Thoughts From a Soul and Funk Musician

with Lakecia Benjamin

Interview conducted by John R. Hylkema

How did you first become interested in these genres of music?

I actually started off playing Latin music, I was from a predominantly Dominican neighborhood. I grew up in the 90’s, so R&B, funk, and soul was playing on the radio nonstop. After Latin music I started playing jazz, but I always feel like I was engulfed in all different types of styles even though my neighborhood was playing a lot of Latin music and that’s how I was predominantly gigging. My parents listened to nothing but rap and hip hop. My aunt, who lived with us, listened to nothing but James Brown, Jackie Wilson, and that kind of thing. Everybody listened to stuff from “their era." I grew up with all the eras (chuckles).

The soul and funk came later on, I think it was after I was doing a lot of Latin stuff, I was doing a lot of jazz and I had experimented with a lot of free jazz and other stuff. It became clear to me that I liked all the styles of music, but I think that soul and funk music had a very special attraction. I was drawn to the fact that it’s kind of like, I don’t want to say that it’s party music, but it’s more like uplifting music. It takes more entertainment and more show style, so it drew me in a little bit more in being able to present it and being able to feel it along with how people respond to it.

Who are some major influences that caused you to pursue a music career?

Oh those are the basics! John Coltrane, Jackie McLean, Eddie Harris, Dexter Gordon, Maceo Parker. I was a big Monk fan too, as well as a Charlie Rouse fan. He was also kind of like a hip hop jazz artist, the way he plays is very in the pocket. They all had something different, like John Coltrane; of course, his technical facility and I was really drawn to his spirituality and how he was drawn to always growing on his instrument and practicing so much. I was actually good friends with Alice Coltrane too so I felt like it was bigger than the saxophone with him.

Could you tell us a little bit more about Lakecia Benjamin & Soul Squad?

  • How was it created?

I guess I just put it together. Before that, I had a group called… I don’t even know what we called each other anymore (chuckles). What changed me in going from all the way, straight ahead jazz, to more funk and soul music was that I write all my music on piano and I started writing all of these songs and they were somehow just “coming out” in this genre. So I was like, “I guess it’s going to be more of a soul and funk type of situation!” The thing I enjoy when I go to parties and dance is that everyone’s, kind of, doing the same dance steps together. It’s that collective energy that creates this big rush, so I thought, “What if I got a whole bunch of musicians that were like a soul army?” We’re on stage doing the same dances, the same rhythms, and having a party to match what’s going on out in the audience.

  • What is your goal for the group?

I’m trying to affect people in whatever way I can. Of course, I would rather it be positive, but I’m trying to do something that can alter your state. If I can play something for you that can uplift you and make you feel better, then that’s what I want to do. If you’re not having a good day or if you’re having a great day, whatever kind of day you’re having; if you can come to my show and know that you’re going to be inspired and leave motivated and feeling good, that’s what I’m trying to do. Honestly, I feel like that’s the point of music in general. Musicians are out here kind of like the healers, and besides crafting your art, you’re crafting it for a reason.

You’ve recently finished up a European tour, what was that like?

(As of 4/7/2017) We finished maybe four or five days ago, it was pretty awesome actually! How much better does it get? You’re traveling the world, doing what you love, you’re playing for different audiences and they’re listening to your original music and enjoying it. It’s like everything you’d want, in a little box! It’s crazy how different people from different cultures experience it. This tour was about two weeks and I think we played about nine shows. There was a show that we played in the Czech Republic, in this place called Plzen, and there was only maybe 300 people there, but it was amazing. Out of all the crowds I played for, this one I went out there with them, they danced with me and they sang along with me. From the moment I came out, they were completely ready to have the time of their lives. They had so many kids that played saxophone and were students there, they were really young and they had these toy saxophones and they were fingering along while I was playing! It’s pretty awesome to see a whole upcoming generation of people that are embracing a whole different culture and are so excited. I mean, these people were on 25,000 at all times!

What do you think of Europeans as listeners and members of the audience? Specifically, how they’re very involved in a concert and accepting of different genres of music.

I asked them once, “Why is it that are you guys able to do this?” Someone told me once that the way you’re raised over there, is that you don’t even think of it as different music. You don’t think of it as, “Okay, this is free jazz, this is funk.” You think of it as someone’s culture. So how can you understand each culture? So it’s like, wow that’s why they’re going in there (a show) and appreciating it. They don’t feel like they’re taking a chance on you they feel like they’re taking a chance on your “whole thing."

How can those aspiring to get into soul and funk music get started?

I think it’s the same as any other genre; master your instrument! Work on your composing skills, work on your people skills, and try to get as many allies as possible because there’s a difference between being a saxophone player and being a leader. There’s a whole different skill set in there so I would say, for the playing part; really deal with your instrument, learn as many of other people’s solos (that you look up to) as possible.

In what direction do you see the world of soul and funk heading?

That I’m not sure. I think it’s one of those genres that’s, right now, wide open. The smooth jazz genre has kind of gone away, there’s no more smooth jazz radio. The funk world itself is kind of diminished. There’s still the legends like P-Funk, Bootee, and there was Prince, but it’s all combined now. Soul and funk are one big category of urban now. Hip hop, R&B, pop; they all go together now! It’s interesting how all these groups are coming out, like Bruno Mars, who has funk and pop influences, they have all of these characteristics together. It’s really whatever you want to do with it, it’s the one genre where it’s open minded towards whatever you have to give. It’s very much like fusion right now, like Bruno Mars is completely a funk artist, but there are pop influences in there - how you present yourself, what you choose to wear, how you entertain, all of those things kind of decide your genre, not just what the music actually is.

What project(s) are you currently working on?

The next thing we’re doing in the studio is this single for one of my songs, which is in the soul and funk world, but it has a lot of trap influence. We also are finishing up doing our second album in the studio, so those are the things on the horizon for me.

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