For Taylor McFerrin, learning to finish what he had started – in this case his debut album, Early Riser – was the biggest lesson he learnt in recent years. The album was released in 2014 via the Los Angeles-based, Flying Lotus-helmed Brainfeeder label, three years after it was originally supposed to be finished. “I got to a place where I wasn't sure I would ever be able to finish a record. I had all these deadlines for myself and I'd start all new music instead of finishing what I had.” McFerrin, son of legendary vocalist Bobby, ultimately saw his personal struggle through and emerged with a new understanding. “Seeing how much focus and dedication it took to finish this album, it seems more realistic to know what I have to do now.”
Despite his musical lineage, McFerrin is a product of his age: a beat kid. “When I started making music I only wanted to do hip-hop production. It was all about Premier, all the early Wu-Tang,” he recalls before mentioning his favorite producer, the unavoidable J Dilla. He began making beats in high school in Minnesota and continued all the way through college in New York City. “When I went to college there wasn't the same sort of curriculum available in music schools that there is now. Home studio producers weren't seen as valid musicians.” It was 1999, and while producers had been providing the music for hip-hop's greatest hits for more than a decade, it would take another ten years for the idea that they could be valid artists in their own rights to settle in our collective psyche.
In New York City, McFerrin attended the New School, though not for its renowned jazz program. “I did the regular Eugene Lang liberal arts program, but ended up hanging out with all the jazz cats.” Self-taught and unable to read music, McFerrin was most comfortable with machines – and even then, not with the most obvious kind. “I always made beats with keyboards. From the start I played drums on keyboards and taught myself chords. That's how I became open to playing keys.” The kids he hung out with soon invited him to join a band as the “beatboxer soloist,” in reference to his proclivity for making music with his mouth. In 2000 the original keys player left the band and McFerrin took his place. He then spent most of the decade in bands as “the keyboard, synth, fx, beat machine/boxer guy.”
In 2006 he put out the Broken Vibes EP, followed four years later by the self-released Early Riser EP. The album was supposed to follow within a year but McFerrin hit a creative wall. The way out of such impasses almost always comes via some sort of “eureka” moment. “For me, that was when I decided to call two good friends, Marcus Gilmore and Jason Fraticelli.” Gilmore is a drummer and the grandson of jazz legend Roy Haines, while Fraticelli plays bass. Together the trio wrote and performed the majority of the music on Early Riser, lifting McFerrin out of his creative cul-de-sac. “The songs they played on were tracks I had sitting around forever. Once they added their elements the music became new to me again. That was the tipping point. I realized I had all these amazing artists around me I could reach out to.”
When you're young, you tend to think you can do it all, and that sort of youthful hubris was another thing that held McFerrin back. “A lot of records you think people did all by themselves, when they in fact didn't. Once I had the guys involved, the ball got rolling.”
From there he opened things up further with a string of remarkable guests, including Emily King, Thundercat, Robert Glasper, Cesar Mariano, and his own father. “I got out of my shell and realized I didn’t need to do absolutely everything, that my larger goal is to constantly improve on the things I can bring to the table, moving forward in my career, as opposed to getting down on myself that I’m not at Stevie Wonder’s level.” The laugh he lets out with this last statement sounds like it carries the weight of realization.
McFerrin's evolution from lonely beat kid to confident musician mirrors, in reverse, what tends to happen to classically trained musicians who discover the potentials of the computer in freeing them from the shackles of group work. But which of these two sides influences his writing process the most? “The biggest positive to being self-taught is that from the beginning I developed my own sound. The negative is that there is a lot of theory, technique, and basic songwriting classes I wish I'd taken. I feel what makes it work for me is that I came up learning production techniques based around how to piece everything together. That's my main skill.”
His relationship with Brainfeeder began in the mid 2000s, shortly after McFerrin released his first EP and as Flying Lotus debuted on Warp Records. It happened via MySpace, as so many connections between budding young producers did then. A place for friends, MySpace had a profound and lasting impact on a generation of musicians who were coming of age online as the traditional industry was crumbling. McFerrin, who also connected with famed Brazilian pianist Cesar Mariano on MySpace, recalls that it felt like “we all got invited to this online high school. The world got a lot smaller.”
In 2010 McFerrin flew to Los Angeles to do a show in support of the Early Riser EP, the ill-fated prelude to his album. That's when he reconnected with Lotus and the rising star of the beat scene offered him a full length on his newly set up label. In 2013, after two years of struggling with the album, the label told McFerrin they wanted him to join them for a yearly Japanese showcase at Tokyo's sprawling Ageha complex. He missed the deadline. He decided he wouldn't miss it again. In 2014, the same week the album came out in Japan, he performed live in the venue's main room, in front of thousands. “A huge highlight was walking into Tower Records in Shibuya and seeing my posters everywhere, seeing the CDs. It was the first time I held a physical version of the record.”
While this generation has never had more ease of access to making music, the riddle of taking what is created in the studio to the stage, and how, remains one of the biggest hurdle for many. For McFerrin it's been a process of trying and refining. Before the album was finished, his live shows consisted largely of him improvising, juggling as many musical balls as he could without falling over. Now, he's evolving things. “For the tour I did this past fall I separated all the sections of the songs into individual tracks so I could perform them with Ableton but also remix them. I used the Rhodes so I could start with a version people knew but then deconstruct it and bring in new elements, go in a new direction.”
A combination of the familiar and unknown is a tried and tested formula for many performers – from DJs to live bands. McFerrin's set up also gives the audience more than the standard, button-pushing ‘live’ experience. “This year I'm trying to bring Marcus on tour whenever possible. Together we can do so much more, it becomes really free. He'll be a huge part of the next record, so we're going to introduce new music as we start touring again.” The focus for now is on recording this new album, and he hopes the pair can hit the road by the summer. “The hardest part is that I didn't record any of Early Riser with performance in mind. I’m doing more vocals on the next record and writing more with performance in mind, and I think that’s been influenced by trying to perform a record with a million things going on, but only one or two people on stage.”
In the five years it took for the album to materialize, New York City — which has been “everything” to McFerrin — has changed, just as McFerrin has. He's spent 15 years bouncing around Brooklyn neighborhoods — a situation that's left him feeling like a real New Yorker, not to mention realistic about changes he sees as part of a natural city cycle. While he says he's now quite content to be a homebody and take things easy, the arrival of his younger sister in town has provided him with a chance to rediscover New York and experience it through her eyes. “For years I didn’t want to go out anymore because I was sick of running into people and telling them my record was…” he pauses, “You know, coming out sometime soon. That got to be annoying. But now that this burden is off my shoulders, I love going out and running into these same people and feeling like… I wasn’t lying! I was working on it.”