Very rarely, do you meet an artist who has the soul to match their music and allows you to believe everything they write about reflects their real emotions—like Eric Roberson. Coming to the scene in 1994 with his first single, “The Moon,” Roberson has made a name for himself over the years as not only a singer, but an accomplished songwriter. Taking time from his recent Grammy nomination, his tour schedule and the promotion of his new album Music Fan First, Roberson allows Rawe to get an exclusive interview with him.
Bella: You’ve come a long way since your first single “The Moon,” can you tell us about your growth an artist?
Eric: There’s been so much I’ve learned from that time, probably more as a person, and learned more about myself. There’s been a lot more humbling moments that I can relate to musical growth from the time I did “The Moon” to now. When I did “The Moon” I was 19 and thought I was going to be the next Prince or whatever, just thought I could win everything and do no wrong. I had to stay close to music and was able to learn a lot about the music business and the ups and downs of it, and the politics of it, you know the cut throatiness part of it and through all those moments of having money and not having money and having a deal and not having a deal. I think I’ve grown closer to actually knowing who I was within music and knowing what my strong points were. Also I put my own albums out independently and it’s a difference when your own boss and your going through your own personal timeline instead of trying to make someone happy musically, there’s a little more freedom and a little more room to discover what to do musically—I think that’s what I’ve found from the time I did “the moon” to what I do now.
Bella: You have a lot of love songs in your discography, but they’re not like the love songs where the guy is crying over the girl–overly sappy where do you find the inspiration to write these types of songs?
Eric: Well a lot of it’s just from life I probably have a few mushy songs but I guess in the aspect of my life and your average person’s life through your day, I think mushiness is apart of it but. I think you spend more time trying to find love and trying to maintain love then you do trying to love, love you know what I mean. Like you don’t suck face with love, so I think I’ve witnessed and participated in a lot of highs and lows of trying to find that. I often tell people that guys are really no different then girls, we want the same thing. We may not be so open to admit it, our male ego may get in the way at times, but at the end of the day a guy wants to fall in love and not get hurt just as much someone else does. When you find that right person sure it’s great to combine with them on a spiritual and sensual level and I have no problem writing about that as well. A lot of parts is just trying to get through that obstacle course to someone’s heart and them getting into yours.
On Being Nominated for a Grammy…
Bella: So you were nominated for a Grammy. Was this your first Grammy nomination?
Eric: Yes, I’m officially GRAMMINATED! We are going to patent that word, GRAMMINATED! One of my staff members came up with that word; it’s an amazing word actually. But yea, first time being nominated you know as an independent artist its very humbling and very inspiring.
Bella: I know that you and Phonte are friends, how is it when your nominated against your friend? Is it competitive?
Eric: First and foremost, I’m friends with every single person but Tonex– who I actually met at the Grammys, who seemed to be a cool dude. But I knew India probably longer then them and India’s a good friend, so to lose to her was cool. But even with Phonte, there’s a difference because Phonte’s a really good friend of mine, one of my closest friends in the music business. As soon as we both got nominated we called each other and really at the end of the day I mean this whole heartedly and I trust that he means this as well, if either one of us won its as if we won. We think so much a like and have so much of the same interest for the betterment of music and also just the love and excitement of doing it that I was just so proud of him to have the opportunity in being there as well as myself having the opportunity to be in there. The same goes for Robert Glaspur, real good friend of mine, we never collaborated on a song yet but I’ve known him for quite sometime and Bilal through tours lately I’ve known him for some time but we’ve gotten to know each other through the last couple of years through shows and stuff. So I mean real talk, if any of them won I would’ve been satisfied and real talk, India I almost feel like this category Best Urban Alternative Performance, was created for India. Remember that time she had all those Grammy nominations and she didn’t get one award, I want to say that this nomination was created for that lane so I just kind of want to say like “hey man if it wasn’t for her we wouldn’t be nominated,” so I’m kind of cool with that too.
Bella: Being nominated for a Grammy for your song A Tale of Two off of Music Fan First, what special qualities do you think this song had to catch the attention of Grammy Judges?
Eric: It felt right and that’s the main thing. The song breaks every rule of songwriting – there’s no hook, there’s not a predictable song structure at all. We weren’t really trying to do what was right we were trying to do what felt right and that song to me really represented a lot of this album. We really built the foundation off of where we were just saying, “let’s go with what feels right.” There’s a chop sampling it, there’s live instrumentation in it and those don’t always go together too well. There was a lot of “man forget the rules, screw them, screw the rules lets just go and if it feels right let’s keep going and the moment it doesn’t feel right lets stop and asses where were at and try to search for what felt right,” that was the only rule through the whole album especially with that song. So for them to nominate that song was like wow, it just showed that we were doing the right thing just kind of giving a breath of fresh air. That could be said for Foreign Exchange’s song. That could be said for Robert and Bilal’s song, “All Matter,” was an amazing song, for a jazz album in between verses, it’s a huge piano solo–when’s the last time you heard a piano solo on a song period like of mainstream radio no one does solos anymore. To me that category is almost like the rule breaking category so I love that category actually.
Bella: Do you think the same things you were looking to effect the listeners came across to the judges? Were your minds in sync?
Eric: Yes, because I think majority of the people that judge are from a musical background. I always say that I never down anything that’s created because someone is excited about it. Even if you go into a 4th graders room and his father bought him a little Casio keyboard and he’s over they’re playing it, to him he’s Usher right now. It’s like if you can connect to what they’re feeling and thinking, you might be able to find and relate to the music. At the same point, when we’re creating, we’re trying to find an obvious lane where someone can connect to how we felt when we’re creating it and so I think that’s what they were able to attach to. The music business right now isn’t a patient business now and even the listener isn’t trained to be patient. With the I-Pod, we’re like trained to listen to 30 seconds, “I just want a quick fix from it and I’ll go to the next song.” A “Tale of Two,” is more like a story and so with every story you can’t really get the full effect of reading a book by reading ten pages, so it was amazing that it was a song that asked you to hold on and listen to it and somehow it felt right enough for them to listen to the whole song to the conclusion which is what made them vote for it.
On Latest Album…
Bella: So your latest album is Music Man First, (which I love) what was the inspiration behind the title?
Eric: A couple of things, first, I wouldn’t have this career if it wasn’t for my fans, fans of music in general. I think they felt it was void in the music business where my music was being created and they kind of demanded I do more music and forced me to take this serious. It was kind of like, we need this and you need to do more of it and if you don’t do more of it, we’ll find you and burn your car down. So I’ll definitely do more but at the same time now that we built this into a career and we travel the responsibility is a lot bigger now, for me it’s a reminder to just start bringing yourself to neutral. If you allow it to get big, you can lose focus on the important things and the opportunities of what you have, like when I was 13 or younger my parents bought me a keyboard—I didn’t even want to go outside, I wanted to do music. I was so lost in it, I loved it and now that the obligation to do music is so high you may lose that love. So for me, its just a reminder of I’m a fan of it first. I love reading credits. I love hearing a new song. I love a rift that goes up somebody’s back like, “man that was nice.” I love discovering some amazing young foolish talent from some far lonely state—it’s just like that’s what feeds me. Even when I go into the studio its kind of like I try to get into the right frame of mind. I try to go back into the studio like I’m a kid again; going to the studio for the very first time and I feel like that’s the way of staying fresh. I see a lot of people who have success in the music business but they are bitter—bitter for no reason. Bitter for reasons that they feel warranted, but in the bigger scale of things, in the bigger picture, they shouldn’t be bitter. In hindsight when they look back there probably like “I should’ve enjoyed that a little bit more.”
Bella: So who are you a fan of right now?
Eric: I’m a fan of a lot of people. I still listen to my old favorites, I mean every time an A Tribe Called Quest song comes on, I stop. Mos Def put out a great album, his last album. I think Drake’s amazing. I think Lil Wayne’s amazing. I think Erkyah Badu is still amazing. I’ve known Jazmine Sullivan since she was 15 or 16 so to see her go through several deals and fight her way through it and start getting recognized and then put out an amazing album, I’m a big fan of hers. I love Kanye, love Radiohead—big Radiohead fan, they can do no wrong in my book. Foreign Exchange put out a very good album, Robert Glaspur, I know they were nominated against me—but let me tell you, I love Robert Glaspur’s album. Little Dragon, amazing, amazing. I mean there’s so many people, I’m always kind of searching and then I have the fortunate opportunity of Anthony David, who will let me get a glimpse of what their working on and I’m always kind of like wow I feel privileged. There’s songs I don’t like by all means, but I’m not a person who sticks to a rulebook, if there’s a country song that comes on and it moves me, I’ll be big on that. I don’t look at it like Taylor Swift can’t blow me away. I may not be a big fan of hers but I still give her the opportunity to really impress me if she comes out with something.
Bella: That’s cool because a lot of people who are musicians that I’ve talked to say they don’t have favorites because they are working on their own projects so they don’t listen to other stuff.
Eric: Well I mean I would say this; you have to get to a certain point. In my life, case and point, there was a time I couldn’t listen to Brian McKnight because I started sounding like Brian McKnight. There’s certain things that you could pick up on and I think that I kind of know myself now that a lot of times now, I can get inspired. Case and point I’ll show you something very interesting, Lil Wayne. What I learned from him is if you use a certain amount of energy towards a word it doesn’t even have to be close to rhyming to the last word. But if the energy matches the last time you said the other word it will work. Most song writers, we think you have to say: fantastic, drastic and plastic – it has to be that connected, where he might say fantastic—I’m fighting to find a word that’s not close to fantastic—he’ll say, fantastic and blanket. You’ll be like, that doesn’t rhyme, but the way he said it made it work, so it almost spread out these opportunities of writing, I’m not sounding like Lil Wayne, but now I just say I never thought of putting these two words together which gave me more options to be able to tell my story the way I want to tell it. I’m not really listening to anybody’s records and sounding like them anymore but I do think that some people shouldn’t listen because while your working on something you should to a degree close yourself off. I live in South Jersey, I’m not in a big city, I’m in a little city—a little hick town so I’m working on stuff that’s in my mind. I don’t really listen to the radio or I don’t really go clubbing I kind of have an idea and get a taste of it but I don’t like to be caught up so much in the industry that I’m listening to the person next to me and trying to compete with them like I’ll stay my lane.
Bella: Your new album, has the perfect balance of a present hip-hop influence, as well as the trademark Eric Roberson soulful style, what made you want to incorporate both dimensions in this project?
Eric: Well that’s the whole part of Music Fan First, if I didn’t if I go back to when I was a fan, when I just was a kid loving music, growing up in New Jersey. The beautiful part about Jersey was we were close enough that I remember all my friends older brother’s going to hip-hop parties and the birth of hip-hop I remember that like vividly. Them coming back with flyers and these tapes of music like “what is this, I don’t—I haven’t heard anything like this.” I remember that excitement, I also remember that house music was really, really big in New Jersey. Like it was club music when you went to a club people were dancing and that’s what was playing, house and dance music. But in the same point, church was always big, in most black communities, so like I grew up singing in church so getting that connection to songs and melodies and being able to give yourself conviction was very prominent. Then of course just R&B Soul was just everywhere, my parents always play it, when you turned on the radio you’d hear Al Green or DeBarge or whatever, so for me I always loved all those things. If I made a tape of my favorite songs, one song would be a house song, next song would be a hip-hop song and the next song would be a gospel song, next song would be a r&b song, it’d just be all over. I just played what I liked so when I first initially tried to start creating music I was very naïve to the point that you couldn’t mix the genres together. I was trying to sing to a hip-hop track and rhyme to a gospel track and everyone was like, “you cant do that that’s gospel that’s gospel and that’s house that’s house that’s rap that’s rap” and I think growing up I was like “naw, that’s bull.” Hearing A Tribe Called Quest was like they matched it perfectly because their music was melodic it almost felt like you could sing to it so I was like wait a minute. There were so many different things, so I guess when I hear music in my head it’s always kind of a combination of all the things I love. With this album, it kind of makes sense that I would take more hip-hop influences – I consider myself a hip-hop kid at the end of the day. I don’t necessarily go around rapping and battling cats on the subway, so it makes sense if I’m going to do an album that I just threw all the rules out the way and I just wanted to show who I am.
Bella: So one of my favorite songs on the album is “Breakitdown,” I love, love, love everything about this song; what was the writing process and concept of this song like?
Eric: “Breakitdown,” funny enough Jermaine Mobley, who is a very good friend of mine who went to Howard with, he did two songs on the album, he was going to do three—he was very mad at me when I took one of the songs off. But we get up and do writing session periodically, first of all, me and him did “Previouscats,” for Musiq Soulchild, and a lot of songs on my albums, he’s just a good dude. Years, and years ago man, even eight years ago—probably if not longer we were just writing and he had this little lick, which was the lick from “Breakitdown.” He remembered it somehow after all those years and we got together and he was like remember that idea you had and he hummed the whole thing out and I think he had some words for the beginning, like he really had the whole thing structured out and then it took me just coming in writing it out. I think we were jut writing but it just felt so good we were like “we think this song is going to be on the album “ because it just felt incredible when we did it.
Bella: The video for you’re single “Dealing,” right now, is kind of funny, have you ever been in this type of situation?
Eric: Let it be known, for everybody out there in real life, I wouldn’t get punched first and foremost. I wrote the treatment with some great directors Chris and Blaq out of Chicago, who did a marvelous job on the video and I just thought it was clever and it would be a talking piece or a conversation point. If I were to be in that situation, I think I’d definitely be a little cooler or wiser that I wouldn’t try to kiss a girl in front of her boyfriend at a karaoke party. I pride myself on being a professional dater, I’ve experienced every aspect that you could probably imagine in the world of relationships, whether it be being cheated on to cheating to being faithful to every aspect you could possibly name and I think there’s certain times that you mistakenly catch feelings and you find yourself trying to deal through the situation and that’s what that song is all about.
On VH1 Soul Closure…
Bella: Another random question, but I know for me I find a lot of your music videos on VH1 Soul, do you have any feelings about how they’re closing it?
Eric: I do, it’s funny because when BET J stopped and it become Centric at one put I was like errr. But now, I’m starting to understand Centric as well I’m hoping that if VH1 Soul is being closed that it opens the door for something else. It’s very sad, with all the stuff—mom and pops stores are closing down by the second. With everything that closes you just hope that something else opens and that the same people that were committed to supporting us, that they land somewhere and they can continue to support us. So you know, its tough, we are losing a great outlet like you said, a lot of people are introduced to who I am through VH1 and sources like that so when they close down your kind of like that sucks.
On Being an Indie Artist…
Bella: You’re an indie artist, so what is indie because today a lot of people get the term confused?
Eric: It’s funny; I think there are people on major labels who have independent souls and spirits: like a Musiq Soulchild, a Jill Scott, or India Arie as well. I think they qualify in some form of “Indie.” Put it this way to me, independent artist was kind of like a culture and at the same time it’s an actual art as well, it’s an actual business. Like to me, Erkyah Badu has an independent sprit like she’s an Indie artist even though she’s with a major label and we learn a lot from her—we get inspired a lot from her. But for how its actually broken down, we create, manufacture and distribute our records and we have 100% creative control over what is created, how its created and when its created—just owning more control over how something is being done is to me the way Indie artist is. It’s really just like Soul Music because for the fact that its rebellious like Soul Music is all about how I feel. Like a Maxwell album doesn’t always sound the same because he goes through things and when he goes through things it changes, India Arie same thing, Erykah Badu same thing, D’Angelo same thing. So like when you go into like Foreign Exchange or even go into Hip-hop like Mos Def Black on Both Sides, and The Ecstatic are two whole different albums and sound totally different. I think as a culture, we kind of stretch people to grow and its cool to fall in love with Black On Both Sides, but don’t fall in love with it so much to the point you can’t fall in love with The Ecstatic because it’s a different album. If you want to hear Black on Both Sides, go back to Black on Both Sides it’s something different kind of like Left is one album, Music Fan First is one album and the Vault was something totally different. So the culture of it is creating music that way, Mos Def’s on a major label, but he creates music similar to the culture of independent artists but then there’s the actual business of it as well when I’m wholeheartedly an independent artist all across the board.
Bella: So there’s a lot of who look at you and want to emulate kind of what you are doing as an independent artist especially since you’ve had so much success as an independent artist, what advice can you give them?
Eric: Real talk, I wouldn’t tell someone don’t do a deal with a major label—it wouldn’t make sense for me to do a deal with a major label, I’m 36 year old now and even the guys who are successful, labels are trying to push them out for a 19 year old anyway so it wouldn’t be that wise for me personally. I wouldn’t overlook Jive Records or Arista or Def Jam–I just don’t think you should wait on them. First thing I would say is just understand that it’s the business of music its not the music business. You want to stay true to what your doing creatively, and I’m an advocate for that whole-heartedly. I’m not making radio songs, I’m making songs that if the radio plays them, then God Bless the radio for playing it, but I don’t make radio songs. Take the time to ask yourself very honest questions and don’t if anyone, don’t lie to yourself and the more that your find tune what you want to do it makes your steps easier. That’s the main thing and the other part just go hard because I mean all cross the broad whether your Rihanna, Kanye West, Jennifer Lopez, India Arie or Russell Taylor or Jessie Boykins or Anthony David or myself, you got to put a lot of work into this whether you have a big major label or whether your just by yourself going to the post office everyday shipping off your stuff you got to put a lot of work into this it takes a lot of practice and cultivating your craft finding out who your crowd is and what your demographic is so just be prepared to work and try to love it try to stay in love with it find new ways to fill in love with it so you can get through the hard times.
On Valentine’s Day…
Bella: Being that its Valentine’s day in a couple of days, since you write songs that make women fall in love essentially, can you give any advice to the men for valentines day to make her feel special, and make him look chivalrous?
Eric: Women want to know that they are priority and that they are important to what you have around you. They are very competitive but they compete with worth, how much are they worth to you, you know. So if there’s a way that you can show them that they are more important then something else; “I’m supposed to go to work, but I took off today because I just wanted to spend more time with you.” Or “ I got off work early” or “I know Thursday night is poker night with the fellas but tonight its just going to be massage your feet night.” or “Man I really wanted to see that new vampire movie, or that new werewolf movie but tonight you know what I’m down to watch one of these girly movies with you.“ Prioritize them just somehow; periodically just let them know that they are important to you and that they’re more important then something else because the one thing is that they are more important then other things. Like my wife, case and point is my number one priority but your so busy trying to take care of her that a lot of times you might push her to the side by trying to gain enough money to take care of her. That’s what guys do sometimes were just clueless in how we need to let you guys know because sometimes we just speak different languages, so just be a little more obvious to what language they speak and try to learn some Chinese for them so they can understand you. Stop and do something special for them, that’s all.
Bella: Lastly, listening to “Celebrate,” featuring Sy Smith, there’s a reference to J.Dilla. Also going on your blog, there seems to be a lot of J.Dilla present, since this month is undisputedly J.Dilla month, can you share how he influenced your music or any memories you have of him?
Eric: Man, that’s such a powerful question. Every time I sit down and try to do music, I’m a poor man’s J. Dilla you know, I’m trying to emulate. I’m trying to do something that would impress him you know. I mean this guy was such a craftsman to music all across the board. Everything this guy did was just extremely creative to the way nobody really gives him credit. Everything from the way that he sings, you know the guy was a great singer too, to the way he structured his melodies was really, really dope. His drums were crazy! Everything he did was ridiculous! Not only did I have a song with him that he produced and participated on, I even had the chance to work with him. I was a huge fan. I was a big Busta Rhymes fan so whenever he did something on those albums it was just like night and day. Like the beats just went to some other crazy place. Because to me we can use music as such an amazing tool and the same way Kanye did when he crashed and broke his face up. He found the strength and also the creativity to do Through the Wire, Which to me was one of the most brilliant and helpful songs not only to him but for other people. It was the same way when you think of J.Dilla and how sick he was for so long. You know being in the hospital and doing beats and putting out an album. To me it’s just the drive he had. You sleepy in the studio, “man I feel like I need this idea, but I’m a little sleepy” or “I got the sniffles” or something. This brotha couldn’t eat, he’s dying, literally his body was dying eating itself alive and he’s in there making incredible music so like what’s your excuse? What are you complaining about? You hungry? Your cheese steak didn’t have fried onions on it so like now you cant create? You know what I mean? I’m like keep working man, there’s people out here that are dying doing this stuff, doing what they love. So all across the board, not only was he the dopest period, but his story was just like crazy because that’s the one part that keeps me humble. Also that keeps me like working, keeps my work ethic man because what me and my boy say is “If you aint going 100% you cant complain” and the moment that I even start to complain I think about him. I think about, man this guy went on tour right before he died he toured Europe in a wheelchair rhyming. I cant imagine how hard that was. You know if I was going through that kind of stuff where I’m having trouble talking I aint trying to do nothing man. Shoot me up with some drugs let me lay down go to sleep and he’s like “Naw let me keep creating.” There’s more music coming out then Tupac songs you know, what I’m saying? There’s so many Dilla beats. This guy did so much music that its ridiculous. I think were going to be cherishing that guys music for a long time. Its one of the biggest tragedy that we lost a pioneer such as him because he was paving the way musically about how certain things can be done you know. A lot of that whole off rhythm drum stuff. Like even if you listen to Voodoo Album, you’ll hear a lot of it. Drum wise I mean Kanye and Just Blaze and all that stuff that came from there and the whole backpack generation to me, I think he sparked a lot of that stuff. He was way ahead of his time. He’s simply amazing.