Interview: Jeff Bhasker on Lettuce, the “Uptown Funk” Phenomenon and More

Mike Greenhaus on February 11, 2016

Jeff Bhasker had a good year, to say the least. The cross-genre keyboardist and mega-producer helped helm Mark Ronson’s groovy, crossgenre experiment Uptown Special and co-wrote the song’s smash single, the Bruno-Mars-led “Uptown Funk,” which moves into award season as a top Grammy pick. (Bhasker received nods in the Producer of the Year, Non-Classical and Record of the Year categories.) Though Bhasker has long secured his reputation as one of the most decorated producers in modern pop and hip-hop through his work with Jay Z, Mary J. Blige, Beyoncé, P!nk, Taylor Swift, Eminem, Kanye West, fun., and even The Rolling Stones, the record was meant as something of a return to form for the Berklee-trained musician, who spent his formative years playing Wetlands, Berkfest and other stops on the jam and groove circuits with Lettuce and The Squad.

“It was an interesting full-circle thing,” Bhasker, who once lived with Soulive/Lettuce guitarist Eric Krasno, says about Uptown Special. “‘Uptown Funk’ is a groove that Lettuce would have played, but with almost criminally well-written hooks and a different lyrical thing. Playing with Lettuce was a big part about the way I felt about music—specifically funk music.”

After a few years in New York in the early 2000s, Bhasker relocated to Los Angeles in 2005 to focus on production work. He quickly hooked up with an emerging Bruno Mars and grew into one of the most well-respected producers in modern rap, thanks to his close ties with Kanye West, who hired him as a producer and musical director. (In another full-circle moment, Bhasker recruited some of his Berklee pals for West’s live band and studio projects, too.)

In addition to shepherding the biggest song of 2015, Bhasker recently helped steer fun. singer Nate Ruess’ solo debut, Grand Romantic, and Elle King’s Love Stuff, and currently has his sights on a new solo project that will connect him to his live-music roots even more. “I like to take these real, authentic performances and show them to you on steroids,” he says of his work with Ruess and Mars. “This is an in-your-face record that’s based on a great rock combo.”

“Uptown Funk” was unquestionably one of the biggest pop hits of the past year. But the original concept for the song—and Uptown Special in general—was a return to your funk roots. What did the album’s original blueprint look like?

Mark and I met doing Bruno Mars’ album, and it’s been a party ever since. About two years ago, we started figuring out what Uptown Special is supposed to be. Our original idea was to make a really passionate, artistically challenging record of highbrow concepts with Michael Chabon.

The album happened to have a giant pop hit, which was cool, but I am also proud of the other half of that record, which has this narrative that Michael Chabon put together. Lyrically, it’s in the vein of the more narrative stuff that Steely Dan has done. So there’s a cool story there for people to decode.

In a sense, you were able to use some of Uptown Special’s pop hooks to draw casual listeners into the album’s ambitious concepts. The record also fits into the current trend of funk-driven dance music that comes from a more authentic and live-sounding place.

Like you said, there is a trend of more bass-driven and syncopated music, and getting away from all this four-on-the-floor dance stuff. Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” and that whole album, had this great bass-line-driven sound that you can dance to. They are real trailblazers, and we have to give them credit—not that they don’t have enough credit for how brilliant they are. It was important, for humanity, for them to take that left turn, especially since they were such electronic-dance music pioneers.

Around when that came out, Mark and I did this Southern road trip, and we eventually settled on Memphis to record the album. We wanted to engrain ourselves in that American funk music tradition— this album had a very American sensibility about how music is made. Every drummer that played on one of those classic rock songs is just a step away from a jazz drummer, which is another step away from playing rock music with a really evolved rhythmic sensibility. You hear it in rap music, too. It’s cool that the world is getting a little funkier again.

It’s interesting how trends work—issues of race—and there is something in music, going all the way back to Elvis when he would shake his hips. It’s pretty divisive—a nice expression of race, an expression of blackness, an expression of your culture. It’s fun for that to be the trend. It challenges your body to move in a cool way.

The blend of guests feels very current at a time when pop and art-music have blurred—you feature everyone from Bruno Mars, Stevie Wonder, Rufus Wainwright, Kevin Parker and Andrew Wyatt to a slew of emerging artists. Was that mix of guests part of your original vision or did you discover some of these soloists during your trip with Mark?

We actually discovered Keyone Starr, who is from Jackson, Miss., on our road trip—that was one of our intentions, to find a female lead voice. She blew Mark and I away and did amazing things on that album. In the “Crack in the Pearl” intro, the mixture of our voices with Andrew Wyatt is pretty special. We just did a live performance of that at the New Yorker Festival and it came together perfectly.

Mystikal is also someone we just ran into on the road trip [through Trombone Shorty]. Speaking of unique, rhythmic, black American music delivery, his flow is a modern, evolved James Brown. After we heard some of his new material, Mark and I both thought that it was important to have him. He’s amazing and he was playing with a live band, which is the feel we were going for. That’s also why we brought in a bunch of the Daptone guys—Dave Guy, Neal Sugarman, Michael Leonhart, Ray Mason, Tommy Brenneck, Ian Hendrickson-Smith, Homer Steinweiss—that Mark works with. They are incredible.

Your have roots as a touring musician and you even served as Kanye West’s musical director for a time, but recently, you have been primarily focused on studio work. Has playing live with Mark during this promotional run changed your recording approach?

Man, it made me want to change my whole keyboard setup, which is what I am going to do. I have an 88-key Rhodes Suitcase, a Roland Juno, a Moog—an old-school ‘70s keyboard rig. It’s been super inspiring for me to play the songs we wrote together and the most fun I have had in a long time. I had to sing the lead to three songs, which I’m not used to doing. I love to sing— and I sing on my demos and in the background—but I’ve never had to be a lead singer and I had to do Kevin Parker’s songs, which was scary. [Laughs.] I have a lot of respect for those guys that like to stand in front of the stage and carry the show. It’s nice to be in the background.

Your other signature project during the past year was Nate Ruess’ solo debut, Grand Romantic. There’s a famous story that when you met Nate for the first time, you thought of the conversation as a formality, but as soon as he played you an early version of “We Are Young,” you dropped everything to work with fun. How has your working relationship with him changed this go-around, especially since the rest of the band wasn’t involved?

It is funny because since [fun.’s 2012 album Some Nights], I’ve become such good friends with Nate and Emile Haynie, who produced Grand Romantic with me. We all worked together on different projects, like P!nk’s “Just Give Me a Reason” and “Headlights” on the Eminem album [The Marshall Mathers LP 2]. So it was kind of the ultimate luxury to make music like Grand Romantic with the two of them.

“Nothing Without Love” feels so epic and it was exactly what I wanted to do, as a contrast to what I was doing on Mark’s album, with a different, but still contemporary, approach. The song creates all of its own rules: It is so much more contemporary and individualistic because it’s all Nate and his voice. Mark doesn’t sing, so it was a nice contrast to work with someone like him. Nate is just one of my favorite voices with a pen.

From a production standpoint, Some Nights’ greatest achievement was the way you seamlessly added hip-hop beats to modern indie-rock songs. When it came time to work on Nate’s solo record, did you try to recreate that same hybrid?

It ended up coming out a little bit like that, but the original idea was to record a more rock-hinged album, sort of like Van Morrison and Lou Reed, especially in terms of the drumming. But, inevitably, it came out with a similar texture to the fun. album—it crept in there but it wasn’t an overt thing. It’s probably because we have that connection.

Our original idea was to make an album of songs you can play with a rock combo—guitar, bass, drums and a keyboard— and play live. I don’t have anything against playback, but it is such a cool thing when an artist can carry a song into the world with an electrifying performance. That’s a big thing with Nate and with Bruno, too— they are really just playing with a traditional rock combo and horns.

You were part of the Boston jam and groove scene while you were studying at Berklee College of Music, and you were a member of Lettuce for many years. Looking back, how did that period in your career shape your current work in the pop and hip-hop realms?

It’s interesting because Uptown Special was supposed to be about taking it all the way back to what we did with Lettuce, but in a totally different way. All of those guys in Lettuce are tremendous musicians and being part of that for a little while taught me how a groove is supposed to really feel. When [the Lettuce rhythm section of ] Adam Deitch and Erick Coomes play together, it is just a special thing with so many special moments. So Uptown Special was a nice return to that and a return to using live instruments, but only with a whole new set of songwriting chops under my belt and this new harmonic sensibility.

I was a “secondary founding member” of Lettuce. I was introduced to them through my friends Nick Kasper and Mike Butler, their keyboardist before me, and I was doing some work with Deitch and Adam Smirnoff outside of Lettuce. They told me, “Man, you’ve got to come in and smoke Butler.” I was a more busybody keyboard player with more chops, but those guys were way cooler than I was and more well-suited to Lettuce. But I “lettuced” the keyboard chair—“let us” play keyboards. [Laughs.]

You are in the early stages of your own project. What is the scope of that album?

It is going to go back even further than Lettuce to some of the earliest music I played and even some jazz. It is way more artistically driven than any kind of pop music. Ironically, that’s what we were trying to do with Mark’s album, and we ended up having the biggest hit ever. I’d like to do more singing myself and continue some of the things we did on Mark’s album. I am not sure I want to go all the way in terms of being an “artist,” but it would be fun to sing some more on my album.

I am also in the process of signing artists for my label, Craven Works. The first artist I signed, Cam, just released the song “Burning House,” which has gone gold. It was produced by the first producer I signed, Tyler Johnson, who did 90 percent of the production. It’s a country project, but she is just an incredible singer and songwriter, so the genre kind of didn’t matter to me. The music was just super cool and I enjoy mentoring and helping out artists who are just getting started. Mark and I also signed Rafferty and Keanu Star. I’m really into modern rap right now—Big Sean and Lil Wayne and Drake.

It is interesting that funk and hip-hop, two of the genres that influenced your early style, are so prevalent in today’s pop music.

The ‘90s are coming back, baby! Every kid in my dorm building had a Malcolm X and a Martin Luther King poster hanging on their wall, and A Tribe Called Quest playing in the background—all of these African identity things. It’s in the music, and it manifests in different ways, but for me, it all goes back to wanting to be a jazz player and to play American black music.

Basically, it’s American music, but it’s based on what slaves did with European instruments and how they brought their African traditions to what we know now as modern pop-rock music. It is still a derivative of that tradition. Rap is more vibrant than it’s been anytime in recent memory—the type of musicality, the rhythms that rappers are using nowadays is crazy. The polyrhythmic flow of recent rap is just so inspiring and inventive.