Derrick Hodge: Living in Rhythm

December 3, 2013
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After working as a bassist, composer, scorer, and producer for some of the biggest artists in hip-hop and R&B, DERRICK HODGE merges his many talents for an album of his own.

WHEN DERRICK HODGE SET OUT TO MAKE A NAME FOR HIMSELF AS A MUSICIAN in Philadelphia, he knew that he never wanted to limit his scope to mastering just one thing. Rather than focus solely on electric bass, Hodge also picked up upright and keyboard bass at a young age. Instead of developing a repertoire based around his ample gospel chops, he studied jazz and classical composition while playing lots of R&B and hip-hop. And instead of limiting himself to being a gigging musician, he quickly established himself as a producer, composer, scorer, and session ace. In fact, Hodge’s penchant for variety and his unbending drive to succeed have been the keys to his success since day one. A true student of the bass and the players before him, Hodge cut his teeth playing in the West Philadelphia church scene in elementary school and then joined his high school orchestra, where he began playing upright. At Temple University, where he focused on jazz composition and performance, he had the rare opportunity to learn from John Clayton, Christian McBride, and Victor Wooten through honors programs. Once he graduated, it didn’t take long for Hodge to begin working with artists such as Common, Q-Tip, Kanye West, Timbaland, Jill Scott, Anthony Hamilton, and Mos Def, as well as scoring movies and documentaries, including Spike Lee’s 2006 film When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.

But despite all of his success, Hodge had one project that he had been waiting his whole life to complete, which he recently accomplished by releasing his first solo album, Live Today. As expected, Hodge brings his deep knowledge of jazz, gospel, hip-hop, and R&B to life in a personal fashion that makes the listener feel as if they’re experiencing an aural autobiography of his life in music. Beautiful compositions like “Message of Hope” and “Solitude” contrast head-nodding grooves such as the title track (featuring Common) and “Gritty Folk.” Showcasing his electric, upright, and synth prowess with every track, while also assuming the role of producer and composer, Hodge proves that there’s truly no task too big for him.

What was the inspiration behind Live Today?

This album is a product of the decision that I made to not wait for the perfect day, for the stars to align, or for a sign to fall from the sky; it was all about doing this now. People have been following me through my whole career, so I wanted to give them something very honest from me that’s raw and exposed in its core. After that decision, things just worked out as if life were testing me and pushing me to see if I really wanted to do this.

What were your goals for your tone on this album?

I wanted to use the same signal path that I always do. I can tend to be a “gear slut” in the studio, but I wanted this to mimic how people would experience listening to me alone in my practice room playing. I had my Aguilar amp in there and I went through good DIs and a Neve board and played my CallowHill bass. I always make sure that things are tracked really well through the initial signal path so that there is less work and more possibilities in the mixing stages.

Did you orchestrate the album around your bass?

It’s more of a concept album for me in an artistic-statement kind of way that isn’t limited to the instrument that I play. Some songs feature bass, and others don’t. More than anything, I wanted people to catch a little of my spirit as a producer, composer, and player. You don’t have to focus on bass at all to do that.

What techniques did you use?

This record was tracked over a long period. Some sessions came after long practice sessions where I probably played a little livelier, playing the full range of the instrument. On a song like “Night Vision,” I tried to highlight the bass by putting a little tapping and slapping on it; I just moved through a lot of variations where I dug in toward the bridge. On “Solitude,” I played my fretless and raised the action so it made me really dig in. That lends the feeling of really having to fight to get each note across.

Does your role as a producer influence how you approach bass?

Absolutely. At its core this album is not overproduced. I didn’t want to over-polish or over-hype anything just to make people nod their heads. So that’s kind of a producer’s mentality that I took into it. For each song, I wanted to put myself into a position to just let it go and see what happened naturally. To do that, I brought on other musicians who had the producer mentality, like Robert Glasper, James Poyser, Keyon Harrold, Mark Colenburg; the list goes on. They’re all producers in their own rights, and they all have respect for song form.

When did you first begin playing bass?

I was seven years old when I started playing guitar, because the bass was too big for me. I always wanted to play bass from day one, though. I wanted to play ever since I started watching the bass players at my church. So I started playing electric bass in my elementary school orchestra. Really, I’m a product of the school system. I started playing upright in middle school because they could actually afford to buy one. I played it—self-taught—through high school, but when I got to college, I had to relearn it from scratch. The upright is no joke! It was kind of a rebirth when I got into college. I’ve been playing synth bass since I was a teenager because so many people around me did multiple things in music, so I always had the mentality that I had to do multiple things.

How does your playing differ from electric to upright?

When it comes to performance and creativity, I try to not approach either one with any preconceived notions. I go into every situation with an open palette and I let the song dictate itself. Sometimes I play the electric like an acoustic, and sometimes I play the acoustic like an electric. That gives a cool James Jamerson feel. The only time I really separate those instruments at their core is when I’m practicing. In the practice room, I dig down and study the history of each instrument and really pay respect to each instrument as is.

What is your ideal bass tone?

Generally speaking, there was a time when I focused on that a little more, but now I like amps that don’t give me the option to manipulate my tone as much. That’s what I like about the Aguilar heads that I’m using; it’s like an old SVT that offers pretty much just bass, treble, and highs to adjust. I actually don’t like too much high end on my tone; I keep that part turned down quite a bit, and if I want that extra bite I use my fingers to make it cut really nice. I like relying on the attack on the strings for my high end. The only thing I change is the pickup switches on my bass—I’ll literally be changing that throughout a whole song to dial it in.

How do you approach scoring a film such as Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke?

It depends on what it is I’m writing for and the expectation of the director. If they give me free rein to compose as I feel, then I walk into it with an open mind. I read the script and then I look at the footage, and I rely on what everything is telling me and what my senses are telling me about the spirit of what the project is. I look at how people are talking; I watch their cadence and breath and see if somebody leaves space when they read a line, and I know I can fill it more with melodic phrases. If somebody talks faster or has a long train of thoughts, then I’ll write something lusher that stays out of their way. I immerse myself into the project and write whatever the film calls for.

You’ve had some amazing mentors throughout your musical upbringing.

I’ve studied a lot of bass players from afar, but I did get the luxury of studying personally with some amazing bass players in my middle years. A few guys I have to mention are Vince Fay, who was my professor at Temple University; he let me get away with everything, and he encouraged me to become a sponge while I was in college. From there I went on to learning from Christian McBride and Victor Wooten, and they taught me so much that changed my playing forever. And I have to mention the great John Clayton. He took me under his wing and is one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever had. He’s truly a master of his instrument. I also got to study with Ron Carter, which was a huge honor. My best friend Thaddaeus Tribbett influenced me greatly, too.

How have you evolved as a player?

At this point I’m more a product of my experience. I’ve started becoming surprised listening back to things I’ve done, hearing my influences come out in my playing. You can listen to how my experiences have formed my playing on any given song. In terms of actual approach, that hasn’t changed much in the last ten years. I got rid of some naiveté, but still I hold on to some of it. But I try to go into every new musical experience with an open palette. Like Common said on “Be,” “I’m never looking back, or too far in front of me. The present is a gift, and I just want to be.”

INFO

LISTEN

Derrick Hodge, Live Today [Blue Note, 2013]

EQUIP

Basses CallowHill 6-string custom, CallowHill MDM5, Fender Jazz Bass, Status Electro-4 Fretless, Czech plywood upright bass
Rig Aguilar AG 500SC, Aguilar DB 751, Aguilar GS 410, Aguilar DB 410
Effects Aguilar Tone Hammer, Aguilar Octamizer
Strings Sadowsky Roundwound Nickel & Stainless

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