Kamal Gray of The Roots

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Kamal Gray of The Roots

“A big portion of my life was spent tug-of-warring between jazz and hip-hop. A lot of time during my youth was spent trying to follow the trends of hip-hop: break dancing, DJ’ing and graffiti writing. Then I had my dad on the other side saying, ‘Get away from that hip-hop stuff, you need to be over here sitting down at this piano, playing this jazz music.’ I kind of fell into both musical categories growing up.” And that, my friends, is where the story begins for The Root’s 14-year keyboard veteran, Kamal Gray.

“Early on in my musical development, with my hip-hop edge, I met my manager Rich. He gave me an introduction to MIDI and keyboards through a production course for little kids that he was teaching. Rich and I developed a relationship that we kept through the years, and he eventually went on to put The Roots together. He called me up and said, ‘You should be in this group that I’ve got. We need a keyboard player.’ I’d say ‘I can’t really do it. You know, my dad…this, that and the other thing. I’m in trouble. I’m here. I’m there.’ Rich came back with, ‘Aw man, just graduate high school, and see what you’re going to do.’ It seemed like the day I graduated he was on my phone, ‘So, what’s up? The guys are in London. Why don’t you meet up with us? We’re going to go live in London for a little while.’ Live in London? I had all the pressures of going to college, and other things that I wanted to do, but eventually I agreed. The next thing you know, I’m living in London with a bunch of people I didn’t know except for my manager Rich and our bass player Hub,” explains Kamal. Little did he realize at the time but these ‘people’ would soon become his fellow band mates, the ‘legendary’ Roots. Sitting across from me at The Studio, in Philadelphia, PA, Kamal still seems amazed telling his ‘right place at the right time’ story… ”I was just there. Seriously, the second I graduated from high school. I was in London, in a two bedroom apartment with, I don’t know, seven of us. Living there, fighting over beds and who was sleeping in which bedroom. We lived off of fish and chips. It was quite an experience. I had been places, but I had never been anywhere by myself for that long of a period of time. We developed a brotherhood but it was similar to being broke. Seriously, like being a broke-ass family, living in one place together. That type of situation will definitely bring you together and cause you to develop a bond. There’s nothing else to do in that situation but be a man. You walk out into the streets, and you’re on your own,” Kamal reflects. Looking back, hopping a plane to London fresh out of high school may have been one of the smartest decisions that Kamal could have made. The Roots are now a Grammy Award-winning ensemble that also have various MTV Award nods, a N.A.A.C.P. Image Award for Best Duo or Group and the prestigious honor of being named one of the ‘twenty greatest live acts in the world’ by Rolling Stone!

Some of Kamal’s major musical influences growing up were Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, and he actually got a chance to meet and get involved with those guys at an early age, too! But when he was a bit older, Kamal started getting into Prince (now the artist formerly known as…) “When Prince came around, I thought, ‘Oh man, he looks like me a little bit. We were both light-skinned and had these big giant curls that I hated when I was growing up,” Kamal laughs. “I immediately thought, ‘I need a guitar, I’ve gotta have a guitar. It gets you girls, dude!’ And my dad bought me a guitar.” Classic sibling rivalry is what we’ve got to thank for the Kamal Gray we all know and love today. He explains, “Eventually, I wanted to play the piano because my little brother was taking piano lessons. I’d tell him, ‘I can do that. That’s easy, son!’” Thankfully for all the fans out there, the lessons took off really well.

Gear-wise, this musician’s path is the same as many of the greats that came before him. Now, coming upon the 20 year anniversary of Korg’s breakthrough best-selling workstation of all time, Kamal recounts how it all went down. “The first Korg keyboard I was introduced to was the Korg M1. I had a friend who did all of his stuff on the M1 back in the day. My piano teacher had one, too. When I started making my own money and buying keyboards, I was introduced to the Korg Trinity. That was a sound being used by a lot of people. We bought a few Trinity’s around here. I used them to make beats over and over and over. I knew almost every sound in the Trinity. Then, I knew it was time to upgrade. I used the Trinity on stage, but I got a Korg TRITON to use on my recordings and for the albums. That kind of put me in a situation where it had to be a staple in my performance because those were the sounds that I used on all of The Roots recordings. It was the easiest thing. It became second nature to me. The TRITON has been a staple for our performance, because I understand that workstation for what I need to use it for. The main thing about the TRITON that’s always made it so usable for me is the touch screen. During the show, I don’t want to have to turn knobs and scroll through things. I can push the screen three times, and I’m right at the sound that I need to be.”

Moving forward, there’s always room for change, explains Kamal, “I can definitely see myself using the Korg M3 for sounds and production because I already have an idea of how to use it.” Continuing, “I’m the worst at learning something brand new. I’ve had a few new keyboards put in front of me that I didn’t understand. The fact that the M3 is so very familiar to me in a lot of ways, though it has a lot of new toys built in, will allow me to progress and move forward. I can definitely see myself incorporating it more. Maybe it’ll eventually replace the TRITON. The M3 has the quality that I need in a keyboard, and since I can build one of my main sounds, the Rhodes, to my liking with the M3, that’s pretty cool too.” Since he was just starting to dig into all the rich features the M3 offers at the time of this interview, Kamal was bursting with product knowledge. “I like all the effects options, the expansions, the fact that you have a whole extra board, the RADIAS, to load into it and the idea of having pads built in. It’s pretty cool to be able to assign chords to different pads. It will take time for me to figure out ways to use some of the features.” But wait, he remembered, “The KAOSS pad function in the touch screen – now that seems like something that’s going to be fun to use on stage to spice up my solos and give me some flair!”

All in all, Kamal is decidedly a humble guy (don’t let his Paul Wall designed diamond grill fool you!) and a proud dad with some great insight for up and coming musicians. “You know what’s funny is that I’ve done so many things that are far beyond my wildest expectations of being a musician that I look at them and am numb to it now. I’ve played with the best; I’ve been around the best and eaten with the best. You know what I mean? I’ve been everywhere, done everything that I can imagine doing. I feel my biggest accomplishment is sticking in there as long as I have and not giving up on any of it. Never thinking in broke times that it was never going to work. The most major accomplishment is sticking in there this long and keeping it moving, because it’s what I’ve gotta do.”

RISING DOWN is in stores now.

Photo by: Keith Smith
Location: The Studio, Philadelphia, PA
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