Lenny Kravitz has never tried to push himself in the Hip Hop circle. Unlike the Rock community which developed in the years since his introduction, the Brooklyn, New York native grew up around Hip Hop, but never sought to be labeled as such. Instead, when Kravitz famously appeared on Jay-Z's Blueprint 2.1 album a decade ago, it seemed like a straight-forward fusion of genres. Now that they're working together for a third time on Kravitz' upcoming Black and White America, it seems like a growing experimentation with sound, and a deep friendship.
Kravitz and Jay-Z have much in common. Two students of music, both of whom burst onto the scene in 1989 have evolved stylistically and matured into mainstream superstars. This month, both are making commentaries with songs, and trying to bring issues into the music at pivotal times. Last week, Kravitz spoke with HipHopDX about cultural similarities he sees in Drake, another collaborator, and how race relations in America may be fodder for thought in these challenging times.
Lenny Kravitz Explains Vision Behind Black and White America
HipHopDX: With this new Black and White America album, there is something there for the Hip Hop listener. There have been reports that you’ve been toying around with the title for the album. Regardless of what the title was, there’s a concept to what you’re talking about when discussing what Black and White America means. What does it mean?
Lenny Kravitz: Black and White America, first of all, is who I am. It’s what I know. It’s how I was brought up. It’s my parent’s story and their struggle during the time of the Civil Rights Movement, it’s where we are today and just to give you an example the song was inspired by a documentary I saw. It was a rebuttal because I was quite taken back by this documentary. It was a bunch of racist Americans who were disgusted by what America had become. [They were claiming] that this was not their country, this was not what this country was intended to be and that they were going to do everything in their power, there were already plans in place to kill the President and that he would never live really long and [whatnot]. And I was watching this thing, and we all know that racism exists and we don’t have to discuss that but to that level with that amount of ignorance and hatred, I said, “Really, it’s like that?” There are a lot of people who think like that. So the chorus [of the title track] where I say, “The future looks as though it’s come around / And maybe we have finally found our common ground / Where the children of one father / If you’re looking back don’t bother / We’re black and white America.” That came from watching that documentary.
Then it got into the next verse about my parents you know because I remember all of the stories. They used to get yelled at and [hear] nasty comments and [get] spit at. My dad even took my mom to a hotel one time on a holiday and the guy told my dad, “No prostitutes in the hotel.” And so I remember all of these stories and I know how I was raised to embrace both sides of my culture, and I had no understanding of racism. I didn’t even know that my father was white and when I say that I mean I didn’t think he looked different than my mother but I didn’t know that there was anything with that. So our household was full of people of all different colors so I didn’t know until I went to first grade and you step into the world outside of your home and people start commenting so that whole Black and White America thing is really close to me and as far as the album cover goes I mean when I look at it, it just speaks to me in the sense that well there I am, this biracial kid, 1970-whatever, I’m in second grade. I’ve got love and peace written on my face and arm and a peace sign on the middle of my head and even for me I look back and I go, “Wow, that person that I am, I was then, which I didn’t really realize.” I was called a hippie [by music critics early in my career], this and that and my whole scene [was imitated]. I suppose people think that that was a put on or that’s an image but I was always that person. Even for me to see it that was interesting, 'cause I forgot.
DX: We grew up on socially-minded artists with mainstream hits with substance, whether Sly & The Family Stone or Bob Dylan. As a well-known artist, how important for you is it to put substance and social commentary, whether it’s race relations, the economy or whatever it is back in the airways?
Lenny Kravitz: For me it’s really important and I don’t do it because I have to do this. It just happens naturally and that’s what I know. For me, music is to express that. Music is to bring beauty, to bring opinion, point of view, to say the truth as you see it and that’s what I’ve always done from the first album [Let Love Rule] until now. My message has been consistent for 22 years and that’s just who I am. I can’t help it, I don’t just write songs to write songs, or write hits about whatever party, I can’t do it.
I mean even “Boongie Drop,” which sounds like a shaking-your-ass-song, it’s really about those full-figured women in the Bahamas who are wearing these short shorts and these close and they’re dancing with this air of dignity and pride and beauty because they’re not buying into the stereotype of what the media says is beautiful, that you have to be white or light or this many pounds and your face has to be like this and your nose can’t be wider than that and your stomach and your butt and the whole thing that we’re fed, which is why so many people are quite frankly very sick and altering their bodies to the point where people are saying that they are aliens because they can’t deal with how God made them so that’s even what that song’s about if you really listen to the words. Yeah it’s about fun and dancing but it’s about that as well. I always seem to have something to say and I’m not saying it’s something important but it’s important to me just things that are sitting on top of the soapbox. I’m just saying how I feel.
Lenny Kravitz Explains Chemistry And Career Parallels With Jay-Z
DX: You mentioned "Boongie Drop," which features Jay-Z. Can you speak about the creative chemistry you have after three songs. It's interesting too, because you both arrived on the scene in 1989, and both of you are New Yorkers...
Lenny Kravitz: We're both from [Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn]. I would agree with that, and I see him as a brother and a kindred spirit. To have a career this long in this era, when we came on the scene, we came out the same year. I mean if you look at his first [appearance in Jaz-O's "Hawaiian Sophie" through to] now, you see the growth, you see the transformation, you see all of that. And I guess if you look at me, you can see the same thing. I don’t know, I’ve just always liked his vibe. I like how he maneuvered in his business. When he called me the first time, I was surprised because I don’t get a lot of calls from the Hip Gop community and we did ["Guns & Roses"] and it was like, “Wow, that was really cool.” And then we went on Saturday Night Live and performed it together and then I had him rap on the reprise "The Storm," which is on [Baptism], which is the Michael Jackson track I did and then I asked him to come on board again and it’s not because I worked with him before, it just when I did “Boongie Drop.” I just heard his voice again and so we’ve worked together three times now and I hope this time we’ll get to make a video together to make a really great statement.
DX: As a native New Yorker, how do you think your upbringing is affecting your songwriting today with Black and White America?”
Lenny Kravitz: Well that energy that I got as a kid growing up in New York is still there. I mean you have to remember my first concert was the Jackson 5 in Madison Square Garden with The Commodores opening before they were even called The Commodores. I went to see James Brown at the Apollo when I was like eight. The whole room just smelling like weed. I was with my mom and we went backstage after Miles Davis, Duke Ellington at the Rainbow Room, Andre Watts, classical pianist at Lincoln Center. The opera, the ballet, all of this stuff, Lionel Hampton, Darryl Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald and then Kiss and Led Zeppelin with that New York influence and then going to the theatre because my mom was in the Negro Ensemble Company so it was that whole thing that set me up as an artist before I even knew that I was going to be one is what still drives me today. I can’t get that out of my system and so the diversity. New York is completely diverse. New York had everything to offer and so that’s still a part of my spirit. I take that with me wherever when I go to make an album and that’s why the albums are all over the place. I can’t make an album that just has one sound.
Lenny Kravitz Explains Working With Drake
DX: Earlier, we were talking about race. You chose to work with Drake on this album, and he represents a new face in Hip Hop, being of mixed race, and Jewish...
Lenny Kravitz: I wrote a song with Swizz Beatz, which was a complete accident, which is always amazing when you have an accident. I was in the studio to just hang out with him. I was in New Orleans when they were doing [a show], and Alicia [Keys] is like a sister to me and she was like, “You’ve gotta meet my man.” And I happened to be in New Orleans so after the show we went to my house and we hung out and it was the first time I met him and he and I instantly hit it off and she said, “I knew you guys were going to like each other.” So both of us decided to put some effort into being friends and he’s into art and all kinds of things so he’s playing around with some beats and he’s working on his own stuff and I was just there having a drink and hanging out. So all of a sudden he’s just playing this beat and I start hearing lyrics and melodies and I felt kind of funny because I don’t know the guy and I said, “Excuse me, I know your just working and it kind of seems rude but can I have the keyboard for a second?” And he was like, [Enthusiastically] “Nah, nah, go ahead.” So I start playing and the next thing I said was, “Can I get a microphone, can I sing?” And the next thing we know was there was a song and it was so organic and beautiful. There was no appointment to write a song and that’s the way it happened actually you’re the first person to get this story because I haven’t told it but that’s what happened so then when it was done, I had gone to re-cut it weeks later and I was like, "I really hear Drake." I love Drake’s sound and his voice and I was also just interested in Drake having the same background as I do being black and Jewish and so he said, “Well I can get him right now.” And he dialed him on the phone and I said, “Hey I’ve got this song I just did with Swizz and I’d love to have you on it.” And he was like, “Aw dude, I’d love to be on it.” Bingo it all just happened, so that’s how it happened.
DX: Tell us about what you’ve learned just through what your daughter’s doing with Elevator Fight. She recently performed at Southpaw in Brooklyn with Hip Hop act J*Davey...
Lenny Kravitz: I think she’s like me in the sense that she does her own thing and she don’t care what’s going on, what the trend is, she’s all about being Zoe. That’s how her mom is that’s how I am. We’re all very similar. We’re sort of that different crew. It’s interesting, I went to see her in Brooklyn and actually Drake was at that gig and in the audience. It was at Southpaw and she was opening for J*Davey and so here I was in this room and it was like wow this sort of “different black crowd” is growing. It was like people what were down with the hardest of Hip Hop but then they were down with completely alternative music. They’re dressing differently; the style is really opening back up to what I saw in the '70s with what African Americans wear. We were really about being completely different. We were freaky, we were happy, proud, ethnic and I love hip-hop but if you really look a what happened for a while, the style, it came very homogenized. Everyone had on a big pair of jeans, a big T-shirt, a chain and a baseball cap (laughs) and I was like, “Wait a minute, what happened to the individualism? We don’t all have to look the same.” And it got boring. It’s like where’s our color? Where’s our vibrancy? Where’s our individualism as character as a people? And that’s what I saw growing up in the '70s where my parents would have parties and everyone would come over and everyone would look just fly as a freak but beautiful! When I say freak, I don’t say it as a derogatory term but then it got to where everyone looked the same. Now after the last few years, it’s going back to “I’m being an individual.” And I really dig that.