Taylor McFerrin finds a voice all his own
The Brooklyn producer breaks personal ground on debut LP
Wide-eyed with a mind as blank as John Locke's tabula rasa, a young boy watches his father dazzling crowds with a set that's only half prepared. The other half relies on fiery spontaneity, in-the-moment artistry, and inimitable creativity. His father casts a shadow decades long, enough to encompass an entire lifetime's worth of influence. Yet the boy steps out of the shadow, out of a formidable family legacy, and into a light entirely his own.
Though Brooklyn-based producer Taylor McFerrin, son of acclaimed improviser Bobby McFerrin, was raised in a house of musical giants, he has spent the past five years perfecting a statement both steeped in his family and grounded in his own terms. "You hear a lot of stories of having to really fight the family to get into art, but for me it was a normal thing when my father gave me the concept that being a musician was something respectable," McFerrin says.
Even with the freedom to explore music as a legitimate lifetime objective, McFerrin's career has been mired in the trappings of perfectionism. His debut LP, Early Riser, was released in June yet conceived before the dawn of the latest decade. Despite the album's a.m. title, the record oozes twilight contemplation. McFerrin borrows heavily from the Fender Rhodes-tinged soul of the '70s, and its revived homage that laid the foundation for recent legends like J Dilla and Madlib. He's carried the influence of his father's soul collection with him throughout his career and fused it with a love of Soulquarian neo-soul that provided the basis for his first EP, 2008's Broken Vibes.
McFerrin started carving his own niche by incorporating beatboxing, singing, and production into a seamless package that caught the eye of Flying Lotus' Steven Ellison, who was searching for artists to join his then-fledging Brainfeeder label. "When I got to L.A., I felt like everyone in the Brainfeeder fam I would've been friends with in high school," McFerrin says. "We all grew up on soul music, psychedelic rock, and golden era hip-hop."
After coming across McFerrin's formidable beatboxing skills on MySpace, FlyLo reached out to him for a collaboration. The offer was accepted, but broken. He sent samples of his pinpoint beatboxing, yet later told FlyLo not to use his contributions because they failed to meet his own standards.
This cycle of creation and self-deprecation permeated McFerrin's creative output for several years. His ambitions of being his own sidemen, from singing to percussion to production, prolonged his debut to the point of near-surrender. "I wanted to do everything myself, including vocals," he says. "For the first few years it was trial and error. I anticipated the record taking a year and a half and once I hit the two year mark I got dark about the whole process."
During a six-month slump he fell into a Miles Davis-like retirement from creating music, focusing solely on live shows and traveling. His dense productions laid dormant, collecting dust and biding time for fresh air.
In the course of that hiatus McFerrin discovered a new livelihood in the creative output of his familial Brainfeeder labelmates, including brooding bass guru Thundercat, and outside friends like renowned pianist Robert Glasper. His like-minded colleagues provided an artistic CPR for Early Riser, breathing life into McFerrin's sluggish self-realization. "I had a bunch of music that I didn't feel like was up to par of what I wanted so I reached to people that were real incredible musicians that were friends and really helped finish Early Riser," he says.
From there, McFerrin loosened his grip on his relentless one-man band ambitions and concentrated on what had always been his forte: meditative production, pensive as a sprawling night sky. After years of productivity to stagnation to productivity again, Early Riser has been unleashed to the gauntlet of Internet criticism. McFerrin casts his own shadow where future producers will take refuge.
With a seven-year burden lifted from his shoulders, McFerrin conveys nothing but enthusiasm about his future. "I've been getting amazing feedback on the music so I'm latching on to that moment and all that positive energy right now and just trying to build on it," he says.
McFerrin has worked tirelessly to establish himself as an independent powerhouse, but those formative years soaking in his father's legendary improvisation continue to guide his performances. "I can tell a huge difference when I start playing a song from the record," McFerrin says. "People get hyped whereas I used to literally have to win people over based on my performance. But now there's a lot of flexibility and improvisation in the set because I can always land back on a song that people will recognize."
Early Riser is a testament to the sounds that defined his formative years. Instead of rehashing the forbearers of his youth, McFerrin trusts his own voice to advance the conversation. And that makes it a truly memorable record.