Musicians who think they need to sell their souls in order to make a buck should read up on James Poyser. The Philadelphia-based keyboardist/songwriter/producer has earned quite a living for himself, and he does it all with artists he knows and respects: as a member of the lauded Soulquarians crew, he was in the company of the likes of Erykah Badu, Common, The Roots D’Angelo, and other stuff of the glory years of MCA Records.
But don’t think that he’s limited to the neo-soul crowd—he’s also performed, recorded, or toured with the likes of everyone from Jay-Z to Afro-beat/Jazz legend Femi Kuti, and from Queen Latifah to Roy Hargrove. And his new Rebel Yell project, a “misfit R&B” collaboration with producer Khari Ferrari Mateen (The Roots, J*DaVeY, Skillz) and singer Domini “SupaStar” Quinn, is as different from anything he’s ever done. While in transit from Philly to New York to play with his extended family The Roots on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Poyser spoke to HipHopDX's Producer's Corner about shelved projects, debunking expectations, and making hits rain.
HipHopDX: Tell me about the new project, Rebel Yell.
James Poyser: It got started on a humbug, really. It was myself and another young producer from Philly, Khari Mateen. We were working in The Studio together. It’s a studio in Philly called The Studio, where pretty much everybody works at. He has a room there, I have a room there, and so do a few other production companies. And everybody jams together and plays together on different things. Me and Khari were just vibing over a few weeks of coming up with just some instrumental things. It’s really kind of different, and we spoke about finding somebody to put a voice on it. We’re both familiar with Domini, because Dom’s always around, and gave some music. We came up with some stuff, and we just continued until we had the songs that we have on the album. It’s a lot, but the stars just fell into place, and stuff happened.
DX: Is this the first project you’ve produced entirely? Because I know you do spot work for a lot of people.
James Poyser: No, not at all. … There’s been quite a few things I’ve done that haven’t seen the light of day just yet. [Laughs] There were projects where there may have been an established artist, but I was the main producer for that project. For example, Erykah [Badu’s] Mama’s Gun album, and things here and there. There’s things here and there I’ve done. So I wouldn’t say it was the first.
DX: How does this project differ from the others you’ve done?
James Poyser: It’s pretty much a product of the way we do music now in the year 2009. Some of the things were done initially in the studio, but after a while, everything was done over the Internet. Everyone was doing their own thing, working at their own spots. That’s the way records are done now. This time, everyone was going their own way and just throwing everything into the pot. Me and Khari started working in the studio together, but it evolved to everybody working in their own space.
DX: A lot of people, when they hear the name James Poyser, they think “Soulquarians.” What was it like being part of a collective where everyone is so talented?
James Poyser: It was great. It was definitely a blessing to just be affiliated with everybody. The label that was put on us was kind of misleading, and eventually…It was a great experience, and it was a blessing to be involved, but the label that was put on can be misleading, and people in the media and people in general think that’s all that we can do. So it doesn’t give much leeway for when an artist or producer wants to do something else. Common [click to read] was affiliated with the Soul thing, so when he wants to do other things, people just look at him like, “What are you doing?” Or as far as a producer, people think that’s all I can do. So it’s definitely great, but it had some things that were a little annoying.
DX: Have you found yourself doing things for the purpose of being different and getting away from that box?
James Poyser: I’ve done quite a few things here and there. If you look at this project, that’s something kind of different. But it’s not different, in the sense that I see all music as being music. It’s different mediums and genres, but I think music is music. But if you look at this project, it wouldn’t be in that family [of my other work].
DX: You’ve worked with a lot of people, your resume is crazy. Who would you say has been the biggest challenge to work with? What artist has made you stretch yourself the most?
James Poyser: I don’t know if it’s one person. Everybody that I’ve worked with has things about them that were challenging. So it’s different thing. It’ll be some artists that you have to deal with their temperaments, which is challenging. It’ll be some artists that you have to deal with their craziness, which is challenging. [Laughs] I’m not saying names on any of these, by the way. And there are artists that, musically, want to lead you in a direction that isn’t necessarily the way I would think and approach things. I have to approach it from their point of view, which makes me a better producer and a better musician. There’s people you argue with because you know what’s right, and what can happen is that what they’re feeling is wrong, and you have to stick to their guns. Or, you have to pretend to go with them, go their way until their way fails, and then they come back your way. So give them enough room to hang themselves, and when they realize they’re wrong, come back the way you did initially.
DX: I’m not saying he was one of your examples, because this really was my next question. When you worked with Common for Like Water For Chocolate, you were critically acclaimed. But right after that, Electric Circus was critically dissed. What was that like, going from a flawless, classic album to one that was considered as too “out there”?
James Poyser: Well, I guess you want people to like the work that you’re doing. And then, you want to feel good for the artists that you’re working with that they have some success on the things you worked on them with. So it was a little disheartening. Still, I personally think, and I know others think, that it was good. So at the end of the day, you can’t really put everything on what people say. And I felt that some of the stuff on it was really good. You’ve just got to be confident in what you think.
DX: Tours are known to have a lot of practical jokes, and you’ve had your share of tours you’ve been on. What are some interesting practical jokes you’ve either seen, or taken part of, on tour?
James Poyser: Um, this is a family magazine, right? [Laughs] Let me think about it. Some of the biggest pranks are things that just happen every day that somebody could say or do that lead to everybody clowning them a certain way. I just remember the best situations I’ve been in musically have been when everybody is really falling into the family environment. I’m blessed that all of the tours that I’ve been on, I haven’t been on with any jerks. I haven’t been with anyone that hasn’t been cool. Even this gig I’m on now, I’ve been around The Roots [click to read] forever in the studio and on spot dates, but I’ve never really toured with them for a long period of time. This TV show is almost like a tour, because it’s comedy every day. I can’t pinpoint anything, but it’s always jokes.
DX: Like you said, you’ve been working with The Roots for a while now. Describe what was it like for you the first time you all were on Jimmy Fallon’s show?
James Poyser: Musically, it’s a gig. We know we have to play these songs, and get them off. But what was nerve-racking was that it was my first time in that element from a TV point of view. There are certain things you have to watch out for, there’s a certain rhythm that you have to learn. By the second day, it was like, “Oh, I know how to do this now.” It became old hat, instantly. It’s fun, it’s not anything boring. It’s always fun, the music is always dope. You only catch a glimpse of what we’re playing, but we’re actually playing throughout the entire commercial break. And we’re actually playing some music. You catch a glimpse of what we’re playing, but if you’re a music head in the audience, you’re definitely enjoying it. The first day or so was a little different, because we didn’t know what to expect. But once we got through it and knew what to expect, it was definitely old hat.
DX: With people downloading albums for free all the time, some think that live shows are the only art that’s there—both artistically, and in terms of making money.
James Poyser: Definitely. You can get any movie, and any recording of the song, anywhere for free. But there’s nothing that beats the experience actually sitting in the movie theater with the popcorn and listening surround sound. People still go to the movies, and it’s the same thing concerts. You can’t capture that going to the concert experience without actually going to the concerts. That art form is good, and I think that’s good, because it’s going back to what the record business really started off as. Records way back in the day were like a business card for someone to day, “Oh this artist is coming, I need to go see him.” And now, the music industry has turned into an industry where artists just make records, and don’t know how to perform. So now, it’s turning back into an industry where artists have to know how to perform. They have to know how to capture an audience, work the stage, sing on the mic, and have a band or something behind you. That’s kind of hot and interesting. I don’t think it’s good on that we’re missing out on some of the money that’s due to us as producers and artists making records, but for the type of music and the artists that are around now, I think it’s good for that.
DX: A lot of live performers have shows from others that they’ve that really stick with them. Whether it was a year ago or 10 years ago, it stays with them and serves as inspiration for their own performances. Do you have any shows that have stuck out to you?
James Poyser: I remember seeing Stevie Wonder a few years ago, either last year or two years ago. He didn’t have much in terms of way of production—no lights, no stage effects in the arena, but it was amazing. Actually, D’Angelo’s Voodoo Tour, which I played on. I guess I’m prejudiced because I was part of it, but those shows were quite a bit amazing also. That’s a hard question. Those are the first two that jumped to mind, but there’s so much music I’ve seen throughout the years. There’s idioms, too. The Hip Hop thing, to some of these Jazz concerts that I’ve seen when I go to clubs, or Gospel concerts that I’ve seen at churches that have made an impression on me. It’s a whole lot of music.
DX: You said there are a lot of projects you’ve worked on that haven’t seen the light of day. One of those was Zach De La Rocha’s solo album, right?
James Poyser: I actually worked on it more with Ahmir. He was more the point person on that project. So I wasn’t really involved as much as Ahmir was involved. I came in for a few days and worked on some things, but that was mostly Ahmir’s baby.
DX: What are some other unreleased projects you’ve worked on? Are there any of them that really get to you that they aren’t out there yet?
James Poyser: The politics involved in those projects have sort of soured me on them, so I’d prefer not to speak on it. Me and Ahmir [?uestlove] remixed Pharrell’s [click to read] [In My Mind] [click to read] album, I don’t know if you heard that. That’s something we did that was a bit of amazing, but it never came out. Me and Ahmir have an unfinished project, the Randy Watson Project. And there’s a few things I can’t speak on that I’ve worked on with a few artists. [Sighs] I can’t speak on it, so let’s leave it alone.
DX: What do you think are the chances of you executive producing Anthony Hamilton’s next album?
James Poyser: That would be dope. I worked on a few things for this last album that didn’t make it, but Anthony [Hamilton] [click to read] is one of my brothers from another.
DX: Give me one instance where you worked with somebody on their album for several songs, and it bugs you that a certain song didn’t make the album.
James Poyser: [Laughs] Something I did for this last Anthony Hamilton album [The Point Of It All] [click to read] that I thought was pretty crazy, and everybody that heard it said the same thing. You can’t fault anybody for choosing the direction that they choose, and again, that’s my buddy. … But I think it was amazing. It’s funny, I just got a call about something last week, and the person had heard that song a while ago and commented on it like, “Why didn’t that make the album?”