Ray Angry is probably the most skilled pianist in any direction for many, many miles. However, at Pitchfork Music Festival, he is surrounded by some of the most talented instrumentalists in the current musical canon— no, he’s still probably the best pianist here. He has album credits with artists such as Mick Jagger, Solange, Elvis Costello, Mobb Deep, and many more. This modern renaissance man walks in with a sharp green jacket on; under his large tan hat rests a calm brain that will soon shoot neurons to his fingers, they will play notes and impress tens of thousands of attendees for The Roots’ headlining performance. 

They call him Mr. Goldfinger for a reason. 

Jack: So let’s go back to the beginning, tell me about your early days playing piano at Howard University and your introduction to jazz.

Ray Angry: So basically when I was at university they wouldn’t allow me to study jazz. So, I had a double major in classical jazz starting with your young jazz legends, and also reading, but the interesting thing about me being at Howard is I got to connect with all the great Jazz musicians that were coming in. You know how young kids come to festivals go backstage? the artists who want to talk to artists. So I was doing that with all the jazz artists, like me and my friend Chris Dave. He’s like one of the best drummers in the world, he’s amazing. And he and I used to walk from our university to Blue’s Alley to see Wynton Marsalis. It really ignited my interest in jazz, you know, Branford, Kenny Kirkland, so these guys were my heroes. Those guys really got me into playing jazz, and then I was doing gospel music and R&B. Then, I dropped out of school and toured with this R&B group called The Chi, who were traveling around the world, and then I went back to school. So at Howard, I was really interested in music, period. So not just Jazz, I was also into classical and all these different styles. I figured if I can play all these different types of music, I’ll always be good. I think it’s best to think outside the box, and I came to New York, and that’s been the case since.

J: If you could talk to early Ray Angry, what would you tell him? What critiques would you give his music and what advice would you give him?

RA: You know, I’d tell him, man, practice hard, stay focused, and know the ins and outs of the business. Because I think the thing that people miss is that when you get out of school you have to work in business. You’re not just going to be playing music, you got to feed your family, you got to work, and pay rent. So for me, I would just try to make sure that my younger self knew everything about the music business. Every aspect, contracts, how to copyright your music. I think collaboration is so important too. Working with other people, asking questions, not being afraid to ask questions, and not being afraid to ask for help.

J: You released your jazz album, One about four years ago, and after some time to reflect on it, how do you feel looking back on it?

RA: You know, I’m really happy with the recording. People often send me messages about a particular song from my album. And then Amy Schumer put it in Life and Beth. You know, for me, it’s an honor. And also, I’m excited to record my new album, because the first album is Jazz. The next one is solo piano, and it’s classical music. It’s classical music, soul, hip-hop, experimental, all these different styles of music, and it’s just the piano. I’m excited about it. And for me, being diverse and not being known for just one thing is what I’m about. I’m really about connecting folks from all walks of life, it’s been a pleasure, I love recording and the music I’m recording is just an example of where I’m at in my life at the time. I hope that anything I’ve gone through and experienced can make someone’s day brighter.

J: You said that your music is a reflection of where you are in your life, and so what’s bringing you to do a solo piano album in Three?

RA: I’ve actually never released a solo piano album, so for me, because I’m into so many different styles of music, each album represents all the colors in my mind, So the first album was like jazz, the next one is going to be classical. The one after that is going to is going to be different, maybe a funk kind of thing. So I think recording a solo piano album is something I had to do. Especially for the memory of my parents that passed away and my two brothers that passed away this year. So I’ve suffered a lot of loss, for me solo piano is something that is deep in my heart. My parents got me into music, so it’s really a dedication to my family. 

J: So why’d you skip two and call it three?

RA: It’s a great conversation piece. Everyone’s like where’s two? Everyone’s gonna be looking for two and go buy One or Three. Why not just do something different? 

J: In ancient Greek, Telos means to reach fulfillment or an end goal of an object. Do you think that you can push an instrument to the point of fulfillment?

RA: I would say, when I look to some of the great pianists and all the great artists. Absolutely, I mean, to me, music comes from the ether or somewhere in space, you know it comes from outside of us. And I think connecting with music on a spiritual level gives you satisfaction because your ego is pushed out of the way. So once your ego is out, this is only my opinion, you’re able to really connect with God, the universe can become a channel and really as far as I can see someone and you’re like once you do that, you experience something new and can be blown away. For me. I think it’s possible to do that, but the ego has to be out of the way first.

J: I’ve never heard anybody explain that transcendence so well. So, how’s it been touring with the roots almost 30 years after they do their debut? And is there a different mentality than there was back in the days of Undun in 2011 when you were touring with them?

RA: I think everything forced everyone to think outside the box and also to really redefine your purpose, and for me, working with the roots since 2008 has been life changing. It’s been really great because I’ve been I’ve had the blessing to be on The Tonight Show. Working with Jimmy Fallon working with The Tonight Show crew has been amazing, working Steve green. And having done a record Elvis Costello. That was because of our relationship with the roots and this has been really great. To be able to connect with the world.

J: So what have you been up to these last few years after finishing One?

RA: I’ve been working on a symphony for The Lexington Symphony Orchestra for the past year, I’ve been studying orchestration, composition and writing my personal sort that premieres November 19. I’ve done the music for Life and Beth with my writing partner Timo Elliston. It’ll be on Netflix later this year. I started my own record label called Mr. Goldfinger Music. I’ve been doing Producer Mondays, so I’ve been busy creating lots.

J: You’ve been credited on some incredible albums recently. I’m curious on your opinion on the music scene right now, is it as fruitful and filled with talent as it was in the 90’s?

RA: I think music is always evolving. There’s always gonna be someone better and there’s always gonna be a new way of looking at music, and I think it’s cool that technology is advancing now. I think it’s better because you know, who would’ve thought that you could be on your computer and someone else can be at home on their computer, and you can make a whole album. So I would say it’s getting better. And you know, technology is really connecting us more and more. In terms of music there’s always going to be growth, things are going to be listened to and be reinterpreted. Styles of music mixing together to create a new sound, so I’m excited. Next year, we’re making an authentic style rather than following a safe sound. So, I’m really excited.

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