002 Luqman Brown
"I saw a church band, and then I saw Funkadelic. That was it."
TREVOR EXTER: Alright, let's do this. You are listening to Play It Like Its Music, exploring the lives and craft of the people who play. I'm your host Trevor Exter and we're in Harlem today with the legend Luqman Brown: singer of FunkFace, Dope Sagittarius and an accomplished composer, producer and sound designer. Check out the sound of this brand new Dope Sagittarius album "Sacred Places", out this month on BuddhaBug Records.
LB: It's a little messy right now, but you know.
TE: I don't trust a studio that's not a little messy. These are some beautiful guitars. What kind of horns are these? Do you use these?
LB: Oh this these are bull horns, from like a bull, a steer. It's going to be on my costume. It's a part of my costume so that the horn gives it like this African warrior vibe kind of thing.
TE: Very intimidating.
LB: I know. I guess yeah it is!
TE: State your name and instrument.
LB: My name is Luqman Brown. I play guitar and a little trombone.
TE: How about we start by just describing what we see in front of us.
LB: Well. We got here my home studio. It's two screens, speakers, computer, everything in here. I got an isolation booth, microphone in there, some equipment to start off. SItting at a table with the desk, got some keyboards over here. Processor, sampler here and subwoofer over there. We got guitars, trombone... tons of stuff.
TE: The strat looks cool. That's a tele neck on the strat?
LB: Yes. It says strat mix with the tele neck. It's got a... that's bad man. That was custom-made at Guitar Center. Not Guitar Center, at 30th Street guitars.
TE: Big fat difference there.
LB: Right? Big fat difference. 30th Street guitars, it's really nice man. Its green and gold: gold for the honey, green for the money. So I called the guitar Bishop.
TE: Right that's beautiful. It's beautiful. And we're not going to let the banner go unremarked.
LB: Oh, yeah, we got the funk face Banner on the wall. It's white. It's pretty cool. It's really old and yeah man Funk face was the band.
I started that band in 87, so we've been playing since 87. Still playing today. I mean at that time I think, like there was a bridge between the old BRC and bands like that and then we were like the new generation, you know? And I think we came at a time - it was kind of perfect - there weren't many bands at that time in New York City believe it or not.
When we did play we played the right gigs. It was funny, man, but we never got famous. You know? We played with everybody, toured all over the world and just never got that push to go to the next level.
TE: Did you miss a period of acclimatizing, or were you happy to have the surprises and the momentum right away?
LB: I think that.... I don't know, man. I don't think I would have had it any other way. You know, did I miss it? I guess I did. I don't know. I still feel like I'm trying to get there. I don't know, it's something that has built really slow for me. Like I know we were kind of famous on the scene, but I don't think too many people knew us outside of the East Coast.
You know what I mean like, it could have been faster. [laughs]
TE: Why do you play music?
LB: Oh, man. Why do I play music? Wow, I think for one, I love it. One for the love. You know, to play the guitar and jump around on stage and scream out loud. That's part of it, the creativity and... Wow, I guess now it's for money. Yeah, you know?
TE: Tell me about the visual side. Because I don't have that. I just try and wear clean clothes to the gig, but you have a whole... Like that's really part of your statement like how you put the whole thing together visually.
LB: I guess it's because of my dad right? My dad is a playwright. He works in the theater and whenever he was doing one of his plays or something, he was you know in costume. And Funkadelic was really the first band I'd really seen. So I thought that it's always been my way, to dress up as funky as possible. You know I always thought that that look was what put the whole thing together. It's like a part of the package. You know you got your band, you gotta dress funky as hell, and then you got to be able to play badass. That was what it was about.
TE: That's very succinct.
LB: Yeah, you know, and I think the power of the band is in the look. You know, you gotta be able to play good too, but I think the look is really really important.
TE: There's another band you've got called Dope Sagittarius. Tell me a little bit about that.
LB: Well Dope Sagittarius was... I needed to go solo. I needed to do something different because I've been playing in this band like 25-30 years. You know? And I started Dope Sagittarius as a way to develop my voice.
I needed to learn how to play by myself, play more because I sang mostly in Funkface, and I've been playing guitar for a long time. So I really wanted a band that I could play guitar, work out my melodies, work out my singing and stuff and really focus on something different that wasn't just... How we play in Funkface, it's a combined effort. Nothing is written by one person, you know? We did a lot of songs where we all play something and then we just work it out, and then we have that song. But this band I wanted to have too. I kind of had a concept, and I really wanted to work that concept out and you know just put together something that was me. More me than anything.
TE: That video is crazy.
LB: I know right? I got this video done by this guy Morgan Freeman. There's a white Morgan Freeman, and he throws parties in the city. So he worked it out so that we could have the studios at YouTube Studios downtown so it's like in that market on 14 Street.
It's like if you are on YouTube and have a channel, you got to have like a hundred thousand to get in that studio. You gotta have 100,000 viewers checking you out just to get in the studio. But he got us in the studio for like 300 bucks, and you know it was kind of dope. And they lend you all the equipment you could possibly need to make a video. So you know it was... You know I don't even know how much this cost but the camera was called "The Dragon". Red. And it's like, you know the Red are really good cameras, and we had dollies and all kinds of holders for the guitar, for the camera, and you know it was just a major production, but the whole thing cost me like $1000 to make that video that looks like $30,000, or more.
TE: It's a crazy video, and you think about making music and music videos are part of the art. It's not just like promoting the music through the videos. Like no, the video is definitely part of the product, but it's also an investment. It's a loss leader, as like videos are rarely profitable in and of themselves.
LB: It's like kind of a necessary evil. It's amazing how much money I spend in the studio, on all my equipment, and it's crazy. It's really crazy, and then you don't make any money off of video. You know you put it out there and then hope that people see it. You got to get it in rotation somewhere, constantly calling people to put it on their site, and all kinds of things. That's nuts.
TE: What was music like as an experience, before you started playing?
LB: Woah. It was, it was everything for me. I was in church actually, I couldn't understand anything. You know I was like really little, I was like seven or eight and we went to church. And the church, the choir, the preacher... Everything was relatives. You know the whole choir was related to me, the preacher was related to me, and it was a family reunion. And my whole family, extended family was in this church in North Carolina, and the preacher was my Uncle Lucius the whole choir was made up of my family.
And he was preaching to the choir, and then he said "forget all this preaching. Let's sing some hymns!" And he pulls out an electric guitar from behind the podium, and he's riffing on this guitar. And the drummer and the bass player and I'm like this is dope, and it's really like the first kind of chance I had to interact with any kind of music.
TE: Right in the deep end.
LB: Yeah, right in the deep end and I was like "Yo!" And I was really young at that point and after I heard them do that my father took me - when I was like seven years old - he took me to the Apollo to see Funkadelic. So I saw a church band, and then I saw Funkadelic. It was like watching superheroes. Like really, like gods. And the cool thing was: the church folks were... I mean this was amazing to me. But then when I saw a Funkadelic... All those capes, all those costumes. Like they were all dressed up like some kind of superhero for their generation... It was insane man. I thought that was the coolest thing in the world. And I mean Bootsy was in the band, you know? And they did some of Bootsy's songs at that time, you know like "Bootsy, hear you scream! Bootsy" And I was like Oh My God Like This Is Insane. And I was hooked, right there and then. I was hooked.
As far as the first physical time I played, I asked my parents right after that to get me a guitar. So they got me an acoustic guitar kind of thing and it was cool. You know, and I had the idea to start my own band, and I was like eight or nine. I think I have a picture somewhere. But I started my own band. I had these two guys in the band, Tyrone and George. And I wrote the music, but I didn't want to be known as the leader of the band. So like, all the girls liked George, right? And his name was George Equestrian. So I was like... You know he's a Spanish dude, you know Puerto Rican.
TE: That's a name for the ages.
LB: I know that's a name right! George Equestrian you know! And I knew at an early age that the name of the band was important. It's funny, like I saw Funkadelic. I saw how it was and I had an instant feeling of how to do it. You know how to be in a band. And so I got - it's funny - I got this guy, George Equestrian and I said "look, we're going to name the band after you." Like, "what do you mean?" I said, "we're going to call it GE and the Electrics." Right? And he was the drummer so, you know the girls would like him, and I'd give him stuff, and we did... At eight years old we did a show in the school and it was awesome. And we did four songs, and from that - it was funny - I had a teacher Mr. Green who was a music teacher in the school. He saw us playing and he's like, "where'd you learn to play" and I was like "you know?" I just... "whatever", you know? I was like "I don't know, you know, we just playin you know" and he he took me on and that was it man. History was made there.
TE: Wow. So just like, right from that early almost Golden Age, you're doing it.
LB: Yeah man. It was like... And that was a perfect time. You know the bands that were around there in that time, the 70s and early 80s. It was insane, man. I mean like there was so much music like, even Bad Brains in the 70s. Like I was blown away. You know like I was like a little kid you know? But it was the best.
TE: How long does it take you to write a song?
LB: It depends, you know. The best songs are five minutes. Like that one! Like that song. I wrote it, five minutes, it's out. And then you know sometimes it takes forever. You know like there's songs that it just takes me so long to get them put together. You know I get like a melody, something. That song kind of just came out. Like I found the chords. And I was like "what can I do to get the lyrics" and "oh, this is it! You know it's a song about brunch." You know it's like the culture of New York is, you know... Go out late, you know go out all night. Pick up hot chicks. Sleep with the chicks, and then you go to brunch, and then you never see them again. You know, like that kind of shit. So I wrote a song about brunchin' you know? I thought it would be a cool, you know, transition and stuff.
Oh, man. I haven't played in a while.
TE: Your voice has all these great harmonics in it.
LB: Yeah, man. I love to sing you know. Without my voice I am nothing you know?
TE: So you said you started Funkface in the 80s. How did that project emerge onto the scene? Can you take us back to there?
LB: Wow. It's really funny man, like we started and got like famous right away. You know, in the scene. I remember I joined the band. And we played three gigs. And it went for three gigs, and then we got blown up. So the first gig was in a loft, and it was like some stupid gig. And I mean, the songs we played there were like ridiculous. It was not good at all.
Then, we had a girlfriend who was in NYU. And what she did was she booked the bands that came to play at Loeb center. Right? And she was like, any time a band would come to play Loeb center she would get us to open. So the first band that opened was 24-7 Spyz, and we opened for them.
Believe it or not, after that gig they got signed to a record deal at the Loeb center. And I remember Jimmy was really cool, and those guys were really cool, and so that was the second gig that we played. We played that and then the third gig we played at the Loeb Center was with Fishbone and now Fishbone was really huge. So she got us to open up for them.
And that was it. Like we opened two times at the Loeb Center, one with 24/7 spies the next with Fishbone, and that was it. Like people were like "who are these, who are these guys? They opening up for all these great big bands."
And so after that we just started playing the scene like... Three gigs you know! And it was over the course of four months, and then we started playing. We got good. And what we did was, we... To come in to New York, you had to open for us. So everybody, like people were calling us, want to be down and I was like - weird like - like the Mighty Bosstones called, and then they opened for us. Then we actually opened up for Bad Brains, and then HR by himself. It was crazy. Like then it just took off.
And then we were playing all over the place and like we just kept at it, and then the next link that got us to a bigger level than that: we played for quite a few years, and I think it was five years. And then Murphy's Law had this big party up in Boston. And we played at that party. And that was it, like we got all ...Everybody came to that party. Like thousands of people. And it was like an outdoor thing, and it was our first outdoor thing, and it was really fun man.
It was kind of crazy everybody wildin out you know. And that was what blew us up. Those three instances gave us the name you know.
TE: Those are good gigs to start out with. What separates the professional from the amateur?
LB: These days not much. You got to think that the professional...Wow you know the professional is doing it all the time every day. They're practicing at home constantly like me. They're constantly pushing, you know to get more gigs. Get around more. Like Ronnie Drayton. He's a professional in the utmost because that's all he does is play guitar, and he travels the world like that.
The amateur, they don't. They'll travel the world, but they don't do it for like life or blood. You know they're strictly for the love, and you know sometimes they get picked up and then become professional but... Yeah, I think that the professional's the one who constantly does it and the hobbyist is you know, one who does it, you know on the weekends.
I am sitting here in my house, before you came, and I'm thinking like what am I going to do next? You know like I had... I've done all this stuff. You know, Funkface has done it all. Building this new band Dope Sagittarius has been like. really scary for me because I have to build this band from scratch.
And music is not even accepted the same way anymore, so as I'm trying to build this... You know, I have a little name so people know who I am. And I can play songs and music, you know with that name, but still... You know there's a new generation that's out there. And I have to start all over, so I don't know if I feel like, you know like a fame thing like that. You know it's really hard work. And I have to have to really recreate myself to do this.
So I mean in trying to recreate myself, I had to go do other things to make money. You know, I don't know if it's levels like that, but what... I had to do sound design for theater. You know and that's like writing songs or making sounds for theater.
TE: You do a fair amount of that right?
LB: Yeah, I mean, it's pretty much what I do for money. You know like I do the theater stuff. I do radio stuff. I do some stuff for television and movies, but the movie stuff's coming along you know? Like it's weird because I'm really a performer and I love to be on stage and it's it's kind of hard to reinvent yourself. And then you know I'm always questioning if I'm doing the right thing, if I'm doing this theater stuff like "I should be focusing on my playing with the band", and it's really hard. You know?
TE: Yeah. It's like the tip jar kind of thing.
LB: I mean, that's what it is now man, we play for tips. There's no record deals giving you anything, all that's gone.
TE: I have a similar difficulty, I think a lot of people do: navigating that divide between the creative side - the work that goes into just the creativity - and then the promotional side. Which sometimes has creative elements, but usually is a grind. You know it's like if you're happiest being in the studio creating or working on yourself, and then having to promote something... Like it kind of takes me out of my creative head when I have to go do that. And then right in the middle you've got the art of performance, which is kind of both at once.
Performing is a creative act and yet a lot of people don't perform because it can be seen as promotion, even though it's an art in itself. If there are - imaginary - like three areas: the area of pure creativity, the area of performance and the area of pure promotion. Is there one of those where you're happiest?
LB: Oh, yeah man. Performing is everything. You know like, that to me is the art form. You know like: write the song. I am an extremely good improviser, so writing the songs, preparing them, going on stage, performing it. That. That's where It's at for me. The creating the music at home, when you're in the studio, I really like and it's fun. You know like I can come up with lyrics right off the cuff or riff. But I swear to you man that performing is it.
And like, I have this band Dope Sagittarius. Ready to perform. You know like we get out, we can go. But I had a little health issue and I haven't been able to perform all summer. And that promotional part, or the performance part, is based on momentum. So once you're going you got to keep it going. You know what I mean? And then. I think it'll get back to where it is. But you got to get the word out, you know, and that's all I know how to do. You know how to do it. Is to do the performance.
After the issue I had in hospital, I couldn't perform. But now I have to go get back into it, so I'm going to go with Burnt Sugar to Seattle to do this Blues Revue kind of thing. And that will help me warm up and get it going again.
It's not just the Performing. There's the conditioning of travel and being able to take all that abuse. And if you're hurt, you know injured, that's kind of tough on you. Oh, man. You can't really. It's hard to get yourself together, you know get all the instruments together, get all your music together, get in a in a car and, you know travel all over the place... It can be tough when you're ill.
TE: What should a newer player avoid completely, at all costs?
LB: Buying a lot of equipment. Get your axe, whatever that is, but your voice: your guitar, your piano... And stick to that. Learn that. Learn it through and through, then maybe decide if you want to go over to another instrument. But learn it so good that you don't... You know like "buying all this shit that you need to do your stuff"... Like just get that guitar and stick with that forever. Forever. And then you know, maybe go buy some stuff.
Also get out of your head. You know like I am so in my head about shit. Like, I learned from Greg Tate who's in Burnt Sugar that you can make an album any old way. You know, you don't have to to do all this shit to make it sound any specific way. Just do the record. Do what you want. You know put it down, just put it down on paper. Get out of your head, put it on paper. Don't think too much. Yeah, I guess that's it. I guess that's it.
TE: I appreciate you talking to us today Luqman.
LB: Yeah, this is really great. It's nice.
TE: Thanks very much.
LB: Thanks, man.
TE: Alriight how about that. That was Luqman Brown. You can find him at luqmanbrown.nyc. His Twitter and Instagram handle is @dopesagittarius, and you can also buy the album at dopeSagittarius.com.
Thank you so much for listening to the show. It means everything to have your ears and support each time you pass the link to your friends, review us on the web and help out financially.
These are the players I admire the most, and as a working musician myself I'm always looking to get to know them in a deeper way. Find out stuff that might help me become a better musician.
I love sharing these moments with you and reading your feedback and questions at our website playitlikeitsmusic.com where you can browse other episodes and support the show.
We are 100% listener funded. It's how we can have the conversation we need to have in an age when we're all contending with a mutating professional landscape, jacked revenue streams and a lot of noise out there in the culture.
These are exciting times. It's almost as if the simple act of playing an instrument is a revolutionary one.
We don't draw any lines between scenes or styles, so if you haven't done it already, head over to the web site and join the community. You can use PayPal or make a recurring pledge through Patreon, where we offer a selection of merch and rewards.
As always, thank you for listening and remember to play it like its music.